Why Do Great Leaders Come out in a Crisis?

The current COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that there are two categories of leaders in the organizational world: those who strut their their academic credentials to the world and who pride themselves on understanding business and leadership theory, and then there are those who have the credentials and theory as a base, but who focus on achieving results by harnessing the purpose and emotion in people.

The ones who think

Intellectual leaders believe that if their solution is based on sound business theory it will be successfully implemented in the field.
And the actions they take to arrive at a solution tend to be analytical in nature: defining potential alternatives, assessing each one of them within a predetermined criteria, and selecting the one that best satisfies the stated objectives and intended outcomes.

Intellectual leaders generally take considerable time in coming up with a solution; the process of pondering, exploration, analysis and decision-making can take copious amounts of time as the leader wants desperately to come up with the “perfect” solution and avoid making a mistake.

Their infatuation with using the tools of analysis chews up so much time that implementation occurs several days/weeks/months after the need for a solution showed itself.

The ones who feel

Emotional leaders salute accepted business principles but place primary importance on how a solution fits the emotional needs of the people who are impacted by it.

Their priority is to find a solution that is “just about right” in terms of applying good business principles, and bear down on the one that appeals to how people feel about it and how the solution will make their job and personal life better today.

Emotional leaders recognize that people are mildly interested in the long term impacts a solution has on the organization but are passionately concerned about how a solution affects the organization and employees TODAY.

The need for immediacy is what enables the emotional leader to rise above their intellectual colleagues and achieve greatness.

Emotional leaders thrive in a moment of crisis.

Crisis circumstances separate the boilerplate leader from the great one for these reasons:

Weekly plans

A crisis forces the leader to think about what action is required over the next 24 hours and upcoming weeks not what’s needed over a longer term planning horizon.

“What needs to be done in the next 14 days?” dominates the conversation, not what should be done to maximize profits over the next three years.

They recognize that if the short term isn’t successfully dealt with, the long term never “shows up”. 24-hour planning forces this leader into action and out of the traditional planning mindset.


A crisis forces the leader into a responsive mode; they simply don’t have the luxury of time to carefully plan out what they should do in the face of the unforeseen events.

In a crisis, traditional leadership training is really not helpful except to evaluate the potential actions one could take in the moment.

It’s ironic, really, that more often than not great leadership is defined by the leader’s ability to develop a strategy for their organization as opposed to how well they are able to react to unpredicted body blowssuffered and yet it’s the latter competence that separates the mediocre from the great ones.

People focus

A crisis forces the leader to consider what individuals must have to survive; the needs of the organization are temporarily put on hold.

The leader places each and every individual employee in their organization as the focus of their attention and energy; they under that the broader requirements to grow shareholder value will come once the crisis is successfully dealt with — if the crisis isn’t survived, the longer term is an irrelevant consideration.

Risk taking

A crisis forces the leader to make decisions without having complete information. Making a call that meets the needs of individuals today may in fact have long term negative consequences for shareholders, for example.

Continuing to pay employees while your business is shut down for COVID 19 will reduce profitability for the firm, yet that’s what a great leader does.

Frontline focus

Acrisis forces the leader to take care of frontline people; those amazing folks who actually serve the critical needs of others who are threatened by the crisis — hospital workers, first responders, service representatives and delivery drivers.

Getting products and services to the people who need them is the leader’s priority and finding ways to make the frontline job easier in the moment takes all the leader’s energy.

Great leaders do this normally but a crisis brings this action element into focus.

A crisis forces the leader to ACT. NOW. FOR PEOPLE.

Related: How to Overcome the Challenges Digital Technology Creates for Today’s Leader