Leadership in Times of Crisis: Lessons from Successful CEOs

There’s no underestimating a leader’s role during times of crisis. Responsible leadership, rational thinking, and strategic communication serve people well in any type of crisis for any type of organization.

Political beliefs aside, the best example of leadership in times of crisis that comes to my mind is President George W. Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. He demonstrated how a chief executive should respond under pressure. Whether commander in chief or a corporate CEO, leaders of all kinds can learn lessons from President Bush’s actions that day and in the days that followed.

Remain Calm

My number one piece of advice for leaders in times of crisis is to stay calm. Whether in politics, sports, or business, the best leaders know how to keep their cool under pressure. They don’t overreact. They don’t show weakness. They recognize the power of their own emotions. They know that now only will remaining calm help them think clearly, but they understand that their reaction will impact how others react, especially in times of uncertainty. Even if they’re panicking on the inside, they remain calm on the outside—and from there, they’re able to manage, and ultimately overcome, whatever comes their way.

President Bush showed the ultimate resolve when he learned of the 9/11 attacks. On the morning of September 11, 2001, President Bush was visiting an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida, when he was informed, “America is under attack.” Trying not to alarm the children, and knowing the world would be watching, President Bush listened to the rest of their reading lesson, then went to another classroom to assess the situation. He didn’t jump up or freak out. He took the appropriate amount of time to process the information and calmly explained to the children and many in the traveling press corp that knew exactly what was going on, that he needed to step away. His measured response helped keep others calm.

Gather People and Information

In times of crisis, the best leaders gather all necessary information and surround themselves with a trusted team as quickly as possible. They assemble their sounding boards, learn as much as they can about the situation, and validate the information they receive. On 9/11, President Bush immediately wanted Condoleezza Rice on the phone. He got in touch with Vice President Dick Cheney, and he worked closely with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, counselor to the president Karen Hughes, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, senior political advisor Karl Rove, and others. Throughout the morning, he spoke with the FBI, international allies, officials in New York, and military advisors. He needed a real-time situation analysis of what was happening, and he had to decipher a lot of information in a short amount of time.

Strategic, Transparent Communication

When a crisis strikes, the most successful leaders take a measured response and communicate with as much transparency as they can, given the situation. They know how to think three to five steps ahead because they’ve done scenario planning; they’ve already thought through how they want to respond to global events.

On 9/11, President Bush knew the American people needed to hear from him. He didn’t make the mistake of saying too much or too little. He knew the importance of acknowledging the situation—even if he didn’t have all the answers yet. He immediately spoke to the nation from the elementary school in Florida, then Barksdale Air Force Base and again in a prime-time address from the Oval Office that evening. He demonstrated how to take a measured response in the face of crisis.

President Bush continued communicating transparently in the days following 9/11 as he—and the nation as a whole—learned more about what had happened and why. He recognized the need to connect with the American people and continue projecting a calm, steady presence.

Lead through Crisis

In the two weeks following 9/11, a whopping 90 percent of Americans approved of the way President Bush was handling his job as president, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted September 21–22, 2001. By remaining calm, gathering a trusted team and relevant information, and communicating transparently, President Bush successfully led America through one of the nation’s most challenging times in recent history. Leaders in all industries can benefit from his approach to crisis response.

Questions to Consider

  1. Reflect on a crisis you have dealt with. How did you handle it?
  2. If a crisis in your life happens, have you identified the team you want around you? Who are the people you want around you?
  3. Have you identified the potential crises that your business should be ready to deal with?

If you’d like to discuss how to best lead your organization in times of crisis, contact me. I’d love to help you learn more about leadership development and crisis management strategies.