crisis leadership

What does crisis leadership look like?

EMBA leadership professor Magnus Larsson reveals the different types of leadership – and which approach works best in a crisis.

“In a time of crisis there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, and if you are a leader during a crisis there will be a lot of pressure to act decisively to alleviate that anxiety. But the way to react depends on the type of problem you’re facing at any given time. In fact, a respected scholar named Keith Grint has done a lot of work on identifying the three different types of problem that leaders face.

“First, there are Critical problems. These are urgent and time-sensitive and they require more forceful leadership and quick decision-making to calm the situation.

“Then, there are Tame problems. These are challenges that we have probably seen before, but they are complicated and call for knowledge. These are the sort of situations that are commonly associated with management.

“Finally, there are Wicked problems. These are complex situations where we don’t know the answers and so we have to explore and experiment and find out what works.

“There is pressure for leaders to treat many situations as Critical, when often they are not. It’s rewarding to work in that way and it makes the leader feel powerful and it reduces anxiety, but it’s often not the best way of working. It blocks creativity and it can prevent us from finding the best way through; whereas treating it as a Wicked problem often makes more sense.

“In a sense, it’s a case of re-framing the way you respond. Consider the military, for example. For many of us, being in a situation where you are being shot at and bombed would definitely be a Critical problem. But for the military, it’s a Tame problem; they have seen this situation before, they have trained for it and they know now to act.

“Right now, in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, there is certainly a case for leadership that responds Critically. Locking down areas, stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives requires rapid action. But that said, it’s important that leaders shouldn’t underdo or overdo the Critical.

“Leadership is about balance. It’s about recognising the distinction between what people expect (i.e. reducing anxiety) and what is needed (i.e. a solution). There is a tendency to automatically assume Critical leadership, but shutting down creativity can be counterproductive. Similarly, if you try to handle a complex situation with a simple solution it will reappear later down the line.

“How can we, as leaders, guard against this? Often, not trying to face the situation alone can help. Having someone you can talk to will help contain your anxiety and offer a welcome counterpoint; they can force you to confront the situation for what it really is. Do you need to act quickly and decisively? Or do you need to explore different ways of doing things to find the right solution?”

Magnus Larsson is an Associate Professor with the Department of Organisation at CBS. He imparts his leadership wisdom to Executive MBA participants. Are you curious to learn more about how you can better your leadership skills and weather future storms facing your organisation? Set up a virtual meeting with EMBA admissions to find out more.