Six Steps for Leadership in a Crisis

I’m learning a lot about leadership right now, given my position as the CEO of a wealth management firm during a health crisis that has become an economic shock. Hundreds of families are relying on us, not to mention the 31 people working for us across the nation. I found the below helpful, it comes from Gary Burnison, the CEO of Korn Ferry, which is a management consulting firm based in Los Angeles, founded in 1969. 

Mr. Burnison outlines six concrete steps that leaders should take right now to steer their organizations through this. I think it’s applicable to anyone – especially a parent or head of household with a spouse and children relying on them. Please read below and share with the people you care about. – JB


  1. Anticipate – predicting what lies ahead
  2. Navigate – course correcting in real time
  3. Communicate – continually
  4. Listen – to what you don’t want to hear
  5. Learn – learning from experience to apply in the future
  6. Lead – improve yourself to elevate others

Let me provide some color commentary on what leaders can do to put crisis management in action.

  • Start at the Bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy: In a crisis, you first need to meet people where they are. Their most basic needs must be met first and they need to feel safe. Naturally, no one is interested in talking about the company’s strategic plan when they are out buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Once their essential needs are addressed, then the focus can shift to alignment, common purpose, elevating others and even opportunities for growth.
  • Earthquakes and Aftershocks: In Los Angeles, where our firm is based, we’re accustomed to earthquakes—knowing that, when one occurs, the aftershocks are coming. In the same way, in a crisis, you have to anticipate the aftershocks—the unintended consequences of the initial shock to the system. Too often, people don’t consider all the possibilities. Anticipation becomes a Monte Carlo simulation in action. For example, what if travel bans expand, commerce slows, or a liquidity crisis develops, etc.? What is the impact on all aspects of my business? What are the implications for all stakeholders—employees, customers, and investors? Strategy is making a bet, and the skill of anticipating improves one’s odds.
  • Urgent vs. Important: Day to day, leaders face a multitude of issues—both urgent and important. In the normal course of business, I’ve found that many leaders have difficulty distinguishing between the two. When a crisis hits, though, everything blurs as events and their implications constantly change. What’s important often becomes urgent, and the urgent becomes critical. Leaders must delegate the urgent by empowering others to lead around a common purpose.
  • Leave No One Behind: In a crisis, leaders must connect with, motivate, and inspire others—and show genuine compassion. In the military, for example, leaders put the safety and well-being of others before themselves. I’ve met a number of military leaders who led during periods of conflict, and many have voluntarily told me, “I’ve never lost a soldier.” This reveals a deep mindset of humility and accountability, rather than hubris and bravado.
  • Know What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do: There’s nothing like a crisis or a complex problem to accelerate learning. This is learning agility to the “Nth” degree—applying past lessons to new and unfamiliar situations. It really is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. In a crisis, this has never been more profound. Amid uncertainty, leaders need to be hyper-focused on past experiences and synthesize and apply them to real-time, fluid conditions. Clarity comes from finding a close comparison. Is it like the Great Recession? The 1987 stock market crash? The outbreaks of SARS or MERS? By running the “unknown” of the current crisis against the “known” of previous ones, leaders gain perspective, identify patterns, connect the dots, and determine appropriate and timely responses. The eventual recovery may be a V or a U or some other alphabet letter, but there will be a new normal—thanks, ultimately, to the scientists, innovators, and dreamers.



Gary Burnison, Korn Ferry CEO

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