Leading in a Crisis

Member news | September 14, 2020

The FACC-NY network is composed of a diverse mosaic of talented, experienced and open-hearted professionals united by a desire to share their knowledge, nurture meaningful connections and succeed professionally. In this new Member Insights series, we invite a guest member to contribute timely and relevant tips for adapting your activities to overcome immediate challenges and plan for the long-term. 

Michel Buffet is a Senior Client Partner for Korn Ferry in the Firm's Leadership Development practice, based in Princeton, NJ. Korn Ferry is a global organizational consulting firm, synchronizing strategy and talent to drive superior performance. Michel is a member of Human Resources Committee of the French American Chamber of Commerce.

How leaders get the best possible outcomes

Throughout the decades, leaders have had to face crises that disrupted their organizations and upended entire sectors. Some of these crises, like company scandals, may have been brewing under the surface for quite some time. Others, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, may be anticipated to a certain degree but catch us off-guard when reality strikes.

What crisis management entails

Crises are opportunities, and this moment in time has become an opportunity for the lines between business and societal leaders to blur as we all come together for a common purpose. Because leading in a crisis is not new, we have a research point of view on what leadership qualities are most critical to successfully leading in a crisis, at a hospital, from a state capital, or in a board room. During challenging times, effective leaders go back to basics, double down on purpose, and communicate frequently to address concerns and uncertainties. At the same, they make swift decisions and mobilize quickly in order to navigate new and shifting realities. For leaders who are no strangers to dealing with emergencies, they may have extra practice with these competencies and call upon them again. For those new to managing through a crisis, developing skills in these areas will be more important than ever.

Skills that leaders bring to crisis situations

In dealing with crises like the novel coronavirus pandemic, a leader’s ability to listen objectively and compassionately to their counterparts, manage their own reactions and stress, and effectively put together a crisis team are shown to result in better outcomes—both in the short- and long-term. Drawing from in-depth interviews with senior leaders including CEOs, presidents, heads of regions or business units, Korn Ferry has gathered insights into how senior leaders leveraged critical skills to get the best possible outcomes during remarkably tough crisis situations. We also looked at what senior leaders learned from those experiences, and therefore, what skills they leveraged and developed as a result. Leadership in a crisis requires (and develops) the following 12 competencies, across four domains of Thought, Results, People and Self :


  • Decision Quality: making good and timely decisions that keep the organization moving forward.
  • Manages Complexity: making sense of complex, high quantity, and sometimes contradictory information to effectively solve problems
  • Manages Ambiguity: operating effectively, even when things are not certain, or the way forward is not clear.


  • Action Oriented: taking on new opportunities and tough challenges with a sense of urgency, high energy, and enthusiasm.
  • Plans and Aligns: planning and prioritizing work to meet commitments aligned with organizational goals.
  • Ensures Accountability: holding self and others accountable to meet commitments


  • Builds Networks: effectively building formal and informal relationship networks inside and outside the organization.
  • Communicates Effectively: developing and delivering multi-mode communications that convey a clear understanding of the unique needs of different audiences.
  • Drives Vision and Purpose: painting a compelling picture of the vision and strategy that motivates others to action.


  • Instills Trust: gaining the confidence and trust of others through honesty, integrity, and authenticity.
  • Being Resilient: rebounding from setbacks and adversity when facing difficult situations.
  • Courage: stepping up to address difficult issues, saying what needs to be said.

In addition, we closely examined stories of external crises to see what senior leaders did to get better results compared to less effective results. When leaders leveraged the above competencies in a crisis, we noticed an additional lever that resulted in a more positive outcome: emotional intelligence.

Unlocking the power of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is essential for the best possible results. In a crisis, leaders who go above and beyond their role as business leaders are more likely to see best possible outcomes. When a leader is able to remain clear-headed and composed under stressful, emergency circumstances, that leader is demonstrating emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence enables a sense of objectivity, emotional balance and resilience, self-regulation, and an ability to consider others, in part by staying humble and service-minded. When a leader is self-aware, they are better able to be empathetic to others’ experiences and needs. Empathy, in the sense that a leader can walk in another person’s shoes or see things through another person’s eyes, has become a distinguishing characteristic of leaders who are making a difference today. Leaders who demonstrate empathy value collaboration and cooperation. They actively seek out the input of others (including and maybe even especially customers and employees), they understand their positions, and they take your others’ points of view seriously, working toward mutually positive understanding.

Leaders may check off every critical to-do— contingency plan, communication plan, action plan, decision oversight committee formed. Leaders may call upon every critical skill—demonstrating resilience, dealing with complexity and ambiguity, being courageous, networking, uniting people with a common purpose. But a crisis is not business as usual. It requires all of who we are as leaders, including—and arguably most importantly—our humanity.

Stay tuned for our upcoming podcast with Michel to be released at the end of September 2020.

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