Leadership in Times of Crisis by Regina Phelps

By Regina Phelps, Founder - President - CEO, Emergency Management & Safety Solutions


Successful crisis management doesn’t just happen by accident. Being ready to meet the moment requires two things from all of us in the fields of Risk Management, Enterprise Resiliency and Crisis Management:

  1. Be in a constant state of readiness. Since you won’t know the precise nature of the crisis in advance (timing, location, or specifics required at the time), people who may be managing a crisis must always be in a constant state of readiness, as near to instantaneous as possible. Think in terms of “instant-on.”
  2. Have a wide range of contingencies at your disposal so you will be prepared for many possibilities.

And even despite all your efforts, despite prior training, plans, experience and exercises, what you have and how you might respond, it may still not be enough.

Seven Essential Skills Required to Manage a Crisis

In managing any crisis, leaders must possess seven essential skills:

  1. Gather and maintain situational awareness
  2. Improvise
  3. Be creative and adaptable
  4. Act decisively
  5. Take action
  6. Communicate
  7. Re-evaluate

Gather Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is perhaps one of the most critical skills required in a crisis. It is the ability to identify, process and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to you and your organization in relation to the crisis. Put more simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you…even as it may be changing. Determine who is responsible for collecting and updating the information. It could be one person, but it is likely a group. During an event, gather and validate the key facts of the incident. Once you have the information, validate it by seeking corroborating evidence. Sometimes this means you have to triangulate numerous sources in order to be sure what you’ve learned is true.


In a crisis, leaders often examine newly-updated information and review their routine plans and checklists, then find that their response is not adequate. They then realize that customization is required. In a true crisis, leaders, often under extreme pressure and with high stakes and compressed timelines, must formulate a new approach to the situation. They must execute new responses or a combination of responses to manage the crisis. In other words, leaders must improvise.

Be Creative and Adaptable

A crisis requires approaching new problems with new thinking and creative and adaptable responses. Leaders must find ways to see and appreciate the novel elements in a crisis and understand that a different approach may be required.  A leader and his/her team must adapt rapidly to a fast-changing crisis. By its nature, a crisis changes quickly, and the first response will likely not be the final response. A critical thing to remember is that in a crisis situation, the leader cannot be wedded to a single strategy. They must continue to take in new information, listen carefully, and consult with frontline experts who know what’s happening. In other words, don’t fall in love with your own solutions and ideas.

Act Decisively

It’s the moment of truth. Someone must make a decision. Everyone knows a leader who struggles to make decisions. The inability to make a decision is a disaster within the disaster.

  • Once situational awareness has been reviewed, AND
  • The response has been improvised, AND
  • Creativity and adaptability have been exercised THEN
  • The leader must make a decision.

If, after a period of time, it becomes apparent the wrong decision was made, make another one. The role of the leader is to keep the team and the organization moving forward. Put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. The leader’s job is to assume the mantle of leadership and, well, lead!


Set realistic expectations for communication in advance — perhaps in the employee handbook, for example: Here’s what you can typically expect if there’s an emergency or challenging event in our buildings [plants, facilities, etc.]  And then communicate early and often as events unfold. Of course, the intent isn’t to alarm people, but don’t be afraid to speak to the magnitude of the situation. People need to hear what is going on, even if the news is not good. And with the prevalence of social media sites, your people (or their family members or friends) will start Tweeting or posting Facebook messages that may be exaggerated or wholly false. It may take hours or days for you to set the record straight.  In a worst-case scenario, the bad information could live on for weeks, months or years.

Take Action

This is the second moment of truth: Act! Make the decision, and then do it. At this point, it’s time to enact the plans and observe the response. One critical aspect of taking action is to ensure that there are sufficient feedback loops to assess response to the new plan and adjust accordingly. Keep checking in and determine how the plans are doing. At the same time, don’t forget to take in new situational awareness information, and adjust accordingly.


Lastly, be prepared to do regular assessments at set intervals to re-evaluate and reassess progress. This provides the ability to tweak (or do a major overhaul) of the plan. Ask these questions over and over: “How are we doing?” and “What are we missing?” Your job is to keep the team, the plan, the process AND the organization moving forward. That is best accomplished through effective planning, training and exercises.


Explore these seven essentials skills with your leadership and crisis management teams. Design immersive exercises that allow them to practice these skills and build muscle memory. Each of us must summon up our potential and creativity to meet this moment.

Regina Phelps Bio

Regina Phelps is an internationally recognized thought leader and expert in the field of crisis management, pandemic and continuity planning and exercise design.  She is the founder of EMS Solutions Inc, (EMSS) and since 1982, EMSS has provided consultation and speaking services to clients on five continents.

Ms. Phelps is a frequent speaker at international continuity conferences and is consistently rated one of the top-rated speakers in her field. She is known for her approachable and entertaining speaking style and her ability to take complex topics and break them into easily digestible and understandable nuggets.  She is the author of four books, all available on Amazon:

  • Crisis Management: How to Develop a Powerful Program
  • Cyberbreach: What if your defenses fail? Designing an exercise to map a ready strategy
  • Emergency Management Exercises: From Response to Recovery
  • Emergency Management Exercises: From Response to Recovery Instructors Guide.

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