In the midst of the biggest global crisis since the second world war, now is an interesting time to examine how the best leaders steer us through stormy waters. Last month, Hogan Assessments – publishers of the psychometric assessment suite – ran a webinar covering this topic, looking specifically at the personality traits and personal values associated with effective crisis leadership.

To kick off, the extraordinary story of Southwest Airline pilot Tammie Jo Shults was told as an example of a leader staying calm in the face of impending disaster. The recording of her speaking to air traffic control following the explosion of the left engine of her plane in 2018, which broke a window, tragically sucking a passenger halfway out, was a display of supernatural composure (listen here). By staying calm and adapting to the unfolding situation, Shults was able to think clearly and take command of the situation. She helped to dial down the panic and anxiety coursing through those onboard and, ultimately, steer the plane and passengers to safety. 

Living with uncertainty

Of course, both the current Covid-19 pandemic – with its health, social, political and economic ramifications – and Shults’ story are extreme examples of crises. However, Hogan points out that the world has always been volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and that all organisations will face a crisis at some point. 

Managing the impact of these situations is part of being in leadership, but the legacy of a leader will often be determined by how well they handled the crisis. No matter how they performed before the event, or the effectiveness of their actions after, their reputation will frequently be dictated by how adept they were at navigating the crisis and persuading others to pull together and work towards a shared goal. 

What makes a good leader during a crisis?

Values are meaningful as they influence a leader’s motivations and, crucially, the organisational culture they create, while personality traits guide how they are predisposed to behave. 

To answer this question, Hogan mined their extensive database to uncover the values and personality traits of the most effective crisis leaders, as well as the characteristics that can derail leaders when under such pressure. Values are meaningful as they influence a leader’s motivations and, crucially, the organisational culture they create, while personality traits guide how they are predisposed to behave. 

Values

According to the data, the most effective crisis leaders value engaging with others and bringing them together (affiliation). They create a culture of belonging that encourages teamwork and collaboration. By engendering a sense of connectedness, leaders can tap into a collective consciousness and encourage everyone to play their part to overcome the situation.  

Hogan’s research also indicates that leaders who take smart and appropriate risks are more effective during crisis situations (they have a low value of security). Consistency and predictability are scarce during these extreme situations, so leaders are required to be flexible, accept that they may not know what tomorrow will bring and be willing to take chances.

Personality

Shults’ story demonstrates that being calm, resilient and stable under pressure are personality characteristics associated with successful crisis leadership (all indicators of high emotional adjustment), but what else? 

The most effective crisis leaders are self-assured and assertive (characteristics related to the trait of high ambition), according to the data. During challenging times, people typically want a leader who will make critical decisions in a timely manner. Having a calm and confident approach helps leaders to maintain a sense of order and avert chaos by providing a model for others to follow. Well-adjusted and ambitious leaders are also more likely to adapt quickly to unanticipated changes caused by a crisis, such as the shift to remote working imposed on many organisations by the current crisis. 

Responding to stress

During crises, stress increases for everyone, even those who are predisposed to being cool-headed. However, the way people respond to others when under pressure differs based on their personality. Some people have a tendency to move away from others and avoid connection when under stress; some tend to move against others – trying to dominate or manipulate them; while others move towards people in an attempt to build alliances.

Whilst none of these approaches is very effective, Hogan’s research suggests that moving away and avoiding the problem is the least efficient way to manage crisis situations. Typical responses of leaders who tend to distance themselves include denying or downplaying the situation, failing to communicate sufficiently and displaying a lack of sympathy for other people’s feelings or moods. They can be seen to be too aloof and unaware of how their actions impact others at a time when people are often looking for reassurance. 

Strengths can become overplayed when we’re stressed

Other moving away characteristics that can derail leaders include being overly cautious and reluctant to make decisions due to a fear of getting it wrong. Additionally, being volatile – swinging from having high expectations to being easily disappointed – and finding it hard to rebound from setbacks hampers effective crisis leadership. 

Those leaders with a low propensity to move away during crises are more likely to be open and honest about the scale of the problem, tackle challenges head on, communicate adeptly and persist when things go wrong.  

Identifying strengths and blind-spots

Hogan’s research highlights the values and personality characteristics of the most effective crisis leaders but, of course, not every leader fits this profile. Some will not be predisposed to being calm, steadfast and decisive when under pressure and may find it more challenging to communicate openly and bring people together. What then?

Psychometric assessments like Hogan provide a starting point by identifying an individual’s strengths and blind-spots. Although personality dictates how we are predisposed to behave, it doesn’t mean that we can’t alter that behaviour if it doesn’t move us towards our goals. Coaching helps leaders to gain self-awareness about how their actions impact others and develop strategies to manage their derailing tendencies. For a leader who becomes more self-sufficient and detached when under strain, for example, this could include making a commitment to communicate regularly and provide opportunities for others to share their views. Adopting techniques to manage stress can also reduce the likelihood that derailing tendencies will emerge. 

Conclusion

Hogan’s research indicates that the most effective crisis leaders are well-adjusted, ambitious individuals who value relating to others and are comfortable with uncertainty. They are also realistic about the scale of the situation, tackle it head on and persevere through setbacks. While every organisation is different and not every leader will fit this profile, gaining insights into a leader’s strengths and blind-spots provides an opportunity to develop areas that may hinder them during a crisis and help them to steer the ship to calmer waters.  

Here is a link to listen to the Hogan webinar, ‘What it takes to lead through organisational crisis’. If you’d like more information about the Hogan Assessment and leadership coaching please get in touch with me through [email protected]