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Interdisciplinary Notes Toward a Definition of “Crisis Leadership”

Interdisciplinary Notes Toward A Definition Of “Crisis Leadership”

Every leadership episode is unique, and we would do well to appreciate each contingent, concrete feature (Wren, 2012). We do have to notice, for example, the prevailing contexts (Wren & Swatez, 1995). Nevertheless, if we are to make any headway in leadership studies, we also have to detect and describe regularities and patterns, such that we derive lessons of general applicability. Otherwise, each episode is simply a story; and history itself becomes a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of little more than entertainment value. In other words, we must use each of two complementary ways of knowing: the attention to detail (on the one hand) and the broad patterns (on the other), the verbatim text and the gist of the message (Brooks, 2011, 243; Harter, 2015).

This paper sets out to define a particular type of episode that recurs in the literature and goes by different names, the most useful of which is probably Crisis Leadership. The goal is to identify a pattern across the many examples of leadership that would deserve to be called Crisis Leadership. We should remember, as Max Weber taught us, that definitions come at the end of an analysis (Voegelin, 1968, 83), so it would be premature to offer one at this point, yet we do have to set forth at least a tentative understanding of what is meant by crisis leadership, to differentiate it from other types. Writing in 1969, Andrew Wôjcik had complained about “a dearth of relevant formulations (25).” More recently, Boin, McConnell, and ‘t Hart noticed that leadership theorists “have mostly shied away from studying crisis management and the issues that leaders face in times of acute adversity” (2010, 237).

The question of crisis leadership arises repeatedly. On May 30th of 2019, the White House under Donald Trump issued a Statement Regarding Emergency Measures to Address the Border Crisis. Predictably, some pundits agreed (e.g. Carafano, 2019) and some disagreed (e.g. Barajas, 2019; Ward & Singhvi, 2019). But of those who agreed, there was a difference of opinion about what it means (e.g. Lind, 2019; Thiessen, 2019; Bersin, Bruggeman, & Rohrbaugh, 2019). Others will insist that the planet faces a paramount crisis known as climate change (e.g. Stiglitz, 2019; Nwanevu, 2019; Guterres, 2018). It is even being argued that these crises are interrelated (e.g. Kobayashi-Solomon, 2019; Tharoor, 2019; Blitzer, 2019). Perhaps it is in the nature of a crisis that cries for leadership become clamorous, with voices intensifying to match the perception of urgency. According to one textbook on leadership, looking at history “great leaders typically emerged during economic crises, social upheavals, or revolutions; great leaders were generally not associated with periods of relative calm or quiet” (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, 2015, p. 484). So it would repay us in a time of perceived crises routinely amplified to take a giant step back in order to consider what sort of leadership might be required.

Ordinarily, it pays to begin with a conventional definition of the term “crisis.” The Oxford English Dictionary (2013) refers to a “crisis” as the point of decision – not so much when a decision is made as when a decision is necessary and there is no turning back, a moment for judgment. This provisional definition accords with Boin, McConnell, and ’t Hart (2010), who define a crisis as “a serious threat to the basic structures or the fundamental values and norms of a system, which under time pressure and highly uncertain circumstances necessitates making a vital decision”(230).


The idea of a crisis contains two parts, the objective condition that people actually face and the subjective experience. Ken Wilber (1998) refers to this as the distinction between the exterior and the interior. We might think of it as “the way things are” and “the way things seem.” Boin, McConnell, and ’t Hart acknowledge that the threat is in part a product of psychological and cultural expectations, so that the same incident in one context is more of a crisis than it would be in another context (2010, 230).

It is not unheard of for people to face a genuine crisis without even being aware of it, just as people can feel a sense of impending crisis when in fact there is none. Obviously, if there is neither the objective condition nor the subjective experience, then there would be no crisis leadership. And if there is the presence of both, then at least we have the potential for crisis leadership, as Wôjcik had indicated (1969, 26). It is unclear, however, whether crisis leadership occurs when there is only one of these, i.e. either the objective condition or the subjective experience, but not both.

With regard to subjective experience, another important distinction is between the leader’s experience and the followers’ experience. If neither leader nor follower experience crisis, then we would be hard pressed to call anything that transpires between them crisis leadership. If on the other hand both do, then the chances that crisis leadership is possible becomes clear. But what if the leader senses a crisis, yet the followers are oblivious or unconcerned? (Followers are not always certain whether the leader in that situation is a prophet or an alarmist. They may not even be listening.) By the same token, what if the followers are quivering with anxiety, yet the leader remains unperturbed? Suppose the leader comes along and calms the waters, as it were, and exhibits preternatural ease? In other words, it is unclear whether crisis leadership occurs when only the leader or only the follower experiences the sense of crisis.

We might be tempted to assume that it is not crisis leadership when a leader falsely induces anxiety in followers under the pretext of crisis leadership, when that leader doesn’t honestly believe there is one. We obviously do not want people “crying wolf,” raising alarms or shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater. And yet, what happens in those instances will often greatly resemble crisis leadership, so it is probably worthy of study as a kind of pseudo-crisis leadership. Many a leader has found it to be advantageous to convince followers they must yield in order to prevent some calamity, even if that leader had to fabricate one.

In the same manner, it is sometimes the case that a leader will reassure followers falsely, when there is every reason to worry and the leader knows it. Again, we should have to study this tactic as part of crisis leadership, namely the effort by a leader who experiences the crisis and hides it from his or her followers or minimizes its importance.

In either case, the term “crisis” suggests an acute threat – not some gradual threat, like soil erosion or weight gain – that is, unless and until the process reaches a certain point. At that point (whatever it is), the slow, even imperceptible process can eventually reach the level of a crisis, as scientists claim is happening with regard to climate change. A looming threat can become imminent and therefore a crisis.  So there is plainly a time element to the idea of a crisis. Wôjcik even used the word “sudden” (1969, 26), whereas Boin, McConnell, and ’t Hart use the words “quick” and “urgent” (2010, 230).

The term “crisis” also suggests a threat of real consequence, not just something trivial. We laugh at those who panic over small things, or we label them as immature or worse. Is it genuinely a crisis that you will become hungry before lunchtime? Not ordinarily. In the scale of things, we would discount threats of lesser severity and not call them a crisis. The damage has to be big enough to qualify. In the same vein, Wôjcik had used the word “extensive” (1969, 26) and Boin, McConnell, and ’t Hart used the words like serious, basic, and fundamental (2010, 230). Of course, determining just how “big” it has to be – like determining how close in time it has to be – is a matter of judgment and will probably vary, depending on the circumstances.

Furthermore, the term “crisis” suggests that the threat is more than just possible. The odds of its being fulfilled have to exceed a certain threshold. There may be a remote chance that some catastrophe would cause extravagant harm, yet the likelihood is so small there is no real purpose in worrying about it. For instance, it certainly would prove disastrous for a vast comet to collide with the earth, potentially destroying all life and even knocking the planet out of its orbit forever. Yet the probabilities at present are against it. The likelihood is so infinitesimally small that we wouldn’t refer to colliding with a comet as a “crisis.”

By the same token, if a comet were bearing down on us, certain to strike, even though the cost would indeed be incalculable, we might not want to label the impending collision a crisis, since it is at that point inevitable. There really is no decision to make. All you can do is accept your fate and make your peace with God. After a certain point, a threat is no longer a crisis; the calamity is simply upon us.

For this reason, crisis leadership seems to occupy a space between the Unlikely and the Certain, somewhere in the margins where decisions of consequence are called for. Over many years, common law judges have developed a concept that might be applicable here. To say that something or someone is the “proximate cause” means that there must be both a directness of causation (and not something freakish or attenuated) and foreseeability (Zipursky, 2012, ch. 17). Perhaps in that sense, to qualify as “crisis leadership” the acts of leadership must be sufficiently proximate. That is, the leadership we witness must have a direct and foreseeable impact on the outcome. It is important to note that, at law, the actual consequences do not have to have been foreseen in fact, so long as they were foreseeable, which means the subjective experience with regard to what was foreseen by the participants is legally irrelevant. Could that be true in crisis leadership?


If we were to follow Aristotle’s example, we would begin an analysis by casting about to see how the phrase “crisis leadership” is being used in the literature. And as Ludwig Wittgenstein has pointed out (1953/2009, §67), often there is a cluster of terms and phrases that bear a family resemblance with each other, more or less accomplishing the same thing in ordinary language. We should hope to include them as well. A search of GoogleScholar conducted 18 October 2016 for the phrase ‘crisis leadership’ resulted in 2,970 entries, a few of which go back many decades. As Boin, McConnell, and ’t Hart point out, the literature ‘is best described as an amalgam of niche perspectives drawn from across the social sciences (2010, 232, citing e.g. Drennan & McConnell, 2007). With this in mind, this paper will isolate three early efforts to describe crisis leadership  – one from the domain of diplomacy and politics, one from the domain of business and finance, and one from the domain of culture.

In 1532, Niccolò Machiavelli’s treatise known as The Prince (1991) advised an aspiring leader to prepare ahead of time to avoid crisis – or at least to prepare in advance to ameliorate the damage. Machiavelli used the metaphor of a flood that threatens to destroy. One may not be able to prevent a flood altogether, he wrote, but that does not excuse the leader from failing to anticipate the likelihood of a flood and taking certain precautions. Thus, crisis leadership would not be simply the response to a crisis, but also the preparation for the future possibility.

Nevertheless, Machiavelli went on to recommend the constant study of things as they are, and not as they are supposed to be. Go out and assiduously get the facts, he would write. Make a habit of learning for yourself what is going on. Don’t trust the report of others. Even in idle moments, look around; while on horseback en route from one place to another, devote your mind to how you might defend this position, if called upon to do so. In short, prepare yourself.

An early attempt to differentiate crisis leadership from non-crisis leadership was about 150 years ago by Walter Bagehot (1867/2001; see Ostlund, 1956). Bagehot claimed that leaders who succeed in times of calm do not necessarily succeed in times of panic. It is interesting to note that his 1873 analysis of managing a financial crisis begins with the simplest of rules that the first order of business is to end the panic. The momentum of any panic can quickly overrun every other function, so a leader (in this case, the national bank) must take strenuous action to stop it and restore at least a sense of normalcy for the sake of every other purpose. Once a crisis does in fact befall, therefore, someone must first arrest the anxiety.

The Spanish philosopher Josè Ortega y Gasset (1958) conducted a study titled En Torno a Galileo. In particular, he raised the specter of the strong man (like Napoleon) or any authoritarian institution that emerges during a crisis to bring stability and direction to life, which is precisely what Ortega did not want. A crisis to him is a predicament when one’s beliefs are inadequate to the situation, leaving you temporarily disoriented, in a liminal state of uncertainty. Your usual way of responding will no longer work. Now what? In the absence of the familiar, emotion proliferates and intensifies, as Bagehot had also warned. The remedy, in Ortega’s opinion, is to re-think your fundamental beliefs, to imagine your world anew – not to cling to outmoded methods or surrender authority to someone who seems full of conviction. Crisis returns the individual to an existential dread, where you cannot trust what you thought you knew and you cannot necessarily trust other people. And so, you seek something genuine and simple, a new conviction to give you confidence that on the other side of change you can find your way forward.

Looking back at Machiavelli (in politics), Bagehot (in business), and Ortega (in culture), crisis leadership would seem to involve taking measures to (a) assess the objective situation, so a decision can be grounded in the facts; (b) quell anxiety, so that a decision in the teeth of some threat is even possible; and (c) ask the pertinent questions of ourselves, so decisions are not only grounded in facts but also reflective of what we still authentically desire. From that point, the people facing a crisis can use any one of several problem-solving methods to arrive at a plan. Going forward, the prescriptions of Ron Heifetz and his work on Adaptive Leadership (1994) become pertinent.


Part of what it means to be a professional is to train yourself to cope with the elements of crisis – that is, to assess the situation objectively, gaining some distance from your emotional reaction and keeping yourself and others focused on the guiding purpose – not to confiscate responsibility from your clients, but to increase their capacity to respond, even if in the panic of the moment you have to take strong action. We see this need clearly in certain domains, such as medicine, public safety, and the military, where the occasions for crisis leadership are acute.

Perhaps we might also recognize in Machiavelli’s advice to prepare oneself ahead of time, before the crisis is upon us, the role played by teachers to equip students as emerging citizens and leaders. For this purpose, actually, Ortega had taught the individual to build a capacity to withdraw in one’s mind from the press of circumstance – not so much to escape from a crisis, but to assess it dispassionately and begin again the never-ending task of mapping the world, as well as mapping one’s place in the world. At the center of that experience is a duality, a being torn or being tempted to respond to crisis one way (panic, desperation, surrender) or another. That is the tension at the heart of every crisis, to which ‘crisis leadership’ is a response – and a shared response, at that.



The author is indebted to Matt Rutherford for insightful comments on an earlier draft.



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Nathan Harter

Nathan Harter is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a Professor of Leadership Studies at Christopher Newport University. He is author of three books, with the latest being Foucault on Leadership: The Leader as Subject (Routledge, 2016).

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