Lessons Learned in Crisis Management

As with just about everyone, I’ve been unsettled, stressed, and concerned about the news of the Coronavirus over recent weeks, days, and hours. While I have my opinions on the virus and how events are being handled, they are just that – opinions, which I’m not going to share here. I will keep those to myself since I am neither an epidemiologist, scientist, or statistician, and I definitely did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

What I’ve found interesting is how the crisis has been handled by our government leaders, at all levels. Leaders aren’t made during good times, they are forged during times of crisis. These are my observations and lessons learned.

Plan – before, during, and after

The current response makes it clear that there wasn’t a well thought out plan on how to handle a global pandemic. Otherwise, resources would have been ready and mobilized on short notice.

The lesson learned is that you need to have a well-thought plan before the black swan event occurs. There needs to be a protocol ready to go that everyone on the team is aware of and responsibilities assigned ahead of time. There needs to be an ability to adjust the plan to changing data and conditions on the ground. Finally, when the event passes, there needs to be a postmortem analysis performed so a new plan can be created in anticipation of the next event, which may or may not be worse than the current one.

Communicate

Plans need to be communicated, including how they may change based on incoming data.

What I’ve learned from my own experience and watching others is that people do not react well to uncertainty. People are unable to make decisions on whether or not to travel. What items should they stock up on, and how much. What will determine whether stricter controls will be put in place, or current restrictions eased. Unfortunately, when there is uncertainty, entities like the media fill the void. In the absence of a communicated plan, these entities take on an asymmetric role in how events are perceived, which only serves to feed fear and panic.

Evaluate trade-offs

In the world of physics, one learns that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Similarly, in social science, action, or the lack thereof, has ramifications.

The lesson learned is that ramifications to actions (or decisions) need to be made ahead of time to understand the trade-offs and costs. Worst case, best case, and in between scenarios need to be considered (also known as Monte Carlo simulations). It’s impossible to minimize the damage or maximize the rewards for everyone. People need to understand that the trade-offs and costs were considered, and that the decisions and actions taken were made in the best interest of all.

Avoid politics

Politics and crisis don’t mix. Ever. A crisis is not a time to grandstand, it’s not a time to look out for and promote one’s own interests and agenda.

The lesson is that leaders need to practice empathy. They need to to understand that not everyone will benefit equally from, and some will be harmed by, the decisions and actions taken. For example, the people leading us are not going to be impacted or affected by the current crisis, or the effect will be minimal. They are not speaking to the concerns of the average person – how they will feed themselves and their family, how they will provide shelter, how they will be safe. Stimulus and bailout packages aimed at banks and big businesses do not directly translate down to the average person. Until they can show how actions and decisions answer their basic needs, people are going to become more concerned as time passes without answers.

Get educated

Sharing opinions, qualitative facts, and judgments does not assure people. People can see through the facade. People want their leaders to speak from a position of knowledge and facts, not through rose-colored glasses that obstruct, obfuscate, and hide the truth.

From my observations, misleading, disinformation, and redirecting attention does not gain the trust of your followers. In today’s day of the internet, you have to assume that people have access to the same information you do. It is best to listen to the experts on the team. Be authentic, be honest, say what know and don’t know about the situation. Above all, know the facts, and stick to them.

Take action

Don’t feed the panic. Lack of a plan, indecisiveness, lack of knowledge, and lack of transparency only serve to heighten fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. As stated before, have a plan, understand the trade-offs, know the facts, and take action.

Take responsibility

During a crisis is not the time to place and shift blame. Leaders take responsibility and don’t ever hide from it. They give credit where credit is due. They accept blame when things don’t work out as planned. When all is said and done, the leader does not determine who was right or wrong during the crisis. Instead, leaders focus on taking the action to navigate and effectively resolve the crisis. After all, it will be the historians, long after the fact, who will judge, debate, and determine who to blame and reward for their actions taken during the event.


At some level, we are all leaders, whether it is in our community, in our places of work, in our school, or in our family. A lot can be learned by seeing how the current crisis has been managed. These lessons are ones that I want to adopt as a leader going forward.