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10 Keys for Crisis Leadership 

How school leaders lead during crises is of critical importance to how schools will fare as a result of them. The most essential element for leading in times of crisis is not necessarily what you’d expect: it’s caring. 

Crises can originate inside or outside a school and they can be unpredictable or foreseen. They may arrive in a flash or result from a slow boil. Their sources can be natural or man-made. Crises can occur at the personal level, the organizational level, or the community level. A crisis that originates at one level may have important implications for other levels. For example, a crisis that occurs in a community may have important implications for schools therein. A personal crisis may have significant implications for the school as a whole. A relatively small manageable crisis may blossom into a large unmanageable one for numerous reasons, including lack of preparedness or inadequate initial response. Indeed, James and Wooten observe that it is not the crisis itself that necessarily poses the greatest threat, but the handling of the crisis. 

It is equally important to understand that what makes a situation a crisis is more than calling it one or an objective assessment of the situation. Crisis has a socially constructed meaning. It involves a subjective understanding of threat and risk. At the heart of a crisis is a perception of vulnerability and the ability to respond. This phenomenological dimension of crisis is shaped by one’s role and responsibility, one’s history with crisis-like situations, and one’s perceived ability to deal with the conditions present. It is also shaped by the meanings constructed by and with others. 

Crisis Leadership 

Crisis leadership is a broad construct that includes operational and managerial domains and adds to them a crucial executive domain. The executive domain includes, among other things, maintaining a vision of what was, what is, and what could be; staying attuned to the big picture of crisis situations; promoting meaning and sensemaking; sustaining organizational culture and social relationships; and seeking opportunities for the organization that may result from crisis. 

In our research, we’ve identified 10 key functions of crisis leadership.  

1. Reinforcing the organization’s mission and core values and setting a vision and priorities for the future. 

Effective crisis leaders reinforce the core purposes and values of the organization for its members, constituents, and stakeholders. This provides an important source of stability amidst the uncertainty and threat of crisis. Effective crisis leaders also facilitate a shared vision for what is desired throughout and following a crisis. Such a vision sets an expectation that can unify an organization emotionally, operationally, and politically. And it can promote common understanding that enables coordinated action. 

2. Promoting Meaning and Sensemaking 

Effective crisis leadership aims to promote collective understanding of a crisis and help people make meaning of it in ways that bring authentic hope, confidence, and resilience. A shared base of knowledge and understanding—a “common operating picture”—is crucial for collective action in extreme circumstances. 

3. Providing Assurance, Inspiring Confidence, and Creating Stability 

Crises can disrupt, disorient, and damage. They can introduce danger, upheaval, and debilitating ambiguity and uncertainty. A key function of crisis leadership is to provide assurance and inspire confidence that the organization is taking ownership of the situation as much as possible, not allowing the situation to take ownership of the organization. Leaders can promote assurance by modeling coping, encouraging the expression of feelings, and affirming emotional responses. Leaders can promote stability through regular communication, reasserting routines and rituals, elevating symbols that convey shared meaning, and reinforcing the organization’s mission and core values. 

4. Communicating 

Keeping people informed about a crisis, what is being done to address it, and the progress being made is crucial to crisis leadership. Effective communication is vital developing a common understanding, conveying important information for action, and promoting credibility and trust. A formal communication strategy is essential to any organization before, during, and after a crisis situation. Because crises can disrupt normal communication channels, creative use of unconventional means of communication may be necessary. Effective communication allows leaders to maintain quality control over the flow of information within and outside the organization. 

5. Sharing Leadership and Decision Making 

Too often, leaders assume that centralized control and decision making must be imposed to confront the disruption and uncertainty of crisis. Just the opposite may be needed. Proactively affording people affected by crisis more influence and control may reduce feelings of insecurity and helplessness and increase a sense of control. Making sure that people have meaningful things to do can calm anxiety, help restore order, and promote a sense of agency. Moreover, tapping multiple points of view can lead to better decision quality. 

6. Coordinating Operations and Management 

Effective crisis leaders make sure that there are clear protocols and assignments, sufficient resources, and opportunities for management and operations personnel to raise questions, anticipate problems, share information, suggest new solutions, and make decisions themselves. It’s important to make sure there is a strong management system in place before crisis comes and that the components of this system are coherent, well-coordinated, and flexible enough to adapt to crisis situations. 

7. Acquiring and Allocating Resources 

Crises may call on leaders to acquire additional resources and allocate them to meet particular needs. These may include fiscal, material, and technological resources. They may also include space, time, and human resources, especially human service professionals and other sources of service and expertise.  Importantly, effective crisis leaders ensure that resources flow to priority areas. Their allocation and use need to be monitored and adjusted as conditions change. Importantly, leaders will need to employ the social resources of the organization—interpersonal relationships, trust, support, and mutual commitment. 

8. Learning From Crisis 

Effective crisis leaders take steps to understand the experience of crisis and learn what might be done better in the future. Leaders should reflect and engage others throughout the organization in “post mortem” activities to assess what aspects of anticipation, response, and recovery were successful or unsuccessful. Such learning can be directed toward improved crisis planning and prevention, as well as toward developing more effective strategies for response and recovery. 

9. Improving Into the Future 

Effective crisis leaders look for ways to use crisis as a stimulus for “a fresh start”, as an opportunity for creating a better, more effective organization. Often, the chaos of crisis presents opportunities for innovation. The ideal is for leaders not just to successfully engage and recover from a crisis but to translate the effort into lasting, positive reform that might never have happened otherwise. 

10. Tending to People and to Relationships 

Perhaps the most important function of effective crisis leadership, one that cuts across all the other functions and each phase of crisis leadership work, is tending to people and to relationships. Recovery from crisis, no less the survival of an organization, depends on the resilience of its members. And their resilience depends on how leadership understands and responds to the human and social needs, emotions, and behaviors associated with a crisis. Strong, positive social connections can serve as reservoirs of emotional and psychological support that instill confidence and provide means to weather crises well. Indeed, leaders can reduce the duration of a crisis and mitigate its negative effects by addressing the human element before, during, and after a crisis occurs. 


The through line – and the driving motivation for leaders – in all of these functions is care. Care for your students, teachers, staff, parents, and broader community is absolutely essential as part of any crisis leadership plan.  

This is the focus of our new book, Caring in Crisis: Stories to Inspire and Guide School Leaders. Through true stories from leaders all over the country, we portray key elements of caring school leadership practice during different crisis situations that schools may face. This book shines a bright light on a crucial through line of crisis leadership—the importance of relationships and the imperative of caring. We introduce aspiring and practicing school leaders to practices that make crisis leadership humane and more caring. We encourage school leaders to reflect on their own practice and to challenge themselves to make caring a central quality of their leadership during crises and when crises subside. 


This post is an excerpt from Caring in Crisis: Stories to Inspire and Guide School Leaders. 

Written by

Mark A. Smylie is professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Smylie’s research concerns school organization and processes of school organizational change, administrative and teacher leadership and development, and urban school improvement. His work has appeared in the American Education Research Journal, Educational Researcher, Educational Administration Quarterly, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Educational Policy, Journal of School Leadership, and Review of Research in Education. He has contributed chapters to numerous books on teachers and teaching, leadership and administration, and educational change. Smylie has been chair of the Educational Policy Studies Department in the College of Education at UIC and secretary-treasurer of the National Society for the Study of Education. He also served as a director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. Smylie has been awarded a National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship, the William J. Davis Award from the University Council for Educational Administration, and the American Educational Research Association’s Research Review Award. He has been a Residential Fellow at the Spencer Foundation. Before his work in higher education, Smylie was a high school history teacher. He has maintained a close relationship with schools and school districts through joint projects and professional development activity. He has consulted with numerous regional and national professional and policy organizations concerned with education. He received his PhD from Vanderbilt University and BA and MEd degrees from Duke University. Smylie is the author of Caring School Leadership, Continuous School Improvement, and publishing this August, Stories of Caring School Leadership.

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