Responding to a crisis: leadership, command or management?

Published: November 2, 2018 | By Tom Huntley

Tom Huntley is the Managing Director of D5protect (Ltd), an independent security consultancy specialising in crisis-leadership. He has worked as head of physical security for an international travel risk management company, as a ‘silver’ commander in the UK Ministry of Defence Police and as a legionnaire in the French Foreign Legion. He has been awarded an MSc in ‘Defence Leadership’ from Cranfield University and is an active member of the security community. Tom has supported many NGOs in identifying and understanding threats, risks, and vulnerabilities in numerous locations, putting in place appropriate risk mitigation plans and effectively dealing with crises.


Many organisations have their own definition of a ‘crisis’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines crisis as: ‘a time of intense difficulty or danger. A time when a difficult or important decision must be made’. Many of us think of a crisis as an unforeseen event or series of events involving unpredictable outcomes that are likely to cause serious harm to people, property or reputation and will escalate if not managed appropriately. Those who work within the humanitarian and development sectors often do so in challenging contexts and as a result, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have experienced a crisis of their own. Security focal points in NGOs are often involved closely in the management of a crisis and are aware that although all crisis are different there are always some similarities. This, however, does not mean that their approach should be the same. It is not a case of one style fits all.

When tackling a crisis as a senior member of staff in an organisation there are many roles that you need to play. You may well have had heard the terms: crisis leadership, crisis management, and crisis command. Are there differences between these approaches to a crisis or are they simply interchangeable terms to describe the same function? This blog attempts to consider these approaches and proposes an alternative for security focal points to adopt to successfully guide others through a crisis.

Crisis management

Management is often seen as the application of processes to achieve a predictable outcome. It is essentially about ‘stuff and numbers’ and is used when it is understood that by following a set of steps a certain, identified result will occur. This is because the issue that a manager is applying the process to has been dealt with before and as such – accepting that there may be a small number of variables – the outcome will be fairly predictable. Processes are a key part of navigating this tough terrain. I have learnt through bitter experience that unless you have a ‘go to’ process you can find yourself in the initial stages of a crisis stuck for an intuitive answer when the fight, flight or freeze response of an adrenalin spike kicks in. Given this, a management approach is a logical one but primarily when the conclusion of your actions is predictable because you have experienced similar issues in the past and are in a better position to predict the results. This is rarely the case with a crisis.

Crisis command

A command approach requires a position of authority and a commander is an individual who holds authoritative power over others in order to dictate their actions to achieve a goal. The commander will be seen by those below them in the hierarchy as the ‘person in charge’ and as such, whilst the commander dictates the actions that must occur, those below them carry out the actions. It is likely that some fast-moving actions will need to occur initially and for this, an element of command is required. People will need to know who is ‘in charge’. However, the days of the ‘hero commander’, when one individual was expected to know the solution to all problems, now exist only in the history books where reality and myth have merged to create legends. The command approach also has another difficult element in that sometimes people will refuse to recognise the authority of another over them. During a crisis, when stakes are high, emotions are peaked and there is not a unified consensus on how to respond, command can be challenged.

Crisis leadership

The leadership approach is arguably more complex in that a leader is only such if others choose to follow. Therefore, it is less about ‘stuff and numbers’ or positional power, and much more about human relationships and motivating others. It is far more than just the application of a process or dictation of commands, but more about the soft-skills of influence and persuasion. Leadership is the people-centred approach. I would suggest that this always has a place in a crisis as people will often require support, nurturing, reassurance and personal guidance. Yet it isn’t the single answer either.

Which approach is most effective?

Each of these three approaches has strengths and all have a place when guiding an organisation through it. They also all have weaknesses. If management is about the application of a process to an understood set of issues to achieve predictable outcomes, then it is not entirely suitable to an unpredictable event involving complexity. If command is about a positional power placing an individual ‘in charge’ of an organisation’s response to a crisis, it is highly unlikely that one individual will have the knowledge, capability or capacity to provide all of the answers. If leadership is about influencing, guiding and nurturing people will it grip the heart of the issue firmly and provide structure and parameters?

When serving as a police officer I utilised a process known as the National Decision Model (NDM), which when applied most effectively requires a balance of all three approaches to dealing with a crisis. I have used this model countless times to cut through complexity and to form defendable decisions, and it can be adapted for use in any NGO to provide a framework for approaching a crisis:

  • Understand what has happened/is happening (information and intelligence)
  • Understand what can hurt you (threat)
  • Understand how it can hurt you (risk)
  • Understand your weaknesses (vulnerability)
  • Be clear about your direction (strategic intent)
  • What special considerations/restrictions do you have (impact factors, policy and constraints)
  • What resources can you marshal and use (tactical options)
  • Do something to achieve the strategic aim (act and monitor)

As a process, the National Decision Model would appear to support a management-orientated approach to a crisis. However, a position of command is needed to instigate and direct aspects of the process, and leadership skills will be required to bring and keep people on board. Also, this is not a process that provides a series of steps to run through to achieve a predetermined conclusion. Instead, it is a process that assists you in understanding the problem, the threats and risks and putting in place options to mitigate them. It does not presuppose the options. The model is also cyclic in nature, understanding that any action can alter the dynamics of a crisis and as such the information/intelligence picture will change.

Guiding coordinator

Using the NDM model and drawing on my experience of dealing with multiple crises, I learned to see my role as a ‘guiding coordinator’, incorporating each approach (management, command, and leadership) and adapting my approach to fit the type of crisis and the stage of the response. I saw a key aspect of my role as acting as the glue that binds together a team of experts who collectively hold the answers to the problems a crisis creates. It is often difficult for people in decision-making positions to admit that they do not personally hold all the answers as this feels like an admittance of weakness and that they are unable to fulfil the traditional role of a ‘leader’. However, this is exactly what you need to do. Ask questions and delegate to teams to find the answers or develop solutions to problems with a clearly defined strategic direction. Effective crisis leaders know they don’t hold all the answers and effective leaders build cultures where this is accepted, understood and respected. As one Royal Navy Bomb Disposal Technician once said to me, ‘In order to do this properly we are going to need to park our egos and get our heads together’. The answers to the issues raised by a crisis lie in the collective knowledge and capability of the team, not solely with the person ‘in charge’.

This approach can be difficult for organisations with a strong hierarchy to adopt and some may think that it is counter-intuitive. To be implemented successfully, this approach often requires a change in culture, understanding, and policy. The good news is that it is possible to learn the skills required to facilitate this shift. Whether you see yourself as a leader, manager, commander or guiding coordinator (or all of the above), being responsible for guiding an organisation through a crisis is not an easy role. However, you are not alone and trainings are available that expose leadership teams to the complexity and pressures of the role to increase their effectiveness and reduce the impact of the ‘adrenalin spike’. If in doubt, just remember to ask the questions and don’t wait for a crisis to occur before you educate and train yourself and your team.