The Two Roles Leaders Must Play in a Crisis

Great crisis captains need to lead both in the spotlight and behind the scenes.

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The coronavirus pandemic has already proved to be a litmus test of leadership as organizations around the world fight for their survival under unprecedented circumstances. In such dire straits, managing is in many ways dramatic — that is, it shares the qualities of onstage drama. As sociologist Erving Goffman put it, crisis managers need to present different faces at different times.

We often expect leaders to perform in predefined ways: Chief executives should be courageous, for example, and financial controllers conservative. Disaster managers, though, must be sufficiently flexible to don myriad masks, depending on the situation. We must, for instance, be humble with those who expect humility, and tough with those who expect toughness. Or, in other words, we must conform to expectations or risk backlash.

Great crisis captains need to play two main parts: the front-stage and back-stage roles of leadership. In the front-stage spotlight, leaders inspire and assure their teams, sending a message of hope and sharing their vision with the organization. They also show empathy and public commitment. These leaders are simultaneously kind and humble, showing the caring side of their personality.

All of these qualities must be combined with the back-stage role, in which leaders take a blunt and realistic approach to the serious threats at hand. Behind the scenes, leaders gather information and expertise, share facts, and dive deeply into processes — whether financial, technological, or human — to adapt and follow through on their plans. Such leaders are smart and confident, displaying the daring side of their personality.

It’s essential that leaders present their true selves without being fake. Those who play the role in a false or insecure way risk shredding their credibility because observers will sense the dishonesty and feel insulted. The common characteristics of great crisis leaders are a robust stress management capability, abundant resilience, networking prowess, vast social capital, a strong commitment to inclusivity, and a cool head when others overreact. History is filled with examples of versatile leaders, from Nelson Mandela to Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who got this balance right.

Facing their own existential threats, how can today’s bosses play both the front- and back-stage roles of leadership? How can they strike the right balance between caring and daring?

Acknowledge the crisis in a serious way. Confronting the tough truth of your situation is essential to overcoming it.

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