Crisis Leadership

What good crisis leadership looks like

While every crisis differs and requires a contextualised leadership and management approach, we can learn from the past to address current and future situations. The following three short case studies draw on examples of good crisis leadership. As you read through, consider what insights and approaches could be applied to you and Ok Tedi. Consider examples of good crisis leadership that you have seen on-site. Once you have read the case studies, complete the short reflection activity at the bottom of the page..

Situation After a largely productive 16-day mission, NASA’s Columbia space shuttle exploded on February 1, 2003, over Texas during re-entry into the atmosphere because its protective heat tiles had been compromised. All seven of the astronauts on board perished. 

NASA responded to the crisis immediately and were purposeful and strategic in how they communicated both internally and externally. Not only were they under pressure to communicate a clear message with over 30, 000 employees, but also held daily press conferences to convey information about the crisis to the public and media. They communicated information enthusiastically to portray support and empathy by sending officials to surrounding towns to keep the public informed about the situation.

While in many ways NASA was prepared to respond to an accident, the problem with their crisis communication plan is that it didn’t allow the organisation to adapt flexibly to a changing and evolving situation. An early basic crisis communication error was made when they prematurely dismissed that the protective foam from the left wing was not capable of significant damage, when the investigation later discovered the foam played a critical role in the tragedy. In delivering messages so quickly, the clarity and consistency of that message was often premature, lacking sufficient evidence which caused much speculation.


An accident investigation report unveiled the following:

  • NASA failed to meet three of the fifteen safety protocols already in place
  • The report noted a fundamental flaw with NASA’s organizational “safety” culture
  • The report attempted to illuminate the need for NASA to implement organizational change in order to promote a safer organizational environment
  • The CAIB suggested that an independent company or organization monitor and control safety hazards assessed during the launch to prevent biased decision making
  • Highly criticized NASA’s culture and decision making
    • discussed a flawed communication pattern between NASA engineers and managers.
    • described the necessity for both management and engineers to communicate more effectively
  • Identified NASA’s culture and approach to decision making as oppositional to the organization’s long-term goals
    • detailed the difficulty in achieving organizational change when NASA’s organizational culture acted over time to resist externally imposed change
Key learning One of the main points to take away from this crisis is that before this accident occurred; NASA had returned to perpetuating inadequate concerns over deviations from expected performance, allowing a ‘silent’ safety program, and implementing schedule pressure. All issues that had arisen after past crises that they failed to adequately address as an organization.

Situation On August 5, 2010, Chile’s century-old San José mine disastrously caved in. 33 men became trapped under 700,000 tons of some of the world’s hardest rock at a depth almost twice the height of the Empire State Building — over 600 meters (2,000 feet) down. Experts estimated the probability of getting them out alive at less than 1%. Never had a recovery been attempted at such depths, let alone in the face of challenges like those posed by the San José mine: unstable terrain, rock so hard it defied ordinary drill bits, severely limited time, and the potentially immobilizing fear that plagued the buried miners. Could the trapped miners and rescue workers mobilize before air and resources were depleted? The company had a poor safety record, and no one has ever been rescued from this depth before.
Action The miners needed to stay alive and sane. They had to doubt whether the company would attempt a rescue. Initially they looked for escape routes, sleeping spaces and found other activities to pass the time. There was only food and water for two days for 10 miners. They were experienced miners; not claustrophobic or afraid of the dark. Having worked together, they had an organizational hierarchy, they knew the mine layout, and had experienced prior cave-ins. There was tension between those who believed they should await rescue and those who wanted to escape. In resolving this, the group developed a well-functioning social system with division of roles, responsibilities and routines, including daily prayer, discipline, camaraderie, and even storytelling. They focused on what they could control, making decisions carefully: painting the drill and attaching notes to communicate with the surface. They spent time writing letters to loved ones.
Outcome The miners could easily have developed a ruthless, everyone fends for themselves dynamic. They could have splintered and worked against each other, undermining the collective efforts. Instead they agreed to work together. The group set up a voting system for decisions, to determine food rationing and guardianship of food. Individuals began to focus on what each did best. The group began to organize around sanitation issues, sleeping locations and other constructive tasks. After the first day of panic, the vote on decision rights helped make the group an “us”. They met at the same time daily, ate together, held regular prayers, reinforcing a sense of routine. Focusing on things they could control helped encourage optimism, maintain discipline and established order.
Key Learning

The case showed that in a crisis, there is rarely a correct answer. What leaders can do is structure an optimum organization that allows innovation, problem-solving and execution under conditions of high stakes and intense pressure. During a crisis a leader should: Establish clear lines of responsibilities

  • Establish clear lines of authority and have respect for the hierarchy
  • Line up best resources, delegate, empower, support and protect
  • Intense teamwork, between three different types of players: workers, experts, leaders
  • Systematic problem solving
  • Persistence despite repeated failure
  • Healthy respect for risk
Situation In September 2017, Maria slammed into Puerto Rico where it caused unprecedented damage and took thousands of lives. The scale of the event and the destruction it caused were extreme. Not only was Maria a powerful category four hurricane at landfall, but the storm also travelled across the entirety of the island. Maria was the first major storm to strike Puerto Rico since Georges in 1998, a span of almost twenty years. This meant that elected leaders in office at the time of Maria, as well as first responders and the population at large, had little experience dealing with a hurricane of any real significance.

Difficulty knowing extent and nature of damage: Building situational awareness through adaptation

First, there was high degree of novelty associated with Maria which meant that standard modes of operating were not suited to the task at hand. This led to Mayor Cruz devising and implementing a response strategy that featured a considerable amount of improvisation and adaptation.

Additionally, the storm had knocked out almost all means of communication and Cruz was forced to improvise. They decided to venture out into the streets and observed firsthand the damage caused by Maria and engaged with survivors, who in turn directly informed them of their ordeals and needs. Cruz and her team then had the information they needed to begin providing aid and organizing the city’s relief efforts.

Decentralising the response through improvisation

Being in the streets meant moving away from directing operations in a centralized manner from their office. As city workers converged in the immediate aftermath of the storm, they took on whatever task seemed the most urgent at the time, no matter their background or expertise. This eventually led to the formalization and routinization these improvised response efforts, establishing morning and evening check-in and debrief sessions

Consoling survivors, supporting city employees: Prioritizing empathy

In addition to providing much-needed situational awareness, directly engaging with survivors allowed Cruz to connect in a personal and empathetic way with her constituents, and she frequently found herself consoling them as she travelled through San Juan’s flooded streets. The mayor understood the value of these exchanges for the survivors who had lost so much and were in search of any sign of help from public officials like herself; they had a significant impact on her as well, heavily influencing her actions and decisions regarding the overall response.

Additionally, the mayor also realized the importance of looking out for and supporting her staff. This meant watching for signs of exhaustion and despair, talking to those who seemed to be struggling, and granting them leave so that they could care for themselves and their loved ones and recharge before returning to work.

Outcome This case study portrays the tasks and challenges associated with leadership during a major crisis. Through situational awareness, adaptability, courage and team leadership, Cruz was able to lead through Hurricane Maria without access to normal operations and routine emergency responses.
Key Learning

– Build situational awareness and decentralised control to adapt and improvise to the evolving situation.

– Connect with employees, volunteers and affected people with empathy.

– Manage your wellbeing and your team’s wellbeing.



After reading the above case studies, please complete the activities below: