The global financial crisis has showcased differences in leadership styles. The styles of those charged with dealing with the global financial crisis, from the American President to the finance minister of Iceland, are significantly different.  Many questions come to mind: is one style better than another; what are the common characteristics held by all of them; which style seems to play better in which environment; and many more. 

The story of the financial crisis is not finally told. When it is told sometime in the future it will be a story of leadership success and leadership failure. Those close to the collapse already provide information that several of the faltering institutions planted the seed of their demise in who they appointed to leadership roles. Other stories identify individuals whose organizations have survived because of their courageous and thoughtful leadership.


This may be the most volatile and deep crisis most leaders have faced. From before the Great War organizations and the world have faced deep crises. When observing the leadership behavior of successful crisis leaders, 10 critical characteristics emerge:


  1. Seeing things for what they are. Strong crisis leaders live on the front end of reality. They recognize events and their significance and do not shy away from the consequences of what they see. Intellectual integrity is a key component of their DNA; they think of what is best for the organization, not their own personal gain.

  1. Strategy and detail. They are able to see the big picture. They can see all of the moving parts and understand what is cause and what is effect. They get below the 30,000ft level and can dig deep into detail without being mired in it. They quickly develop a very detailed knowledge of the issues. This ability further enhances their capacity to view the problem realistically.

  1. Multiple options. When they have identified the problems, they are willing to consider multiple approaches to how these may be addressed. Initially, they engage others in brainstorming potential solutions without judgment, even though they may have a preferred solution in mind. They are confident enough to know and accept that their way may not be the best way.

  1. Decisiveness. Taking ownership of the solution means being decisive. When they feel they have listened to the best advice they are willing to make a decision. Strong leaders will use a combination of real-time data along with their “gut”; the wisdom built on years of leadership experience. When they make that decision they know they need to “sell” it to key stakeholders and work tirelessly to ensure organizational resistance does not block the effectiveness of the decision.

  1. Collaboration. Strong leaders take ownership of the problem. They understand, however, that a long-term solution requires the input and involvement of many stakeholders. They identify those individuals and work together towards a solution that most support and most can live with.

  1. Listen to unpopular advice. Unsuccessful leaders listen only to those who agree with them and often encourage one-dimensional thinking. The successful crisis leader seeks out individuals who have a different perspective on an issue. They include individuals with whom they may not agree and whose advice may be contrary to that of their closest advisers.

  1. Calm, courageous and positive. They feel a sense of urgency and remain even tempered. They recognize that an organization, a country or the world is watching them and know that how they present themselves will provide non verbal signals to the audience. They will deliver bad news when they need to and do it in a way that avoids panic and provides a realistic level of hope for the future. Above all, they are courageous enough to make decisions they believe to be the right ones, regardless of whether they are the more popular ones.

  1. Take risk in the face of risk. Crises often bring the leader face-to-face with a set of situations they have not previously seen. There are questions to which they do not know the answers. Gathering contrarian viewpoints from individuals with whom they might not agree, but respect, likely means they may create solutions not previously tried, and outcomes of which may be unknown. If it is the best solution, however, the strong leader is prepared to take the calculated risk.

  1. 80% rule. Leaders certainly want to make the right set of decisions. Strong leaders understand they will not always have all of the information they might like. They know that making an imperfect decision can often be better than making no decision at all. Even if the decision needs to be “fine tuned” for implementation they are comfortable making it.

  1. Prepare to admit mistakes. Courageous leaders who take calculated risks will undoubtedly make mistakes at some point. Deep crises require continuous decision making. The volume of decisions required in multi-faceted crises can almost guarantee that not every decision will be 100% correct. Strong leaders are prepared to admit their mistakes.

Not every leader will have all ten characteristics in equal proportion; some will be stronger in one area than another. However, most leaders who are successful managing through deep crises will posses a majority of these characteristics.


The ten characteristics can provide you with a vehicle for your own personal crisis management audit.  Rather than using it to evaluate someone else in the organization, see things for what they are. Evaluate your own crisis management leadership. If you are in doubt about your own objectivity, get input from others. Most especially, include those with views that differ from your own.