leadership and management

Crisis leader + crisis manager = a critical partnership

April 5, 2019

Critical takeaways

  • Crisis Leaders and Crisis Managers are different roles but both are required for crisis success.
  • Understanding the differences between the two roles – and how they complement each other – will help build a powerful partnership
  • Here are three key distinctions between the two roles to help you select and prepare the right people for these positions.


Kith is a crisis communications and reputation management firm. That means that one of the most important things that we do is work with clients who are in a crisis situation. Dealing with crises requires a combination of crisis management and crisis leadership skills, different but complementary capabilities. Often, these are thought of as one and the same so I wanted to highlight some distinctions that I see between these two roles. Understanding the difference between Crisis Managers and Crisis Leaders will help you to evaluate your teams and consider who is best suited for these different roles. This will help you build the most effective team by having the critical combination of a strong crisis manager and an effective crisis leader.

But before we look at crisis management versus crisis leadership specifically, we should differentiate between these skill-sets more generally.  A simple Google search of ‘management versus leadership’ reveals several interesting articles and I particularly enjoyed these two, one from the Harvard Business Review and one from the HR Management Institute.

However, despite the range of articles, the same points recur. Managers count value, focusing on the inputs and outputs of an organization, while leaders are focused on creating value. Managers focus on the work product, the execution of process and the information flow. Meanwhile, leaders are leading people, showing them the route to the promised land and helping articulate a vision. Managers are focused on their circle of influence, whereas leaders are considering where they can exert their power to lead the organization forward.

However, there are also some specific differences in these roles in a crisis.  I believe that truly effective crisis management will be a combination of EQ and IQ and part of this mix is having both a strong Crisis Manager and a strong Crisis Leader. Sometimes this will be one person, especially in a small organization, but normally the CEO plays the leadership role while someone from communications or perhaps legal will fulfill the management function.

But how do these two roles differ exactly?

Here are the three key characteristics that I believe highlight the differences between these roles.  These differentiations also show how these two roles complement each other to give you a dynamic, effective partnership in a crisis.

Decisions versus execution

Crisis Leaders make decisions that no one else wants to make. That could be the decision to apologize. The decision to recall a high-profile product. The decision to fire key staff members, to call in external investigators or the authorities. These are the very difficult decisions that have huge consequences: the decisions that no one else wants to make.

In parallel to that, Crisis Managers need to make recommendations that no one wants to hear. These managers have the perspective and clarity to see what’s going on, know what needs to get done and they have the confidence to articulate truth to power.  They have the experience and confidence to make recommendations in times of uncertainty based on the best information that they have at that time.

Importantly, both the manager and leader have to remove themselves from the equation and focus on what’s best for the company and those who matter most – not try to satisfy their own egos.  Managers and leaders need to be selfless.

One of the things that we excel at as Kith is our ability to make recommendations that no one wants to hear but need to. We are fortunate to have the experience and pattern recognition that allows us to make sound recommendations but what really gives us the edge is that we also remove our egos from the process. This lets us focus on the facts and the client’s best interests to give them the most appropriate advice possible.

People versus process

The second difference we see between crisis leadership and crisis management is people versus process. Crisis Leaders place a great deal of emphasis on putting the right people into the right roles. They make sure that they’ve got a good Crisis Manager, a confident Head of Communications and a thoughtful General Counsel. They look at the lead of the operational response, their external advisors and maybe even their insurance providers to make sure they have the right team with the right people in the right roles to manage the situation they are confronting.

Crisis Managers, on the other hand, focus on outputs and moving the response forward. Their role is to get out of the boardroom and execute. To tell the world what has happened and what is being done about it.  To fill the vacuum with information. To make sure that all the pieces of the response are knitted together to support the response strategy. To do that, they need to make sure that the right inputs are being fed into the system and that the outputs generated are supporting the response.  

In short, leaders put the right people into the right roles to get the best results. Managers put the right inputs into the system to generate the right results.

Vision versus execution

Lastly, there is a difference in perspective. Crisis Leaders must see the big picture to allow them to chart and stick to an appropriate course out of the crisis. By their very nature, crisis situations are some of the worst days for everyone involved, particularly those at the helm. It is absolutely critical for the leader of the organization to see a way through the crisis and to chart a logical, rational course back to normality.  They need to be able to develop and articulate a clear strategy to success but one that is also sensitive to public expectation, to the concerns of key stakeholders and to those affected.

Meanwhile, the Crisis Manager’s job is to steer the company safety along that course.  Their job is to manage the crew, to navigate around the obstacles that they encounter and to get back on course to allow them to continue to produce the outputs necessary. They have to understand the strategy and know what the final destination is but their focus is on the individual steps towards that destination.

In all instances, leadership and management are different but complementary skills.  Similarly, effective crisis response requires both crisis leadership and crisis management. One without the other can lead to vacuous platitudes that don’t mean anything or an uncoordinated, tactical response without an overall strategy. Ensure that your crisis response has the best chance of success by having both a capable Crisis Leader and Crisis Manager in your organization to give you a powerful combination.


Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.