Why crisis leadership isn’t the same as crisis management (It’s way more)

October 6, 2021

A big mistake we see everywhere is thinking that experience in a role or time-served automatically makes you a leader in that space. This thinking mistakes the fundamental difference between management and leadership: one is focused on what needs to be done, whereas the other is more concerned with the why.

How versus Why

In a crisis context, this is easier to understand if you contrast crisis management with crisis leadership.

Crisis management is about the tactics and the ‘how.’

The crisis manager’s primary goal is to execute the tasks they’ve been set as efficiently as possible. 

Crisis leadership is about the strategy and the ‘why.’ 

In contrast, the crisis leader is focused on the strategic vision of where the organization needs to go and how it can move forward.

I want to stress that you need both components to succeed in a crisis – you need a strategy and a way to execute it successfully – but the experience fallacy assumes that a high level of competence in a field also makes you a leader. 

The truth is that experience makes you a better subject matter expert (SME) – and therefore a better crisis manager – but nothing more. It doesn’t automatically make you a leader.

For that, you need to change your mindset.

A Different Mindset

The best way I’ve found to describe this shift is that you are moving from a ‘serve and respond’ mindset to a ‘lead and challenge’ outlook, a paradigm I’ve adopted from my friend Blair Enns. 

For example, serve and respond means receiving a list of tasks from leadership and diligently working through them. Whereas lead and challenge would mean pushing back on assumptions and asking questions to ensure that the tasks you are setting will truly help solve the problem.

Unfortunately, a lead and challenge mindset must be cultivated intentionally; it’s not a product of more subject-matter knowledge. A mindset shift is something that requires deliberate effort.

Leading while Managing

However, it’s important to note that it probably isn’t an instant switch from manager to leader, even when you’ve cultivated the right mindset. Junior leaders in any field will find themselves having to switch between their role as an SME tasked with execution (serve and respond) and a member of the decision-making team (lead and challenge). 

For crisis communications managers, it’s no different. 

That means that you have to switch between being a crisis manager with your team and a crisis leader with senior leadership. This switching makes it challenging to maintain the proper focus, so it is essential to take a movement and check in with yourself to ask, ‘which role am I in now?’

I have one final thought I want to share. 

Being the Calm Center

I’m often asked what good crisis leadership looks like. I could highlight lots of small things but, for me, the one thing that all great leaders exhibit is calm. 

Being calm allows you to think and creates confidence in everyone around you. There’s a big difference between moving smartly and panicking. The more chaotic things become, the more you need to slow down. Overall, your want to be that calm, still point in the middle of the storm. 

But that will only come when you make the shift to adopt a lead and challenge mindset and become a crisis leader, not just a more experienced communicator.


Photo by Alexei Maridashvili on Unsplash

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.