Skip to main content

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”

-John F. Kennedy




1 The Bigger the Difficulty.  The Bigger the Opportunity.

 The disruption of a crisis is a moment of truth for you as a leader, your team, and your organization, exposing all your strength and weaknesses. It is your best chance for big change that can be impossible in rosier times and should be the best thing that could ever happen to you.   We believe the bigger the difficulty, the bigger the opportunity.

Crisis shows you who the real leaders are in your organization for you will see their behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses in technicolor.  Recognize, reward, and promote them fast.   Crisis tests your culture and will focus and align your team like nothing else. It can also prompt you to take the kind of bold risks that bring big benefits down the road.

Most leaders freeze or flail when the world shakes. If instead you embrace that crisis is a gift and the time to extend your extreme competitive advantages, you will head into adversity willing to lead the tough but necessary changes to capture opportunity. That makes all the difference between failure, survival—or emerging stronger.


2 Build a Culture of Leaders and They Will Beat the Storm

Winning companies win because they have good leaders who nurture the development of other leaders at all levels of the organization.

~ Noel Tichy

 From day one, build a culture of leadership in your organization that rewards moral courage, aligns around a common set of values, and teaches every team member that you can lead from anywhere.

Good companies can become great and great organizations can extend their lead in the heat of crisis. Rarely does a mediocre company rise high in times of challenge. You need to go into the headwinds of turbulence with the trust and alignment of your team, the courage to make tough decisions fast, the wisdom to listen and the guts to lead. You don’t get all that overnight in a storm. You get it from years of diligent work.

It starts with defining a common set of values—your organization’s soul—and aligning your team around them. Build a culture that prepares your team to act instead of reacting.  Emotional maturity in your leaders is key – is it just about them as individuals or are they committed to something bigger?   Expect open and courageous communication and risk taking from your leaders.  Be open, vulnerable and ask for help.   Teach that you can lead from anywhere—in any place and at any level of the organization. Strong leaders make strong organizations and communities, so make it your number-one job every day to develop them.


A vital team characteristic is the ability to overcome adversity. Any team acquires experience and endurance as it learns to fight back. This in turn builds the kind of character which seldom crumbles at a time of crisis or testing.  

~ Tom Landry


3 Promote Leaders Who Rise and  Sideline Those Who Get Stuck Builds a Stronger Team

 Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. —Publilius Syrus

 In a crisis, some leaders get stuck and flounder.  You will clearly see paralysis and it is critical to root out.  By the same token, some leaders will excel—recognize, promote, and hold them up as heroes.


Expect to come out of a crisis with a different leadership team than you had when you went in. Crisis accelerates your leadership development a hundredfold—but only if you’re willing to make tough decisions.

When it all hits the fan, we all inevitably go through SARA—the Shock, Anger, Rejection and Acceptance of dealing with change and crisis.

SARA will eat some of your people alive. They’ll flail and become obstacles—even leaders who may have been your stars in ordinary times. Sideline or remove them or prepare to be dragged down. Others will excel, and by promoting them fast, you send a strong signal to the rest of the organization that you’ll quickly recognize and position those who exemplify your values and deliver results.  You can create an entitled organization or a performance organization.


Earn your leadership every day.

~ Michael Jordan


4 Be On Your Toes To Seize Every Opportunity

Don’t think small and expect to have a big life.

~ Marianne Williamson

Deal with the hot issues first—don’t delay tough decisions. It will be your moment of truth.  Be nimble, take risks and expect mistakes. Perfection can kill you. Choose clarity over certainty.


Have you ever tried to go fast and far walking on your heels? You can’t. You will physically feel the buoyancy and lift when you are on your toes.   A leader must be a decision maker. In a crisis, any decision is better than inaction, even a wrong decision.

Perfection and process are your enemies when disaster hits. Great leaders encourage risk-taking and expect mistakes from their leadership team. Admit where you were wrong, share it, learn from it—and then reassess and course-correct.

Always deal with the tough stuff first—your hottest issues. That means getting laser-focused on your top people, top product or program, and top vendor or partner. Don’t try to wait it out or expect things to cool down. They’ll only get harder to solve and can do irreparable damage.



5 Set Goals.  Align Team.  Get a Plan.

 A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

~ George S. Patton

Set goals for your organization and each top leader and then measure like crazy.  Then get a plan fast.  Know it will change.  Meet every week with every leader reporting on results and hot issues.  Your plan will be imperfect, but keep it rooted in the core values of your organization and your organization will move forward.


When crisis strikes, most people in your organization will feel adrift. Some will choose to ignore reality, denying that their world has changed—and that they must change as well.

The best thing you can do to right the ship and get folks rowing in the same direction is to set goals and get a plan you can measure—fast. A plan gives people direction and stability in the midst of uncertainty, an anchor to hold on to when crisis hits, and SARA comes for her dance.

Make sure your goals are clear and people are committed to them. Most important, simplify the goals and give them one goal at a time.  Otherwise, you lose precious time, effort, money, and your head-start on the competition.   It won’t be perfect. You’ll make mistakes. New information will come in by the hour and force you to constantly reassess. You’ll never have all the facts you want, but if you trust your gut, you’ll have all the facts you need.

Make a game plan and stick to it.  Unless it’s not working.

~ Yogi Berra


6 Turn a Crisis Into Your Extreme Competitive Advantages

 An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.

~ Jack Welch

 The best time to extend your lead over the competition In the midst of a crisis or turbulence.   Zero in on what you do best—your Extreme Competitive Advantages. These are your areas of dominance so strong and advanced it would take your competitors at least three years to replicate them.


When the waves are crashing all about, most of your competitors will thrash about. Keep your eyes on the horizon and the opportunities the roiling sea of change inevitably brings by staying focused on the things that make your company the best. With those Extreme Competitive Advantages in your sights, create clear, measurable strategies to set yourself 3-5 years ahead of your competition. With that big win in sight, you’ll find it easier to align the organization and motivate your people.


Aim to Come out Stronger.  Don’t Just Survive.

 Disasters will always come and go, leaving their victims either completely broken or steeled and seasoned and better able to face the next crop of challenges that may occur.

~ Nelson Mandela

 If all you’ve done is scrape by in a crisis, you’ve missed the window to seize opportunity and emerge stronger. You aren’t striving to go back to the way things were. You’re embracing the chance to evolve and get better.


Crisis leadership isn’t about survival. Now is the moment to move your best leaders forward, double-down on your Extreme Competitive Advantages, chart a course and push forward. It’s the difference between treading water or swimming for the shore.

Complacency is poison to crisis leadership. Like an aggressive competitor yapping at your heels, crisis is a call to push forward. Let go of the idea of going back to “normal” and embrace the uncertainty of charting a new course.

8 Tell the Truth.  Transparency is Key to Building A Team.

The absolute heart of loyalty is to value those people who tell you the truth, not just those people who tell you what you want to hear. In fact, you should value them most. Because they have paid you the compliment of leveling with you and assuming you can handle it.

~ Pat Summitt

Trust your team with the truth—they’re desperate for the facts. You can win or lose their trust.  Lack of transparency will damage your credibility, which will be very difficult to repair.   Know your key audiences – associates, customers and vendors and treat them all like adults.   Overcommunicate about the goals, plan, results, and mistakes. Ask for help and feedback at every level of your organization.

When a crisis hits, people scramble for information. If they don’t get the facts from you, they’ll make assumptions and get distracted by hype and you’ll lose productivity—fast.

Get your own facts from those closest to the situation and pass them right on to your team—both the good and the ugly. Honesty about bad news raises your credibility. Communicate a lot, as often as daily or twice a day. If you feel like a broken record, you’re doing a great job.

Your credibility also soars when you ask for help. A strong leader listens to their people because they know the brainpower is always in the organization. Make it a habit to ask people at every level for feedback, including your best clients or customers, and not just in times of difficulty.

The more specific your questions, the better the information you’ll get. Don’t dodge the tough stuff. You need to have the guts to listen, be vulnerable, admit mistakes and put good recommendations into action no matter who made them. Always reward open and courageous communication.

I believe one of the requirements of good leadership is the ability to listen – really listen – to those in your organization. An effective leader is very good at listening, and it’s difficult to listen when you are talking.

~ John Wooden


9 Stop What Doesn’t Work and Go Like Hell At What Does

 If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.

~ Grace Hopper

Now is the time to look at what’s working and what’s not in black-and-white. Stay true to your mission, vision and values and have the guts to call the hard stops and the wisdom to start something new.


There’s no better time to innovate than during a crisis, but that window of change is only open for a short time, so push as much through it as you can. It can be hard to say no to what’s comfortable and familiar even in good times. In bad times, it’s absolutely critical.

Ask each member of your leadership team to give you two “stops” and two “starts”—old things you should ditch and new ideas to run with. Make decisions fast on what to drop and what to go hard at, keeping in mind that there’s a big difference between innovating and firing scattershot. Many leaders and organizations fail because they try to become something they’re not or do something they can’t.

Set your metrics early.  Reassess regularly so you can see clearly what works and what doesn’t. Admit your mistakes and celebrate your wins.

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

~ Steve Jobs


10 Learn Your Lessons and Get Ready Next Time

 Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. —John F. Kennedy

We guarantee at some point your organization is going to face some turbulence, and crisis is a great teacher. In today’s world we are more vulnerable to crisis, and it is only increasing.   Learn your lessons.  Know what worked and what didn’t. You’ll need it for next time—and there will always be a ‘next time’.


For five decades, our international adventure travel businesses, Overseas Adventure Travel and Grand Circle Corporation have battled massively disruptive world events time and again. Early on in that journey, we created A Crisis Handbook.   The first page is our company’s vision, mission, and values.   It was an upfront reminder that in tough times, especially in tough times, you must always stay true to yourself.   The next pages of the plan named who is on the Crisis Team and what is their role.  It detailed what should happen in the first minutes, the 1st hour, the first day.  It even listed the room the team would meet in.   Everyone is clear on their roles, where they need to be and when.    We also keep “The List”—a catalog of every disaster we weathered, how we responded, what worked, what didn’t—and what we learned.

Those lessons are now these Ten Keys to Leading Through Crisis. We’ve taught these Ten Keys to every member of our leadership team and to leaders from hundreds of other companies and nonprofits through Pinnacle Leadership & Team Development at Alnoba in Kensington, NH, where daring leaders change the world.  Set on 600 acres of woods, fields, and ponds, Alnoba provides a unique place to develop leaders and build stronger teams.   Today, we are the leader in New England serving nonprofit organizations.  Since 1993 have helped leaders from 70 countries and more than 100 teams.

These Ten Keys have helped organizations from across the globe tackle tough change, build stronger teams and lead through the worst the world can throw at us.

Maybe your organization isn’t vulnerable to tornadoes and earthquakes and global pandemics the way that ours is, but we guarantee that at some point, you’re going to face some turbulence. The winners will be those who follow these Ten Keys and who recognize a crisis as gift and their “moment of truth” and embrace the lessons it has to teach you.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

~ Mahatma Gandhi