Leadership in Crisis – Change Leadership Style


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to teach them how to help businesses innovate. 

I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis. Of course this is more relevant than ever today. 

In the previous blog we talked about what happens to an organization in crisis. An organizational crisis occurs when the dynamics are stronger than the cohesion so that the boundaries get breached. 

Dynamics > Cohesion = Crisis

When a boundary gets breached you have to establish a different leadership style. 

In Holland for instance, we have a more or less a democratic leadership style where everyone thinks they have something to say and to decide. In crisis however you need to re-centralize and re-establish the major external boundary. First you need to reset the leadership, then the membership, and then deal with the environment. That’s the order of play in crisis. 

To be able to do that, you have to switch into a directive leadership style. Now there’s a lot of myths about directive leadership styles or autocratic leadership styles. But there is a difference. Autocratic leaders are strictly top-down and believe in absolute leadership, and are based on what we call in TA, the negative Critical Parent locking into the other’s negative Adapted Child. 

The public relations word for an autocratic leader  is charismatic leadership. But actually it’s the same thing as an autocratic leadership style, but with better PR. The autocratic leader is someone who closes all boundaries and creates absolute dependency between leadership and membership.


Good Directive Leadership in Crisis


A good directive leader creates hope, structure and love. 

  1. Hope: A directive leader creates hope in the sense that they create a point beyond the crisis. A directive leader says, “There is hope beyond the crisis and this is where we’re going to go.” Of course you have to deal with the immediate crisis. But the leader has an end point, which is beyond the crisis.
  2. Structure: The directive leader is the holder of the structure. They re-establish those major internal boundaries than the major external boundaries. They manage the cohesion in the leadership. Then the cohesion between members and leaders, and then the relationship with the environment.
  3. Love: By that I mean that they create a sense that everyone belongs together in crisis. A really good directive leader will create a culture of one for all and all for one, during times of crisis. And when people feel they’re in it together, they come up with unusual solutions in which people are beautifully human and compassionate and helpful to each other. 

That’s the type of leadership that we’re looking for in crisis. Of course, there’s also a technical side to that. Technically a directive leader must:

  1. Create short communication lines. Short communication lines means there is immediate and constant communication about what’s going on. The more Adult information you give to all the members of that system, the more you help them take responsibility and accountability for whatever they need to do within the crisis. Autocratic leaders tend to give false or no information during crisis where really good directive leaders give constant, frequent, accurate information because the emphasis is on everyone taking responsibility.
  2. Create short decisional lines. One of the really important things during crisis is that you create a crisis team. The crisis team are the people who are most necessary to deal with that particular crisis. It doesn’t mean that you follow the hierarchy. It means that you involve the people in a very small group who are necessary to deal with that particular crisis and that you give that team direct and executive power during the crisis. 

During this Coronavirus crisis we can see the differences between countries dealing with the Corona crisis. As an organizational consultant I’m fascinated by how they establish leadership during this time. If I compare for in terms of decision making the Netherlands, France, America, and China you see completely different styles.

In the Netherlands, they’ve established this directive, quick decision making crisis team with experts. The experts and politicians are very closely linked, and they haven’t involved people who are usually in the political hierarchy that are not necessary. They give constant and clear Adult information about what’s going on. Everybody knows and can look up who’s ill, where they have to go, what they have to do. 

In Holland, the government has decided to create this autonomy of membership. They’ve decided to put in place regulations and ask for the population to take responsibility. Every time the population doesn’t follow the regulations, they tighten them. So that means that there’s this interplay between members and leaders about accountability. 

It’s very important to establish accountability in a crisis because a crisis team that only creates top-down autocratic leadership, will create dependency. And the more dependent people are, the less innovative they are in finding solutions. 

In Holland, more than in other countries, you see that people find very creative solutions and unusual partnerships. I really believe it’s because the government has decided to do this short directive leadership, with quick decision lines, good communication, and then this interplay of accountability. 

Directive leadership is not the same as autocratic leadership. You need to create hope, love and structure. You need to create short decision making lines and clear Adult communication so that you can establish an interplay of autonomy and accountability.


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Published On: May 1st, 2020By
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