Our News

The 7 characteristics of a good crisis leader - interview with Harm Tunteler and Diederik van den Biggelaar

October 5, 2020

Leadership in times of crisis, what do you need to be able to do? And who do you have to be? You mustn't become rigid, says one expert. You have to be able to keep an eye on the money, says another. You have to be able to empathize, improvise, discuss and delegate.


The 7 characteristics of a good crisis leader
Illustrations/animations Timber Sommerdijk


Port-au-Prince lies in ruins. Hundreds of seriously injured people are wailing in front of the fence surrounding the parking lot where Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has set up an emergency clinic. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed between 100,000 and 200,000 people, and injured some 150,000.

"Our only surgeon in that emergency clinic was far from being able to treat everyone," says Karline Kleijer (45), who was on the ground within 24 hours to lead MSF's aid efforts. "The crisis was extreme."

Kleijer, who started working in the logistics department of MSF in her twenties, has to fly more surgeons and operating equipment into the country as soon as possible. At the same time, she is taking a second step: arranging tents, water and sanitary facilities for the approximately one and a half million Haitians who have become homeless. "We also had to find sleeping places for our own staff. Including the local forces who had lost their homes."

What does it take to lead in a crisis situation? The coronapandemic has made this question relevant not only to people like Kleijer, who as head of the emergency aid department of MSF is now involved in just about every major emergency in the world, but to almost everyone who manages people. These are turbulent times for many, from top executives at multinationals to local hospitality entrepreneurs, from hospital directors to shop owners.

What skills are important to learn or improve? Is crisis-resilience innate or acquired? And what should you look for when selecting people to manage under high pressure? NRC spoke with experts and experts by experience and discovered seven characteristics of a good crisis leader.

1. Solution-focused

Not everyone is born to lead in a crisis. People can learn a lot, but part of it is character. So says Harm Tunteler (65), director of JBR Interim Executives in Zeist. His agency places a permanent pool of interim executives at companies in crisis, among others. "For our team, we naturally look at substantive knowledge, at work experience. But we also look for more innate qualities, such as empathy," says Tunteler.

Staying upright under pressure and motivating the rest of an organisation in difficult times "has to be part of you", says Tunteler. After top positions at companies including Sara Lee and Smit & Dorlas Koffiebranders, he himself worked at various companies as an 'interim Cro'. That stands for chief restructuring officer. He was at V&D, for instance, in the year before the department store chain went bankrupt. "Not everyone can handle the stress. That's not a problem either. Say you have short legs. Then you shouldn't become a high jumper."

Kleijer of Doctors without Borders also selects the people she sends on emergency missions partly on the basis of character. "It has to be someone who always looks for solutions, no matter how big the problems are. Someone for whom the glass is not even half full, but almost full. And who at the same time has both feet on the ground, faces reality."

As an example, Kleijer cites the camps of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. When the refugee crisis, which is still ongoing, arose in 2017, there was initially not enough water for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people from neighboring Myanmar. "Water was priority number one. But if that doesn't work immediately, then you have to look at what can. Like distributing blankets and digging good, deep latrines. You can't let people become rigid, you have to keep taking action."

2. Tried and tested

Even more important than character is experience with a variety of challenging situations, says Diederik van den Biggelaar (65). His agency Mandaat in Vreeland, which recently merged with the aforementioned JBR, places interim managers with ailing companies. Often at the request of the bank, after they have sent the company to the special administration department. In short, the bank's problem children. Van den Biggelaar: "Our interim managers have a one-day induction period. On day two he or she already has to move on to action. That is only possible if you have so much experience that you can see through problems quickly."

But what if executives do not have that kind of broad experience? With his communications agency, Peter Smit(59) organizes simulations for clients including listed companies and large multinationals. In such simulations, top executives and managers of large and small teams are exposed to unexpected situations. Smit: "We teach people the processes you need to follow if a crisis breaks out. There are thousands of crises imaginable, from a toxic product to an explosion at a factory, from accounting fraud to political unrest abroad. But regardless of the crisis, there are set steps to follow."

Experience helps to reduce a complex situation to a simple level. And to communicate that, internally and externally. "If you don't know everything yet - which is often the case in a crisis - communicate that. If you can't say much about the content yet, talk about the process. For example: at this moment we know that a factory has exploded. We are now investigating what happened. At time x you will be told what we know at that moment."

3. Visionary

Too busy putting out the fire to think about the future? That is a big mistake, says head of emergency aid Kleijer of MSF. Especially during a crisis, it is important for leaders to have a vision. And that they share that dot on the horizon with all team members. Why? "The only way that everyone can get the most out of it is if people come up with their own solutions. By having a vision, your team knows where you want to go. They can then usually take the intermediate steps independently."

A leader without a vision will find that subordinates do not make decisions. They knock on the door of 'the boss' for everything. "The leader becomes a funnel where the process gets stuck," Kleijer warns. A significant part of her current work therefore consists of consulting with managers on the spot about the outcomes they want to achieve in a crisis.

Do not be afraid to repeat the vision over and over again, especially if you need to adjust it in the interim - which is more often than not necessary during a crisis. Kleijer: "Be explicit. Send e-mails, write your vision on whiteboards on the wall. Call the key figures in your organisation. Repeat it. In a difficult situation people have to deal with a lot. Often it does not stick immediately."

4. Team player

Is teamwork something for the good times, when everyone can have their say in peace? Does a crisis require an authoritarian leader? No. The bigger the challenge, the more important it is to release as much brainpower and focused action as possible within an organisation, according to the interviewees.

But, organise that tightly, says communication consultant Smit. During his training courses, he asks organisations to form a small core team of leaders who take the decisions. They bring in knowledge from the rest of the organisation. Smit: "A crisis team contains the chairman of the board, someone who primarily focuses on communication with the outside world and someone who organises things internally. There is also someone from the legal department. The core team brings in experts from the rest of the organisation with specific knowledge of the problem." A common mistake is that too many colleagues participate in crisis consultations. Smit: "Of course people give their opinion if the boss asks for it. But the more people there are, the more opinions there are, and some of those people will just say anything."

An even bigger mistake the crisis trainer sees leaders making is trying to solve a problem on their own: "Sometimes out of shame about a mistake. But often it is out of good will. They don't want the rest of the organisation to suffer. But with more people you know more than on your own."

5. Decisive

As a leader, you have to have the courage to make decisions. Even if you don't have all the information at your disposal. By definition, a crisis involves unpredictability. How do you do that?

Tunteler of JBR Interim Executives advises to trust your gut feeling. Where it helps that a gut feeling is fueled by years of experience - characteristic 2 - and if you ask others about their feelings as well - characteristic 4.

"Look, if you have all the necessary information neatly lined up, anyone can make the decision," says Tunteler. "But in practice, that's rarely the case. The leader must have the courage to cut the Gordian knot. If a group of people gets lost in the desert, someone has to say: there is an oasis. If not, everyone dies."

6. Financially literate

Without money, everything stops - especially if the coronasun is phased out. A leader in times of crisis must keep a close eye on finances, whether or not assisted by a right-hand man who follows the figures. This is what Van den Biggelaar of Mandaat says, who was himself a crisis director at a metal company. His interim directors are constantly helping companies that are on the verge of bankruptcy.

Read also the interview with Daphne de Kluis, board member ABN Amro: 'There will be companies that do not survive this crisis'.
"Especially entrepreneurs in the SME sector often ignore how bad their business is," says Van den Biggelaar. "That's not surprising. The company is their baby. All these years they have sold a shiny story to the outside world and to the staff about how successful the place is."

It is up to the interim manager - or an incumbent leader who opens his or her eyes - to quickly take stock of the situation. Van den Biggelaar: "How often does it turn out that a company will no longer be able to pay its salaries in two weeks' time? Then you have to quickly talk to your creditors about postponement. And at the same time rake in plenty of money from your debtors."

7. Sample figure

Our behaviour is even more contagious than Covid-19." Those words of the American leadership expert Michael Hyatt agree with emergency manager Kleijer, who still travels from Amsterdam to disaster areas. "As a leader you must always set a good example. Your actions are followed much more strongly than your words."

This applies not only to upholding values and standards and dealing carefully with the resources of the organisation, but also to taking a rest. Especially in a crisis, this is crucial, says Kleijer: "If you do not prioritize recovery, neither does your team. In the long run that is untenable."

In Haiti, she deliberately sat down on the couch with a book after a week. Kleijer: "You people should not start thinking that they have to be heroes without feeling."



NRC 02102020

Written by Ykje Vriesinga

Illustrations/animations Timber Sommerdijk