About the Crisis Leadership Forum

To better understand the leadership dimensions of crisis situations, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a forum with formal and emergent leaders who played a role in Hurricane Katrina. We overlaid this conversation between crisis leaders with the perspectives of discussants with expertise in disaster, terrorism, public health, and leadership. This blog site is intended to continue this conversation.

To read the report on the Crisis Leadership Forum, please click here.

To read CCL's Leading Effectively newsletter on the Forum, please click here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

One of three ‘inevitables’. Crisis leadership in practice

By Kinga A Komorowska
MBA Student at the University of Strathclyde
Common wisdom and many research studies have proved there are three inevitable things in life: death, taxes and crises. Having no capacity to deliberate death & tax issues, I would like to share a few reflections on leading under storms. These are based on the survey (N=141) I have conducted for my MBA project (Strathclyde Business School) in January 2009.

To the point: on the basis of the extensive literature review, I identified six hypotheses to be tested by the survey:

Hypothesis 1. Transformational leadership is the highly correlated with company performance during the crisis. I expected the transformational leaders to be the kind of leaders described by Klann (2003): being ready for anything, being keen on crisis to test their effectiveness and, finally, being able to ‘turn the chaos of a crisis into the promise of opportunity’. The finding that transformational leaders are able to influence only their performance and, practically, have no impact on company performance under crisis was highly disappointing.

As ‘charismatic attributes are at the heart of the transformational leader’ (Merolla et al. 2007), I expected by charismatic leaders to have even stronger impact on company performance than transformational leaders. Therefore, my Hypothesis 4 was that the charismatic leaders can increase company performance during a crisis. I found the only charisma that is important in crisis is the one presented during through time. If the leader was charismatic on a day-to-day basis but for some reasons, for example due to high stress level and inability to cope with it, changed his leadership style, the benefit of his charm would disperse.

Hypothesis 2. Leadership style does not change during crisis – it just become more expressive. I would say this was confirmed by my research although the results of validity tests were mixed. The direction of the shift was the biggest astonishment for me. I expected the number of transformational leaders to increase. Yet, the move towards more firm and less partnering style of leadership is visible during crisis.

Hypothesis 3. Leaders who perceived themselves charismatic would prefer ‘mental toughness’ as a major stress copying mechanism. I classified the following behaviours as the mental toughness: self-confidence, being optimistic, never-give-up approach, ‘take one day at time’, you-can-do-it approach, determination to succeed and ‘I always win’ strategy. This hypothesis was confirmed in my survey but work-related solutions (working even harder than during non-crisis time, crisis plan preparation, motivation from previous crisis-experience) were just slightly less popular among respondents.

Hypothesis 5. Performance depends on the stress level: the higher crisis level, the lower assessment of participants’ performance, as well as their company performance. My research proved the usefulness of the Yerkes Dodson model of arousal tension (Halverson et al. 2004): low levels of arousal stress can be beneficial for personal performance. As far as company performance is concerned, the relation is more linear: the stronger the stress, the lesser the performance.

Hypothesis 6. Stress coping mechanisms are not related to the leadership style expressed by leaders in crisis. Overall, there are no correlations with the mental toughness being the only exception. On the more detail (stress-mitigating behaviour) level, seeking external (but not professional) support was by far the most popular activity if under stress.

To sum up, the most general observation I have is the literature is so diverse and the opinions are so wide-ranging and at variance with each other that anyone can find both supporting and contradicting citations for any single issues related to crisis leadership. Any new research can bring evidences to defend some earlier findings but also to oppose them.

On the other hand, my MBA project has clarified my point of view on the debate on leaders being born or made: the crisis leaders are made! No doubts you have to have certain traits but this research proved the more experience in crisis, the better performance. You have to go through this hell to become a crisis leader!

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