Leading in a crisis: Organisational resilience in mega-crises

Stock market crashing during Covid-19
  • Published Date: 02 April 2020

By Arjen Boin (Leiden University), Fredrik Bynander (Swedish Defense University), Eric Stern (State University of New York at Albany), Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht University)

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a mega-crisis, and will rapidly overwhelm organisations and cause disruption for extended periods of time, similar to the Japanese tsunami in 2011 or the USA’s Hurricane Katrina in 2006, except on a global scale.

During a major disruptive event like this, it is important to prevent partial or complete breakdowns of the people, organisations and networks involved in response and recovery efforts.

Extraordinary demands are placed on these organisations when a mega-crisis hits. These demands are difficult enough to manage in “sudden impact” crises of short duration (“sprints”). They are even more challenging with regard to cascading, long-duration crises with multiple peaks (“marathons”).

The response to COVID-19 requires organisations to perform intense sprints while running a marathon.

Effective mega-crisis responses require more than just the capacity to respond reliably to peak pressures and messy circumstances. What organisations need to develop is the capacity to sustain this reliability over a long period of time, even when key staff and resources are impacted.

Sustainable performance is in part a function of robust preparation, but primarily the result of resilience-in-the-doing: the capacity to bounce back, develop workarounds to absorb losses and shortages, continuously adapt to evolving conditions and emerging feedback, and deal methodically with the sequence of problems that will inevitably arise along the way.

How can government agencies and other organisations display resilience in the face of a mega-crisis like COVID-19? We identify three types of resilience that government and other organisations should cultivate: personal, institutional and post-crisis resilience.

1. Personal resilience: organising capacity to cope

Even in “sudden-impact” crises of short duration, stress-monitoring is critical. Personnel tends to be highly motivated in crises and want to be engaged and involved. Many will push—and even exceed—their limits by pressing on, often in trying circumstances and without the benefit of proper staffing, and satisfactory levels of basic necessities (food, exercise, rest). Ministers, top executives, managers of critical resources and operations can feel they need to “be there” 24/7.

This is dangerous thinking. The history of crisis management is rife with examples of leaders who pushed themselves beyond their limits and demonstrated poor judgment or an inability to perform when they were most needed.

Adopt good practices to mitigate underperformance, including:

  • sustainable planning for multiple shifts
  • orderly transfers of command authority and other key responsibilities
  • maintenance of situational awareness after the relief of leaders and staff.

Mega-crises create stress-inducing conflicts for staff at all levels, between personal safety (e.g. for health care workers who are in the COVID-19 risk groups), family loyalty, professional duty and organisational demands. Failure to address these issues can heighten stress and erode organisational capability when it is needed most.

Social distancing and isolation can also have a corrosive effect on personal psychological coping capacity, and, by extension, organisational coping capacity. Organisations should be proactive regarding stress reduction efforts for their people (e.g. child or elder care, food provision, personal transportation, opportunities to engage with loved ones), particularly those in mission-critical roles. Crisis leaders must ensure that crisis workers at all levels are informed about, monitor and manage stress levels effectively. Leaders should be on the lookout for signs of excessive psychological stress as well as physical symptoms in co-workers, including other leaders, and intervene when needed.

Recommendation: Leaders should lead by example: take care of themselves, maintain healthy routines, and support employees who are on the edge.

2. Institutional resilience: organising reliability

A complex and dynamic crisis like COVID-19 relies on many critical groups and organisations to play their parts in a concerted and sustained manner. Resilient organising should be an overriding principle for all (not just for the specialised emergency services). Research into high-reliability organisations has unearthed some key lessons:

  • Those who know best in an organisation should be enabled to inform strategic decisions about crisis management, business continuity and adaptation of organisational processes. The most relevant experts are often situated well below the senior executive team. These experts must be identified and their voices amplified through the organisational layers so that they can be properly supported and heard by leadership.
  • Resist the temptation to centralise authority and fall back on command-and-control approaches. Centralisation will isolate the centre from the professional judgment and frontline experience from those who know best. It will slow down decision making. It may even overwhelm the centre with demands and concerns they cannot do anything about. The centre should seek to support participating institutions, helping to transfer lessons (best practices) across jurisdictions. Respect for institutional competence and the trying conditions under which institutions must perform is key to the sustained functioning of the response network.
  • Give license to act inefficiently in order to maintain effectiveness. In times of major crises, doing what it takes to get the job done should take precedence over the principle of ‘doing more with less’ that so often dominates organisational practice. Resilient organising entails the tolerance of redundant systems, stockpiling of resources, and deliberate granting of overlapping mandates. In other words: organised inefficiency, so that the capacity for continued effectiveness under extreme circumstances is harnessed.

These principles may appear “messy” and “loose” compared to a more centralised, military-style command-and-control model. But these principles enhance the speed and quality of organisational improvisation and problem-solving in dynamic situations. The lesson of organisational crisis research is that smart improvisation and critical innovation on the fly are most likely to emerge from trusting those with the most knowledge and experience to ply their trade.

Recommendation: Executives and managers should resist the temptation to micromanage operations. Instead, they should trust, support and enable the people who are keeping critical operations going, identifying and empowering pockets of critical innovation within the organisation.

3. Post-crisis resilience: organising strategic agility

The stage is set for the post-crisis phase as soon as some measure of control and normalisation emerge: communities assess what has happened to them, accountabilities are established, lessons are being learned, and the institutional status quo starts to be renegotiated.

As processes of accountability kick in (usually sooner rather than later in complex mega-crises), the typical route is to provide a rigorous account of the solutions to the operational-technical problems faced. In most countries, the onset of COVID-19 has triggered intrusive social distancing, a surge in capacity to prepare for a flood of ICU patients, and frantic efforts to obtain critical resources that had not been stockpiled. Massive stimulus packages are in progress, designed to rescue vital business sectors and support the population. There will be intense investigation and debate about whether these measures were appropriate, proportional, timely and well-implemented.

But learning (and thus resilience) also needs to encompass the crisis response at the strategic level of policy and politics, an area where developing systems of accounting is harder. Despite this, vital questions need to be asked:

  • How and on what basis did governments and other actors construct and calibrate the response and adapt to set-backs regarding disease prevention and control operations?
  • Which messages were devised to influence the behavior of businesses and citizens?
  • How and to what extent were they designed for maximum impact while causing minimal harm to other sectors and vital concerns?

These questions emerge in a political context that is easily provoked. The crisis responses in many democratic countries are under fire—as well as disinformation attack – from authoritarian-minded forces at home and abroad. Promoting and preserving the comparative advantages of open and welfare-oriented societies will be a critical task moving forward.

Societal resilience benefits from public trust in institutions. As the mega-crisis marathon continues, it is therefore critical to maintain a long-term perspective. Accountability processes must be managed with care and candour. Not only what is being done when, but how and why key decisions are made should be documented in detail.

Recommendation: Leaders should avoid blaming and credit-claiming. Instead, they should go to bat for the implementation of hard-earned insights and hard-learned lessons, and signal that not just technical (structures, procedures, resources) but adaptive (beliefs, norms, values) change will be necessary to do better in tackling future mega-crises.

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This article is part of ANZSOG’s Leading in a crisis series which features the best research and thinking on crisis leadership as part of ANZSOG’s mission to lift the quality of government in Australia and New Zealand.

Public managers are dealing with a fast-changing global crisis and being forced to make difficult choices based on limited information.

The series explores crisis management, leadership and communications, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will put global expertise in the hands of public managers in Australia and New Zealand.

Find out more about ANZSOG’s Leadership in a crisis series webpage.


Further reading

Boin, A., Brown, C., & Richardson, J. A. (2019). Managing Hurricane Katrina: Lessons from a Megacrisis. LSU Press.

Boin, A., Helsloot, I, Jabobs, B. and Comfort, L.K. (eds)(2012) Mega-Crises: Understanding the Prospects, Nature, Characteristics and Effects of Cataclysmic Events. Springfield: Charles C Thomas.

Boin, A., McConnell, A. and ’t Hart, P. (eds)(2008), Governing After Crises: The Politics of Investigation, Acountability, and Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boin, A., & Van Eeten, M. J. (2013). The resilient organization. Public Management Review, 15(3), 429-445.

Flin, R. H. (1996). Sitting in the Hot Seat: Leaders and Teams for Critical Incident Management. Chichester: Wiley.

Weick, K and Sutcliffe, K. (2010) Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity. The University of Michigan Press.


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