Crisis leadership: A review and future research agenda

Crisis leadership: A review and future research agenda

The Leadership Quarterly

Crisis leadership: A review and future research agenda


Yuen Lam Wu, Bo Shao, Alexander Newman, Gary Schwarz | The Leadership Quarterly


Context can shape leadership behaviors and the mindsets, personal characteristics, and actions of leaders during a crisis can significantly impact organizations and their internal and external stakeholders. As such, it is important to examine the topic of crisis leadership to help guide leaders to better deal with crises.


The authors recomend further research in the following directions


Research direction 1: Leader emotion management in crisis contexts.

What is relatively overlooked is a focus on the emotions of leaders and key stakeholders, particularly the emotion management process through which leaders can mitigate the negative emotions and restore the positive emotions of stakeholders during crises. This overlooked area is surprising, because crises have a heavy emotional toll on both leaders and other organizational stakeholders, and thus, it is important for leaders to gain knowledge regarding how they may effectively and strategically manage negative emotions (e.g., anger, anxiety, fear) that arise during crises.


Research direction 2: A process view of crisis leadership.

Organizational leaders often perform diverse roles in shaping their organizations’ strategic decisions, policies, negotiations, and interactions with different stakeholders (Samimi et al., 2020). During the course of a crisis, the importance of varied leadership roles and leadership processes may change due to the evolving demands of various stakeholders throughout different phases of a crisis. We refer to a pre‐ crisis stage as a period of time from some cues of abnormality that have a potential to result in a crisis to the perceived or declared occurrence of a crisis event. We use the COVID‐19 pandemic as an example of a public health crisis. The pre‐crisis stage for a particular country can be seen as the period of time when a few sporadic infected cases are detected without a clear trend of increasing transmission. An in‐ crisis stage refers to a period of time immediately after the perceived or declared occurrence of a crisis until the highly salient and disruptive impact comes to an end. In the COVID‐19 example, the in‐crisis stage may be seen as starting from the time a health authority (e.g., the World Health Organization or a health authority in a particular country) declared COVID‐19 to be a pandemic until there is a very low number of infected cases. Finally, the post‐crisis stage refers to a period of time when some lingering impact of the crisis still exists but does not pose a major threat to organizations or the public anymore until the situation completely recovers to normal. For the COVID‐19 health crisis, the post‐crisis stage can be seen as the stage at which the virus has been brought under control with only minimal number of infections until the virus has been completely eradicated. Despite these definitions and examples, we acknowledge that it is challenging to draw clear lines between the three stages.


Research direction 3: Leadership across crisis contexts

Future research may examine whether there are certain leader psychological and behavioral responses (meta‐cluster 1) or certain characteristics of strategic leadership (meta‐cluster 2) that constitute effective crisis leadership and that generally predict positive outcomes across crisis contexts, or if these psychological and behavioral responses and strategic leadership are more effective in specific stages and/or types of crisis situations. Examining leader responses or strategic leadership in different types of crisis contexts is important, because it helps researchers and organizational leaders identify the most effective crisis response strategies and leadership practices to better handle different crises, understand the stakeholder groups that are most vulnerable to specific crises, and enact optimal resource allocation to prepare for and resolve the crisis.


Research direction 4: An evolutionary perspective to crisis leadership

What is missing is an evolutionary perspective to understand the role of gender and other physical attributes in explaining leadership preference and selection around times of crisis. We also see opportunities for investigating whether perceptions and evaluations of leaders based on leader physical attributes may differ across contexts. For instance, depending on the unique features and demands posed by different crisis contexts, followers may place different weights on the distinct physical traits of leaders which influence their preferences and selection of leaders. In crisis situations, where limited resources can be allocated such as in wars, people may prefer leaders whose physical attributes signal their ability and strength to protect resources, whereas in other crises situations such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters, leader physical attributes associated with qualities such as higher empathetic concern and willingness to care for others may be prioritized when people evaluate and select their leaders.


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