Who should take charge in an emergency

Who should take charge in an emergency? One can have the best CxO, who knows his people, directs budgets flawlessly, manages services, etc. He may know his business like the back of his hand. But then it happens: a crisis (fire, bomb threat, explosion, blackout, etc.) suddenly occurs and he freezes. He is the first to exhibit flight behavior. Do you then have a process for having the right man in the right place? The person in charge, is he the right person? Has he been identified in the business continuity plans (BCPs), and does he know this? Has he had the right training (more than sandbox training)? Does he see the opportunities? And is a capable backup provided for him?In this contribution, I write my own opinion, not that of any organization.
Author: Manu Steens

The problem that arises

The problem that arises is that psychological and social effects interfere with the situation and plans. And this can take place down to the level of one’s own family situation. Is he more needed at home than in the organization? Is even then a single backup sufficient? And are backups needed for all members of the crisis management team (CMT) and crisis communication team (CCT)?

A first indicator

A first indicator is having experience with past incidents and the behavior involved. So before you appoint people, you must have a method for selecting them. But even with the best selection procedures, it remains unpredictable how people will react in the real situation of a calamity. Unless you have already seen them in calamities….

There are two important issues here.

First you break up the responsibilities into domains such as safety, security, communications, ICT, housing,… etc. And you look for at least two people per domain. With a first person in charge and his backup. Furthermore, you make sure the responsibilities overlap if one of the responsibilities cannot be filled at the appropriate time by the first person or his backup. Some logic in this can’t hurt, e.g. safety vs security, legal support and procurement, and CMT vs CCT.

Second, it is an important matter to work with people who really want this responsibility. Do not allow Chinese volunteers. That would be bad people management, giving rise to bad crisis management. They should actually yearn to fill this role.

But normally as a manager you have an idea of your people’s capabilities and after some time you can ask them if they would like to do that role.

A second indicator: sandbox exercises

Furthermore, it makes sense to make the sandbox exercises both realistic and extreme (it should have maximum Murphy content with accidents, deaths, and threats…). This will force your participants to think seriously about what they signed up for. If people throw in the towel after such a sandbox, it is best to let them go.

Of course you need a process, but having defined responsibilities and explicit authority is most important. And naming names on the roles with responsibility and accountability is essential. The best way to learn is a combination of theory and practice. Knowing the BCPs is important in this. There is nothing more practical than good theory and best practice.

Despite all the tests

But despite all the tests, all the human knowledge, you can never predict exactly how a person will react in a given situation. Everything depends on the possible choices one makes between fleeing, fighting or stiffening. Whether one can keep one’s cool during a crisis. This is why observing the members of the CMT and CCT at the time of crisis is also necessary. Lessons learned can also occur in leadership. Knowledge of the enneagram can help.

There are also assessments that measure a person out for their behavior under stress. This can be predictive. Things that are easy under normal circumstances can become a difficult task under stress and crisis. This of course raises questions about sandbox exercises as long as they are neither stressful nor create tension. So sandboxes must also be able to respond to the person. They should be tension generating and even stressful.

So what are the crisis manager’s attributes, which can be a KPI for success in crisis?

Choosing the leader.

Selecting an individual best suited as a crisis leader should be based on leadership abilities and the characteristics to lead in excessively stressful and ambiguous doubt-creating situations. The function of the person in good times should not be the reason for giving him that role in the CMT.

The person must be a respected member of upper management, with sufficient seniority, power and influence to persuade the organization to take a particular course of action.

Some high-level issues

There are some high-level issues to consider before the actual selection process begins.

  1. Involve the BCM steering committee or similar steering body in choosing the CMT leader. Prepare a document highlighting the CSF (cfr. infra), publish it and determine candidates afterwards.
  2. Culture is the key. Every organization makes decisions in different ways. Choose a leader that fits the culture in terms of the nature of decision making.
  3. Leading and managing the response to a crisis and associated disruptions is not the job of a single person. It is the result of the efforts of the CMT as a team. The CMT leader cannot do all the tasks himself. He must set the objectives, communicate the goals, eliminate the blocking factors for the team, … So make sure you surround him with a team of people with knowledge across functions, known representative individuals from across the organization.

What do you need to look at?

Natural characteristics in negative times.

  • Persuasiveness – He must inspire people to follow him , without demanding it. He must be able to calm, motivate and empower people during a crisis. He must naturally command authority. He must inspire confidence and be approachable. He must be able to connect the emotional and the intellectual, bringing the entire CMT and management and their staff together.
  • Guts – Not everyone feels comfortable making decisions quickly and confidently with a lack of information. But this is increasingly becoming the norm. It’s even often in the job description. He does this by staying clear thinking in crisis situations.
  • Balance – In a crisis situation, one sometimes suddenly has to make a decision, without consulting others, which is normally possible during daily operation. And that while the information at hand is incomplete, or distorted and incorrect. So he must know when to stop a dispute and when to take action. And when to have the dispute.

Features to be learned

These learnable skills, along with the intrinsic qualities above, make a good combination to be exceptional CMT leaders:

  • Communication – It is no secret by now that good communication is a strong asset in a good crisis response. A leader must use his way of communication also to inspire, the trait above, and to animate people. Not just to speak to the press if necessary. His communication must be transparent. But someone else can take over this task externally. That is then the spokesperson.
  • Purposefulness – A leader of the CMT must clearly set the direction. In doing so, he must be able to adapt smoothly to changing situations without losing sight of the goal in mind. For this, knowledge of the BCP and the organization’s goals is primordial. This cannot be delegated.
  • A good feel with BCM, knowledge and participation in it – He must be well acquainted with the business continuity objectives of the organization. De facto, the CMT leader must be actively involved in the BCP and DRP planning process and its continuous improvement (the PDCA cycle). In doing so, he must therefore actively participate in CMT exercises and sandbox exercises. He must know the lessons learned from them and have them implemented. He must participate in (strategic and BCM-oriented) risk analyses.


Thus, choosing a CMT leader is not easy. The best ones have a mixture of goal orientation and task orientation in them. They oversee “the bigger picture” as they help set tasks for the path to success. They see the strategic and the operational. In doing so, they are comfortable in unpredictable situations. Moreover, they provide unambiguous direction on where to go. They empower others to adapt to changing situations. With effective communication, persuasion and a driven sense of purpose, they must inspire their CMT to find the answers and propose the best decisions to implement the most optimally known actions to guide the organization through the crisis.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields.

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