The Politics of Crisis Management – Public Leadership under Pressure Second edition

Authors: Arjen Boin; Paul ‘t Hart; Eric Stern; Bengt Sundelius

In this book, the authors discuss aspects of managing crises. Although the examples throughout the book have been chosen from politics, the book is an added value for organizations in private sectors, because of the strategic aspects of crisis management that it discusses, which are rather universal. In broad terms, the book deals with the following topics:

Improving the sense making of the crisis
  •  There are several reasons why a leader does not see a crisis coming.
Threats that policymakers see in time are the ones that can best be managed. Similarly, the same applies to opportunities: if they are spotted in time, they can be used best.
But why don’t they see some of the threats?
In some cases, none of their employees looked in the direction of the threat. That is why leaders must take measures to drastically reduce the chance of such blind spots occuring. They must also be alert to what they were not told and what they do not see in the surrounding area.Secondly, they can be surprised because the pieces of the puzzle are divided over several agencies and they do not succeed in getting all the pieces together in time, let alone that they know if they have all the pieces at their disposal.Eventually it may be that some of them saw it, but they did not want to stick their neck out to tell the leader, or that they did not want to see it. This is partly the principle of the “Gray Rhino”.
  • A crisis can get out of hand if the leader fails to get a good picture of the events that occur.

In today’s society, with the current state of technology, people talk about “Big Data” when an event of some magnitude occurs. From data, information must be created that is then transformed into knowledge to be treated with wisdom.

That is why the leader must encourage his employees to work methodically in finding the relevant facts in the explosion of data coming from the Crisis Management Team. Although this is the work of the employees, the leader must be aware of how the information came about and was filtered before it was brought to him.

  • Crises that test the personal sense-capacities of leaders are felt by them as a torment.

Every person is limited. Learning to deal with this is not easy and requires courage and wisdom. Especially in the midst of a developing crisis.

Confused leaders can easily slip away into system 1 thinking, where very simplistic visions of the situation can be adopted, where stereotypes of other parties are assumed to be true, and where they can become susceptible to passivity, fatalism, or a hasty decision making and overconfident recklessness behaviour. Under such circumstances, their prudence and their ability to make a sober diagnosis diminishes.

Improve Decision making in the crisis

  • The rhetoric of the “leader at the top” has little to do with the reality of effective crisis decision making and the coordination.

To be sure of a good approach and a proper course of the crisis, it is best using a combination of strategic choices and corresponding operational actions. This does not mean that a single leader at the top or a small team must make all the decisions. The subsidiarity principle is more appropriate. People who can say something sensible about the situation because it is their specialism must be able to make their (local) decisions.

The leader can best delegate that what does not belong to his specialty but to that of another agency. Where explicit supervision is requested this can be done, but the question is whether that question should always come from the leader, except for the need to keep an overview.

  • . . . But the bill is finally presented to the top (leader).

Somewhere between a careless “flight into action” and a freeze provoked by fear, leaders must make critical decisions that they alone can take. Even in the heat of the “struggle”, at the height of the crisis, strategic choices and normative considerations are essential in their functioning, their reasoning and in making choices.

  • In coordinating crisis response, planning (making the plans in advance) is more important than the plans (that they use at the time of the crisis itself).

Leaders must assume that the crisis will go differently than the plan of action stipulates. Even if their employees predict the right crisis. Even if everyone agrees on the nature of the crisis. The plan will fail, the necessary funds for the actions will be wrongly estimated. Training of employees who “have to do the job in the field” is necessary. The whole process of the crisis will have to be closely monitored. Deviations from the desired evolution will have to be corrected.

A crisis, by definition, disturbs the stable situation and creates uncertainty. It challenges the authorities to challenges that they are not used to and that they can never fully grasp in a previously drafted plan. Every correct crisis response therefore contains improvisations, which require flexibility and resilience rather than paper plans.

Improving the meaning making of the crisis.

  • Leaders who can not communicate skillfully can not lead in a crisis.

People try to understand their situation in times of uncertainty and discontinuity. They ask questions like “Why did this happen?” And “Why was this not prevented?”. In addition, they want to know what their leaders have done to prevent it. Or what they did to keep the crisis to a minimum. This is the collective concept formation. Several actors will provide their vision. (For example the media.) A kind of assessment can be drawn up from this. The media will “scrutinize” the leaders.

This means that the ability to create an image and an understanding of the situation is a very useful feature, and very helpful in setting a desired course of the crisis. Therefore, the art of “story telling” and the accompanying understanding of its underlying mechanism why a story can catch on and when not, is very important.

Unfortunately, leaders are often tempted to make a story that is created through their system 1 thinking on the basis of quick-by-the-turn arguments that seem to give an explanation at first glance. In addition, they sometimes make huge promises. This is a basic error.

Improve the Termination of a crisis and Accounting

  • Crises do not stop by themselves. They must be ended.

It is very tempting to consider the end of the operational actions as the same as the end of the crisis. That is not the case, because the political aftermath and aftercare follow their own logic. Various actors in the crisis will systematically explore the aftermath of the crisis to seek opportunities, which can be encouraged. But some also seek opportunities to attack their opponents, to seek praise or to initiate reforms or to make a profit on the hood of third parties (victims). That is why it is important to formally put an end to the crisis, also politically. That moment, however, the leader must determine carefully. And for this reason (currently) no (generally) valid criteria apply.

  • Accounting after a crisis is desirable and inevitable, but it is not without risk politically.

All involved actors will evaluate their positions, and possibly defend them. This happens especially when there are some involved who bear responsibility in the story. In addition to the media, formal institutional organizations will also identify responsibilities by means of legal steps eg in legal, political and professional arenas. These various, but often interwoven, responsibility-allocating processes do not necessarily have to escalate into an aggressive blaming game. But exactly that happens often and is a thing for the leaders to keep in mind.

  • . . . But to have it always as a “name, shame and blame” game would make it a “Self-destructive Prophecy”.

So instead of dreaming of a victory, leaders can better keep another scenario in mind, namely that of the black sheep because of polarization by the media, among others. In times when governments are easily victimized by polarization, leaders often run the risk of being hit by the social “blame & shame game”. In itself, nobody is actually served with it. It is often an attempt at a quick win from opponents.

Improve learning from the crisis situation

  • Drawing lessons should be more than copying seemingly successful policies and categorically rejecting what failed elsewhere.

When leaders are faced with a new crisis, they can never assume that it is similar to a previous crisis. They can not rely on a tried and tested repertoire of techniques. This can be a reasonable approach to the level where there are similarities. It will thus remove some of the leader’s uncertainty and increase the reaction speed and efficiency of the crisis response team.

But the present is not a copy of the past. Leaders can easily be misled into categorically implementing everything that has helped in a similar case from the past, without noticing that the crisis is taking a different turn. That is why meta-learning is also important. Classify the crisis into categories and think at a higher level within the Crisis Management Team in order to manage and adjust the Crisis Response Team depending on the turn of the crisis. (So ​​”learning to learn”.) The system 2 thinking is important in order to adjust the system 1 thinking.

  • Learning from crises means that you have proactive, interactive and continuous crisis planning processes.

Crisis management sometimes requires cooperation agreements across different (types of) boundaries. Such forms of cooperation (eg in working groups) must be established before a crisis takes place. Private Public Co-operations are necessary because a lot of vital resources come from the private sector. Operational activities must be shaped in conjunction with a general vision of how to manage crisis management. That vision on crisis management is in itself a result of political deliberation that must be fixed in advance. Once again, planning is more important than the plan.

  • Erasing everything and starting all over is often not the best way to learn from a crisis.

Crises are too often the result of a chain reaction on a political level or in high-risk technological systems. In particular, crises do not correspond one-on-one with the tasks of agencies or specialists.

It can be argued that in most cases the worst-case scenario (the whole system has failed, so everything has to be done differently) does not apply, and sometimes even does not exist. A better way of learning from the crisis stems from a leadership of “dynamic conservatism”. This strategy defends the idea of ​​core values ​​and the institutional commitment and obligations. It encourages leaders to flexibly adjust policy structures and modus operandi of public organizations to the oppressive context of crises rather than give in to the temptation of grand reformist rhetoric.


  • Sense making:
    • Detecting (an) emerging threat (s).
    • Ensure that policymakers get a firm grip on what is going on.
    • Provide what next events will / can be.
  • Decision making and coordinating:
    • To shape the overarching direction and coherence of the common efforts.
    • To respond in a cohesive way to the crisis.
  • Meaning making:
    • Actively shaping the public understanding of the crisis.
    • This if it is possible in a democratic, mediatised political system.
    • The purpose of this is to align the common definition of the crisis in such a way.
    • Make it possible to work efficiently on the desired direction.
    • Let the crisis evolve towards a desired situation.
  • Accounting:
    • Taking control of the democratic process of explaining the ideas that were there and the actions that were taken.
    • This is tested against the values ​​of the government and the citizens.
    • With the aim of achieving closure with citizens and government with regards to the crisis.
    • This is necessary so that the community and politics can go further.

In the event of a crisis, certain characteristics of existing institutions, policies and customs can be harmed without the possibility of recovery.

  • Learning from the situation:
    • Drawing lessons and seizing opportunities
    • Reconsider and reform these characteristics of existing institutions, policies and practices in a follow-up period.

These issues are, as formulated here, all aspects of strategic crisis management as this can be applied by a government to its functioning and for the benefit of its society. However, by simply reading it all with the government in mind as an organization that also has to deliver its services to society, all this is (not always easy) translatable to strategic crisis management for private organizations. As a result, this book is a good dues for holistic crisis management, in addition to other books on operational crisis management, for which more literature is available.

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. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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