Why Leaders Should Be Thinking About the Next Crisis

ELynn Perry Wooten (president of Simmons University) and rika James (dean of Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania), are both leaders in their respective fields. They have been researching the subject for over two decades and wrote the book on the topic in 2010. Leadership under Pressure The new book is now available. The Prepared Leader This article was created during the COVID-19 epidemic and draws upon years of research as well as interviews with leading figures about their leadership experiences during 2020’s tumultuous times.

James and Wooten accomplished all of this while simultaneously transitioning to their jobs in the midst of the pandemic. This was 2020. James became the first woman and person of color to lead the Wharton School, while Wooten became Simmons’ first Black president.

“We were living out what we were writing in this book as leaders of the Wharton School or of Simmons University,” says James. “That duality of experiencing it, trying to be effective leaders while also writing about it, and leveraging our research at the same time, is a really powerful part of our professional history.”

James and Wooten spoke with TIME about why they believe preparedness should be the “fourth P” in a company’s bottom line, along with people, profit and the planet. They also discussed the importance of establishing—and maintaining—diversity in crisis management teams, and the role of what they call “mega communities” like the #MeToo or Black Lives Matter movements—broad and diverse collectives of stakeholders that can span organizations, sectors and, sometimes, societies.

The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

For coverage about the future of work visit Register now Get the Charter newsletter for free)

Why is it that the leaders of these countries were not prepared for the Pandemic or other crisis?

James: We don’t generally like thinking about or anticipating bad news, and the notion of a pandemic of this scale, we’ve seen signals or smaller versions of this in the past 20 years or so. But we’ve always been able to navigate them. They didn’t have hardly at all the effects that the pandemic of COVID-19 had on a country or certainly around the world. So it is not difficult to believe that something like this would happen, and that any of us would be affected. So, because our brain doesn’t like to think about negative news, we tend not to prepare for bad things.

Wooten: It’s not only that our brains don’t need to think about it, we don’t educate leaders for it. People need to learn accounting, HR, strategic planning, finance, and marketing. Leaders talk about their education and training. But they don’t spend enough time thinking about what skills you will need to manage in times of crisis. And how you take those skill sets that we talked about in a book and become this prepared leader means that you also think about it in the context of the people who work in your organization, whatever your profit model is, or your effective model—and the planet.

Some might argue that if you’re, as a leader, constantly focused on what crisis might be ahead, perhaps you’re not as focused on The day-to-day management of the company. These are the priorities leaders should balance.

James: We have to do both, quite frankly. The most successful leaders, I believe, are always thinking about how to reach our strategic objectives. But we also have to be aware that it’s not possible to attain them all the time. [we]You set goals. Things are always happening, and the best leaders are those who think about where their vulnerabilities—either internal to their organization or where there might be external threats that prohibit their organization from achieving the results in the timeframe that they had desired. So, we’re unprepared because we don’t like to think about them, we’re not taught to think about them—the best leaders understand that being effective means doing both strategic leadership and crisis preparedness.

You write in the book about “sudden” and “smoldering” crises. Could you explain how leaders’ responses to those should differ?

Wooten: The smoldering crises are the ones, hopefully, that you have time to prepare for—you’re constantly scanning the environment, you’re looking for signals. You’re saying “what could happen, possibly.” Even the pandemic, when you started to see it happening in other countries, leaders had to ask themselves, “what’s going to happen if it comes to the United States?” So those smoldering crises have been gradual. Sudden crises: you don’t know they’re going to happen—they take you off guard. If you’re skilled, however, it is possible to overcome them. [to think] “OK, how are we going to communicate? What are you going to do to create trust? What are our resources? How do we mobilize all of our stakeholders?” then you may not know the crisis [is coming]—a national disaster or a lawsuit or something—but at least you have the skill set to activate your leadership team.

James: I’ll add that typically, we spend our time thinking about those external sudden crises. Many organizations have an emergency plan and a strategy for weather emergencies in case of a natural disaster. So we plan for the things that are generally least likely to happen—those sudden events. What we don’t tend to plan for are the smoldering events which generally are things that are happening inside the organization that are oftentimes a function of bad decision-making, ineffective behavior, a poor culture—those kinds of things that sort of simmer under the radar until they erupt because nobody has paid attention to them.

These issues are very important and can lead to serious financial consequences. How important is preparedness to a company’s bottom line?

Wooten: Crises can cost money—it’s how much money do we leave [behind]We have to close down business because of reputational and legal consequences. We will discuss the interplay between being a prepared leader and your profit. The better that you can be a prepared leader, you can prevent crisis so you’re saving money. It will help you to preserve your image. Your operations will continue to run smoothly.

What are your personal experiences as firefighters and leaders that have influenced the lessons you share in this book?

James: I’ll share a quick story. Lynn and me wrote our first book many years ago. Lead Under Pressure. And when I was sharing that book with some neighbors, they said, “Oh, is that a parenting book?” That was such an unusual response to a book titled Lead Under Pressure, but in hindsight, you realize that, as parents, we’re constantly doing the work of crisis leadership. We’re constantly scanning to see what could go wrong with our kids. We’re constantly trying to prepare them for the next step in their life. We’re constantly trying to put out fires when something bad happens to our children. So I think as parents we’re very well, attuned to naturally thinking about things going wrong. We don’t oftentimes make that shift to the workplace. That’s not to say that employees are like children, but it’s the same level of responsibility that a leader has, and understanding what we need to be mindful of is the active part of preparation.

Wooten: For me, I’m constantly scanning my environment and trying to make sense of what’s going to happen, what could be the next crisis on the horizon. In the United States, I am the head of a small university. As more people move to the United States, we talk about the “demographic cliff”, especially in small universities. And so I’m thinking about, “OK, how is this demographic cliff going to require me to innovate, to rethink the business model of my university?” So the sense-making, creativity, the innovation… We have a tool where we talk about how you take a crisis and look at it as an opportunity to do something different. We discuss the National Basketball Association, and the way they used the pandemic. There are many examples where we’ve seen organizations reinvent themselves and the crisis has become an opportunity to do something better—either the way you organize people or how you do technology or how you change your business model. So I’m constantly thinking about opportunities too.

Which are the most important lessons that businesses can learn from the pandemic

Wooten: You can be mobile. Industries, communities and businesses have never been able to reinvent themselves before. Telemedicine and healthcare are now available online. Universities and K-12 schools can also be accessed via the internet. This allows us to become more agile. So how can we make things faster? Look for successful examples of communication to learn another important lesson. In crisis situations leaders must communicate. The book covers this topic. It’s important, because you want to build trust. And so being competent, having a psychological contract as you communicate with people, are so important—and having compassion.

James: Another important lesson is recognizing that we tend to retreat when confronted with danger. This can lead us to be limited or unable seek out information in the places and ways we want. And because a crisis means it’s something that we’ve not experienced before, whatever is in our history, our past is not going to inform us in terms of how to respond to this crisis. So the need for creativity—the need for intentionally seeking out information and ideas and new perspectives to help us solve a problem that we’ve never experienced before—that sort of goes against our psyche. Leaders who can expand their sources of information are more effective.

When it comes time to lead the next crisis big or small, what should leaders be thinking about?

James: To me, it’s thinking about understanding the lessons that they’ve learned or what they’ve experienced going through the pandemic and evaluating honestly, “what did we do well, in responding to that, what didn’t really do well and responding to that? What structures or policies or procedures do we have in place that can help us mitigate the next crisis?” Guaranteed, the next crisis probably will not be another pandemic, but it will be something else. And there’s muscle memory. If we are intentional about learning from what we just went through, we can leverage that muscle memory to help inform us the next time something else happens—but only if we are intentional about reflecting and learning the lessons having just gone through the previous crisis.

Wooten:Mega communities are what we mean [in the book.] It’s not only looking inside your organization to say what did you do well, or what did you need to improve, but “who do I need to partner with? How do I expand my network so I’m a better organization?” Mega communities say a lot of tough problems need the three sectors: you need government, you need the nonprofit sector and you need the corporate sector. That was what we saw in the pandemic. How did they manage that crisis? Can I learn anything from their experience?

What are the key skills you’ve identified that leaders need to be able to handle a crisis?

James: Effective crisis leaders engage in signal detection. This allows them to identify vulnerabilities and to know what to watch out for. Next comes crisis prevention and planning. When a crisis does hit, there’s the notion of damage control or containment—how do we limit its impact? The fourth phase is the business recovery. And then lastly, there’s the learning phase.

Lynn and I identified key competencies or leadership qualities within each phase. For example, in signal detection, Lynn is able to sense-making. How do It make sense of all of the information that’s coming at me, how do I put it together in a way that allows me to communicate to the broader organization? Here’s what we’re learning, and here’s what we can start to prepare for it.

Wooten: I [also]Want to speak about risk taking. Sometimes during a crisis, when you’re reinventing yourself and adapting to the world, you have to think about what risks we’re going to take. [For example,] we’re going to take all the basketball players and create a bubble in Orlando. There was some risk involved. But it’s assessing the risks and understanding what the pros and cons are. Erica and I talk a lot about how one of the leader’s roles in the crisis is to ensure resiliency. Yeah, you’re going into this panic, you’re going to become paralyzed, but at some point, you’re going to have to bounce back. Resiliency is “how am I going to bounce back and what is it going to take for me to be better? What are the investments I have to make—the team I need, the financial investments, the infrastructure—so that I can be resilient in that recovery mode?”

You have to take that risk when you’re dealing with a pandemic.

Wooten: Yep. Part of being quick is you’ve got to have the data, and you have to have the theory of change—”why am I doing this? What does the data show me?” And being ethical. Your risky decision will affect all stakeholders. How can you ensure that they are safe in crisis situations?

James: I think it’s important to highlight that not all stakeholders are equal. You have people who are advocates for your organization and want to support everything that you’re doing. You’ll have people who are sort of ambivalent, they may know your company, but they don’t feel one way or another about it. You might also have individuals who can be aggressively hostile to you company. In times of crisis it could be. [that]The most vocal people might not necessarily be those who require the most attention. People who don’t like you may be active on social media. You might feel that they are very vocal, and it might make you want to give your full attention to them. But they’re less likely to want to support you no matter what your efforts are, because they are naturally antagonistic to what it is you do. In times of crisis, the key is to be aware of those who may not agree with you. This will help you to avoid them becoming hostile and can potentially influence their behavior to support you. And I don’t think leaders oftentimes recognize [that]—they’ll go to the loudest voices, but the loudest voices are not always the stakeholders that need and deserve the leaders’ attention.

Diversity is something that you identify as an important element when building a team that’s equipped for a crisis. It was possible to Recent study from Imperial College Business School, which found that diversity on boards is something that’s often sacrificed when companies are struggling. What can organisations do to prevent this?

James: This is all about the leader’s intentions. If the leader understands the value that comes from having diverse perspectives on the board and the management team—wherever—then he or she will facilitate creating a diverse and inclusive environment in both of those settings. The board must be aligned to the diversity values. It becomes the board’s responsibility to ensure that the leader and the managers are, in fact, engaging in practices that create an inclusive communities such that the value of diversity, the voices—the perspectives that allow a leader to make the most effective decisions—are, in fact, being heard.

Wooten: I believe most leaders want to have diverse inclusive organizations but haven’t thought about the roadmap. And so it’s asking yourself “When I look around the table, especially the boardroom, who’s missing, especially relevant to this organization?” And then, “what is my plan to make sure that the people who are missing can be in the room to make it happen?” And part of that, once you get them in the room, is that they have to feel like they belong. The book talks about how to reach out to various experts and hear different perspectives from both the top and the bottom to address the crisis.

In crisis situations, you need to think deeply about inclusion and diversity. As we witnessed it during the pandemic (for example, the exit of women from the workplace) and in how people dealt with the social reckoning, we definitely noticed this. So, sometimes, crises—a natural disaster or something like a medical crisis—will have a parallel to diversity issues.

James: It is common for us to immediately think about diversity when we hear the word. This leads us to believe that more women are needed and we also need more people from other races. And, while that continues to be true for most organizations, we’re also inclusive in our approach to diversity, especially in a time of crisis, because our tendency as leaders is to go to the content experts. So in a crisis we’re gonna go to the legal counsel, and we might go to public relations or head of communications. These people are crucial contributors in understanding the best way to manage the crisis. But if those are the only two perspectives and we’re not going to people who are interfacing with customers on a daily basis, if we’re not going to our customers, if we’re not going to shareholders to understand the perspective that they bring, then we’re not going to have the most fulsome set of information and data upon which to make a decision. So for us, demographic diversity is important, but it’s not the only kind of diversity that matters in a time of crisis.

For coverage on the future work of employment, please visit Register now Get the Charter newsletter for free)

Have you got any advice for others who are like that and want to be heard by an organization?

Wooten: When I’m coaching people like that, I [say] “think about where are opportunities to showcase your knowledge in multiple communications. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable speaking up in a meeting, but it could be an email, it could be a water cooler conversation, it could be a text message, but think about various communication pathways that you can showcase your expertise.” The other thing is, I always say partner with someone—the CFO partnering with the chief marketing officer. Spend some time with a person from a different background to share what you’re working on, and how you can manage through the crisis, and get their perspective.

James: I would add, aligning your work—or the communication that you want to get upward into the organization—with the strategic priority of the organization. That way it’s more likely to get the attention of top management, because it’s already an area or a topic or an issue that they’re focused on. So if you can align whatever it is you’re trying to get communicated in the context of that strategic priority is much more likely to get attention.

Which role can technology play in both creating or combating crises

Wooten: We all have seen crises be birthed from social media, or cybersecurity, so the chief information officer, the chief technology officer, is an important member of any organization’s crisis leadership team. The chief information officer, or chief technology officer, must always be vigilant. Technology is an effective solution for many crises. I gave the example of technology being the solution for how we get medical appointments during the pandemic—the telemed. Likewise, we’ve seen that a lot of organizations were successful communicating on social media, for example, using technology to find out where there were outbreaks of COVID or using technology to find out where you can get vaccinated.

Read More From Time

Send an email to Ayesha Javed at

Read More From Time

Send an email to Ayesha Javed at


Related Articles

Back to top button