What Makes A Good CEO In A Crisis?

We have all seen CEOs perform in times of a crisis for their organisation. But what are the main traits that help them to perform well? What makes a good CEO in a crisis?

The type of pressure faced in times of a crisis is different from other forms. The time available to think and plan is severely limited. Loud, competing and often conflicting voices will give the CEO little time or space. Everything is urgent and immediate. Many CEOs who go through a crisis agree that the most unexpected aspect is having no time left for the day job.

So what are some of the traits to look out for or know where training and support may be needed?

  • Views of the media – a CEO with a total media obsession is one to be wary of. Dealing with the media should never be about vanity but is instead about taking steps to build reputations of the organisation they represent. A personal profile can, of course, be part of that, but especially in a crisis, it is all about the team, not individuals.
  • The ability to reassure a number of audiences – a good crisis CEO recognises that there are a range of stakeholders to reassure and work with. The media may shout loudly and have demanding deadlines but they are only one audience.
  • Takes time to listen before making decisions – there will be no end of good advice coming a CEOs way in a crisis. A good CEO will listen, filter and then decide. Instinct will doubtless play a role for many but valuing the people around them and their advice is critical.
  • Thinks about the team around them – whilst external audiences can dominate in a crisis, a good CEO will think about the impact on those around them and realise their role in dealing with the situation. A good crisis response isn’t just about what is said and done by those at the top but also what is said, for instance on social media, by teams who can be geographically spread. The culture of the organisation and the behaviours that are encouraged play a vital role. People across an organisation will often look to those at the top when deciding what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. So the CEO has to understand the full scope of their influence.
  • Understands that they are only part of the answer – this is not just about knowing when to listen to the views of others but also about having an understanding that the actions of others, for instance in their sector, can impact on them. Recent ComRes research suggested that the stories about the behaviour of staff at Oxfam and Save the Children had had a negative impact on the trust of overseas charities for 68% of people. In a crisis that can mean CEOs and their responses are only part of the answer.

The best CEOs are those who have already thought ahead and taken the steps to avoid a crisis. For some that means realising that their own behaviour or actions may need to change. For others, it’s about listening to ideas about change that may be needed to avoid an issue. These decisions can be difficult and often the views of outside organisations can be easier to listen to than in-house teams.


Self-awareness in a CEO can be a valuable trait. That means everything from putting a strong team around them, not just those who agree, through to knowing when to listen and when to make a decision.

Together this can put a CEO in the best place to deal with a crisis.


Photo by Free-Photos on Pixabay

Related Content

Are you alive to your reputation? The questions every CEO should ask
The CEO’s guide to public affairs
Image courtesy of pixabay
Top 5 CEO public affairs mistakes
Please CEOs, do not create your own crises

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

Leave a Reply