These five tips from Erika H. James will elevate your crisis leadership

BY Preta Peace Namasaba May 4, 2024 7:40 PM EDT
Erica H. James. Photo credit: Technically Media

Erika H. James is the dean of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the first woman and person of color to lead the business school. She is an expert at understanding and applying human behavior and human dynamics in an organizational context. James is renowned for her crisis leadership research and has authored various papers and books on the subject.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Pomona College of the Claremont Colleges and holds a master’s degree and PhD in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan. James led the non-degree executive education program at the University of Virginia and served as the John H. Harland Dean at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

A majority of companies, big, small, or medium-sized ultimately run into crises. Leaders have to develop insights and strategies to lead companies through hardship. Effective managers must acquire the necessary skills and devise strategies to lead through crisis.

These five tips from Erika H. James will help you lead through a crisis.

1. Read the signs
James believes that crises are bound to happen. Effective managers look for where, when, how and what crisis might come along. This is why it’s vital to build a culture of learning and reflection to identify early warnings. This includes constant analysis of organizational successes and failures and systemic issues that could potentially cause a crisis. This information can be integrated into decision-making to ensure an organization’s survival.

2. Be prepared
Prepared leaders can put in place proactive measures that can prevent a crisis. They also have the agency to systematically and effectively reorganize the organization during difficult times. Preparedness enables managers to assess the team’s capabilities and determine areas for improvement. Implementing a learning plan allows teams to adapt their targets, needs and any additional input required.

3. Organize a crisis leadership team
Besides detecting early crisis signs, a crisis leadership team manages events and ensures appropriate actions are implemented. These teams devise strategies to help an organization through difficult times. Effective leaders formulate the team’s purpose, set goals and create a shared vision. They also empower their teams to respond and adapt and hold management accountable.
“You have to inspire people, you have to have a message and a vision that is compelling for people to follow your direction or to follow your lead,” James said about leading in a crisis.

4. Devise damage control strategies
A leader’s response ultimately determines whether a company progresses beyond a crisis. Leaders need to enter full crisis-management mode and use all available opportunities to learn. It is important to always communicate with the stakeholders exposed to the crisis to find ways of minimizing impact and accelerating recovery. The expertise and perspective of the organization’s employees are also vital. Other damage control strategies such as innovation, risk-taking, and expanding one’s skill set can also steer a business to recovery.

5. Learn
James emphasizes the importance of reflecting and learning from the crisis experience to prevent or mitigate future crises. Learning should not only be confined to the post-crisis period but also before, during, or after a crisis. Leaders should also learn vicariously from their competitors, regulators, policymakers and leaders in other organizations. These lessons must then be integrated into decision-making, framing mechanisms, and other leadership processes and practices.

“When it came to my work on crisis leadership, I fell back on clear directives we had observed in the research over the years. That meant identifying and being candid about the organization’s vulnerabilities, as well as preparing people to handle things that don’t go according to plan. At the same time, you also have to manage the business, which is crucial to recovery after the crisis and to prepare for the next one that comes along,” James said about what informs her crisis leadership advice.