Leadership During Crisis Response

Challenges and Evolving Research

By Leonard Johns, M.A., and John P. Jarvis, Ph.D. 
Several police cars responding to an incident at a school.

Law enforcement professionals look at a newspaper, television, or other form of social media and realize that critical incidents can emerge almost anywhere and occur at a seemingly faster rate than in years past.1 Difficult to predict, these crisis situations require undivided attention and an immediate and appropriate response from authorities. Such events test leadership abilities in ways different from day-to-day police work and many other professions.

With some frequency, incidents occur in presumably safe environments, such as hospitals, primary schools, universities, places of worship, sports arenas, and movie theaters. Many have required significant interagency responses that include leaders from the law enforcement community. When such tragedies occur, police leaders act almost instinctively to save lives and protect the public.

The authors will focus on two purposes relative to exercising leadership during a crisis: 1) compare and contrast leadership in day-to-day law enforcement operations with skills required in crisis response, including a brief overview of leadership practices in other fields; and 2) describe and provide anticipated findings of an evolving study of leadership in crisis situations. This FBI study may offer insight into more effective law enforcement crisis leadership. The results of such an effort likely will illuminate some empirical evidence of leadership behaviors that may assist in successfully responding to critical incidents.




Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, several educational and training programs, including those that leverage tabletop and full-scale exercises, have focused on enhancing law enforcement’s response to critical incidents. For example, in the wake of lessons learned from the Westgate Mall Attack in Kenya on September 21, 2013, the FBI’s Crisis Management Unit (CMU) developed an exercise regimen aimed at testing interoperability within the response, communication, and engagement efforts with civilian partners.2 The FBI then disseminated this program to its 56 field divisions, resulting in up to 10,000 individuals from 500 agencies receiving this crisis-response training.3

While these endeavors have improved agencies’ responses to critical incidents, few efforts have focused on the exercise of leadership during such events to identify shareable best practices. Due to the dynamic and unforgiving nature of these crises, law enforcement organizations would benefit from research on leadership principles and best practices applicable to on-scene commanders during a crisis.4


Defining what constitutes a critical incident proves challenging. Such occurrences may vary widely, from potential acts of terrorism to hostage situations to other events that a single department cannot address while operating within its routine organizational structure. Perhaps an exact meaning depends on the situation and its context. Nonetheless, drawing from similar definitions of a national emergency, a critical incident or crisis may be characterized as an event, such as a “natural disaster, technological failure, or other emergency that seriously degrades or threatens the safety and security of an individual, a community, or the nation.”5

Leonard Johns
Mr. Johns is a section chief with the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and the FBI’s Crisis Management Program.
John Jarvis
Dr. Jarvis is chief criminologist in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit-5.

On a national scale, Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs) also assist in defining the parameters of a critical incident by focusing on governmental responses to threats that pose the greatest risk to the security of the country.6 On a local level, a crisis or critical incident could be defined most aptly as “deployment of resources to manage an immediate threat requiring multidisciplinary emergency-services responses. These events often result from a natural disaster, major accident, or significant criminal action requiring rapid responses.”7

Some situations become critical incidents due to either the loss or potential loss of life or because of the rarity of the offense for a given community. Regardless of the crisis’ nature, local law enforcement often responds before other emergency services and almost always serves as the first responder relied upon to initiate incident command and take the first steps to resolve the situation.

The authors describe an interagency response as one involving an incident requiring more than two agencies and disciplines (e.g., local police and FBI, local police and EMS) to respond. Additionally, specialty teams typically consist of a group of officers who have received advanced training in positions (e.g., SWAT members, negotiators, crisis managers, evidence-response personnel, and behavioral-analysis experts) related to crisis response. National assets, such as the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and other entities, generally deploy in situations that require law enforcement action and may have a nexus with national security or other need for federal assistance.8


Despite a plethora of literature and practical guidance relative to fostering leadership in diverse enterprises (e.g., military, business, finance, or medicine), not many published research reports and analyses exist pertaining to police leadership during critical incidents.9 Even fewer focus on large-scale incidents requiring interagency responses, multiple specialty teams, or the potential deployment of national assets. Therefore, police leaders often rely on anecdotal descriptions and lessons learned from previous incidents to inform law enforcement practice.10

The escalating frequency of critical incidents presents particular challenges for police leaders. One expert asserted that “the chaos of the times seems to present a new disaster every week, plunging leaders who may be top-notch performers under normal operations into a world of chaos….”11 While experts may debate the rate of such occurrences, the need for law enforcement responses to crisis situations and the leadership required to effectively and efficiently manage such incidents require further examination.12

Law enforcement officers face difficult time constraints. In practice, the length of time necessary to transition at the scene from the initial period of chaos to effective crisis management depends somewhat upon decisions made by the first few police officers responding. This transition holds significance because chaos during critical incidents often hampers care rendered to victims by emergency services, exacerbates inaccurate reporting by the media, and exposes first responders to unnecessary risk. Anecdotally, the deployment of leadership experienced in crisis management can support this transition.

In crisis situations, leaders often must manage resources in a location they did not choose, quickly diagnose problems on less than complete information, and make critical decisions that may send subordinates in harm’s way. However, many factors can compromise or impair the ability to do so. If clear leadership lacks in these situations, the strongest-willed (and not necessarily the most experienced) individuals often prevail.13

Like other professions, law enforcement agencies provide training and resources to building leaders within their organizations. Yet, when considering the dynamics of critical-incident response, law enforcement—similar to other industries—often experiences challenges when agency personnel must leverage and adapt their leadership skills to meet these unique demands.


Everyday Operations

Organizations outside of law enforcement also place value on identifying, recruiting, training, and retaining effective leaders. For example, many businesses, academic institutions, and government agencies, as well as the military, have adopted internal and external leadership programs to invest in workforce development at all levels.14 Such measures sustain and improve current leadership and develop leaders for the future.

Command colleges, training institutes, police academies, and organizations, such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), all promote training and executive-development programs devoted to instilling and cultivating leadership among law enforcement professionals. The FBI established its Leadership Development Program (LDP), which represents an enterprisewide effort to leverage several initiatives to provide state-of-the-art approaches to leadership throughout the agency. Leadership training at the FBI Academy, mentorship relationships, and various leader-evaluation opportunities also achieve this goal. In addition, organizational climate surveys interpreted by industrial psychologists assist individuals to grow into better leaders.

While the results of law enforcement-based leadership-development programs may be difficult to measure, they undoubtedly enhance professionalism and organizational effectiveness by cohesively fostering creativity in the workplace, increasing morale, and building a leader’s confidence in day-to-day operational environments. However, the execution of leadership during a crisis differs somewhat from myriad organizational and management issues that commonly arise in everyday administration and oversight of an organization.15

This distinction becomes apparent when leaders face a crisis that may present “situations they are both unequipped to handle and also prone to make well-meaning, yet disastrous decisions in the heat of the moment.”16 While many leaders receive training in leadership principles and practice, the unexpected crisis can impair their ability to execute those skills when responding to such an incident.17

Perhaps this occurs for many reasons, including the velocity of unfolding events, lack or overabundance of personnel responding, urgency of the situation, stress and intensity of the crisis, organizational or logistical delays, communication lapses, and inevitable escalation of interest in outcomes by third parties (e.g., the media). Having many of these forces unfolding simultaneously further challenges leaders in times of crisis. Identification of best practices for leveraging effective leadership during crisis incidents may help to overcome some of these factors.

Several elements may contribute to better outcomes. While not an exhaustive list, at least some of these may center around five areas.

1) Law enforcement command-level education specific to leadership in crisis situations proves necessary.

2) A transparent and nonattributable after-action process should emphasize improving leadership and decision making. This includes creating an environment whereby the courage to identify and rectify leadership mistakes results in so-called best practices.18

3) While recently improved via Presidential Policy Directives and frameworks for responding to national-scale disasters, authorities need to address the persistent ambiguity regarding lines of authority and decision-making responsibility.19

4) Specific training within law enforcement-development programs should focus on what makes on-scene commander leadership and decision making effective.

5) Identification of the tenets or precepts of on-scene command can increase the likelihood of effective and positive outcomes to the crisis.

All of these issues require further examination to better understand how to foster, maintain, and enhance leadership throughout crisis-response operations.  

Other Organizations

To determine how law enforcement leadership resembles or differs from that in other types of organizations, the most analogous experiences come from the armed services. The military not only equips its personnel to confront conflicts around the world but also constantly prepares for future hostilities through training, research, and analysis of both known and anticipated adversaries. Particular attention focuses on command and control in specific crisis situations or those that require both immediate and long-term action plans for successful outcomes.

Crisis situations on the battlefield bring many challenges that require immediate decisions and actions—many without information needed to arrive at sound judgments.20 Additionally, in military engagements, many hierarchies and systems govern the response. To this end, all military members—leader or not—follow a rigid rank structure and the Uniform Code of Military Justice and do not have recourse to any command unless it is illegal.21 This removes at least one hurdle from the exercise of leadership by the military commander.

Although similar to the military in some instances, law enforcement responses during crises do not operate under the same conditions. For example, the military consistently exercises established communication protocols in both training and operations to facilitate effective and efficient responses. Communicating and convincing other agencies and nonpolice personnel concerning the necessity of certain actions can consume valuable time and distract from the exercise of leadership and decision making in the midst of a crisis response. Yet, law enforcement leaders must take such actions and leverage both new and preexisting relationships across local, state, and federal agencies to establish a solid foundation of trust and authority that should be fostered prior to the occurrence of a critical incident.

Leadership during critical incidents, such as natural disasters, in the firefighting and public safety realm also bears similarity to the challenges of leading through crises in law enforcement operations. First responders, such as officers and firefighters, follow the Incident Command System (ICS), which codifies many of the emergency-management precepts in use today and finds its roots in the response to the California wildfires in the late 1960s.22

At that time, response efforts experienced numerous interorganizational challenges that required standardized solutions. Subsequent working groups ultimately resulted in the forerunner to the current ICS—FIrefighting REsources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies (FIRESCOPE)—which resulted in more systematic and effective modalities for responding to forest fires.23 Since that time, both law enforcement and public-safety measures by local, state, and federal partners have evolved into standardized protocols, and an examination of tactics and strategies have improved public-safety responses to these kinds of disasters.

Of course, in this arena life-threatening situations occur more often and commonly involve many of the dynamics experienced by law enforcement. However, some important differences merit noting. In these cases, responders usually know or anticipate the nature of the threat. As such, a specific hazard (e.g., fire, tornado, or hurricane) frames training for specific mitigation or neutralization of the incident.

The all-hazards response often encountered by law enforcement leads to a wider scope of unknown issues at the crisis site. Responders anticipate some, such as those during an active-shooter situation. However, many others may be reticent to developing policy and procedures for execution in the same manner for every call for service. Nonetheless, the crises encountered by law enforcement officers often involve similar threats to life and limb, but due to environmental, social, and even geographic factors, the responses usually require leadership to tailor appropriate actions to the situation at hand.

In law enforcement operations, perhaps the most significant leadership hurdle consists of taking actions to minimize the paralyzing effect that sometimes accompanies chaotic situations. “Freezing up” by first responders and leaders in these roles has occurred and been mitigated via training and repetition.24

Often, these first responders, to include a growing number of law enforcement personnel, have experienced “vigilance fatigue.” Perhaps this inertia results from constant pressure to seek out threats and prepare for those that prove difficult to predict.25 Leaders in this realm must recognize this problem and prevent it from interfering with effective crisis response.

Crisis management presents an ever-present challenge for leaders in many vocations. In the field of medicine, emergency-room and operating-room personnel work in a crisis and high-stress environment daily. Business and industry leaders routinely have internal and external events that demand practiced leadership for their companies to weather the storm. Even the sports-and-entertainment industry faces unique crises and pressures. Law enforcement agencies can draw parallels and learn from proven leaders in all of these fields.


Leadership is a cornerstone of long-term success in all walks of life. As such, law enforcement organizations focus on the need to embrace leadership as a core principle for fostering both current and future effectiveness in accomplishing their goals.

However, an apparent deficit in knowledge exists relative to the nature and type of leadership required during law enforcement responses to crisis situations. To shed light on both the dynamics of effective and ineffective leadership in such situations, a research project has been established to examine the dynamics of leadership and decision making exercised during crisis events. This research involves a review of after-action reports since 2010, proposes interviews with crisis responders and on-scene commanders from a subset of these events, and perhaps may even include future field observation of situations that require FBI assistance.

The methodology continues to evolve and change, mostly due to practical issues. However, preliminary findings from initial reviews of after-action reports have suggested that during critical incidents, leaders must address such principal factors as personnel, communications, and other logistical components surrounding deployment of people and capabilities.26

The FBI seeks additional evidence to help on-scene commanders and leaders obtain guidance on the merits of decision making that sometimes becomes necessary in the absence of less than optimal information to support such an action. This proves necessary because in a crisis situation, crucial data often is unavailable, incomplete, ambiguous, or even conflicting.27

Other evidence this study strives to attain includes how best to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the intended response and when and how to leverage new partnerships, as well as other dimensions of leadership during crises. While no definitive findings have unearthed yet, this study hopes that these efforts will help fill gaps in knowledge pertaining to training and practice relative to leadership that may assist law enforcement in effectively responding to crisis situations.

A High-Profile Crisis

Hurricane Katrina produced widespread human devastation. A modern-world surplus of technological tools should have prepared citizens for such a disaster. Analysis of this catastrophe presents important lessons.

When Katrina struck New Orleans, Louisiana, on August 29, 2005, virtually every meteorologist and public official had underestimated its sheer power. Over 1,800 people died, and a total estimated cost of $150 billion resulted. The total human cost proved much greater. New Orleans had not faced such a catastrophe since 1823, when a hurricane produced a much-greater tidal rise some 20-feet higher than that of Katrina.

Katrina left New Orleans in complete disarray. Floodwaters washed away thousands of homes, businesses, schools, and cemeteries. Many people raced to save their lives. Some climbed to the roofs of their homes with the desperate hope that police officers or National Guard troops might rescue them. Of course, many corporate crisis-management principles went ignored by the public sector. No single incident commander made decisions; allocated resources; or linked local, state, and federal responders.

Any crisis coach would share many lessons regarding the tragedy that resulted from Katrina. For instance…adequate supplies, such as long-life batteries for laptops and phones, sufficient generators, and IT infrastructure necessary to operate at a functional level, were unavailable. Lack of thought also was evident regarding where victims, including employees, guests, customers, and others, would relocate when the catastrophe struck. And, authorities did not plan for the vulnerability of security and police teams in the aftermath of such a disaster.

The basic needs of responding organizations went unmet. Communications systems—including landline phones, cell phones, and e-mail—were inoperable. Contingency decision making was not employed. Previous knowledge of the inadequacies of the Louisiana Superdome for triage existed since perhaps 1998, but no one made a better plan. No single voice in this disastrous situation ever emerged…. One of the chief lessons learned? Readiness matters.

Source: Laurence Barton, Crisis Leadership Now: A Real-World Guide to Preparing for Threats, Disaster, Sabotage, and Scandal, 1st ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2008), 123-135


Every realm of life—public and private—needs effective leadership. Limited knowledge exists regarding its exercise in crisis situations, and many people assume that simply applying day-to-day leadership protocols to such events will suffice. However, as demonstrated, law enforcement crisis responses differ from those in other realms. The nature and scope of leadership required to effectively respond to crises may, in fact, be different in the confusion of these situations.

This research project aims to take advantage of the opportunity to further enhance performance in crisis situations. If successful, perhaps authorities can validate some of what is known from experiential and case data, derive new tools for collecting and analyzing past cases for current and future intelligence, and, ultimately, provide for improved leadership during crisis situations that emerge all too frequently.

For additional information Section Chief Johns can be contacted at Leonard.Johns@ic.fbi.gov and Dr. Jarvis at John.Jarvis@ic.fbi.gov.

The authors benefited from comments and suggestions from various individuals, especially U.S. Air Force Major Nelson Prouty, who provided important insights from a military perspective.


1 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Texas State University, A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013, J. Pete Blair and Katherine Schweit, 2013, accessed March 28, 2016, https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/office-of-partner-engagement/active-shooter-incidents/a-study-of-active-shooter-incidents-in-the-u.s.-2000-2013.
2 Daniel Howden, “Terror in Nairobi: The Full Story Behind al-Shabaab’s Mall Attack,” The Guardian, October 4, 2013, accessed March 28, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/ oct/04/westgate-mall-attacks-kenya?view=mobile.
3 Supervisory Special Agent Michael McCluskey of the FBI’s Crisis Management Unit, personal communication with authors, March 4, 2016.
4 James P. Derrane, “A Study of Incident Command Leadership Styles” (PhD diss., Cappella University, 2013), accessed March 28, 2016, http://gradworks.umi.com/36/05/3605113.html.
5 For specific verbiage and more-detailed information pertinent to national-scale crisis situations, see Exec. Order No. 12656 (November 1988), as well as subsequent legislative and executive actions. Contact the FBI’s Crisis Management Unit at 703-632-4400 for additional inquiries relative to the dynamics of national-scale emergency responses. 
6 “Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs), Barack Obama Administration,” Federation of American Scientists, accessed April 19, 2016, http://fas.org/irp/offdocs/ppd/.
7 Irene Barath, “Strategic Leadership During Crisis,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 2013, accessed March 28, 2016, https://leb.fbi.gov/2013/june/leadership-spotlight-strategic-leadership-during-crisis.
8 Various frameworks, such as Presidential Policy Directives, the Incident Command System (ICS), and the National Incident Management Strategy (NIMS) typically manage such national-asset deployment. These resources provide important guidelines for jurisdictional and legal requirements that govern such situations. For an analysis of how leadership styles perform in this framework, see Derrane.
9 Kim S. Cameron, Robert E. Quinn, Jeff Degraff, and Anjan V. Thakor, Competing Values Leadership, 1st  ed. (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2006). Also, see for example Derrane; Aden Hogan, Jr., “Managing the Unthinkable,” Public Management 93, no. 5 (2011): 12-14, accessed April 19, 2016, http://webapps.icma.org/pm/9305/public/feature1.cfm?title=Managing%20the%20Unthinkable&subtitle=&author=Aden%20Hogan; and William L. Waugh, Jr., and Gregory Streib, “Collaboration and Leadership for Effective Emergency Management,” abstract, Public Administration Review 66, Supplement S1 (December 2006): 131-40, accessed March 28, 2016, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-6210.
10 The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents, Critical Issues in Policing Series (Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, March 2014), 1-2, accessed April 5, 2016, http://www.policeforum.org/assets/docs/Critical_Issues_Series/the%20police%20response%20to%20active%20shooter%20incidents%202014.pdf.
11 Gordon Meriwether, “Leadership in Crisis,” The Leadership Challenge, accessed April 5, 2016, http://www.leadershipchallenge.com/resource/leadership-in-crisis.aspx.
12 Laurence Barton, Crisis Leadership Now: A Real-World Guide to Preparing for Threats, Disaster, Sabotage, and Scandal (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2008).
13 For more details on this and other biases in decision making, see Katherine Hibbs Pherson and Randolph H. Pherson, Critical Thinking for Strategic Intelligence (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publishing, 2012); and for discussions of occurrences in military settings, see Justin D. Rueb, Holly J. Erskine, and Roseanne J. Foti, “Intelligence, Dominance, Masculinity, and Self-Monitoring: Predicting Leadership Emergence in a Military Setting,” Military Psychology 20, no. 4 (October 2008), accessed April 5, 2016, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232981875_ Intelligence_Dominance_Masculinity_and_Self-Monitoring_Predicting_Leadership_Emergence _in_a_Military_Setting.
14 For multiple sources of how Fortune 500 companies, universities, and government agencies implement and sustain leadership-development opportunities and link such efforts to overall success, see The Human Resources Social Network, accessed April 5, 2016, http://www.hr.com/.
15 Derrane; and Barton.
16 Meriwether.
17 Barton.
18 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Mending Justice: Sentinel Event Reviews, NCJ 247141, September 2014, accessed April 5, 2016, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/247141.pdf. Although this monograph may present some perspectives different from this article, it provides insight as to how incident-review processes may benefit both public safety and organizational effectiveness.
19 “Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs), Barack Obama Administration.”
20 Ground Combat Operations MCWP3-1 (formerly FMFM 6) Commanding General C.E. Wilhem, U.S. Marine Corps, Combat Development Command, Quantico, Virginia, interview by author, 2002. See also Charles “Sid” Heal, Sound Doctrine: A Tactical Primer (New York, NY: Lantern Books, 2000) for law enforcement-specific applications. Additional similarities between military and policing leadership challenges can be found in Society of Police Futurists International and Federal Bureau of Investigation, Futures Working Group, The Police and the Military: Future Challenges and Opportunities in Public Safety, ed. Mary O’Dea and John Jarvis, Vol. 4: Proceedings of the Futures Working Group, December 2008, accessed April 5, 2016, http://futuresworkinggroup.cos.ucf.edu/docs/Volume%204/index.php.
21 UCMJ, 64 Stat. 109, 10 U.S.C. § 47, The Uniform Code of Military Justice, accessed April 5, 2016, http://www.ucmj.us/.
22 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Incident Command System Resources,” last updated March 19, 2015, accessed April 5, 2016, https://www.fema.gov/incident-command-system-resources.
23 See Jessica Jensen and William L. Waugh, Jr., “The United States’ Experience with the Incident Command System: What We Think We Know and What We Need to Know More About,” abstract, Journal of  Contingencies and Crisis Management 22, no. 1 (March 2014), accessed April 6, 2016, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-5973.12034/abstract.
24 This phenomenon has a long history and continues as an area of research and analysis in biology and stress-management literature. The notion of a fight-or-flight response finds its origins in Walter B. Cannon, Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage (New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1920), accessed April 19, 2016, https://archive.org/details/ bodilychangesinp029647mbp.
25 Meredith Krause, “Vigilance Fatigue in Policing: A Critical Threat to Public Safety and Officer Well-Being,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 2012, accessed April 6, 2016, https://leb.fbi.gov/2012/december/vigilance-fatigue-in-policing-a-critical-threat-to-public-safety-and-officer-well-being.
26 Applying analytics to data gathered from after-action reports also may provide useful insights and operational direction on this topic. However, existing after-action report data currently is not conducive to such analysis.
27 For elaboration on this important observation pertaining to accurate intelligence in critical tactical decision making, see Heal, Sound Doctrine.