Leadership Spotlight 

Strategic Leadership During Crisis

By Irene Barath
Police cars and fire trucks arrive in a neighborhood to respond to an incident.

When crisis situations—whether external or internal to policing organizations—arise, the blend of management and leadership skills required to successfully navigate a resolution becomes clearly differentiated. Strategic leaders recognize the need for crisis planning because the very nature of a crisis is that people often do not see it coming. Many times the event lasts a short time, and contingency planning allows for outcomes that fall within a spectrum of what can be expected.

The forms of crisis police leaders optimally prepare for involve the deployment of resources to manage an immediate, external threat requiring a multidisciplinary emergency services response. These events often result from a natural disaster, major accident, or significant criminal action requiring rapid responses. In crisis, people often can access the management skills needed in these situations, allowing them to diagnose problems, make decisions, and generate decisive action.

Strategic leaders also can handle internal organizational crises, which may take on many forms, including dynamic personnel issues, internal policy reviews, or changes to resource allocations. Each of these situations requires leading people through challenging adjustments to a new operational reality. Leaders in organizations of all sizes understand that changes and challenges with and for their constituents are inevitable. This recognition requires them to create the foundation of strategic leadership on a daily basis.

Decisive leadership behavior in these types of crises still requires management action. The ongoing implications of those decisions, such as personnel transfers or job redesign, have a lasting effect on other personnel within the organization. In addition to managing the situation, strategic leaders act in a congruent manner by accessing the reserves of trust, respect, and confidence created during smaller daily contacts with staff.

These leaders take crisis management from the operational level to the personal level by preparing staff members to handle the immediate crisis, as well as the ongoing aftermath. At this level, the traits and demonstrated abilities associated with leadership arise. These often are the situations in which the character of the leader and the investment in servant leadership principles, based on genuine, professional relationships combine with integrity of action to produce outstanding results.

Within organizations leaders can face challenges of personal crisis involving individuals or teams that strike to peoples’ very core. The nature of leading in the policing profession often seems more like firefighting where leaders move from crisis to crisis while trying to put out small fires, particularly when they involve incidents internal to our respective organizations. When we must again and again come face to face with the realization that “bad things happen to good people,” our worldview can be shaken, even for those who consider themselves hardened veterans of police work.

Leading a team or organization during a time of crisis is not for the faint of heart. The necessary people skills cannot be developed during the crisis. Strategic leaders understand that building trust, fine tuning their emotional intelligence skills, and demonstrating a servant mind-set to the people who work for and with them is a daily activity. Modeling the ability to remain focused on positive outcomes while dealing with the challenging realities demonstrates resilience that others can strive to mirror. As a leader in the organization—as a policing professional and, even more important, as a member of the human race—everyone should strive daily to treat others with the integrity, respect, and dignity that allows them to step up and serve others during times of crisis.

Ms. Irene Barath, an instructor with the Ontario, Canada, Police College in Aylmer currently assigned to the FBI’s Leadership Fellows program, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.