How to Find Good Crisis Leaders before Trouble Strikes

Amy Sommer, Professor of Management and Human Ressources - October 15th, 2010
Super Leader - A good leader in a time of crisis

Amy Sommer and her research partners have developed a tool—the C-LEAD scale*—to identify people likely to make good crisis leaders. In contrast to general leadership assessment tools, C-LEAD effectively detects people’s capacity to process information and make good decisions, despite high pressures. C-LEAD also reveals motivation and willingness to lead in crisis situations, both of which contribute to better decision-making. Sommer explains that once the right people have been identified, her research suggests you can truly stacking the deck in their favor by providing them with crisis preparation via simulation training, for instance. 

Amy Sommer ©HEC Paris

Amy Sommer joined the HEC Paris faculty in September 2010. She holds a PhD in business administration from the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business (...)

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A by product of the numerous large-scale health and safety crises (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, H1N1, BP Oil spill, etc.) that have stuck in recent times has been displays of both extraordinary leadership and huge struggles to deal with situations. What characterizes the people who have led well? Amy Sommer and her co-researchers have found that crisis leaders’ strength lies in their ability to effectively assess the information at hand—however incomplete or emotionally-challenging—and make good decisions, despite the circumstances. The researchers developed and tested a tool (the CLEAD Scale) that helps identify the people able to make decisions in crisis situations most easily, comfortably, and accurately. And they are not necessary same people who score high on general leadership assessment tests! 


The fundamental difference between general leadership and leadership during a health or safety crisis is that in the second case, leaders’ decisions truly have a life or death impact. So while general leadership strengths like knowledge, skill, and vision are not insignificant during a major crisis, they are significantly outweighed by a person’s ability to deal with information. In other words, the best crisis leaders are those who can detect, assess, and act on information, and to do so quickly. A fire  chief who successfully handled a nightclub fire where 100 people were killed testifies, “You have to be much more focused on what it is you’ve got to do now and use the sort of iterative process of saying, ‘We’ve made that decision, now what are the consequences that we didn’t predict?’ I think it’s quite a different leadership function largely because of the need to act in the absence of a lot of information.” Implicit in effective information processing is the capacity to filter out “noise” that otherwise hinder detection of critical signals. “Crisis leadership efficacy is both a cognitive and an emotional process. Crises inevitably produce stress and anxiety, which strains information processing and effective decision making. Good leaders identify the important signals and make effective decisions, despite the incomplete information, high stakes and urgency of the situation,” says Sommer. 


“You cannot assume that the person who possesses the ability to lead in a crisis will necessarily volunteer to be a crisis leader,” says Sommer. “That is why it is important to identify not only who is capable, but also who is motivated to take on this role.” Sommer found that people who score higher on the C-LEAD scale are more motivated to lead in a crisis and are more likely to step up and volunteer  for such responsibilities. Motivation also stems from things like prior success, general leadership background, and individual differences as well as vicarious experience and crisis training. Sommer stresses that overall, motivated people process both information quality and quantity better than others. They do not get bogged down with information, even in complex cases like Hurricane Katrina, nor are they paralyzed by a lack of information, as was the case with H1N1. 


“Crisis leadership efficacy is a matter of making the most of both who you are and what you have learned about crises,” Sommer comments. The studies conducted reveal the inter-dependence of the person (general leadership background and traits), training (simulation, crisis protocol), and motivation to lead in a crisis. The first two factors empirically contribute to C-LEAD scores and in turn indicate the third—who is most likely to be motivated to lead and make effective decisions in a crisis. One study suggests that simulations are one of the most effective ways to build crisis leadership skills, and Sommer believes it would be worth testing this hypothesis further. She also believes teams deserve additional attention, as the high complexity and multiple stakeholders inherent to crisis situations mean that teams are likely to complement crisis leaders. As for a connection between her research and the future crises, Sommer comments, “C-LEAD could be helpful with public health and safety crises that are acute, whether they are man-made or natural, when time is of the essence, and have a direct impact on well-being and people’s lives. This would include terrorist attacks, hurricanes, flu pandemics major accidents, and oil spills; as well as potentially some corporate or government crises, like the Tylenol drug crisis or an assassination attempt.” 

* Crisis Leader Efficacy in Assessing and Deciding.

Based on an interview with Amy Sommer, assistant professor of management and human resources, and on the article “Measuring the Efficacy of Leaders to Assess Information and Make Decisions in a Crisis: The C-LEAD Scale” Leadership Quarterly , August 2011, vol. 22, n° 4, pp. 633-648 (in coll. with C. Hadley, T. Pittinsky, W. Zhu.)


The researchers interviewed 50 high level people who had successfully led a broad range of public health and safety crisis situations (i.e. natural disasters, riots, terrorist attacks, etc.). They combined their findings with a thorough review of pertinent literature* to create and refine the 9-point Crisis Leader Efficacy Assessing and Deciding (C-LEAD) scale. They then tested the scale in three studies conducted in the United States involving, respectively, 282, 85, and 300 managers from a broad range of occupations**. The first two studies showed that C-LEAD predicts “decision making difficulty and confidence in crisis contexts better than measures of general leadership efficacy and procedural crisis preparedness,” and the third study shows that the scale predicts “motivation to lead in a crisis, voluntary crisis leader role-taking, and decision-making accuracy as a leader.”

* Literature from the fields of organizational behavior, psychology, government, and public health.

** Including crisis responders at a United States federal agency who had participated in an agency-wide pandemic influenza outbreak.


While it may be a little early to advice companies to use the C-LEAD scale, the tool development and associated tests highlight a number of valuable observations.

• Simply knowing and practicing crisis response protocol is not enough to predict crisis leadership efficacy. Similarly, general leadership skill is not sufficient to predict crisis leadership skill.

• The ability to assess information quickly and accurately is the most significant indication of crisis leadership potential.

• The greater the confidence with which people make crisis-related decisions, the higher the quality of their decisions.

• Motivation and willingness to lead are positively related to decision-making accuracy.