Richard Plenty and Terri Morrissey provide their thoughts on: Crisis management.


The ongoing mystery around the tragic loss of flight MH370 dramatically illustrates how something completely unplanned and unanticipated can disrupt even the best laid plans, and place enormous challenges on organisations and their leaders. 

Whilst crises differ in nature, duration and impact, all well run organisations need to ask themselves how well prepared they are for a crisis. How can they be sure that their leaders – who may never have faced a real crisis – will be up to the job when the time comes? 

One aspect that makes handling crises difficult is that human nature means that the first instinct of people faced with unexpected danger, risk and/or uncertainty tends to be emotional rather than rational. 

Psychologists describe a number of typical dysfunctional response patterns: ‘Unconflicted adherence’ – often described as ignorance is bliss; ‘Defensive avoidance’ – sometimes called wishful thinking; ‘Unconflicted change’ – a refusal to consider a fallback position; or ‘Hyper vigilance’ – more commonly described as panic. 

Leadership in a crisis involves rising above these emotions and keeping a cool head. First, making sense of the situation, taking into account the facts and the data. Secondly, finding ways of communicating this effectively and bringing stakeholders on board who may themselves be distraught, in denial or afraid. And, thirdly, ensuring that accountabilities for action and decision-making are clear and accepted when multiple players become involved and traditional lines of authority don’t work well. 

The best crisis leaders have the intellectual capacity to understand complexity, integrate rapidly multiple sources of information – and still remain open minded and flexible as the situation evolves. 

They need to have the emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills to lead others and gain respect – collaborate, communicate clearly, delegate and trust. And, they need to have personal qualities of mental toughness, emotional self control and self confidence, as well as a commitment to a successful outcome, not their personal glorification.

The best organisations spend time preparing and practising for crises before they happen: 

They think through as many different scenarios as they can, so people have the capacity and ‘bandwidth’ to think rationally and not emotionally when crisis hits.

They define their core crisis leadership team in advance, selecting the right people and skills for the team. They clarify roles and skills, especially those dealing with external interfaces. They then expand the team as necessary in a real situation.

Crucially, they make the time to rehearse and practice, and make this as realistic as possible. They learn from what happens, and are prepared to adapt roles and personnel accordingly.

In crisis situations, it is impossible to get everything right. Indeed, in the case of  MH370, the lack of certainty and information on what happened, the protracted nature of the crisis and the many countries, agencies and cultures involved, make the leadership task extremely difficult.

Sometimes there are no easy answers, only more questions. 

About the authors

Terri Morrissey and Dr Richard Plenty are directors of This Is... They can be contacted at

Article originally published in Airport World Magazine May 15, 2014.

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Dr. Richard Plenty
Managing Director of This Is
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Terri Morrissey
Founding Director of This Is
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