What Makes a Strong Crisis Manager

Crises tend to hit people and organizations unprepared. Strong personalities are then needed, who can see the big picture and act calmly. What exactly are the qualities of outstanding crisis managers?


Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton wanted to be the first person to cross Antarctica, but this project did not quite turn out as planned. In 1915, the “Endurance” expedition ship was trapped in walls of pack ice several meters high, and finally sank in the frigid water. Shackleton and his team first camped on ice floes, and then, with the onset of warmer weather, managed to row to land—and survive. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Prob­lems keep pil­ing up and the sit­u­a­tion is spi­ral­ing out of con­trol. Even indi­vid­u­als with strong nerves can lose their bear­ings and begin to panic. The clock is tick­ing relent­less­ly, and time is run­ning out to avert a yet greater dis­as­ter. It is a crisis—which is going from bad to worse. Whether in the form of an oil spill, earth­quake, famine, war, stock mar­ket crash, or pan­dem­ic, a dis­as­ter or cri­sis can hit com­pa­nies, indi­vid­u­als, or entire soci­eties, bring­ing suf­fer­ing and death. It is not for noth­ing that the lit­er­a­ture on how to man­age crises fills any num­ber of shelves.

The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic has once again revealed the need for lead­ers who can rapid­ly grasp the big pic­ture. Who can keep their cool and impro­vise under pres­sure. Who sur­round them­selves with capa­ble per­son­nel and make far-reach­ing deci­sions in very short peri­ods of time. Now is the hour for those who are will­ing to push the lim­its, and who are skilled at han­dling crises. We present five exam­ples of extra­or­di­nary indi­vid­u­als who faced eco­nom­ic, social, or polit­i­cal crises—and had the qual­i­ties and abil­i­ties need­ed to deal with them.

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), a British nurse who reformed sanitary conditions and treatment facilities for the sick in Britain, is considered the founder of modern healthcare. Universal History Archive/Getty Images 

The Organizer: Florence Nightingale

Nurs­ing and Hygiene Pio­neer in the Crimean War

Explo­sives, steamships, under­wa­ter mines—the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856 is con­sid­ered one of the first armed clash­es in his­to­ry to be waged by indus­tri­al means, and a pre­cur­sor to the bru­tal bat­tles of attri­tion in the First World War. It was fought between Rus­sia and an alliance con­sist­ing of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain, and Sardinia-Piedmont.

While mod­ern weapon­ry played a role in the high num­ber of deaths among the allies, so too did an anachro­nis­tic med­ical sys­tem. Flo­rence Nightin­gale, a British nurse, was con­front­ed with the hor­ren­dous con­di­tions in mil­i­tary hos­pi­tals when she and thir­ty-eight other nurs­es trav­eled to Turkey in 1854. The hos­pi­tals there had to han­dle not only the wound­ed but also the sick, with three or four thou­sand sol­diers need­ing care at the same time due to a cholera epi­dem­ic. A human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis was under­way among the troops of the empire. Despite a num­ber of con­flicts with physi­cians and other nurs­es over respon­si­bil­i­ties, Nightin­gale suc­ceed­ed in intro­duc­ing cru­cial improve­ments and low­er­ing the mor­tal­i­ty rate among sol­diers. She was less involved in the every­day direct treat­ment of patients than in hav­ing hos­pi­tals recon­struct­ed in accor­dance with mod­ern stan­dards of care at the time. She bypassed the army’s bureau­crat­ic pro­cure­ment pro­ce­dures and used dona­tions solicit­ed via The Times in Lon­don to pur­chase beds, shirts, drink­ing cups, and socks. She had wash­ing facil­i­ties installed, issued lemon juice to pre­vent scurvy, and added veg­eta­bles to meal plans.

With courage, assertive­ness, and orga­ni­za­tion­al skills, Flo­rence Nightin­gale showed her­self to be an extra­or­di­nary cri­sis man­ag­er. Although she her­self returned chron­i­cal­ly ill from the Crimean War in 1856, she applied much of the knowl­edge gained in Turkey to the pub­lic health­care sys­tem in Britain. Among other things, she wrote pop­u­lar guides for care per­son­nel, found­ed a school for nurs­es, and used social sta­tis­tics to sup­port her positions.

On an expedition to Antarctica (1914–1917), the “Endurance” became trapped in ice. At first the ship could still offer polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men shelter from the cold, snow, and storms. But the ice exerted a relentless force and the planks soon bent under the tremendous pressure. Shackleton had to find another solution and directed his team to set up camp on the ice floes. They called their refuge “Ocean Camp”—a constant reminder of the freezing, inimical depths just beneath the thin layer of ice. Although it did not achieve its goal, this was the most spectacular of Anglo-Irish polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s (1874–1922) expeditions to Antarctica. It  brought out both his powers of endurance and knowledge of human nature. Shackleton’s strong leadership under extremely adverse conditions saved the lives of his entire crew.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Lifesaver: Ernest Shackleton

Polar Explor­er and Antarc­ti­ca Expe­di­tion Leader

On Octo­ber 27, 1915, it was clear that the expe­di­tion had failed. The crew had to leave the ship. For a good ten months, the “Endurance”—a three-mast sail­ing ves­sel around forty-four meters in length with an aux­il­iary steam engine—had been trapped in the ice. And now her robust hull was being crushed by pack ice in the Wed­dell Sea, despite trop­i­cal-wood frame ele­ments more than twen­ty-eight cen­time­ters thick. The ship was at risk of sink­ing rapid­ly. The crew of the British Impe­r­i­al Trans-Antarc­tic Expe­di­tion evac­u­at­ed onto an ice floe. Now they had to face their fate alone and unpro­tect­ed in the hos­tile world of Antarc­ti­ca. But they were for­tu­nate in hav­ing Shack­le­ton as their capa­ble and inde­fati­ga­ble leader.

More than a year ear­li­er, on August 8, 1914, Shack­le­ton and his twen­ty-six-mem­ber crew had set off in the 350-ton wood­en ship from Ply­mouth, Eng­land. Their ambi­tious aim was to be the first to cross the con­ti­nent of Antarc­ti­ca. From coast to coast, through the geo­graph­i­cal south pole.

Shack­le­ton had care­ful­ly select­ed his crew for the haz­ardous expe­di­tion from more than 5,000 appli­cants. Their num­ber includ­ed expe­ri­enced sailors and accom­plished sci­en­tists, plus a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and a painter charged with mak­ing a visu­al record of the endeav­or. Shack­le­ton him­self had trained with the British mer­chant marine and had already proved his skills in pre­vi­ous expe­di­tions to Antarctica.

But in addi­tion to expe­ri­ence and skill, it was Shackleton’s knowl­edge of human nature that helped bring out the right char­ac­ters and abil­i­ties of his team mem­bers. On the ardu­ous voy­age to Antarc­ti­ca Shack­le­ton had already boost­ed their morale with the help of phys­i­cal exer­cise, dog races, and games. And even after the wreck of the Endurance, as the men set up their tents under icy con­di­tions, he suc­ceed­ed in fos­ter­ing a sense of sol­i­dar­i­ty and uni­fy­ing the crew around the new goal of sheer sur­vival and rescue.

When the weath­er let up after a num­ber of weeks, he led the group in three lifeboats to Ele­phant Island, which was unin­hab­it­ed. He then left most of the crew there and set off with five men in one of the boats to get help from the whal­ing sta­tions on South Geor­gia Island—a good 1,500 kilo­me­ters across the open icy sea. He took his best nav­i­ga­tor and also a very moti­vat­ed vol­un­teer, plus a third man whose sense of humor could buoy the spir­its of the lit­tle group. The other two men were on the pes­simistic side, but Shack­le­ton did not want to leave them behind because he feared they might under­mine the larg­er group’s morale. After two weeks at sea the boat reached South Geor­gia Island and a ship was sent to res­cue the crew mem­bers wait­ing on Ele­phant Island.

“Not a life lost and we have been through Hell,” wrote Shack­le­ton to his wife Emily after the res­cue. His deter­mi­na­tion and lead­er­ship, draw­ing on val­ues like loy­al­ty and cama­raderie, are seen as the key to this achieve­ment by his team.

As minister of the interior for the city-state of Hamburg, Helmut Schmidt (1918–2015) demonstrated his crisis management credentials with valiant efforts at the limits of legality during the flood of 1962. Twelve years later he became the fifth chancellor of West Germany. Conti Press/Keystone

The Doer: Helmut Schmidt

Inte­ri­or Min­is­ter in Ham­burg Dur­ing the 1962 Flood

A hard-hit­ting Ger­man chan­cel­lor in the bat­tle against Red Army Fac­tion ter­ror­ists. A high-pro­file pub­lish­er of a week­ly mag­a­zine. A sought-after expert on world affairs rarely seen with­out a men­thol cig­a­rette. Over the course of his life, Hel­mut Schmidt played many roles on the sociopo­lit­i­cal stage. None was as per­fect­ly tai­lored for this heavy smok­er as the one that expe­dit­ed his already promis­ing career. And the one he embell­ished upon in sub­se­quent decades in line with all the max­ims of self-mar­ket­ing. Name­ly, that of Hamburg’s cri­sis-vet­ted “sen­a­tor of the police depart­ment” dur­ing the floods that over­whelmed the Hanseat­ic city in the spring of 1962. The office is com­pa­ra­ble with that of an inte­ri­or min­is­ter on the fed­er­al level, and Schmidt had assumed it in the north­ern Ger­man city-state in 1961 after relin­quish­ing the seat he had held in the fed­er­al par­lia­ment since 1953.

In Feb­ru­ary 1962, the Vincinette low-pres­sure sys­tem sent mass­es of water rush­ing from the North Sea into the Ger­man Bight. In the night of Feb­ru­ary 16–17, sev­er­al decrepit lev­ees in Ham­burg broke down. Walls of ice-cold water flood­ed into the dis­trict of Wil­helms­burg near the port. Many peo­ple drowned in their homes. Schmidt met with the cri­sis man­age­ment team at police head­quar­ters in the early hours of the morn­ing. Gas lanterns were their source of light because power was out in much of the city. Res­cue oper­a­tions were already under­way, and heli­copters were need­ed. Draw­ing on his con­tacts as a for­mer mem­ber of the fed­er­al par­lia­ment, Schmidt mobi­lized addi­tion­al forces from the Ger­man mil­i­tary and NATO. His com­mand­ing pres­ence helped to accel­er­ate the req­ui­site deci­sion-mak­ing processes.

“I didn’t care about legal­i­ties,” is one of the famous quotes by Schmidt—nicknamed “Schmidt Schnau­ze” (rough­ly, “Big-mouth Schmidt”)—about the dra­mat­ic events of the cri­sis. That might have been true in a sub­jec­tive sense, but objec­tive­ly speak­ing, it had already been legal for sev­er­al years in Ger­many to deploy the mil­i­tary in crises. With­out a doubt, how­ev­er, Schmidt suc­ceed­ed in gath­er­ing all avail­able resources and res­cu­ing many peo­ple from inun­dat­ed areas that were quick­ly freez­ing over. The flood caused mil­lions of marks’ worth of dam­age and claimed 340 lives. But how many more lives might have been lost with­out Hel­mut Schmidt to man­age the crisis?

When the global banking and financial crisis of 2007 also hit the DHL Express logistics provider, British manager Ken Allen (born in 1955) stepped up to the plate. picture alliance/Bruno Fahy/BELGA/dpa

The Streamliner: Ken Allen

CEO of DHL Express in the 2007–2008 Finan­cial Crisis

“A cri­sis is the best time for the best to play at their best,” said Ken Allen in 2010. He knew what he was talk­ing about. He had been CEO of the DHL Express logis­tics provider when the reces­sion struck in 2007–2008. He gave his best and saved the U.S. divi­sion of DHL Express from bank­rupt­cy. And because this British manager’s “appetite for crises” was evi­dent­ly not yet stilled, he ordered dessert. After his pro­mo­tion to CEO of the ail­ing par­ent com­pa­ny in 2009, he set about revi­tal­iz­ing it in record time. The finan­cial cri­sis had relent­less­ly exposed the weak­ness­es of DHL Express. Its costs were too high, and its rev­enues were too low. Although its real strength lay in transna­tion­al logis­tics, the com­pa­ny was incur­ring domes­tic loss­es in the UK and in France. More­over, its admin­is­tra­tive struc­tures were obsolete.

Allen’s oper­at­ing prin­ci­ple is “less is more.” He is viewed as a mas­ter in set­ting pri­or­i­ties, focus­ing on essen­tials, and putting plans res­olute­ly into prac­tice. At the same time, he pos­sess­es a fine instinct for iden­ti­fy­ing future-ori­ent­ed projects wor­thy of ongo­ing invest­ment. In an arti­cle for the Har­vard Busi­ness Man­ag­er in 2019, Allen advised busi­ness lead­ers fac­ing crises to ask them­selves not only what they should be doing, but also and espe­cial­ly the key ques­tion of what they should no longer be doing.

With this as a guide, Allen set to work at DHL in 2009. He made the board small­er and reduced the num­ber of region­al admin­is­tra­tive bod­ies. He out­sourced less prof­itable busi­ness sec­tors to part­ners. He based the size of the company’s work­force on the extent of its recov­ery from the cri­sis, while at the same time hav­ing employ­ees trained for the more prof­itable field of inter­na­tion­al busi­ness. He held onto strate­gi­cal­ly impor­tant inno­va­tion-based projects. This course of action proved itself in the years that fol­lowed. The Group’s costs dropped by 480 mil­lion euros by the end of 2009, and DHL was back on track. Ken Allen has been viewed as one of the world’s top cri­sis man­agers ever since.

“As if I didn’t exist.” When she was cropped from a photo taken at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate protested and has since linked climate protection issues with the struggle against racism and discrimination.Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images

The Fighter: Vanessa Nakate

Cli­mate and Anti-Racism Activist

Ugan­dan native Vanes­sa Nakate is not a cri­sis man­ag­er in the clas­si­cal sense. But the crises that this twen­ty-three-year-old tack­les are any­thing but con­ven­tion­al. Nakate is a cli­mate activist and also a fight­er for a world with­out racism. For both of these issues she has a per­spec­tive that is for­eign to most peo­ple in the West: she looks at the bub­ble of the white indus­tri­al world from outside.

Inspired by Swedish cli­mate activist Greta Thun­berg, Nakate began strik­ing for cli­mate pro­tec­tion in Jan­u­ary 2019 by stand­ing in front of the Ugan­dan par­lia­ment in the cap­i­tal city of Kam­pala. She was still a stu­dent, but had seen that heat waves, droughts, and storms had been pos­ing ever greater threats to the con­di­tions for life in her home­land. She was also aware of a cri­sis with­in this cri­sis. She real­ized that Africa was not suf­fi­cient­ly includ­ed in pub­lic per­cep­tion of the cli­mate move­ment, that the Fri­days for Future move­ment revolved pri­mar­i­ly around the fears and con­cerns of west­ern indus­tri­al nations, and that young peo­ple in Africa lacked knowl­edge about cli­mate change—and there­fore also about how to for­mu­late polit­i­cal demands. While her fel­low stu­dents stayed home due to fear of reprisals, Nakate car­ried on her strike with courage and deter­mi­na­tion. She made posters and ban­ners with the help of her sib­lings, and demon­strat­ed for a long time alone.

In Jan­u­ary 2020 Nakate trav­eled to the World Eco­nom­ic Forum in Davos, where she met Thun­berg and other activists like Luisa Neubauer from Ger­many. A photo was taken of the group, but Nakate was cropped out by the Asso­ci­at­ed Press news agency. Nakate used social media to pub­li­cize the inci­dent. “Africa is the least emit­ter of car­bons, but we are the most affect­ed by the cli­mate cri­sis,” she said in a video on Twit­ter. “You eras­ing our voic­es won’t change any­thing. You eras­ing our sto­ries won’t change any­thing.” Her tweets and videos on the sub­ject have been shared hun­dreds of thou­sands of times. AP pub­li­cal­ly admit­ted their mis­take and replaced the photo. Vanes­sa Nakate’s res­olute action has attract­ed a great deal of attention—for her and there­by also for her fight against a twofold crisis.

Read the next topicWords That Work