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Leading Through Crisis

Smith-Brooks, Andrea DNP, MBA, FNP-BC, ENP-C; Guest Editor

Editor(s): Hoyt, K. Sue

Author Information
Advanced Emergency Nursing Journal: July/September 2020 - Volume 42 - Issue 3 - p 161-163
doi: 10.1097/TME.0000000000000304
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IN THE PAST month, we have entered a crisis unlike anything most of us have ever witnessed. This crisis has been underpinned by ambiguity, creating widespread uncertainty in our country and our world. Life as we know it has fundamentally changed, leaving many frustrated, overwhelmed, afraid, and unsure. Anxiety of the unknown lingers, as there is no real way to understand exactly what will happen, how long it will last, and what the long-term impact will be. This pandemic has challenged us in ways unparalleled, and will continue to, for quite some time.

These unprecedented times call for strong leaders with the ability to navigate the stress, challenges, and anxiety of the situation both personally and professionally. Leaders must traverse a variety of competing dynamics, priorities, and changes while managing their perspective, keeping fear in check, and supporting those around them. But how can one be an effective leader when the future is unpredictable, emotions are heightened, and direction is questionable?


To understand how to lead in times of crisis, it is imperative to, first, understand the complexity of crisis and its effect on leadership. Perhaps, the most comprehensive analysis of crisis leadership I have found comes from decorated crisis management expert and researcher Dr. Charles Casto. Casto introduces six levels of crises on a continuum, with each level bringing about different emotions, decision-making capabilities, sense making, and leadership approaches (Casto, 2014). The continuum begins with routine crisis, escalating through levels of surprise, failure, catastrophic, and super-catastrophic. As a crisis intensifies, emotions become more prominent and begin to narrow a leader's cognitive ability. The differences in decision making, crisis response, and sense making at each level necessitate a different leadership style (see Table 1). Dr. Casto's work illustrates the highly contextualized nature of crisis leadership, demonstrating that a leader's ability to respond is dependent upon the situational context of the crisis.

Table 1. - Integrated model of extreme crisis leadership
Situational context Fell emotion Decision-making Crisis response Sense making Leadership
Routine Subliminal (success) Classical Readiness Positive evaluation Collaborative
Resilience Subliminal (skepticism) Framing and Cognitive Continuum Model Resilience Collective sense-making Authoritarian and setback
Surprise Supraliminal (unawareness) Recognition Primed and naturalistic Complexity Updating, optimistic bias, and institutional effect Adaptive
Failure Supraliminal (failure) Macro cognition Failure Doubt and pessimism Nonlinear
Catastrophic Supraliminal (death anxiety) Situational Situational Situational Situational
Super-catastrophic Supraliminal (mortality salience) Warrior ethos Warrior ethos Warrior ethos Warrior ethos
Note. From “Crisis Management: A Qualitative Study of Extreme Event Leadership,” by C. A. Casto, 2014, Dissertations, Theses and Capstone Projects, 626. Retrieved from


Currently, we find ourselves teetering between the failure and catastrophic levels in this COVID-19 pandemic. Our emergency response and initial attempts at containment have failed, with more than 50,000 deaths reported in the United States to date. Emotions of fear and anxiety weigh heavy on the minds of leaders. As the threat evolves, leaders will undoubtedly be challenged in new and unconventional ways. With no handbook on how to best respond to this rapidly evolving crisis, many leaders are left wondering how to step up to the plate.

Here are a few tips to help you navigate the path ahead:

Be Flexible

It is important to remember that we are in uncharted waters. This pandemic is stretching all of us beyond our normal capacities. There are few answers, with even fewer certainties. In this environment, you will need to remain as flexible and fluid as possible. Open your mind to new possibilities and methods. Go with the flow! Roll with the punches!

Be Humble

Humility will be important; check your ego at the door. Acknowledge your own shortcomings and reach out to others for guidance and support. Remember, in times of crisis, your decision making and sense making may be altered—and that's okay. Seek input from others and socialize solutions before acting. Two heads are better than one!

Be Reliable

The amount of new information being thrown at us is mind-boggling. Even more astonishing is the rate at which this information changes. As leaders, it is our responsibility to seek credible, reliable, and up-to-date sources of information. Fact check, then recheck, before disseminating information to your teams.

Be Authentic

This is a difficult time for all of us. Being open and honest is one of the essential components of leading through uncertain times. Your team is not perfect; they need real and authentic. Make yourself available and connect in unscripted ways. Meet without agendas and allow the conversation to flow. This vulnerability creates a safe space for your team to share their thoughts and feelings. It reminds them that you are in this together and you have their back.

Be Self-Aware

Leaders are not exempt from the emotional turmoil of crisis. You need to be aware of your own emotions and how they may be influencing your behavior and leadership. When leading others through times of high anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, it's essential that you manage how you respond to these stressors. No matter your approach to self-care, be sure to take time to rest, rejuvenate, and refocus.

While there is no best practice for leading through these challenging times, it is my hope that the information I have provided will help YOU the leaders show up for your teams with courage, confidence, and conviction!

—Andrea Smith-Brooks, DNP, MBA, FNP-BC, ENP-C
President, American Academy of Emergency Nurse Practitioners
Director of Clinical Effectiveness
Division of Quality and Safety
University of Maryland Medical Center
Baltimore, MD
Guest Editor


Casto C. A. (2014). Crisis management: A qualitative study of extreme event leadership. Dissertations, Theses and Capstone Projects, 626. Retrieved from
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