Why Leaders Must Demonstrate Visible Leadership in a Crisis

By Heather Campbell

Leaders staying visible during a crisis – that’s natural and easy, right?

Well, my experience in working with leaders shows that the opposite is true, so if you find maintaining visibility is a challenge, you’re not alone.

In one of the most memorable examples I have come across, the Managing Director of a high profile engineering firm more or less hid!

As the crisis – a Union-led dispute – deepened, he first retreated to his office and closed his door, then the blinds on the windows to his office. He no longer went on to the shop floor and met only with the most senior leaders in his organisation.

He became the butt of the joke across the engineering site as well as ending up the leader of a resentful and cynical workforce. His reputation as a leader was in tatters long before the dispute was resolved.

To be fair, most leaders don’t disappear so obviously. But neither do they get out and about enough, spending time with people at every level in the business.

Here are the top four reasons that leaders must demonstrate visible leadership in a crisis.


(1) You need to say sorry

The people you lead see that you are responsible for making sure that things go right – and are the cause when things go wrong. The more senior you are, the more this is the case.

So, whether or not you think you’re responsible for the crisis, have the guts to say sorry to the people you lead. This will go a long way in rebuilding their trust in, and respect for, you. Saying sorry is really counter-intuitive for far too many leaders – but failing to do so is a huge mistake.

(2) You must be the information source

You must be the source of clear, direct, honest information. Do not let the media, the internet, the Union or the grapevine become the information source instead.

There’s a myriad of ways to stay in touch – get onto email, create short info videos on your phone and share these, hold conference calls (record these so that people who can’t join live can listen later), run webinars (record these too).

And don’t wait for the crisis to hit before you decide which of these you will use to disseminate your message and maintain your visibility. Get your plan in place when the sun is shining.

(3) You need to listen

If you stay holed-up in your office, or in meetings with other leaders, you won’t know what’s happening ‘on the ground’.

One of the most respected Chief Executives I ever worked with – he’s retired now from his role as the leader of a major UK Utility company – had a great reputation.

As one of his workforce put it: ‘whatever was happening, he could hold his own in the Board room or get out the back (of the offices) and share a cigarette with the workers.’ His purpose in getting out and about? To listen to what people were saying and to answer their questions in person.

Of course, he couldn’t get round everyone – the size of the organisation made that impossible – but he knew he could influence thinking and maintain visibility by being present with as many people at all levels as often as possible.

(4) You need to be the outlet for people’s emotions

A crisis drives strong emotional reactions, usually anger and hurt. People need to direct this emotion at someone. And guess what? You will become the recipient of this pain. This is toughest test of all for a leader – and the primary reason that they hide away.

You are only human after all. On the positive side, having the courage to take on the flak and deal with it (without becoming angry or defensive yourself) will strengthen relationships when you get back to business as usual and emotions calm down.

This is especially true if you remember to say sorry as well.


So, there you have it. No matter how tempted you are to hide when a crisis hits your organisation, resist. Staying visible is a must if you are to maintain credibility as a leader because:

  • You need to say sorry
  • You must to be the information source
  • You need to listen
  • You need to be the outlet for people’s emotions

Staying visible takes courage and can be personally exhausting at a time when you have lots of other calls on your attention. But failing to do so means you are abandoning your people at a time when they really need you – and that’s certainly not good leadership.

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