Leadership and Crisis Communications: A Root Cause Analysis


Debra Davenport, Faculty

How a leader prevents and manages crises reveals significant information about their values, ethics and competencies. Proactive leaders understand the importance of issues management and pre-emptive communication strategies, both of which can mitigate potential problems before they become full-blown crises.

So when does an issue become a crisis? Typically, crises occur when either:

(a) an issue is left unmanaged and spins out of control or
(b) an unforeseen catastrophe occurs that threatens the stability of the organization.

According to Tony Jaques, an Australian-based issues and crisis consultant, and author of the book, Issue and Crisis Management: Exploring Issues, Crises, Risk and Reputation, Issue management is a normal executive activity, done according to schedule in office hours while business continues. A crisis, by definition, is outside normal experience; it causes top executives to drop all other priorities, and it may severely disrupt continuity of the organization’s core business.”

The successful management of issues and crises requires leaders who possess a number of key attributes.

These include:

  • A high internal locus of control. Essentially, locus of control is an indicator of our personal belief system. Those with an internal locus of control (LOC) believe that they are in charge of their own lives and destinies, while individuals with an external LOC believe the world (external factors) controls their lives. Highly effective leaders are self-driven, self-managed, and self-reliant; they do not buy into the concepts of “luck” and “chance.” They feel confident being in control of their lives, decisions, and actions. You can assess your own LOC here: http://www.psych.uncc.edu/pagoolka/LocusofControl-intro.html.
  • High emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (or EQ) was developed by Daniel Goleman and introduced in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. Goleman’s groundbreaking concept pointed to the importance of critical “people skills” and how these enable individuals to achieve peak performance and interpersonal relationships. You can complete a free online EQ assessment here: https://www.sdcity.edu/Portals/0/CMS_Editors/MESA/PDFs/EmotionalIntelligence.pdf.
  • A high willingness to learn, i.e. leaders are teachable and open to coaching and advice.
  • A high willingness to accept change.
  • Commitment to truthfulness, transparency and ethical practice.
  • A servant leader mentality, meaning their focus is on serving others rather than serving themselves.
  • Outstanding crisis communication skills.
  • Humility, grace, empathy, and compassion.

Bad leadership is very often the cause of organizational crises (consider the Enron, AIG, VW and Wells Fargo scandals). Recall the Costa Concordia captain, Francesco Schettino, who abandoned his own ship, leaving everyone else on board to fend for themselves as the ocean liner capsized (perhaps the most compelling case study in fear-based leadership in many decades). What followed this crisis were months of finger-pointing and righteous self-aggrandizement. In each of the cases noted above, failed leadership was the genesis of the crisis.

Taking this analysis one step further, it is not merely “bad leadership” at issue. The root cause* we need to examine is fear.

* Additional information regarding root cause analysis:


I like to view “fear” as an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. When leaders begin to believe their own erroneous thoughts (e.g. “We’ll be out of business in six months if we don’t doctor the books,” “We need to cover up that manufacturing mistake,” “If I tell the truth, I’ll surely lose my job”), they set into motion a sometimes unstoppable chain of events that can completely derail their organizations. Often, leaders do not realize the scope of their decisions and actions, especially when they’re more focused on saving face than on protecting their organization.

Signs of fear-based crisis communication include:

  • Blame-shifting
  • Denial
  • Indignation
  • “No comment”
  • Deflecting
  • Attacking the accuser(s)
  • Assuming the role of “victim”
  • Hiding
  • Silence

To compound the issue is the prevalence of leader sociopathy, which can manifest in various forms of toxic behaviors. For example, guilty leaders who position themselves as victims, feel no remorse for their actions and vigorously point the blame at others may, indeed, be sociopaths.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Antisocial personality disorder, sometimes called sociopathy, is a mental condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. People with antisocial personality disorder tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. They show no guilt or remorse for their behavior.” I worked for a sociopath early in my career; this individual annihilated her staff, destroyed company morale and embezzled over two million dollars, yet she charmed and manipulated the board of directors to cover her illegal activities for nearly four years. She was finally prosecuted, but not until the company was completely devastated.

Revisiting two recent scandals, VW and Wells Fargo, it appears that these two CEOs also exhibited leader sociopathy, in addition to fear-based decision-making. The fear of losing power, money and prestige can cause some leaders to engage in antisocial behaviors. For other leaders, the predisposition to antisocial behavior already exists (this is known as psychopathy). This is why hiring and screening practices for senior-level leaders must be exceptionally thorough. It is also the reason why strategic communicators must actively serve as the organization’s ethical compass and be watchful for any signs of questionable behaviors and business practices.

Unfortunately, the issue of leader sociopathy is real and, as such, it is something that communicators must consider. Here are two additional articles on this topic:

While professional communicators are certainly not expected to be psychologists, they should be acutely aware of the signs pointing to a toxic leader – and they should be prepared to coach and advise leaders and other executives about proper procedures and communications responses. If these go unheeded, then communicators must determine their own potential risk and make appropriate decisions to preserve the integrity of their own careers.

Learn More

Debra Davenport Ph.D. is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.