Leadership in Crisis


With COVID -19, the world is an unforeseen, unprecedented, uncertain, crisis. Virtually every nation’s political leadership, every CEO, as well as institutional leaders, are grappling with unbelievable challenges that confront them.

This short primer on leadership in crisis, is based on my three decades in the Indian Military and the fourth decade in institution leadership.

First Principles of a Crisis

“No Plan Survives Contact”. This quote, of the Prussian Field Marshal Van Molte, was up on my Commanding Officer’s table when I commanded my Infantry unit in Kashmir, 20 years ago. It tells you that however well-conceived your military plan is, when the first bullets are fired at you, plans change. In a crisis, plans change. Be prepared:

  • Have an alternate plan - a Plan B - think it through.
  • Make alternate to alternate plans, Plan C, Plan D - – think them through.
  • Don’t be fazed by the challenge – leadership is about managing the change for your organization – that’s why leaders exist. That’s when you count.

    “Nothing is as Bad as it Seems First”. As many around you panic, it’s good to believe that things will get better. It keeps you calm. However, work on the corollary too – “It’s Never as Good as it Seems” – prepare for the worst.


In a crisis, communication is key. Communication to inform everyone, to make execution plans, to ensure things move quickly, to ensure there is no ambivalence as you move to resolve the crisis. Look at the basic principles of military communication - the ABC Principles:

  • Accuracy - Does it cover the full picture, as we know it at that time?
  • Brevity - Is it brief? (Everyone is handling the crisis – no one has time for long paragraphs, they get misunderstood; use bullet points.)
  • Clarity - Is it clear to the receiver, are aims and objectives well laid out?

Read your communication twice – thrice – check on these principles, improve it, before sending it out.


I love the story of the Air Controller – and her two modes on the radar in the ATC – one, when it’s a normal day – the screen has clouds, birds, all aircrafts in the sky. When she sees is alerted to a possible crisis when two aircrafts could collide, she reverts to mode 2, when the radar has only the two aircrafts; blanks everything else out, as works to keep them apart, vertically and horizontally. Then she reverts to the normal mode after they are well separated. In crisis:

  • Don’t try to do everything you did before. It is a crisis.
  • Focus daily, weekly, on what you wish to address. Prioritize. Make a list.
  • Focus on what you will not do. Make a list.
  • Delegate – what is less important.

Rest and Recreation

Your rest and down-time is a priority. A fatigued leader will be useless soon, if it’s a prolonged crisis. The leader needs a clear head. On the day, and time, the Pakistanis bombed India on 3rd Dec 1971, and began the Indo Pak war, Gen Manekshaw famously went home from Army HQs. He said, “we are well prepared, let me come back after my shower”.

Make a daily log:

  • Rest time – including in the afternoon – (nights can be unexpectedly long in a crisis).
  • Time with the family.
  • Time to yourself to do what works best for you; poetry, music, meditation, exercise, silly jokes – whatever!
  • Time to Focus on the Crisis


This is a crisis of epic proportions – most seem to have a foreseeably timeline – this one is uncertain. The impact is incredibly global – nearly every nation and every human being on earth seems impacted. It is unprecedented.

More reason to look again at the first Principles.

And the final Principle.

Be Visible – a leader with the soldiers is the ultimate morale-booster for the fighters in the trenches. And retain a sense of humour when you are visible – a grim, worried leader is not the most inspiring, as people look up to you for directions.

For once the brave-hearts now, are not soldiers in olive green on the borders – it is the men and women in white – our medical fraternity – who are risking their lives, and going well beyond the call of duty.

A big salute to all of them!!

More By  :  Col. Gopal Karunakaran

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