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Leadership in Crisis

Leadership crisis2

As the leader of a company, no matter if you are the CEO or fthe manager of a branch, your main role is to lead your employees into success. When it all goes well, leading a group of people might seem like smooth sailing, an uncomplicated task.

However, the real challenge comes when there is a crisis in the company. That is when the real leadership skills stick out. People never forget how managers treat them, their employees, when they are facing loss, and crisis always test visions of leaders.

Leadership Vision

Visions are created by interacting with one’s team. The leader starts with a concern for a group of people, and a vision emerges. Then, these people are held through the change it takes to realize that vision together. The question is thus how the leaders hold their employees during hard times. 

Source: Neon Brand

What is “Holding”?

The term “holding” has a specific meaning in psychology. According to Donald Winnicott, the first psychoanalyst to conceptualize it, it describes the way that another person, often an authority figure, contains and interprets what’s happening in times of uncertainty.

Holding is characterized by the ability to sooth distress, reassuring employees that their jobs will be protected in times of uncertainty, give clear directions about what must be done. The main objectives when holding are to think clearly, offer reassurance, orient people and help them stick together. 

Holding in Childcare

Take educating two children. One of them is provided with a “holding environment”- the other one isn’t. Donald Winnicott posed himself this very observation. The child who’s provided “holding”, became comfortable and curious. She develops a robust sense of self.

Holding is not about showing them a particular path of action. It’s about procuring that they have all the choices to make their own path. Winnicott refines Freud’s idea that socialization tames us, and at the end makes us neurotic. It makes sense. When authorities impose a vision, there is very little room for us to discover who we truly are and who we can become.

Holding thus gives space to learn how to manage our own inner and social worlds. With an authority figure to help us through. A child that hasn’t been “held” is more prone to become less sociable, and more dependent as a grown up. They have only known one way – and no other choice.

These children have been taught that there aren’t a thousand possibilities to their problem. They therefore expect to be rescued by their parents, whilst being paralyzed by a challenge. 

Holding Onto Leadership

Source: Jason Leung

There are two kinds of “holding” found in an executive environment. But good leaders provide both. Gianpiero Petriglieri, professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD provides insight in this matter. If you look into a democratic society, it’s function is mostly based on holding.

This principle works best when it happens in the broader context of a society that is in itself secure enough and free enough to render interpersonal holding less necessary- a lot like the children comparison.


The first kind of holding is “institutional”. This consists of the duty of a leader to strengthen the structure and culture of an organisation or group. In times of crisis, it is important that a leader reaches out to his employees by providing a safety net around them. They put policies, procedures to reassure job security, fairness, and equal treatment in the workplace, etc.

For leaders in executive positions, this is the most impactful way of holding people in crisis. Because even if you can’t make predictions, you can still offer informed interpretations and hypothesis of possible outcomes- which is more than needed. 


The other type of holding is “intrapersonal”. It is important to understand the employee’s immediate experiences in relation to the crisis, and their concerns. It is not about being around and being supportive when needed- it is simply a mixture of permission to think freely and act, and curiosity. From then on, a leader can model their way of handling a crisis. 

First, one must take a moment to figure out what exactly is going on. Instead of having a meeting where the only response will be a chaotic and nervous assembly, a leader is to delegate responsibilities and then call for a subsequent meeting later on.

Source: Kraken Images

John Baldoni, famous leadership consultant sets out this clear set of rules. He says to act promptly, but not hurriedly, or else it makes people nervous; to manage expectations, without alarming people, don’t be afraid to speak out of the magnitude of the situations, transparency is best.

Holding the Control

Furthermore, it is important to demonstrate control, not of the situation, but of the response give. It is important not to lose composure, and ability to adapt rapidly. Also, a leader must continue to take new information, listen carefully, and consult employees and experts, to find the right path to fight the crisis. 

All of these factors are used by a leader to overcome difficulties, in a very introspective way. However, one must be careful of the possible difficulties that group thinking can bump into.

Historical Leadership

JFK’s group thinking in the infamous ‘bay of pigs’ attack is maybe one of the most embarrassing foreign policy decisions of all time- when his group became so swept with the spirit of camaraderie and belonging that they silenced their doubts, dissenting speeches, and outside of the box ideas, which led them to a catastrophic decision and more than 1200 Cuban exiles taken prisoners.

Source: History in HD

We cannot help but wonder whether if Kennedy’s advisors had properly been “held”, then they would have voiced their concerned, without being harboured by private doubts.

In the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., one of the advisors present at the meetings, Kennedy’s “senior officials… were unanimous for going ahead… Had one senior advisor opposed the adventure, I believe that Kennedy would have cancelled it. No one spoke against it.”

Don’t Keep Holding the Crisis

Leaders have a great deal of responsibility when handling a crisis. They have to carry their employees through this difficult times in ways that constructs their want and drive to continue pursuing the vision of the company, in order to overcome the crisis, to not give up. 

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