Successful leadership in chaos

Successful leadership in chaos

Those who prepare for crises will repeatedly ask themselves how emergency teams should be led in the so-called chaos phase. The chaos phase is to be expected with every crisis. There could be exceptions for specially trained teams in very limited situations such as aircraft crews or reactor operators. 

Since a chaos phase can never be ruled out, crisis managers must prepare for such a phase. The Cynfin framework from Snowden and Boone, which distinguishes four crisis management situations, is helpful here:

  • Simple

The cause-effect relationship is immediately apparent to everyone. All structures and relations are known. There are correct answers, which immediately are obvious (example: failure of the engines of an airplane and emergency watering on the Hudson River).

  • Complicated situations

The cause-and-effect relationship can be determined; however, experts are necessary for this. The system is predictable, although not for everyone immediately. There may be several correct answers (example: Apollo 13).

  • Complex situations 

The cause-and-effect relationship cannot be determined with the known knowledge. Many unknowns exist, however orientation patterns are recognizable. The situation is often highly dynamic and its course is not predictable. Correct answers are not known - many answers compete with each other. Analyses even by experts no longer lead to success. Instead, creative and innovative or trial-and-error methods are necessary to find new explanations and develop solutions (example: Brexit).

  • Chaos

Chaotic situations are characterized by great turbulence. There are no cause-effect-relations. There are no starting points for finding the right answers. Many decisions are to be made under time pressure and high pressure. There is no time for trial-and-error (example: global financial crisis of 2007/08).

Crisis management can generally be divided into two different phases: combating the immediate consequences of a crisis. Here it is very often possible to switch from the chaos phase to a simple situation. And if this succeeds, the strategically responsible crisis managers also take a deep breath, which then leads to mistakes that cause the situation to escalate again in the "post-operative situation" and lead to chaos (cf. Richard Nixon's actions as a result of the Watergate investigations).

After Snowden and Boone, how should a manager act in different situations?


  • Leadership in chaotic situations (Acting - Perceiving - Reacting)

The main task of the responsible leader in the Chaosphase is to be visible. Both the people affected and the operational forces, the emergency teams, must recognize that someone has taken the lead who is expected to successfully lead through the crisis. What is needed is a "lighthouse in a storm" that shows the way and is trusted. If the leader succeeds in building trust, he will be able to build structures (e.g. leadership structures) and bring the situation out of the chaos (see Churchill at the beginning of his time as prime minister in World War II). His own actions - i.e. issuing orders - have the highest priority. For this purpose it is necessary to communicate clearly and directly. The chaos phase is not the time to ask questions and look for answers. Establishing structures and, with their help, leaving the chaos behind, has top priority. The goal is to establish and maintain structured leadership. The manager's decisions and orders must be made quickly and often without reflection. The leader must decide from the gut, for which it must have sufficient experiences. In the ideal case these unreflected decisions do not worsen the situation. 

A source of error also with very experienced crisis managers is that their experiences possibly do not fit at all to the current problem. The danger of wrong decisions is high. Another source of error is that it is easy to forget to look for new, innovative and better solutions. A further danger with - often only apparently - successful executives in the chaos phase is that a personality cult arises around them. If the manager lets himself be infected by it, he does not try to leave the chaos by establishing a leadership system: "It's just going so well." 

These dangers can be minimized by changing the prerequisites for a chaotic situation so that it becomes complex, complicated or simple. 

  • The most important measure to shorten the chaos is to minimize the number of necessary decisions that the manager himself has to make by delegating the decision-making authority to the subordinate managers. In "uniformed" organizations, this principle is called "leadership with mission"; it is currently being discussed again in discussions in connection with the "team of teams" concept.

  • ​A clear cause-effect relationship can be achieved by reducing complexity: "seeing the forest and not the trees". In this way, starting points for finding the right answers can also be found. 

  • Time to think can be "bought" by ordering tasks to be completed in a variety of crisis situations. Thus, resources (human and material) can be alerted at an early stage. 

  • And the psychological pressure can be reduced by convincing oneself that the current crisis is a training as one has often experienced it.

But the chaosphase also offers positive opportunities to find ways out of the crisis. Today, every crisis in the social media is discussed immediately and extensively. In addition to speculations about the cause, prejudices and accusations, possible solutions are also discussed. An evaluation of the social media can use crowd intelligence and perhaps locate the "one million euro idea". 

As soon as the chaos phase has been overcome, the decisions made must be questioned by all decision-makers and experts as well as their own views and assumptions. Improvised situational awareness must not be passed on to other situations. It could not unlike an undetected cancer lead to the collapse of the organization.

  • Leadership in Complex Situations (Investigation - Awareness - Reaction)

The moment the leader has managed to change a chaotic situation into a less demanding one, he has to change his leadership style. Acting is no longer their top priority, but investigating. Now the manager must create an environment in which experts can discuss certain partial questions intensively in order to find new solutions. In addition to the experts, time and special structures are also needed for these discussions. Staffs are to be installed which are to be organised according to the questions to be dealt with. The latter, however, do not follow the staff models of the usual doctrines. Today's world is far too complex and dynamic to be handled effectively and efficiently with the models of the 19th century. However, the basic principles of successful "decision-making in groups" continue to apply. 

Now is the time to increase communication between leaders and their environment. Creative techniques (e.g. brainstorming or mind mapping) should be used to find as many new and contradictory answers as possible. 

Since the discussions take some time and some leaders are impatient, there is now a danger that the latter will fall back into the leadership style of the chaos phase. This is to be prevented absolutely, even if in the Chaosphase successfully led. In addition, pressure is often generated from outside to become active quickly, which the manager must resist.

  • In this phase, the manager must concentrate more on structures than on facts. The environment of the experts and the operational emergency teams must be cultivated in such a way that they can perform their work effectively. The manager must carry out this change in leadership style and has pulled himself out of the swamp of micromanagement by his own hair. Patience, time for reflection and leadership with assignments are the keys to success. Crisis management must be organised through interaction with all stakeholders: priorities must be set and space, time, strength and information must be organised.

    In complex situations, the manager must be the gardener who cultivates a park out of the "wilderness of chaos" with different areas in which the different experts find ideal conditions to create new solutions.

  • Leadership in complicated situations (Perception - Analysis - Reaction)

If a manager is available in complicated situations and has experts with the necessary expertise, it is basically easy to master the crisis situation. The first thing to do is to make sure that all experts are "on board", as Gene Kranz, Flight Director at Apollo 13, demanded.

Expert groups often tend to be too self-assured and too in love with their own solutions or with the effectiveness of former solutions. If the manager falls under an analysis paralysis, the situation can quickly escalate. The manager's task is to take into account and evaluate different pieces of advice - even from non-experts. If they place themselves in the situation of those affected, common sense is usually sufficient to evaluate the different approaches. 

The danger of being drawn into the expert groups can be countered by delegating - leading by mandate. The manager must encourage the external and internal actors to question expert opinions in order to combat the "entangled knowledge". To encourage "thinking outside the box" and "looking beyond the box", it should encourage "experiments and games". Group work using simulations, scenario thinking and other creative techniques are promising methods in this phase.

In complicated situations, the manager must be the supervisor and animator, as well as the judge who evaluates the different arguments and makes a judgement.

  • Leadership in Simple Situations (Perception - Categorization - Acting)

In simple situations, according to Snowden and Boone, the manager should set goals, monitor, question and control - not actively intervene, but delegate. She has to make sure that the standard operation procedures, which at best are based on best practices, are applied. Extensive communication is no longer necessary. The manager should give his subordinate emergency teams time to work. If, however, they detect errors that lead to far-reaching deviations from the targets, they must intervene immediately. 

In this phase there is a threat of complacency and "swept away knowledge". Deviations from the desired course of crisis management are not recognized and the entire previous work is destroyed. Especially in the case of an erroneous situational awareness, a deviation of one's own understanding of the situation from the actual situation, the "crisis management measures" can further intensify the crisis. For this reason, managers should keep reminding themselves that Standard Operation Procedures are procedures that apply to a standard situation. However, such standard situations rarely occur 100% in reality. 

  • An executive should never believe that a situation is simple and unambiguous. It has to establish communication channels that question orthodoxy. The Internet also offers an important source of information and control. And the contact to the emergency teams on site must always be maintained, but without falling into micromanagement.

    In simple situations, the manager must be a moderator who guides the other actors in the right direction without being noticed and without appearing. She has to be the "invisible" referee who steers the football game to the delight of the spectators and players.


Andreas Hermann Karsten
Senior Consultant