Guns and Gear

Leadership 101: Crisis leadership

Mike Piccione Editor, Guns & Gear
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By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Training builds leaders. Experience develops them. Crisis refines them. And crisis is coming, let’s not kid ourselves. It always has, always will. The leader enjoying the privilege of command today will have the burden of command forced upon him in the crisis tomorrow. There is no escaping it, nor should we as leaders want to escape it.

But we need reliable tools to deal with crisis.

First, we need professional knowledge and competency, information (intelligence), and the wisdom to apply both quickly while under extreme stress.


In recent years, it has become increasingly socially acceptable not to know something, or not to know how to do something. For the leader in a crisis situation that is totally unacceptable. We, as leaders in a crisis, have to know. We have to have the answer.

Despite what the champions of self-esteem-building over competition would have us believe, there is nothing cute, charming, or endearing about ignorance of a topic. If we don’t know or don’t have the answer, we have to know how to find out what we don’t know. There is an answer somewhere; the age of electronic information has pretty much guaranteed that. And if a leader is incapable of finding the answer expeditiously, he or she has no business leading a dog sled. Period.

Second, the leader also has to be decisive. He has to make decisions in a crisis, and the decisions often need to be made quickly with limited information (or intelligence), though never haphazardly.

Third, and just as important as knowledge and competency, information, and decisiveness; the leader’s physical presence is required in a crisis.

PRESENCE IS VITAL                                               

During the massive Confederate artillery barrage which preceded Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock – seated erect and defiant in the saddle – rode along his lines within clear sight of his men all of whom were hunkered down trying to best protect themselves from the hellish shelling and steel themselves for the forthcoming infantry attack.

A subordinate officer witnessing this, pleaded with Hancock to dismount and take cover like everyone else.

Hancock responded, “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.”

Nearly 150 years later, U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient, echoed Hancock’s sentiments, telling me that in a crisis the combat commander must be seen by his men.

“The physical presence of the commander is important, particularly when it gets tough,” said Livingston.

Beyond knowledge and competency, information, decisiveness, and presence, the leader during crisis may find himself having to temper anxious or overzealous subordinate leaders. He will need to watch for dissent and quash it wherever it rears its head. He may have to strengthen those weakened by the onset of crisis, and he will need to embolden the fearful, restore confidence in everyone, maintain discipline, smile, willingly serve, sacrifice, face the enemy (if that’s what the crisis is about) and put his shoulder to the wheel just like everyone else.

Shackleton’s WAY

British Explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton – described by one of his men as “the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none” – is best known, not for failing to be the first to reach the South Pole (the goal he set, but never achieved); but for saving the lives of all 27 of his men who were stranded with him in the frigid Antarctic from 1914-1916.

Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole was doomed when his ship, Endurance, became stuck in the ice more than 1,200 miles from the nearest outpost. As temperatures plummeted and the ice hardened and shifted, Endurance’s hull was crushed, and the ship was ultimately consumed by the icy sea.

Shackleton’s new goal was to bring every man home, alive. That he did. But it was not without a herculean effort on the part of Shackleton’s men – some of whom challenged their commander – and the unique leadership skills of Shackleton himself.

I say, unique because though Shackleton was wholly capable of – and often compelled to make the hard decisions – he had an extraordinary depth of compassion. “A Viking with a mother’s heart,” is how one man described him, according to “Shackleton’s Way – Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer.”


In an article, “Leading in Trying Times: The Case of Ernest Shackleton” (Psychology Today, Jan. 6, 2011), Dr. Christopher Peterson makes six interesting points about Shackleton’s leadership.

First, Shackleton “had [and demonstrated] unshakeable optimism.”

I would add to Peterson’s point that this optimism must also be believable. A true leader – leading intelligent men (and women) – must always find a way to provide substantive hope and a way forward. Hope and a way equal believable optimism.

Second, Shackleton “shared hardships with his men.”

This goes without saying. One does not lord over his charges, particularly in times of stress. For example, the leader eats whatever his men eat, and he either eats with them or only after they’ve been fed.

Bill George, writing for the Wall Street Journal, says, “If there are sacrifices to be made, leaders should step up and make the greatest sacrifices themselves.”


Third, Shackleton “established a loose hierarchy among his men.” Interestingly, we find this system today being employed within the special-operations community especially at the small-unit level. This kind of “loose hierarchy” stimulates creativity, turns the team into a mini think-tank during a crisis, an ideas-incubator that can innovate on the fly in much the same way the Apollo 13 astronauts did when their craft was crippled enroute to the moon.

Fourth, Shackleton “was able to be both a friend and a leader of the members of his crew.”

This is of particular interest to me as it reminds me of Marine Gen. John A. Lejeune’s sage words; “The relation between officers and enlisted men should in no sense be that of superior and inferior nor that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar. In fact, it should partake of the nature of the relation between father and son, to the extent that officers, especially commanding officers, are responsible for the physical, mental, and moral welfare, as well as the discipline and military training of the young men under their command who are serving the nation in the Marine Corps.”

Fifth, Shackleton “possessed ample social intelligence, understanding what made his crew members tick as individuals and tailoring his interactions accordingly.”

This is achieved with empathy, selflessness, and a real sense of putting oneself in another’s shoes.

Six, Shackleton “possessed incredible technical skills honed over decades of exploration which he was able to use in leading his crew and helping them to survive. He knew what he was doing, and his men knew this as well.”

This takes us back to professional knowledge and competency.


The only other salient point – and one in which I’ve reserved for emphatic last – is that the leader must always be composed. He must remain calm in times of stress. For those who will depend on him, his face must always be the bright, loving, always encouraging, ever-confident face of someone who is perhaps a bit stronger than they are, but every bit as human.

Stay with us. There’s so much more, including a great deal more on leadership during crisis (Previous Leadership 101 pieces are available here, here, here, and here). If you have questions or suggestions, I’m at

– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor who writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. He directs the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. Smith’s website is