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Most of the time leaders are wise to try to maintain a sense of stability. Constant urgency is a recipe for burnout, unhealthy turnover, and ultimately a short and unproductive term of leadership. Overreacting is a sure sign of insecurity and/or immaturity.

Wise leaders try to maintain an even keel and a confident posture even in times of difficulty.

But there are exceptional situations. Occasionally a leader recognizes that the organization is under-reacting to reality and the correct response is to raise the alarm and call all hands on deck for the emergency.

Over the years I have advised leaders that it it time to “create a crisis” as a way to energize staff, board, or donors to the raw reality of what is happening. It has been a rare occurrence, but there are some contexts where I believe it is justified:

-when a successful, long term leader is planning to resign or retire and there is no plan for succession I encourage the leader to set a specific date for their departure to force the organization to take the coming transition seriously

-when the ongoing strain on staff and volunteers to manage an excessive workload is pushing them into a lasting energy deficit I encourage the leader to suspend or cancel some programs until there is a sustainable staffing level

-when finances are putting day to day operations or critical strategic matters at risk I encourage the leader to sound the alarm for everyone (staff, board, donors) to rally to the cause and bring in needed revenue

-when an unhealthy culture, often centred around one or two individuals, is dragging down the team despite efforts to address the issues I encourage the leader to dismiss the damaging personalities and accept that their will be costs both in termination and in covering their workload until replacements can be hired and trained

I’m sure there are other examples.

The point is, when a leader sees clearly, and with solid evidence, that the organization is not responding properly to a dangerous reality it is their responsibility to act in ways that disturb the stability that enables issues to be ignored. It isn’t fun. It should be rare. But it is absolutely a tool every leader needs in their kit to be used when needed.

There are some leaders who create a crisis for the wrong reasons. Crisis can be used as a distraction from the leader’s own failings or an excuse for heavy handed decision making by leaders who are unable to build trust and loyalty from others. It can be a way to play on people’s emotions (particularly in fundraising) to overcome an absence of planning and accountability. And manufactured crisis can be a strategy for leaders whose insecurity makes them unable to be logical and strategic, depending on urgency and passion to mask their inadequacy for their role.

So when you encounter a leader who creates a crisis pause and consider: Is this a legitimate issue that has been dangerously ignored for too long; or is this a leader acting in desperation to cover up their lack or character or competence?