• Leadership

A Crisis Leadership Playbook

Gary Burnison, Kornferry CEO, offers a timely guide to accelerating through the ‘crisis curve’


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With the pandemic and its inevitable economic aftermath causing lockdowns, layoffs, furloughs, and pay reductions, emotions are running high in many workplaces. In this environment leading with confidence to help employees cope with uncertainty and fear, while at the same time providing strategic vision for the future, is a big ask.

Many management books have exalted senior managers to lead with emotional intelligence, empathy and inclusiveness and to provide purpose. These are essential qualities, but in stressful times they are extremely hard to bring together and deliver consistently.

In his new book, Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve, Gary Burnison covers all these things in the context of our anxious times and provides a well laid out guide and playbook for successful leadership and for organizational recovery through the pandemic and beyond.  

Burnison, Kornferry’s CEO, opens with ‘purpose’—the reason why the organization exists—which is the way leaders inspire others to believe and follow. “Knowing the ‘why’ is central to transforming self-interest to shared interest. Purpose must precede the first step,” he writes. The term U refers to the U-turn needed to accelerate out of pandemic’s downward trajectory—its ‘crisis curve’. It also refers to U as in YOU—"Leadership is not about U,” he asserts. “But it starts with U.”

Burnison definition of the crisis curve goes beyond the COVID-19 calamity and includes the social and technological disruptions that also characterize out troubled era—dynamics that are set to change the world and the business landscape forever. The leadership U in this context is about being comfortable in this fast-changing environment and u-turning away from past assumptions and ways of working to embrace a new vision for the future.

The U, as in ‘leadership starts with you’, is essentially saying leadership is all about other people and you have to truly connect with them—you must connect ‘me’ to ‘we’—for people to work together to realise common goals. In a small start-up business this can be about inspiring others through creating good personal relationships. In a corporation with thousands of employees, when this is impractical, the leader’s role must be to paint the bright vision of the future, to anchor the organization in purpose, and to set the course. The leader must “embody the purpose” says Burnison. “Then others must take it on from there”.

At the heart of the book is a framework for making all of this happen. A framework he calls The Six Degrees of Leadership:

Anticipate – foreseeing what lies ahead, amid ambiguity and uncertainty that are throttled up like never before.

Navigate – course-correcting in real time, to keep the organization on an even keel.

Communication – constantly connecting with others; the leader is both the messenger and the message.

Listen – breaking down the organizational hierarchy to gather insights at all levels—especially what the leader doesn’t want to hear.

Learn – applying learning agility, to “know what to do when you don’t know what to do.”

Lead – empowering others in a bottom-up culture that is more nimble, agile, innovative, and entrepreneurial than ever before.

Burnison provides a full chapter on each of these six headings. Although he does not offer any ground-breaking new thinking on these topics, his clear reasoning and presentation along with his authoritative calls to action provide a timely guide for senior leaders as they navigate through today’s troubled waters.

Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve, Gary Burnison, 2020, ISBN: 978-1-119-75332-2

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