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How to Lead in a Crisis

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

Every day on the news you can see someone, somewhere experiencing a crisis. If you are in a leadership position (that includes you, project managers!) or if you want to be trusted as a leader, how you immediately respond to a crisis situation is critical.

Project people are always faced with risks to navigate and issues to overcome. This is just the way Projectland works. I call it Projectland, because the world of projects is completely different than the world of operations or “business as usual.”

As often as possible in my training and workshops, I simulate potential real situations in a safe space to help learners understand and practice how to respond during a crisis. These exercises are meant to feel uncomfortable and push participants to experience stress indicative of the real world. The idea is to prepare them for common situations in Projectland, so they’ll know what to do in the workplace if and when it happens to them. This is akin to a fire drill. We hope we never have to deal with a fire, but we prepare anyway. Fire drills help us to feel more confident that everyone knows what to do if a fire does happen and increase our chances of surviving a fire.


The most obvious thing NOT to do in the face of a crisis—in life or in the workplace—is to panic. And if you do panic, may it only be internal. The worst thing for a leader to do is show visible panic. This is not how we, as leaders, want to react in a crisis situation. If your team sees you panicking, they’ll likely panic even more and immediately lose faith in you as a leader.

In one memorable workshop in a major US city, we had a room full of very seasoned project managers alongside young professionals. It was a great group and they were all eager to learn new skills. It was the first time in a long time that their leadership had invested in their talent development, and most of them were grateful for the opportunity and were giving it their all.

I introduced a case study project with a high-stress simulation. In small groups, they had to evaluate the situation and decide together how they would handle it. Each team selected a spokesperson to deliver their report to the entire group. One seasoned senior project manager stepped up to give her team’s report. I was so surprised by her animated response, which included physically waving her arms above her head like Kermit the Frog.

Her voice rose an octave and she exclaimed, “Everything is falling apart!”

By the looks on everyone’s faces, I could tell they were not impressed. The good news is that this happened during training.

What do YOU do when everything feels like it’s falling apart on your project?


The first thing to do is stay calm. Appear to be in control of yourself and your own emotions even if on the inside you might be freaking out.

Quickly assess the situation and make a plan in your mind. There's that word we professional project managers love - Plan.

Ideally, you already created a plan in case this crisis happened and can check that plan to see if your planned response still makes sense. In Projectland, we call this risk planning. There are always expected and unexpected risks that happen on projects, and if you and your team have project experience, then you may have seen things go wrong on other projects that you imagine could happen on your current project too. These lessons that you and your team members have learned through experience can and should be leveraged to help your current project succeed.

The key point is to plan for things that could impact your ability to deliver on your project’s objectives. This is a crucial skill. Some things can happen right the first time, but more often than not, projects do not go according to plan. A good leader will also plan for those things that we can't anticipate, by simply adding some contingency time and budget to buy your way out of risks.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” – Benjamin Franklin”

If you talk about risks when everything is calm and feeling good, then you'll be in a much better place later.

Every time I fly on a commercial airplane, after everyone is seated, the flight attendants make sure that passengers are aware of safety procedures. Even though I’ve heard the same speech a thousand times, I appreciate the reminder and it comforts me to know that anyone new to flying has the opportunity to hear the drill. Whether or not they are paying any attention is another matter.

Elite organizations require planning ahead. Organizations that are lower in their maturity tend to fly by the seat of their pants, consider themselves to be agile and deal with things as they happen. For folks who are rebels and adrenaline junkies, I suppose this is an exciting way to work. For professionals who want to get the job done right the first time, with as few bumps and bruises as possible, there is thankfully an alternative approach.


In Projectland, we call it Risk Management. It’s so simple to perform and generally makes everyone feel better. The truth is that RISKS HAPPEN on projects. Because projects are unique by definition, that means you are a pioneer entering unknown territory. You just never know what kind of new obstacle you’re going to encounter or strange creature you’re going to meet in Projectland. So why plan? Like rain in the tropics in summertime and snow in the north in the winter, there are some risks that you can anticipate and you will look foolish if you didn’t.

By working as a team, even for a short period of time, you can create a basic risk plan that can make a huge difference between delivering a successful project and facing an embarrassing failure because “you should have seen that coming.” Ask your team what their worries are, what they are afraid could happen to derail the project, and what other similar situations they’ve been in that might inform what could go wrong. These are risks. For each risk, ask what specific and actionable suggestion they have for avoiding that risk altogether or reducing the impact of the risk if it does happen. These are risk responses. There are quite a few risks that you can avoid by taking action. Include those actions in your plans (e.g., schedule, budget/effort estimates, etc.).


Depending how scared the souls are on your team, you can go so crazy with this exercise that they want to include a major meteor hit and the zombie apocalypse in your plans! If your team is that enthusiastic, you can use the powers of sorting in a spreadsheet to assign a “likelihood” factor to each risk. How likely is the risk to happen: 3-high, 2-medium or 1-low? A “3-high” likelihood of occurrence is like snow in Buffalo, New York in the winter. On the other hand, the likelihood of seeing snow in the Florida Keys anytime is “1-low”. Sort your risks on how likely they are to occur and focus on creating plans for at least the risks that the team feels have the highest likelihood of occurring and derailing your project.

Another helpful assessment that you can make for each risk is the impact that it would have if it occurred. A “3-high” impact on your project could be if the only expert in the company leaves the project for any reason.

If you have identified a lot of risks, focus on creating response plans for the risks that rise to the top in your sort. These are the risks that are most likely to occur (3-high likelihood) and would have the most negative impact on your project if they do occur (3-high impact). Where possible, your response plans should reduce the impact and likelihood. This is how you manage risk like the pros and avoid looking like a rookie.


Especially in business cases and kickoff meetings, it’s a good idea to share your top risks (high likelihood and high impact) and response plans, so that everyone understands you’ve thought this through. You can pause and ask for their input, so that they can offer additional risks they’ve seen from their experience and risk response ideas that might be helpful. This helps YOU to avoid the risk that you will be blamed for not seeing something obvious coming. When you engage the team and leadership in risk planning, you get the benefit of their experience, too.


Risk management is a pro move and will help you demonstrate that you are a confident leader who sets expectations that the project will likely not be smooth sailing through the land of unicorns and rainbows AND that you have the right attitude and ability to lead the team through the unchartered terrain of Projectland.

Once you’re in the project and a crisis arises, stay calm, be decisive and do the next right thing. You can always make another decision later.


To learn more about how to manage projects using pro techniques like managing risks, check out our course! Dawn spent a year working with the pros at Udemy to distill over 20 years of experience into 5-minuteish videos to help project people navigate Projectland with ease. If your employer offers UDEMY BUSINESS, get the course here. It’s free for you!)

If your employer doesn’t offer Udemy Business, don’t worry! Use our special REFERRAL Link here to check it out. The first few videos are free!


About the Author: Dawn Mahan, PMP is an award-winning consultant, international speaker, coined the term “Projectland” a Top 3% trainer on Udemy and founder of PMOtraining, LLC. Her work preparing young professionals to work inside major corporations through YearUp has been featured in MarketWatch, Morningstar, Yahoo! Finance, and more.

To book Dawn to speak inside your organization, contact Ricardo Brett at

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