Navigating an Organizational Crisis

When Leadership Matters Most

by Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson


How can a responsible leader prepare for the challenges of an unexpected organizational crisis?

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Cover image for Navigating an Organizational Crisis

January 2016


Pages 166
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Business/Leadership

How are leaders facing a crisis supposed to handle and overcome an unknowable set of issues? This book demonstrates how effective leaders under pressure work from an understanding of the situation at hand and of their impact on others, and explains how leaders can best apply their internal strengths.

Most leaders are steeped in risk management, crisis response tactics, readiness for disaster, continuity-of-operations planning, and logistical and agility capabilities. These preparations are critical but not complete. The reality is that even experienced leaders themselves need guidance when it comes to managing a crisis. This standout book fills that need, drawing on interviews with successful leaders; research findings on trauma, neuroscience, and crisis management; and the authors' own extensive career experiences. The chapters suggest and probe ideas from various angles rather than promoting simplistic formulas or nostrums that are unlikely to apply to all circumstances and present new angles on self-awareness and management under pressure for the practitioner.

The book leads off with a description of organizational disaster and crisis leadership—topics of considerable concern as disasters are becoming the "new normal." The authors then explore three critical but very different types of responses by leaders at such a time: recognition and response, care of self and others, and storytelling. A detailed case study of a leader in the midst of Hurricane Katrina—the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history—provides readers with a real-world practicum for the theories and ideas suggested.


  • Comprehensively addresses a universal and very important concern of leaders: "How will I respond in a crisis?"
  • Identifies clear expectations for leadership performance in the immediate moments after an organizational shock and in the succeeding hours, days, and months
  • Highlights how a leader's skills and willingness to create meaning through story is an essential capability in a crisis
  • Draws from a variety of social science research as well as leadership stories to make key points that may be unexpected and counterintuitive
Author Info

Harry Hutson, PhD, is an independent consultant who coaches leaders, designs and delivers leadership development initiatives, and writes about leadership. He has held executive roles in four multinational corporations and teaching roles in several universities. His books include Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations: Lessons from the Third Sector (with Barry Dym) and Putting Hope to Work: Five Principles to Activate Your Organization's Most Powerful Resource (with Barbara Perry). Hutson holds degrees from Hamilton College, Harvard Divinity School, Stanford University, and Indiana University. His website is

Martha Johnson, MBA, is an author, speaker, and consultant with a 35-year career in public and private organizations. She served President Obama as the Administrator of the General Services Administration. She also served eight years with the Clinton Administration. Her business career includes senior positions at Cummins Engine Company, Computer Sciences Corporation, SRA International, and the Boston architecture firm, Ellenzweig. Her published work includes On My Watch: Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience, an Amazon best seller in 2013; and a novel, In Our Midst. Johnson holds degrees from Oberlin College and Yale University. She blogs at



"A must read for a fast moving and volatile world."—John Kim, President, New York Life

"Take it from me, real leadership is never an easy ride. There are pearls of wisdom in this book that continue to be helpful to me as a leader, though one in particular stands out: be a listener, a good listener, even when you don't like what you're hearing."—Michael Dukakis, Former Governor of Massachusetts

"In a crisis, it is often about winning the day, and the next day, and the one after that. They have written the Scout's Handbook for leadership in a crisis."—Josh Sawislak, Global Director of Resilience, AECOM

"Prepare to be captivated by the depth of wisdom offered by Harry and Martha in this strikingly well-written book. The authors surprise and engage you with their ability to share their stories, the stories of others, and a cornucopia of research to provide much-needed guidance to leaders who will sooner or later have to deal with a crisis of unexpected magnitude."—Amy Avergun, Leadership Training Designer

"I knew Martha Johnson professionally from her time at GSA and respected her as a leader in the federal service. Her resilience in dealing with the situation that senselessly brought about her resignation was amazing, and this book provides insights to us all who have undergone some personal crisis of our own. As a political exile from Cuba and a veteran of such an unmitigated disaster as the Bay of Pigs, this book would have been very helpful to all of us who had to navigate our individual catastrophes and get back on our own two feet."—Ramon C. Barquin, President, Barquin International

"Should be required for leadership development curricula. Hutson and Johnson reach deeply into both what to do and how to be when faced with a crisis in our complex and dangerous world."—Sharon Benjamin, PhD, Adjunct Professor, NYU

"Those involved in leading large organizations . . . or those who aspire to lead . . . may never encounter an organization-threatening crisis. But for those who do, their ability to lead their organization out of the valley of crisis will be the critical event by which, when all is said and done, their careers will be measured. Ignore this story at your peril!"—John Graham Cook, Retired VP HR, Fortune 400 Corporation

"In Italian, the word nave refers to a large, ocean-worthy ship, built to withstand the rigors of these journeys. Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson's new book provides such a nave for individuals and corporate systems alike, in helping us to withstand all that can and will happen in such journeys. It is their deft weaving of trauma and chaos theory into the real life of organizations whose moorings have come loose that sets their work apart. Fortunately they steer clear of those pleasant but useless aphorisms such as 'it will get better,' 'just wait for the next day,' etc., and instead show how such 'dark night of the soul' experiences may lead to what I have termed 'secular miracles.' A must-read for anyone seeking to understand the real life experiences of change and turbulence in organization and leaders."—Dr. Michael Conforti, Jungian Psychoanalyst, Founder/DIrector of the Assisi Instutite

In the News

Hardy Executives Handle Adversity With Aplomb, Rise To Challenges, Investor's Business Daily , 2/26/2016

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