Leadership during Crises

in amenas algeria
The dissertation is based on unique access to gather data in a multinational corporation during simulated crises as well as a real crisis – the In Amenas terrorist attacks at a Statoil-operated production plant in Algeria. Photo: wikimedia commons
PhD Defense

10 May 2017 11:05

(updated: 10 May 2017 11:19)

Leadership during Crises

On Wednesday 24 May 2017 Synnøve Nesse will hold a trial lecture on a prescribed topic and defend her thesis for the PhD degree at NHH.

Prescribed topic for the trial lecture:

Managing Crisis: Lessons from Major Disasters

synnøve nesse phd-candidate
Synnøve Nesse is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Strategy and Management, NHH.

Trial lecture:

12:15 in Agnar Sandmo Aud., NHH

Title of the thesis:

When Leadership Matters More Than Leaders: Developing a Processual Perspective on Leadership during Organizational Crises


Organizational crises, whether triggered by industrial accidents, natural disasters or malicious actions, pose a tremendous call for effective leadership. Research to date has focused on how crisis leadership differs from leadership in general, and on which leadership style is generally effective in such situations.

This research has to a lesser degree addressed that what constitutes effective ledership in different crisis phases may vary over time, that many leaders and levels are often involved, and that the crisis organization itself is typically mobilized ad hoc. The research question Synnøve Nesse poses in this dissertation is therefore: How does leadership emerge and unfold during organizational crises?

The dissertation is based on unique access to gather data in a multinational corporation during simulated crises as well as a real crisis – the In Amenas terrorist attacks at a Statoil-operated production plant in Algeria. Based on three empirical studies, a process perspective on crisis leadership is developed. Overall, the findings indicate that crisis leadership is more than individual leaders, and that what you do as a leader is more important than who you are such as formal role and position. Crisis leadership is an emergent phenomenon, where informal leadership is as important as formal leadership. Crisis leadership, viewed from such a perspective, can be effectively trained by focusing on the needs of those being led, in their efforts to solve complex tasks during time pressure.

The first study shows that when senior executives are trained in crisis leadership, this affects trust, team psychological safety, and team performance. Furthermore, the studies of the real crisis show that crisis leadership is not static, hierarchical and based on plans. Instead, crisis leadership is a "heterarchical" phenomenon – characterized by dynamic power transitions based on situational needs. These changes in leadership are driven by who has the competence and legitimacy to lead at all times. Such a dynamic form leadership is enabled by factors such as a pool of trained leaders, plans that allow for improvisation, and crisis management norms, values ​​and culture. Further, there are effective leadership functions in these situations that are less important in other situations, and effective leadership involves that leaders across the organization transgress their own roles in contributing to collective efforts.

The findings contribute to novel insights for researchers as well as practitioners, for instance when it comes to how to prepare organizations for future crises.


13:45 in Agnar Sandmo Aud., NHH

Members of the evaluation committee:

Professor Karen Modesta Olsen (leader), NHH

Professor Ann Langley, HEC Montreal

Professor Christine Pearson, Thunderbird School of Global Management


Professor Inger G. Stensaker, Department of Strategy and Management, NHH

Professor Vidar Schei, Department of Strategy and Management, NHH

The candidate:  

Synnøve Nesse has pursued an industrial/business PhD at NHH, in a project funded by Falck Nutec, Statoil and the FOCUS programme at NHH and the SNF Centre for Applied Research in addition to the Norwegian Research Council. The candidate is a psychologist by training and has worked with leadership consulting for several years prior to her research career. She is currently employed as a researcher at SNF.

Email: synnove.nesse@snf.no

The trial lecture and thesis defence will be open to the public. Copies of the thesis will be available from presse@nhh.no.

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