In the midst of a crisis

Synnøve Nesse eng_
Synnøve Nesse, researcher at SNF and an expert in crisis management. Photo: Helge Skodvin
By Ove Sjøstrøm

12 January 2018 12:49

(updated: 16 January 2024 12:49)

In the midst of a crisis

Informal leaders emerge and take responsibility during crises. They often give the right orders and make the right priorities. What happens in an organisation when a crisis arises suddenly and without warning?

‘To put it simply: Crisis leaders emerge, it’s not something they are. Crisis leadership is a ‘heterarchical’ phenomenon. Authority is passed on from person to person based on situational needs,’ says psychologist Synnøve Nesse.

What is a crisis?

‘In my opinion, there are two primary elements that must be in place to be able to call a situation a crisis,’ says Nesse and elaborates:

‘One is great time pressure and uncertainty about the cause, effect and consequences to something that means a lot to an organisation. The second element of this interpretation of crisis is that the nature of the incident means that the ordinary organisation is unable to deal with what is happening, and that it requires a different form of leadership than usual.’

Crises and change management

Nesse’s doctoral thesis, which she defended at the end of May, was on the topic of strategic crisis leadership. She is now a researcher at SNF (Centre for Applied Research at NHH), and is head of the psychology consultancy company MindsAhead AS.

Together with Eva Tamber from the Administrative Research Institute (AFF) at NHH, she took part in a thematic meeting on change management at NHH at the end of November.

Change management is a diverse field within leadership theory. According to Nesse and Tamber, we can learn a lot from organisations that have faced crises and from the leadership role in aid organisations during humanitarian disasters. Crisis leadership is like an extreme version of change management.

On the inside

What triggers a crisis? It can be anything from natural disasters to manmade disasters, such as malicious acts. Statoil experienced this during the terror attack on its gas plant in In Amenas in Algeria in 2013.

‘What makes situations like this so extraordinary is that they appear to paralyse us, and therefore place great demands on the organisation and leaders affected,’ says Nesse.

In January 2013, Nesse was sitting in her office at NHH working on her doctorate when the phone rang. The call was from a Statoil manager, who asked her to come to Stavanger as quickly as possible. Hostages had been taken at a Statoil facility abroad, and lives were at stake.

An extreme situation

An attempt by the Algerian security forces on 17 January 2013 to free the hostages at the gas plant in In Amenas went terribly wrong. Forty people were killed. Seventeen employees at the plant, including five Norwegians, never made it home.

‘It was a very extreme situation that lasted over many days, and involved a lot of uncertainty, and culminated with the loss of many lives. The Financial Times called it the worst crisis the oil industry had ever seen,’ Nesse recalls.

Nesse had two roles during the crisis: as a researcher and as a psychologist for those who needed one in Statoil. There were a number of reasons Nesse was given access to the oil company during the most dramatic crisis in its history.

Support of a psychologist

‘At Falck Nutec, I had trained offshore installation managers in crisis leadership for Statoil, and the oil company gave me funding towards my doctoral degree. Statoil trusted me personally, and they needed the support of a psychologist,’ says Nesse.

She gained access to the whole organisation during those dramatic days in 2013.

‘I was allowed to walk around the emergency response centre and affiliated rooms. I travelled back and forth to Oslo, Bergen and Stavanger, and got to see first-hand how the  leadership of Statoil worked over eight days.’

The crisis leader

Nesse observed the whole spectrum of reactions in those who worked on the crisis. The reactions varied from strong physical reactions to an inability to act and feelings of guilt.

Effective humanitarian crisis leadership is, in no small part, about understanding the context. No two crises are the same.

AFF consultant Eva Tamber

‘Some of them became resigned and paralysed, and it was difficult to make contact with them,’ says Nesse.

‘Those who fared best already had crisis leadership training, and many of those who tackled the situation well had experienced crises before. The opposite was the case for those who were used to stable relational processes. They were more at a loss. The events simply caught many of them totally unawares.

Dynamic power transitions

When a crisis arises, you cannot wait for formal leaders to take action,’ says Nesse. ‘They might not be on hand, understand the crisis or have expertise in crisis leadership.

I was once quoted as saying that we don’t need formal leaders during crises. That's not true. What I was trying to say was that formal leadership must be supplemented with informal leadership. People with expertise who can double up with, or replace others who don’t function in the role there and then,’ says Nesse and goes on to say:

‘Good crisis leadership is achieved through dynamic power transitions. There are no rules in crises. That’s why we see informal leaders emerging and making the right decisions.’

In war and disaster

Eva Tamber works on both leadership development and leads aid workers during wars and disasters, and she has experience from the ground in Syria and Afghanistan. She has more than 25 years’ experience of leadership and leading positions in the private, public and humanitarian sectors. For Tamber, leadership in humanitarian crises is like extreme change management in many ways.

Eva Tamber eng
Eva Tamber, expert in leadership development at AFF. Photo: Helge Skodvin

‘Effective humanitarian crisis leadership is, in no small part, about understanding the context. No two crises are the same, and there’s never just one way of exercising leadership,’ Tamber says.

AFF experience

During the thematic meeting at NHH, Tamber took the audience back to the typhoon on the Philippines in 2014. After the long journey from Norway, she had jetlag. As she stepped out of the car at the field hospital where she was to serve as team leader, she was told that she had to give a speech to around 150 people who were waiting for her. She had no idea who was who in the audience, and had just a few seconds to establish trust and authority.

 ‘It went fine thanks to my experience,’ she says, and goes on to say:

‘You have to be prepared. You have to practise interaction and dealing with the unforeseen.’

Is it possible to practise dealing with the unforeseen?

‘Yes, but you have to realise at the same time that what happens will never be the same as what you have practised. Having a plan A and plan B makes me more able to deal with ending up somewhere else altogether,’ says Tamber and adds:

‘I always have a plan when I set off, but it’s about coping with changes while you’re out in the field.’


Functioning in different contexts requires humility, according to Tamber. On one of her missions, she let the interpreter in the field take on the role of leader to be able to negotiate with her male counterpart.

‘I could have dug my heels in as a modern Norwegian woman which would have got us nowhere. Instead, I stood aside, on the face of it, and let my male interpreter do the talking. It worked and we found a solution. If you understand the context in which you are operating as a leader, you’re well on your way.’

‘What is the link between humanitarian leadership and change management?’

‘Change management, to a great extent, deals with handling uncertainty and dilemmas. When I’m unsure about something, I return to my values. It’s also about having the ability to balance a number of demands and developing a common understanding, and being adaptable and flexible at a number of levels.’

Crisis leadership can be learned

There is a lot leaders and workers in an organisation can do to increase their ability to tackle crises.

‘Exposing themselves to mental and physical strains through scenario training and guidance is important,’ says Nesse, pointing out that a high degree of recognition helps.

Those who have first-hand experience of crises, cope better than those who have simply read a textbook. A leader must also be able to trust others and delegate authority, according to Nesse.

‘Who can be my substitute? And who can replace my substitute? Everyone can be trained in crisis leadership, but they won’t all be as good at this type of work,’ says Nesse.

Tamber gives the following three pieces of advice that should be followed before and during a crisis:

‘Prepare thoroughly and obtain as good an overview as possible when a crisis first arises. Remember that there isn’t just one answer, there are many perspectives, and you have to break patterns and create new frameworks. But the most important thing of all – use those around you.