The Perfect Storm: The Leadership Bind During Crisis

How women leaders can face work-life conflict in times of crisis

Posted Sep 13, 2018

Javier Allegue Barros/Unsplash
Source: Javier Allegue Barros/Unsplash

Here I am in North Carolina, closely tracking the progress of Hurricane Florence. Her name sounds so calm, harkening the well-known founder of nursing. Though, while we like to think of Florence Nightingale as the nurturer of soldiers, she was quite a force to be reckoned with. So I suppose the namesake is not lost on me right now.

During times of impending crisis—whether it be an economic downturn, a natural disaster, or a major decline in an organization—the media likes to focus most heavily on how leaders perform under pressure to shore up hope, get people focused on one mission, and lead a group through the crisis. 

You rarely hear anything about the difficult decisions these leaders had to make to manage their personal and other obligations outside of that specific role. 

We often think of leadership as a role you have in one setting. In fact, it’s often the case that if you are leadership material, you serve in multiple leadership roles, both officially (at work) and unofficially (in your community, at home). 

We also often think of leadership under crisis as requiring one specific type of leadership style or response. In fact, different situations require different responses and styles: transactional vs. transformational, communal vs. agentic... I’ll leave the definitions for another post, but there are many leadership styles that work well under different conditions.

For women leaders, it may be even more complicated given how we often feel a deep sense of responsibility to our children, employees, bosses, and our community. Women are constantly juggling multiple leadership identities. Further compounding it is that the cultural revolution of women working full-time and in leadership roles in the workplace has not been matched by a cultural revolution of rebalancing the gender role expectations at home (as first described in Hochschild, 1989). 

We’re expected to be leaders everywhere or otherwise, let go of our profession. We have it all! We can be it all! Nice one, society. 

In my case, for example, yesterday: 

  • In my VA role, (1) I was working with my boss and administrative staff to decide what our emergency and management plan was going to be for our employees in the face of the incoming storm and (2) traveling to Washington, DC for a project.
  • In my non-profit board member role (3) I was (supposed to) help the group finalize a grant submission.
  • In my family role, my husband and I were trying to decide (4) whether to evacuate the state, (5) whether to take my parents with us (kicking and screaming and against their stubborn will), (6) when to feed the kids, (7) who would pick up one child and bring them to their gymnastics lesson (and whether that would happen or we would pack up and go), (8) whether we had all the emergency things we needed one way or another, (9) whether there was enough gas in the car (No, and all the gas stations had been emptied)… and so on. 

Some of the above are part of the normal work-life juggling we all seem to struggle with on a daily basis. But added to that are necessary questions of how leaders make decisions in different aspects of their lives that are affected by multiple competing priorities, and in the face of an impending crisis that will affect each one. In my case:

  • Do I go to DC, but then be separated from the family for a potentially extended period of time with uncertainty about their safety and mine? 
  • Do I prioritize my own family's evacuation plans over the need to be present and available at work to ensure smooth management of emergency plans at work for all the employees?
  • Who gets my attention first? Does anyone not get my attention? 

There are many models of the work-life balance, including the spillover (one part spills over into the other), compensation (what you lack in one part of life you can find in another part of life) and instrumental (each part of life can help you be successful in another) models.

In a crisis situation, the conflict model seems to fit best: when all aspects of life simultaneously present high levels of demand and force leaders to make difficult choices in the face of emotional and cognitive overload. 

How do women leaders make these decisions? There is almost no research on this. One of the few articles touching on this topic was by Loder (2005), who conducted a qualitative study of 31 Black and White women educational administrators of different generations. Loder found that how women administrators managed these conflicts of competing roles (administrator, wife, mother, caretaker) was informed by their generational and racial/ethnic identities. For example, women from older generations prioritized family above professional pursuits more often than their younger counterparts, and Black administrators relied more on extended family and friendship support to manage competing demands, whereas White administrators leaned more heavily on spousal/partner support.

While we wait for more research, if you are a leader, here are some questions to ask yourself to plan ahead of a crisis. You may want to discuss and share these ideas with all the people in your life to whom you are responsible in a leadership role (officially and unofficially):

  1. Consider your own values and beliefs as a guide. For example, does family always come first? Are there times when it can wait? 
  2. Who or what would you need to prioritize in different kinds of crisis? Which commitments would be okay to break? Think about this in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While you are more than capable of addressing higher order needs for yourself and others when things are going well (i.e., nurturing yours and others’ need for self-esteem, love, and belonging), times of crisis often require a heavier emphasis on re-establishing basic lower order priorities: safety, shelter, food, and sleep.
  3. Once you have a sense of the priority of needs, communicate these clearly to those to whom you feel most obligated and share your reasoning. (“Mommy needs to go to the hospital because right now there are sick people who still need care and I need to make sure they get help. Grandma is here to take care of you until I return.”)
  4. Can you rely on someone else to make certain decisions for you or with you? You don’t have to shoulder all burdens on your own, nor would that be very effective leadership. Make a list of who you can delegate to and who you can lean on for support and communicate with each what you need to make sure everything gets taken care of. 
  5. Be okay with not being everything to everyone. Women especially have a tendency to fall into this trap even in non-crisis times. During a crisis, this belief of doing it all is the least helpful and is likely to create more unnecessary conflict (internally and externally) and less effective leadership. 

Remember that while you will always be judged by one group or another for not doing enough in their eyes, you ultimately still have to live with yourself at the end of the day and you must feel good about the difficult decisions you had to make. Knowing what your own values, beliefs, and priorities are ahead of time—and then making decisions that are in line with those—can help you better execute the plan, ensure success, or make peace with the outcome.

Special thank you to Lynn Scherer, Development Director at Valley Medical Center, and to my husband (as always), for their keen editing eye! 


Hochschild, A. R. (1989). The second shift: Working parents and the revolution at home. New York: Viking.