Presidential Inauguration (Source: Secret Service, 2017).

Crisis Leadership: Leading Through Turmoil

The year 2020 has certainly had an abundance of turmoil and uncertainty: a global pandemic, a roller coaster economy, a national awakening to racial injustice, and a contested presidential election. All leaders have the required skills to manage in times of calmness. However, in times of turmoil and uncertainty, the leader that can act decisively and communicate a vision forward will be the best performer in successfully leading their team through a crisis, a transition, and uncertainty.

The premise of the 2015 book “Team of Teams,” which is co-authored by General Stanley A. McChrystal, is that organizations need to evolve and move away from old ways in order to become more agile. Early in the book, McChrystal did a comparison of how his command was top down, horizontal, and applying a structure that was not making the strides it needs in order to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) in 2006. A side-by-side illustration showed how McChrystal’s task force was organized juxtaposed to AQI’s decentralized and asymmetric network of operatives, financiers, and support entities. In the end, the task force overcame AQI by evolving into a more agile organization by extending out and forming teams that worked independently, but synchronous with the larger organization. They became one team comprised of smaller teams.

During a major Secret Service domestic security operation a few years ago, McChrystal’s concept of Team of Teams was mimicked. This concept resulted in the successful creation of 23 independent cells that functioned as one team with staff from different agencies, different organizations, and different work cultures. The genius of McChrystal’s premise is creating a system of systems to tackle issues, identify courses of action, and develop a plan.

Regardless of the crises or challenges, the key to leading through them is by having a structure that is agile and able to respond. In order to be agile, leaders have to empower second-level managers, first-level managers, and operational personnel to make decisions. During the Secret Service operation, all the team leaders were empowered to make decisions for their cells. To illustrate and reinforce this, team leaders saw a one slide PowerPoint of McChrystal’s diagrams with the instruction, “This is how we are set up. This is what we are up against.” They were told that, if they were to wait to get a decision from the top on how to proceed, then the decision point would have already passed and the opportunity would have been lost.

Hearing that they were empowered to make decisions was a foreign concept to the team. These were highly trained professionals that had spent their careers in very strict and rigid command structures that required them to push decisions up to the next level. Eventually they bought into this concept. When team members are not empowered, there is a risk of being overwhelmed at the first sign of a crisis.

Black Swans

Nassim Nicholas Taleb developed a theory about high-impact and high-profile events that are hard to predict. He used the metaphor of a black swan, a rarity in nature, to describe these extreme surprise events. The paradox of the black swan event is that, in hindsight, leaders often believe that the signs were there and that the event could have been avoided. If that were truly the case, then the event was not a black swan. However, although the triggering event may not be a black swan, the second-order effects of that triggering event could create black swans. That uncertainty can wreak havoc on an organization.

For example, the designation of SARS-COVID-19 as a pandemic was not necessarily a black swan event. The World Health Organization and others recognized the potential impacts of this virus beyond the borders of China. Once the virus became widespread in Europe and North America, it seemed to stymie leaders across many disciplines (public policy, public health, border security, and emergency response). Further compounding the effects of the virus were missteps by political leaders. Even Taleb has publicly stated that SARS-COVID-19 was not a black swan but rather a result of government incompetence.

However, the impacts of scrambling to develop remote working infrastructure, not foreseeing budget expenditures for personal protective equipment and teleworking capabilities, and identifying and creating redundant staffing plans to maintain force readiness were likely to be black swans for most organizations. The leadership challenges created by black swans are indeed born out of uncertainty and unknowns. The feeling of not being in control or having a plan is not normal for any leader or their executive team. The leader that builds a team of teams systems approach will be able to take on any event or second-order pop-up crises that can plague a high-performing organization with a zero fail mission.


In 2016, Harvard Business Review (HBR) released the results of a 10-year longitudinal study examining the traits of great executives. In this study, HBR identified particular skills that separated great leaders from good leaders. Key among these skills was the ability to make great decisions. Great leaders can operate on a decision matrix continuum that spans an entire spectrum of relying on data analytics all the way to intuition (i.e., trusting their gut).

During a crisis, an executive team is inundated with information and data. Great leaders, though, do not give in to impulsivity or allow their teams to get bogged down in analysis paralysis. Without striking a balance between the two, it will become dizzying as wave after wave of data and information flow through the organization. Indecisiveness or the inability to move quickly could actually increase an organization’s risk. Leaders that cannot make tough decisions quickly, also risk losing the confidence of their team in the leader’s abilities. Former Secretary of State and General Colin Powell summed it up in his 40/70 Rule. Procrastination in the name of reducing risk will actually increase an organization’s risk. Waiting for enough data to ensure 100% success will only cost an organization critical opportunities.

Of course, making decisions does not involve a haphazard process that disregards caution. On the contrary, in the middle of a crisis, moving quickly is a far better approach than creating an information bottleneck. For example, in the midst of an organization’s COVID response, the leadership team did not have time to become bogged down in reviewing which diagnostic test was best for screening the workforce. At the onset of the pandemic, the supply chain for testing kits was scarce. Leaders had to make quick decisions in order to secure a minimum number of kits until a more mature and robust supply chain for COVID testing was developed. High-performing leaders understand that making decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction does not always translate to making a great decision all of the time – but it is better than making no decision at all.


Communicating to the workforce has been critical in all of the crises experienced in 2020. As the Secret Service and other executive teams across the nation navigated the myriad of uncertainties, it has been critical to provide updates to all levels of employees, as well as to sustain the workforce physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Although it was important that all employees knew exactly what actions were being taken and the intentions of the executive team and agency head, it was not always easy. There is the potential to oversaturate with communication and the message becomes white noise to the workforce. It is important to find the right battle rhythm for executive communications.

In several situations during the pandemic, dealing with the death of an employee (fortunately, for the Secret Service not COVID-related), engaging in a dialogue with the workforce about racial inequality, or responding to demonstrations on racial injustice at the White House, it was important to be accessible to employees. In certain situations, the Secret Service was dealing with all of the aforementioned examples at the same time. Therefore, it became extremely important that leaders were seen at the operational level and that leaders heard from employees as they dealt with a crisis, grappled with the loss of a colleague, or coped with the uncertainties of a contagious virus. The communication should not flow one way from the top down. It should be a two-way stream from the frontline worker all the way to senior-level managers and vice versa.

A benefit that came out of the crisis of the pandemic was that it forced the Secret Service to find new mediums for employee engagement and collaboration. Most of its workforce are frontline operators, but there were still requirements for video teleconferencing tools to communicate operational orders and fulfill the agency’s integrated mission. These mediums became the conveyance to have thoughtful and honest discussions on racial disparities and injustice that were cathartic and healing for all.

Future Planning

The following key lessons learned from 2020 should be considered when planning for future crises and disasters:

  • Recognize that times of uncertainty and crisis can neutralize even the best of plans.
  • Define resilience for the organization and boil it down to the most essential organizational priorities or mission-essential functions.
  • Have a crisis plan ready to go but understand that a black swan will happen, and it is very likely built on assumptions that you may not have considered.
  • Establish a systems approach and set up a team of teams.
  • Assign cells to formulate plans for specific areas of concentration.
  • Empower those teams to make decisions and encourage them to not get bogged down in analysis paralysis.
  • Listen to the teams’ findings and solicit their recommendations.
  • Make decisions earlier, faster, and with conviction as the ground situation changes and data flows into the organization.
  • Keep the workforce – the most precious resource and asset – in the information loop.
  • Communicate with the workforce and listen to what they are saying.

Doing all of the above will enable any organization to emerge from a crisis as a stronger, more agile, and more resilient entity.

Ronald L. Rowe, Jr.

Ronald L. Rowe Jr. serves as the Deputy Assistant Director for the United States Secret Service’s Office of Protective Operations. From January 2017 through September 2018, he served as the Deputy Assistant Director for the Office of Intergovernmental and Legislative Affairs. Throughout his 21-year Secret Service career, he has served in a variety of leadership positions and assignments. These have included selection as the National Special Security Event (NSSE) coordinator for the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2013, he was selected for a joint-duty assignment to the intelligence community and served on the staff of the Director of National Intelligence. He also served as a senior advisor and deputy national intelligence officer for cyber issues at the National Intelligence Council. In 2011, he was detailed to the White House-Executive Office of the President as a national security and law enforcement policy advisor. His other assignments have included selection as a Congressional Fellow to the staff of the United States Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary. In 2004, he was selected for assignment to the Presidential Protective Division and served for four years. He began his Secret Service career in the Miami Field Office and the West Palm Beach Resident Office. He entered public service 25 years ago starting as a police officer with the City of West Palm Beach, Florida. He is a 2019 graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Executive Leaders Program in Homeland Defense and Security at Monterey, California.



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