Crisis Leadership: In the Learning Zone


An excerpt from Chapter 8 of The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2016)

TROUBLES, TRIALS, HARDSHIPS, TURMOIL, hot water, exigencies, crises. Whatever we call them, eventually we’ll face them: difficult situations that test our ingenuity and resilience. Some gurus call it “leading at the edge,”[i] but the best crisis managers strive to get their teams away from that adrenaline-charged borderland of unthinking action, back to a calmer place where learning can occur.

Crisis Leadership

The sinking of the Titanic has been called the greatest news story of modern times.[ii] It is also a quintessential illustration of how, during a crisis, some leaders veer from complacency to panic while others manage to find a sweet spot that allows them and their people to keep moving forward, calmly and swiftly, even as the waters threaten to engulf them.

The many familiar examples of complacency aboard the “unsinkable ship” include the inadequate lifeboats; the absence of safety drills; the missing binoculars for the crow’s-nest lookouts; and above all Captain Smith’s decision to speed up, never mind the threat of icebergs, in hopes of reaching New York a day early as a fitting capstone to his career. The crew’s frenzied evacuation efforts are also infamous. Less well-known are the events aboard the other two ships sailing the north Atlantic on the night of April 14, 1912.

The Californian was the nearest, less than ten miles away and the best-placed to launch a rescue, but its crew members, like those of the Titanic, spent the first few hours of the crisis in relative idleness. Although the Titanic fired rockets for hours, the deck watch of the Californian assumed the rockets’ color (white, not red) meant a party with fireworks, so they watched unperturbed. As the ship sank, the Californian’s second officer remarked casually on its odd appearance but decided it must simply be sailing away. No one on board the Californian investigated anything until the wireless operator woke at dawn and discovered the Titanic’s distress messages, which triggered a frantic rescue effort—too late. In short, both ships’ leaders lurched from complacency to panic, and some fifteen hundred people died.

Contrast all this with what happened aboard the Carpathia, sixty miles away. That ship’s wireless operator, who had his earphones on while undressing for bed, received the Titanic’s first distress call at midnight. He woke Captain Rostron, who instantly ordered a reverse of course. The Carpathia raced to the disaster site (with lookouts increased so icebergs could be spotted early) and arrived fully prepared for rescue operations, the entire crew having been set to tasks such as swinging out lifeboats, collecting blankets, and rigging chair slings for the injured.

But one small detail says even more about Rostron as a leader. When he got the call, he ordered the Carpathia’s new course immediately, before checking the message and before calculating the Titanic’s location, and then, after they were under full steam, he verified the report, calculated the ships’ relative positions, and adjusted course. In other words: he neither sat on his hands nor went unhinged, but rather moved, evaluated, adjusted, and kept on moving. The Carpathia arrived on the scene at 4:10 a.m., in time to save the seven hundred people in the lifeboats. It seems that Rostron, alone of the three ship captains, knew how to dance with a crisis.

Four Crisis Zones

That sweet spot which Captain Rostron found and the other captains didn’t is the learning zone. Ronald Heifetz, founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, writes eloquently of the learning zone and its importance to teams and organizations in crisis. (He calls his approach adaptive leadership.[iii]) The idea is compelling, but much less has been written by Heifetz or anyone else about how to stay in the learning zone. The “how” is crucial, so I’ve sought to build on Heifetz’s theory and make it a little more actionable with a framework called the Crisis Zones (see Figure 8-1).

The two axes of the framework are unity and agility; as a leader, you want both to be high, especially during and after a crisis.[iv] When unity is high and agility low, you and your team are in the upper left box, the complacency zone, where signs of impending crisis and suggestions for adaptation are met with a chorus of “Around here, we always …” Conversely, when agility is high and unity low, you’re in the disconnection zone, where each person’s priority is saving his or her own skin: when the ship starts to go down, there’s a stampede for the lifeboats and devil take the hindmost. And when both unity and agility are low, you’re in the blame zone, where everybody’s main concern is to make sure all fingers are pointed firmly at somebody else. In each of these boxes, people’s thoughts and utterances tend to begin with just one pronoun—either we, or I, or they—and tend to be declarative: We always. I will. They are.

Figure 8-1: Crisis Zones

In the learning zone, in contrast, the focus is on all three pronouns and the tone is one of inquiry. The single most important thing a leader can do to keep his or her team in the learning zone, both during and after a crisis, is to ask these three questions:

  1. How might we resolve these difficulties and move forward as a team?
  2. How did I contribute to the difficulties, and how can I ensure I don’t make the same mistakes again?
  3. How did they (my team members) contribute to the difficulties, and how can I coach them so they avoid the same mistakes and are better prepared for the next crisis?

The questions’ order is critical. Leaders who begin with Question 3 will find it difficult to take up Questions 1 and 2; consequently, the original problem will remain unsolved, their own contribution to it will remain unacknowledged, and their team members will put their energy into deflecting blame now and covering their rears later. With nobody learning anything, the team will settle back into whichever zone is habitual and wait for the next crisis to come along—or more likely, the same crisis to repeat.


Jocelyn Davis is an international leadership consultant and author. Her latest book, THE GREATS ON LEADERSHIP, is a practical and entertaining look at leadership through the eyes of history’s masterminds, from Plato to Shakespeare to Jane Austen. SUCCESS magazine calls it “a book of substance that is a joy to read.” Connect with her at or on Twitter @JocelynRDavis.

[i] See, for example, Dennis N.T. Perkins, Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition (NY: AMACOM, 2000).

[ii] For an in-depth look at leadership’s role in the Titanic disaster, see Jocelyn R. Davis, Leadership Failures Sink Unsinkable Ship: Business Lessons from the Titanic (The Forum Corporation e-book, 2012, available on

[iii] Some of Heifetz’s best-known works are Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994), Leadership on the Line (2002), and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009).

[iv] For more on how to increase unity and agility—along with a third “people factor,” clarity—see Davis, Frechette, and Boswell, Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2010).