Strategic Leadership and Decision Making Under Extreme Crisis: Looking at Complexity Through Flexible Lenses

By Pedro B. Água

Eleven years have elapsed since the 11 of March 2011, when one of the strongest earthquakes recorded in history did hit northeast Japan. Less than an hour after such earthquake, two gigantic tsunami waves hit the east coast of Japan bringing death to tens of thousands and destroying billions of pounds in assets. However, one of the most serious issues was the impact such tsunami waves had on the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi. As with most business executives and managers, and regardless of their education and training, the leaders and management at the Daiichi power plant, had probably not faced such a leadership challenge before and their response and decision making under high uncertainty and information scarcity, could not be based on formal decision-making algorithms. Complexity is the new normal for leaders and managers and some frameworks might be of help in leading under crisis situations.

Categorising extreme crisis situations

Generally, traditional management, leadership, and engineering education programmes address “normal” business situations, not diving deep enough into the development of management skills aimed at leading and deciding under extreme crisis. Some examples, however, as the cases posed by some explosions at industrial plants and similar infrastructures do happen, even if they are scarce. Such severe events could be categorized by being rare, but of high impact and consequences.  From the Piper Alpha accident in the North Sea, to the BP Deepwater Horizon accident at the Gulf of Mexico and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear drama in Japan; these are situations where uncertainty and potential impacts affecting lives and assets are extreme, and where the finest leadership and courage are called upon.

To provide some background to further support insight for leadership under crisis, the Fukushima Daiichi drama which caused already thousands of deaths is used as illustrative background. During the crisis peak, Mr. Yoshida, the Daiichi nuclear powerplant manager, had to deal with many critical issues at once, while trying to make sense of the whole situation with scarce information and bare pattern recognition. For instance, he had to direct the operations on the plant for the cooling of the nuclear reactors; caring for his employee’s lives, and surrounding populations which could be severely impacted by radiation, together with managing and coordinating with the company headquarters. 

Leaders shall be able recognise they are not anymore operating under a simple and stable context when some of these features reveal themselves. Among the defining characteristics of extreme crisis one can surely call the nature of the associated uncertainty, life and dead situations, high time pressure, as well as unclear patterns (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Categorising extreme crisis contexts

Uncertainty or lack of predictability do not trigger leaders and managers into a “crisis mode” just by itself, and typically a decision maker under solely high uncertainty would use some simple tool as for example a decision tree. Nor would a complicated context demand too much of a leader as such context could be harnessed through the use of experts. It is, however, when cause and effect are not evident, which happens when the contexts become complex (as oposed to just complicated) or chaotic, that decision making become more critical and uncertain; and such may have happened at Fukushima Daiichi, eleven years ago.

11 of March 2011 – The tsunami day

It could be a normal day at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, located in northeast Japan, however on that afternoon by 14:42 a 9.0 Richter scale earthquake with epicentre 130 km east of Japan hit the country, causing the automatic shutdown of several nuclear reactors [1], [2], [3]. The worst, however, was still to come. Less than one hour after such earthquake, two gigantic tsunami waves hit the east coast of Japan, taking thousands of lives, and hitting the Daiichi nuclear power plant. Being the top leader at a nuclear power plant is not exactly the same as leading some traditional thermoelectric or hydric power plant. To be at the top management of such plants, demands years if not decades of training and an acute sense for safety and the dangers associated with radiation, always present in the minds of such professionals, where the nation history remembers the impact of two atomic detonations. Therefore, when the Daiichi nuclear power plant was hit by the tsunami waves, the first thoughts were probably confusing and perhaps a sense of being lost in a disordered context.

– How shall a leader decide under such context, where human lives are at stake, information is scarce or non-existent for some time, and time pressure is extreme?

To answer this question let us look into how we make decisions and how an adequate framework may be useful in finding our way under extreme crisis.

We all decide based on models

We often are unaware that we decide based on models of reality. We can even argue that every model of reality is “wrong” as they just capture incomplete perspectives of a much richer and largely detailed reality. Therefore, we model reality in order to decide our actions, regardless of the type of model used – mental or formal (Figure 2). As it happens, some models and frameworks are more useful than others.

Figure 2 We model reality in order to decide our actions

For decision purposes, when combined, the crisis conditions make the whole decision-making context aggravate which may further escalate the crisis severity.

Moreover, deciding and acting should not be seen as a linear process but as an iterative one, where in practice one progressively blends decision and action. For decision purposes, when combined, the crisis conditions make the whole decision-making context aggravate which may further escalate the crisis severity. This is when formal and oftentimes mathematical tools lose priority and give place to more expedite approaches as for instance heuristics, which help manage the heat of the crisis until the whole situation stabilizes into some manageable track. This is especially critical under complex and chaotic contexts where pattern recognition is far from crystal clear but is potentially the only rope available.

– However, how do leaders under extreme crisis model reality to back their sometimes life & dead decisions, when patterns are not easily recognizable? 

Snowden & Boone Cynefin framework is one of such useful tools to have in mind under extreme crisis situations [4].

A useful tool for leaders under extreme crisis context – The Cynefin Framework

Acquiring the relevant aspects from reality into a model that supports decision making involves data, information, knowledge, to which one would add wisdom. Under the context of an extreme crisis, however, decisions have to be made with scarce information and under considerable time pressure. Under such situations decision makers shall operate with the minimal critical available information and be prepared to take risks. Snowden & Boone’s Cynefin framework helps in framing decisions based on one of five contexts, with two of them – complex and chaotic – typical of extreme crisis situations. Cynefin is a Welsh word associated itself with the concept of complexity. Under complex contexts leaders and decision makers may have some time to reflect on the situation and follow the process by probing, sensing, and responding, while under a chaotic context, there is no such time and the leader’s action shall follow the sequence act, sense, respond (Table 1).

Table 1 The Cynefin framework. Adapted from [4].

Besides these four contexts, there is a fifth one which can be described as “disorder”. Such is the case where none of the four other contexts are obvious, and the best approach a decision maker may take under such situation is to probe the situation by allocating it to each of the four previous contexts and see if some pattern is recognised which would allow him/her to categorise the situation into one of the four mentioned contexts. 

How to look into the Fuku-shima Daiichi events through the Cynefin lens?

The Cynefin framework provides a flexible lens which enable the observation of a situation, sometimes not clear at the outset. In the context of the Fukushima Daiichi, the decision maker, probably could not have it clear on the minutes or tens of minutes after the two tsunami waves have hit the power plant. After a while, however, he probed, sensed, and responded accordingly, when he sent a team with hand lanterns into the dark and a potentially radioactive environment within the reactor 1 building [1] [2] [3].

The Cynefin framework provides a flexible lens which enable the observation of a situation, sometimes not clear at the outset.

Masao Yoshida, the plant manager at Fukushima Daiichi also took risks, by pursuing the injection of seawater into the reactor Nr.1, hence, acting, then probing, in order to confirm he was on the right path to stabilise the crisis situation into a more manageable paradigm, by ensuring the cold down of the reactors’ temperature.

At the end the meltdown of the reactor was not avoided, and while the outcome of the situation was not as severe as the Chernobyl disaster, it may have released 100 times more radioactivity than the Hiroshima bombing [2]. His approach which could be framed by the Cynefin framework, showed how he acted, sensed and responded, even with personal career consequences for his decision to inject seawater into the reactor 1 (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Clarifying the context to respond. Inspired by [4].


Management and engineering education probably need to become more comprehensive and address extreme situations which are outside of the normal bell shape curve, that characterises traditional education and training programmes, and which oftentimes may have high impacts on organizations, threatening their existence or at least making a considerable damage to businesses. Awareness must be raised over the need to make executives and leaders more conscious of non-normal crisis situations which may cross their way. How to approach and respond to them depends on the context level of complexity. In the case of severe crisis, using a framework such as Cynefin helps in harnessing both complex and chaotic contexts, which shall be approached by initially probing or acting, respectively; then sense building in order to select the most suitable response.

The COVID-19 Pandemic which has been hitting the whole world is an example that forced millions or organizations and their leaders to react and act in ways that may be considered out of the normal, with differing levels of success. A framework such as the one referred to before, is useful in helping leaders harness their “compasses” when a crisis hits, being extremely helpful in showing the way out of such crisis, or at least managing for a more stabilized path, which bridges towards a potential solution. Organizations can learn from the analysis of past situations, however by using multiple models to lead a crisis situation is like using flexible lenses and provides lessons that help protect our organizations and sustaining a better tomorrow.

About the Author

Pedro B. Agua graduated from the Portuguese Naval Academy in Naval Sciences, specializing in Engineering. Currently a Professor of General Management at the Portuguese Naval Academy and Senior Teaching Fellow at AESE Business School, Lisbon. Professor Agua has authored many articles and book chapters featuring various systems, governance, and business policy subjects. He combines his teaching profile with an extensive business background of more than 27 years in cutting edge fields as defence, telecommunications, or subsea industry. Pedro holds an MBA from AESE and IESE Business School and a Ph.D. in Engineering and Management awarded by the University of Lisbon.


[1] Reb, J. & Joshi, H. (2012). The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Causes, Consequences, and Implications. Singapore Management University Case Nr. SMU103

[2] Reb, J. & Joshi, H. (2012). The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Leadership in Crisis. Singapore Management University Case Nr. SMU105

[3] Kase, K. & Nonaka, I. (2012). Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. IESE Business School Case Nr. IES269

[4] Snowden, D. J. & Boone, M. E. (2007). A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business Review. Nov.


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