How to Successfully Lead When Dealing with a Personal Crisis

For chief executives, workplace crises are a relatively common scenario that can be handled with the same calmness and clarity that earns CEOs their role. But what happens when the crisis occurs in an executive’s personal life, ultimately impacting the business’s health and vitality?

You can’t plan for major crises, like a family member’s cancer diagnosis, a personal lawsuit, or your fiancé calling off the wedding, but there are steps you can take to help ease the coping process when crisis hits.

How a person handles crisis largely depends on his or her personality. We see 3 personality types:

1. Promoters are risk-taking entrepreneurs who prefer a fast-paced, action-oriented life. Crises slow Promoters down and require more attention be given to intimate relationships—two tasks that are very difficult for them. Promoters make up 5% of the general population, over 20% of top leaders, and up to 40% of entrepreneurs.

2. Persisters are mission-driven visionaries. Crises threaten their ability to protect the ones they love. Persisters make up just 10% of the general population, but account for more than 50% of the executives with whom we work.

“Persisters make up just 10% of the general population, but account for more than 50% of the executives with whom we work.”

3. Thinkers are hard-working planners. Crises interrupt their schedule and threaten their sense of control. Thinkers make up 25% of the general population, about 30% of mid-level managers, but only about 15% of top executives.

Here are 3 steps for surviving a crisis with yourself and your company intact.

1. Find a way to express emotion. CEOs learn to eliminate emotion and subjectivity from the majority of their decisions, but contrary to their belief, experiencing emotions isn’t a weakness. Last July, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a Promoter personality type, shared in a Facebook post that he and his wife, Priscilla, had three miscarriages before a successful pregnancy. In the post, we saw evidence that Mark had taken the time to experience the emotional difficulty and give energy to his relationship with Priscilla, both tasks critical to staying healthy.

The Facebook post also revealed a common defense mechanism demonstrated by Promoters: When expressing his feelings around the loss of the miscarriages, Zuckerberg switched from first-person to third-person language, saying “you” when he really meant “I.” Regardless of personality type, if executives lean on those closest to them and grant themselves the time to properly work through the grief, anger, loss and other emotions that arise, they will improve their chances of effectively being able to lead their teams and not compromise the health of their organization.

2. Compartmentalize, but don’t avoid. Compartmentalizing is a natural and healthy coping mechanism that can help keep our lives on track when one part is in crisis. But there is a difference between compartmentalizing and pushing emotions away. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, displays a lot of characteristics of the Persister personality type. In June 2014, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He coped in a more personal way, arranging treatments before work and buckling down to get through it, but also accepting permission from his fellow board members to take the necessary time off. Taking the time to deal with sadness and grief isn’t easy, but CEOs should remember that they’re not alone. Certain personality types, such as Persisters who tend to back away from emotions, may find it difficult to accept the support of others, but if they can anticipate the type of help they need, they can set boundaries where they feel comfortable.

3. Trust your team and delegate. To give yourself time to cope with a crisis, it’s essential to trust your team at work and delegate responsibilities. This can be especially hard for Thinkers who like to be in control, but it’s important to realize that we’re all in charge of our time, and often during trying times, it’s more important to spend time supporting the relationships that matter most. Joe Biden, a Thinker type, lost his son a few months before the 2016 presidential race began to ramp up, and although many people were looking at him to run for president, he instead took the time to prioritize his emotional health and his family.

Personal crisis can put people through the ringer, but it can also provide clarity into what’s most important in life, as well as our own strengths and weaknesses. Executives who fall into these three personality categories can struggle more than others to cope with crisis, but by understanding their natural reactions and how to trump them with healthier behaviors, they can overcome.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events