How to Plan for A Crisis (3 Keys to Actually Being Ready For Whatever Leadership Throws At You)

How do you plan for a crisis?

From one standpoint, the short answer is you can’t.

The better answer, though,  is that you actually can prepare for a crisis.

First up, here’s why it’s easy to fall for the lie that you can’t prepare for a crisis.

Crises are inherently unpredictable, uncertain and often you have little notice. That’s true of global crises and of the million small crises (like a key staff resignation, a personal health issue or interpersonal drama) that show up regularly on your radar as a leader, and as a human.

So it’s easy to throw up your hands and resign yourself to believing there’s nothing you can do to get ready for a crisis.

That’s not the whole story though….

While you can’t predict a crisis, you can prepare for one so you’re far more ready when (not if) they happen. Because they will happen. Regularly.

Here are three ways you can be much more prepared for your next crisis, whatever it is and whenever it happens.

1. Expect it. Leadership is Crisis Management. 

It’s easy to live with an idealized view of leadership in your mind.

  • Your team is getting along perfectly.
  • Nobody’s leaving or quitting.
  • Vision communicated is vision received.
  • There’s no looming global crisis that will disrupt your mission.
  • The financial picture is strong.

Of course, that world doesn’t exist.

Even in ‘normal conditions” you might get a few weeks or months of conditions like that, but in a much deeper sense, as much as you hate it, life is crisis. So is leadership.

As a result, every leader is a crisis leader because leadership, most days, involves crisis management. From the person who lands on your doorstep needing help, to the staff member who’s struggling, to someone in your organization who suffered a heart attack,  to a competitor who’s surging ahead of you, to an unexpected drop in revenue…crises pop up in unexpected places all the time.

There’s almost always an unexpected challenge or problem you’re facing. Throw the chaos of the world in general into the mix, and no wonder you feel so unstable.

So what do you do with this?

Strangely, you should expect crisis. Regularly. Weekly.

Leaders who fail to plan for a crisis plan to fail.

I get it, I’d rather live in a world where there is no crisis. But that world doesn’t exist. At least not here.

If you quit your job today because you just can’t stand the pressure, you just sign up for a different set of crises at your new job tomorrow. That’s life.

With that expectation set, let’s get practical.

2. Under-Schedule Your Week. Seriously…Try It. 

Much of the stress of crisis management springs from the fact that crisis always shows up as ‘extra’.

That three-hour meeting that wasn’t in your calendar where you attempted to tackle the emerging situation.

The half-day trip that ate up Wednesday so you could solve the problem in person.

That extra hospital visit to a sick board member you weren’t planning on making.

The restless night you had tossing and turning because you couldn’t stop thinking about the situation.

All of that is extra. You weren’t planning on it.

Add to the mix that your week is already back-to-back meetings and deadlines and suddenly your whole life moves into triple overdrive. It’s an unsustainable pace.

But just because you weren’t planning on a crisis doesn’t mean you can’t anticipate it.

The best way to practically handle the hundred unexpected things that pop up on a regular basis is to routinely under-schedule your week.

Let me repeat that: under-schedule your week.

The easiest way to do that is to look back on what your last few ‘ideal’ weeks (i.e. weeks that were really great) felt like. There’s a mathematical formula hidden in those ideal weeks that is a key to giving you the margin to tackle crises.

For me, the math works this way. When I have 12-15 commitments in a week, I consider my week full. Those commitments include routine meetings, ad hoc meetings, and even personal meetings I’m doing for fun.

Why 12-15? Well..

If I have more than 15 commitments in a week, I start to feel time-pressured and overwhelmed. I also have very little room left for the unexpected.

If I have fewer than 10-12, I grow restless and start to feel bored.

That’s just me.

Your number will be different, but you can find it by figuring out what your ideal conditions are for leading well.

When you look at my week, it’s underwhelming. It means that about 20-25 hours of my week are wide open. I’ll easily fill that time with writing, planning, and even routine things like email and helping out with projects from direct reports. But the point is I’m not overscheduled. I have margin.

Here’s the point: when a crisis, large or small, pops up, you already have time built in to take the extra call, book the meeting, spend some time thinking about it, and margin available to tackle that.

Think of your calendar a little like you would a financial emergency fund. Nobody wants their furnace to break, but when it does, to have money set aside for emergencies is a wonderful feeling.

To have time set aside for crises, surprises, and last-minute things is a valuable strategy.

The goal? To have the margin to tackle whatever life and leadership throw at you. And these days, it’s throwing a lot at us leaders.

Will that prepare you for March 2020 and a global pandemic? Nope, it won’t. Nothing really got us ready for that.

But it will prepare you to tackle almost everything else. And give you some hope that every week doesn’t have to be crushing.

3. Master the Art of Saying No (Nicely) 

A final way to be ready for whatever leadership throws at you is to master the art of saying no.

Without a strategy for saying no, you default to yes, and your life vaporizes with other people’s priorities being realized rather than yours. Your inability to say yes is the main reason your calendar gets crammed up week after week.

You realize, of course, that saying no to good things allows you to say yes to great things, but you cave again and say yes to a stupid meeting, which causes you to miss your son’s football game because crisis management has pushed your work schedule into the evening once again.

One of the keys to saying no is to develop a filter for what you say yes to.

Paraphrasing Greg McKeown from his classic book,  Essentialism, to determine whether you should do something, rate it on a scale from 0-10. If it’s not a 9, it’s a zero. (Greg recently interviewed me for his podcast by the way—you can listen here.)

The challenge with most leaders is that we know how to say no to really bad ideas and opportunities. There aren’t a lot of 2s and 3s you say yes to. But most leaders’ calendars get crowded with 6s, 7s, and 8s. Which leaves little room left over for anything else.

So, if it’s not a 9, it’s a zero.

If you’re looking to free up calendar space, that will help. Suddenly you’ve got margin, some of which will inevitably fill up with whatever that week brings. Which is exactly what margin is for.

Wondering how to say no and not be seen as a jerk or inaccessible?

I’ve got a whole section on mastering the art of saying no and categorical decision making in my latest book, At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy and Priorities Working In Your Favor.

What Helps You Plan for Crisis?

Obviously, there’s a lot more that could help you plan for a crisis. These are three strategies that have helped me.

What do you do that’s been effective? Scroll down and leave a comment!




How to Plan for A Crisis (3 Keys to Actually Being Ready For Whatever Leadership Throws At You)


  1. philip.john on September 22, 2021 at 12:00 pm

    Hello Carey,
    I first heard you when you were interviewed by Andy Stanley. You talked about your latest book At Your Best and I preordered it. And now I have signed up for your Master Class!
    Frankly, quite blown away and loving the content. This has motivated me to help others to manage their time and thrive!
    Philip John

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 22, 2021 at 1:50 pm

      Hey Philip John! Welcome to the community here!

      So glad you’re finding the content helpful. So thankful for Andy and his influence on my life. Really appreciate the encouraging words!

  2. Jeff Courter on September 22, 2021 at 9:40 am

    Very practical advice – I’m surprised I’ve never heard these comments before! I would expect this from something like the Harvard Business School, but not from a pastor – very good, Carey! Thank you!

    As a pastor myself, I frequently get emergency calls (even during a pandemic, sometimes even caused by the pandemic), and knowing to plan ahead for time to respond is wisdom I did not consider. I have too often been overcommitted in my schedule, so when an emergency comes up, time with family and personal time too often goes out the window.

    Prioritizing with mission in mind, as well as knowing what we can do vs. what we can’t, is the other side of the coin. Putting these two together is the definition of discernment, which every pastor needs.

    I don’t often respond to your articles (too busy! And you get enough comments), but this one was something I needed, so I want to thank you for writing this. You often have good advice, but this was profound, and uncommon.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 22, 2021 at 1:51 pm

      Thanks Jeff. Sometimes it’s the practical tips that make all the difference!

  3. Kari Riley on September 22, 2021 at 9:02 am

    I ordered the book At Your Best. I am ready to under-schedule and say no to the things that don’t align.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 22, 2021 at 1:51 pm

      Way to go Kari! We’ll be cheering for you here!

  4. Christopher Pineau on September 22, 2021 at 8:52 am

    That first part is especially good because I work in the retail/grocery industry, and my boss is extremely good at that first thing in particular. He’s a great boss because he treats us well, builds us up, does his level best to work with us and sets a good example by working hard himself and not asking us to do things he wouldn’t do himself. He’s not the sort (like managers I’ve endured working with in the past) who will fire you as a default response if you screw up, without giving you a chance to prove yourself and speak your side of the story. How he handles us so well with a full commitment to his family (wife & three little ones, two of whom are identical twins), I have no idea, but he does it. He also was one of the first people I spoke to last year when I was searching and wanting to reach out to God, and he gave me great advice that I still try to live by. In short, he’s a bad ass, as we Texans say, and in the Texan lexicon that’s a high compliment.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 22, 2021 at 1:52 pm

      Christopher I’m so glad you have a great boss. That’s so encouraging.

  5. Kimberly Robertson on September 22, 2021 at 7:57 am

    I’m really at the beginning of this leadership journey. I’m at the stage where I am learning how to be fully present to account for all the tasks, work and requirements.
    I have two children with complex mental health needs. This creates crisis, on the regular. I love how you said, “Plan for it.”
    I’m learning to leave space in my day, in short, to expect the unexpected.
    Thank you again. Great content.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 22, 2021 at 8:47 am

      Hi Kimberly…I learned the hard way. There’s always some kind of unexpected thing or crisis that pops up. Glad this helped!

  6. Morris A. Scott, Esq., M.A. on September 22, 2021 at 7:47 am

    This is so great! Thank you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 22, 2021 at 8:47 am

      Morris, thanks for the encouragement!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.