How to develop crisis leadership using extreme fiction pt1

L&D need new tools to meet demand for crisis leadership skills and in part one of a two-part feature David Buchanan and Markus Hällgren explore the use of fictional narrative to provide leaders with insight.

We live in a world of surprises, where the business environment can be upended suddenly by unanticipated events. This puts crisis leadership capabilities in the spotlight. How prepared is your organisation to respond to unforeseen events? If not, then L&D is also in the spotlight. 

We traditionally rely on lessons from the past – the  crash, the explosion, the outbreak. But how can we develop leaders to deal with future crises, with events never experienced, and which are hardly imaginable? The answer lies with the fact that such events have been imagined – by  novelists and screen writers, not by consultants or researchers.

Learning from the future

We have been experimenting with a leadership development approach using ‘extreme fiction’ –  radically imaginative narratives – to stimulate creative ideas for managing the unpredictable. Participants have included UK managers, and members of the Swedish police force.

To trigger creative thinking, we use the zombie movie Day of the Dead, and the popular television series The Walking Dead.  Zombie stories are actually about us, not them.

An attack had been foreseen, by a US counter-terrorism official whose thinking was inspired, not by intelligence sources, but by the novels of Tom Clancy

What value does extreme fiction have in the real world? Security services were blamed for a failure of imagination after the ‘9/11’ attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. But such an attack had been foreseen, by a US counter-terrorism official whose thinking was inspired, not by intelligence sources, but by the novels of Tom Clancy.

The television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired a template – ‘The Buffy Paradigm’ – for anticipating novel biological and radiological terror threats. The zombie novel, World War Z, is used by its author to teach strategic studies.

The United States Strategic Command has a training exercise, Counter-Zombie Dominance Operations, which it uses to stimulate creative thinking in response to unexpected threats and develop disaster preparedness. Given the challenges which those involved have to deal with, leadership themes are prominent in extreme fiction.

Surviving a zombie apocalypse

The Walking Dead tells the story of groups of survivors following a zombie apocalypse – a radically extreme crisis. Social infrastructure has collapsed – there are no hospitals, police, military, government, or transport.


Food, medicine, and ammunition (you will need weapons) are acquired by scavenging from abandoned shops and homes. Fuel has to be siphoned from abandoned vehicles. Zombies, or ‘walkers’, are a constant threat; they kill to eat, and can only be killed by a blow to the head.

The traditional crisis management handbook focuses on the ‘response and recovery’ stages. But with a zombie attack, it’s going to be a long time before we can get past ‘response’.

The main character in The Walking Dead is Rick Grimes, a sheriff’s deputy, who leads a group of survivors. Keeping his group safe, fed and watered, is just one of the challenges he faces. He also has to deal many other issues at the same time:

  • Negotiating for help – they meet other groups of survivors, and Rick  negotiates to share their resources in return for helping them in other ways
  • Intra-group conflict – isagreements within the group can become violent, and this can lead to members being expelled, or killed
  • Inter-group conflict – confrontations occur with other groups, especially over access to scarce resources, and these conflicts can also be violent
  • Ethical dilemmas – a captured member of another group is a problem; let them go and they may return with the rest of their group, but killing them is ‘not right’
  • Personal dilemmas – leaders may have to act in ways they wouldn’t normally consider, and may have to betray their personal values
  • Leadership contests – there are no formal processes for selecting leaders in a post-apocalyptic world, so those who are disliked are replaced, often violently.

Other groups of survivors are as threatening as walkers because of competition for scarce resources. Their members are armed and intelligent. Zombies can’t use guns, and aren’t smart. Leaders thus need to respond to different dimensions of threat – in the wider environment, in their own group, in relation to other groups, and also in relation to the kind of community they want to develop for the future.

In part 2 of this article the authors explore how extreme fiction can inform leadership with new ways of responding to crisis.


About the authors

David A. Buchanan is emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at Cranfield University School of Management. Markus Hällgren is professor of management at Umeå University School of Business, Sweden.



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