How to develop crisis leadership using extreme fiction pt2

In the second instalment of a two-part feature David Buchanan and Markus Hällgren outline how L&D can use extreme fiction in their leadership development programmes

In part one of this article we explored how fictional narrative might help us to give leaders a way to explore unimaginable and catastrophic events. So how can learning professionals use these extreme stories and scripts as a catalyst in discussing disaster type situations with leaders and their teams?

One powerful way to use extreme fiction involves short ‘trigger incidents’ – segments which show a leader faced with a challenging problem (see below). This approach works well with groups of 12 to 15 participants, in a one- to two-hour session, leading to an assessment of the pluses and minuses of a leader’s options in crisis situations. 

One senior Swedish police officer explained that ‘extreme fiction allows us to explore new ways of leading and organising ourselves’ more creatively than with scenarios that are more familiar.

Participants often conclude that crisis leadership is most effective when it is shared, using the resources of the group as a whole, and not dependent on one individual

To transfer learning to participants’ own organisations, have them identify the profile of knowledge, skills, and attributes for a leader in their own organisations in a ‘response mode’ crisis. Where are the current gaps? How can these be filled?

Participants often conclude that crisis leadership is most effective when it is shared, using the resources of the group as a whole, and not dependent on one individual. Another conclusion is that ‘soft’ skills are at a premium in this ‘hard’ environment. The ideal person spec looks like this:

  • you must be comfortable working in an unfamiliar, unpredictable, stressful situation
  • you will have to improvise; there are no predefined crisis management plans to follow
  • you lead with the group’s consent; they can replace you if you are not doing a good job
  • others may want your leadership role; you may have to fight them for it –  literally
  • you will often have to make rapid decisions with no time to discuss, assess, or reflect
  • you will be dealing with multiple challenges at the same time – all of them priorities
  • ethical dilemmas have no right answers; you must be tolerant of ambiguity
  • you will often be outside your comfort zone, doing things that you would not do in normal situations
  • conflict management skills are essential, including the ability to de-escalate violence
  • you must be prepared to resort to violence yourself, for example killing others before they can kill you or members of your group.


Example trigger incident from The Walking Dead, season 2, episode 8, 7 minutes

Hershel allows Rick and his group to stay at his farm. When Hershel goes missing, Rick and Glen find him in an abandoned bar in the town, and join him for a drink. Then two strangers arrive: Dave and Tony. They seem friendly. They ask Rick where he and his friends are staying. Rick doesn’t want to say. But Dave guesses that they have a farm, and asks if he and his group can join them. Rick says that the farm is too crowded. Dave says they could pool resources; ‘we’re all in this mess together’. When he sees that Rick is not convinced, Dave smiles and says ‘relax’, and slowly puts his gun on the bar where everyone can see it. He then turns around to find some whisky and pours himself a drink [pause video when Rick says ‘I hear Nebraska’s nice’]. What should Rick do?

  • Remind Dave and Tony that he is a former sheriff, and tell them to leave.
  • Keep Dave talking, and find out more about their group.
  • Shoot Dave and Tony if they make any hostile moves.
  • Let Dave and Tony bring their group to the farm, extra hands are always useful.*

*Dave reaches for his gun, Rick shoots him, then shoots Tony as he levels his shotgun


The demands are high, the pace is relentless, and the role is tiring and stressful, requiring stamina and resilience. Leaders’ directive ‘command and control’ style may work well in a ‘routine’ crisis, but it may not be so useful in an extreme situation.

Groups of survivors are typically strangers thrown together at random, not trained to deal with crises. But they may bring valuable experience, knowledge, and skills from their pre-crisis lives. Leaders will need to be ready to stand back, and to rotate and share the leadership role with others who have different experience, skill, and information.

Beyond learning lessons

We are not just concerned to ‘learn the lessons’ from zombies. This approach has more ambitious L&D aims.

To stimulate the imagination and shatter complacency – that something like this could never happen! It should heighten awareness of our vulnerabilities and develop creative responses and workable solutions. By increasing creative capacity it makes us more comfortable with uncertainty and hopefully reduce response times when the unpredictable happens.

The more extreme the extreme fiction, the more valuable it is likely to be in helping us to achieve those aims.

You can read part one of this piece here.


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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