The worst possible thing has just happened to your organization. And, whether you've received a phone call, seen the news report, or even read a tweet telling you that a crisis has occurred, one thing is perfectly clear: As the leader, you need to respond. Fast.

If you're lucky and smart, your organization already has a strategy in place for dealing with nearly every crisis that could possibly occur. But even if that's the case, you have to quickly determine what to do in this particular situation. And that's made more difficult by the fact that your fight-or-flight response has been triggered, so every fiber of your being is telling you do something--anything--right now.

It may seem counterintuitive, but according to Tim Johnson, author of Crisis Leadership, the first thing that leaders should do in a crisis is . . . nothing.

More precisely, leaders need to "resist the urge to do anything immediately," writes Johnson. Because your fight-or-flight response has kicked in, you're not doing your best thinking, so it's possible that your first instinct may be wrong.

That's why you need to buy yourself "space to think and time to react." That may mean spending a few minutes alone or sequestering yourself with just a few trusted advisors so that you can make sense of what's happening.

I remember a time some years ago, when my biggest client called to tell me that the company was canceling the entire program. I felt terrible--like I had been punched in the stomach--and was sure that I was too emotional to talk to anyone until I had a chance to calm down. So I left the office for a 20-minute walk, just enough time for me to collect myself, gather my thoughts and feel ready to start taking the action needed.

So take a few minutes to breathe. Then gather your team and ask these questions:

  • What do we know about what's happened?
  • When, where and how did it happen?
  • Who is affected?
  • What have we done in response so far?

The objective is to document the answers you have right now, while assigning team members to seek more information as quickly as possible.

Once you've started your inquiry, your next move, according to Johnson, is to "throw a communication defense around the organization. "Release a tweet and a brief holding statement on your website," he writes. "And prepare your public relations or communication team with content they can use to answer the media's questions."

Now that you've taken the first critical steps, it's time to mobilize the organization. Bring together members of your crisis management and leadership teams. And now talk to your team to make everyone understands the answers to these questions:

  • What is your own role in this situation? What is the role other team members play?
  • What does the organization need to focus on first? What's next?
  • What resources does the organization need to deal with this crisis? What do people need from you to be set up for success?

It's not going to be easy to get through the crisis. But by starting off on the right foot, you'll give yourself and your organization what's needed to weather the storm.