Given the unprecedented health and economic crises associated with COVID-19, it is not surprising that scholars and business practitioners are interested in leadership during times of crisis. Of course, crisis is not new to organizations. Natural disasters disrupt supply chains, financial crises curtail resources, and employees’ unethical actions can damage stakeholder trust.

Leading during a crisis can be particularly challenging, particularly during a crisis that challenges an organization’s purpose, creates confusion as to the direction of the organization and paralyzes employee efforts. A crisis can emphasize a “fix the problem” orientation (Kahn 2013), attributing blame to individuals or groups of individuals, causing some to elevate their work while undercutting the work of others (Boin et al. 2010; Cho and Gower 2006). Moreover, crisis can increase stress (Staw et al. 1981), heighten focus on short-term goals (Cameron 1983), and decrease ethical decision making (Christensen and Kohls 2003)—exacerbating an already tenuous situation.

When crisis scholars have studied leadership in time of crisis, some have focused on making sense of crisis by framing events as opportunities or threats (Mintzberg et al. 1976; Nutt 1984, Sutcliffe and Vogus 2003). A leader’s framing of a crisis event influences how employees interpret the event and their cognitive and behavioral response. For example, Staw et al. (1981) suggested that framing a crisis as a threat (e.g. “we may not survive”) can foster risk-avoidance, encourage threat-rigidity responses, and lead to negative outcomes on an organizational level. Work by Luthans and colleagues (2005) developed similar conclusions – a negative framing of a crisis can undermine personal motivation. In contrast, James and colleagues (2011) suggested that framing a crisis as an opportunity could stimulate change, growth, and positive employee actions. What is less clear are the specific characteristics of positive framing. In other words, in what ways can leaders positively frame a crisis to promote ethical behavior and motivate employees to successfully navigate a crisis? Furthermore, although crisis is not a single event but rather a series of stages that organizations must navigate (Fink et al. 1971), there is little understanding regarding the purposes that are most effective during each stage of a crisis. In this paper I will focus on what I call “crisis of purpose”, which has been helpfully characterized by Fink et al. 1971. In brief, this model attempts to conceptualize crisis as having the following four stages: 1) Shock, 2) Defensive Retreat, 3) Acknowledgment, and 4) Adaptation and Growth. Scholars have suggested that future theory development could combine insights across research streams to consider how organizational processes of framing interact with core leadership and motivation concepts to better understand how organizations persevere during crisis (Linnenluecke 2017). Such an approach could provide insights into strategic levers that leadership can use to construct meaning, promote ethical behavior, and motivate organizational resilience.

In this paper, I focus on positive framing of crisis events through ethical purpose finding. Ethical purpose finding is articulating and pursing eudaimonic goals that enable individual and organizational resilience. Scholars have defined resilience as the ability to bounce back from crises and to modify goals and behaviors to cope with changes in the environment (e.g., Sutcliffe and Vogus 2003). Drawing on modern management conceptions of eudaimonia (Deci & Ryan 2008; Ryan et al. 2008), I develop a typology describing the various ethical purposes that leaders can articulate and pursue during crisis. Eudaimonia is useful for understanding ethical purpose finding because eudaimonia is associated with heightened motivation (Ryan et al. 2008; Ryan and Martela 2016) and describes purposes that humans naturally pursue (e.g. Crespo and Mesurado 2015).

Eudaimonia is a multifaceted concept and articulates the four fundamental human purposes of growth—a process of learning, mastery, and fulfilling one’s potential; authenticity—clarifying one’s true self and deep values, staying connected with them, and acting in accord with them; meaning—feeling that one’s activities or contributions have value; and excellence—striving for higher quality and higher standards in one’s behavior, performance or ethics (Huta and Waterman 2013). In developing a model, I integrate theories of motivation and ethics to describe how ethical purpose finding through growth, authenticity, meaning, and excellence can motivate organizational resilience during a crisis. I theorize that when organizations experience a crisis of purpose, articulating and pursuing ethical goals are vital to an organization’s ability to face and adapt to crisis events. In this paper, I map ethical purpose finding orientations onto the four stages of crisis development proposed by Fink and colleagues (1971) and develop theory to suggest that different framing approaches during the four stages of a crisis enable organizational resilience.

This article contributes to research in leadership, crisis management, and virtue ethics. Leadership scholars have suggested that a litmus test for evaluating leadership, perhaps even more important than economic value, is that of infusing meaning and purpose into organizational life (Podolny et al. 2004). If this is true, there is a need to more clearly understand the importance of leadership in terms of its ability to infuse purpose and meaning into the organizational experience and understand the types of purposes that leaders employ. This paper contributes to leader meaning-making by extending these concepts to the context of crisis and articulating a more fine-grained approach to how meaning is constructed, as well as the consequences of specific meaning. This research also contributes to theories of crisis management. In their review of the crisis management literature, James et al. 2011 found that most research examines tactical responses to crisis, and argue that much more work is needed on how people lead others through crisis in positive ways, encouraging growth, adaptability, and thriving. This paper contributes to crisis leadership by articulating the types of purpose that leaders can pursue at each stage of crisis to encourage resilience (Fink et al. 1971). Finally, this model contributes to the study of virtue ethics. Although widely studied, scholars have recognized the challenge of putting virtue ethics into practice (e.g. Fontrodona et al. 2013). This model helps leaders understand how to apply virtue ethics by defining specific practices that leaders can employ during crisis to promote virtue ethics.

I begin by reviewing literature on purpose, framing crisis, and eudaimonia. Next, I articulate how eudaimonic purposes can promote organizational resilience during times of crisis, providing examples and propositions for each. I then theorize the most effective purposes at each stage of a crisis. Finally, I share implications for the research and practice of leading during crisis and possible future directions.

Literature Review

Leadership scholars have highlighted the ways in which leaders can infuse meaning and purpose into the lives and work of others (Podolny et al. 2004; Carton 2018). Barnard (1968) was among the first to conceptualize leadership as a role that articulates and disseminates a common purpose. He argued that economic incentives were insufficient to motivate the long-term survival of an organization, and that the central role of leadership was to articulate a purpose that connects an organization action with a vital part of life. Podolyny and colleagues (2005) suggested that vital part of life included supporting purposes that an individual values and affirms as well as developing a connection to the community in which a person resides.

Leaders can act as architects of purpose (Carton 2018). They help orchestrate meaning and meaningful purposes in organizations by reducing the number of aspirations to one, which helps create focus and organizational alignment. Selznick (1984) identified articulating and institutionalizing purpose, balancing internal and external constraints as central to the role of leader. More recent work has highlighted the power of purpose to motivate individual effort and transform organizations. Evidence suggests that having a clearly defined purpose can reap economic value and enable organizations to achieve challenging goals (e.g. Pitsis, et al. 2003). Psychologists have found that individuals who have a clear expectation of a desired result work with greater determination and self-control (Duckworth and Gross 2014). This is because a purpose can generate positive beliefs about one’s capability to achieve a desired outcome (Bandura 1977; Oettingen and Mayer 2002). By focusing on what they want to bring into existence, individuals with a purpose can experience increased motivation, commitment, and persistence (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi 1992; Myers and Diener 1995). With a purpose orientation, individuals become more agentic and less reactive—they envision a future that focuses their energy and efforts (Crant and Bateman 2000), enabling the possibility of a new reality.

An ethical purpose can be considered a goal in that it directs effort and attention, as well as energizes and motivates persistence and effort (Erer and Zidon 1984, (Jap); Hollenbeck and Klein 1987; Lathan et al. 1978). It is also ambitious to the point of causing people to consider accomplishing more than they had previously considered, or even thought possible. Finally, an ethical purpose that focuses on a eudaimonic goal is intrinsically motivating because it harnesses fundamental elements of the human experience that contribute to human thriving (Ryan, Curren & Deci 2013; Ryan, Huta & Deci 2009), which I will elaborate later in the next section.

Making Sense During A Crisis of Purpose

The first way that leaders can engage in ethical purpose finding is through framing. Crises are particularly disruptive because they challenge an individual’s sense of personal and organizational purpose. A crisis can cause members of an organization to “confront events, issues, and actions that are somehow surprising or confusing” (Maitlis 2005, p. 21) and these “[d]iscrepant events, or surprises, trigger a need for explanation” (Louis 1980, p. 241). In challenging situations, individuals are faced with fundamental questions of “why are we here?”, “how did we get here?”, and “where do we go from here?”. Until these questions are answered in a satisfactory manner, confusion can lead to misaligned organizational goals, heighted stress, and decreased individual motivation that can undermine the vitality of the business. However, because the answers to these questions are inherently subjective and socially constructed, leaders can play a role in answering these questions and finding meaning in crisis (Morgeson et al. 2010; Podolyn, Khurana & Hill-Popper 2005; Pratt & Ashforth POS book).

When scholars have studied meaning-making in crisis, they have examined the ways in which leaders convey meaning through the framing a crisis. Framing serves as a “schemata of interpretation”, or a framework for processing and understanding a significant disruption in business. Leaders help provide an explanation by articulating a frame that helps others see the event in a certain way. Nutt (1998:195) said.

Framing provides focus, much like the designers of Chinese gardens who use portals to direct one’s view. The portals focus on a landscape in which ponds, greenery, structures and the like are positioned in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Viewing outside the portal would have less appeal.

Previous research on framing has generally focused on framing a crisis as a threat or an opportunity (e.g. Mintzberg et al. 1976; Nutt 1984). When crises are framed as an opportunity, organizational leaders imply a positive situation (Milburn et al. 1983; Dutton and Jackson 1987). When a crisis is framed as a threat, organizations can behave in a more conservative manner, limiting adaptability and the opportunity to grow and improve. While these theories are useful, scholars have yet to examine an explicitly ethical framing, viewing a crisis through an ethical lens, to motivate learning, adaptability, and organizational resilience.

Leaders can positively frame disruptive events as opportunities through ethical purpose finding. In so doing, leaders articulate and pursue purposes that are intrinsically meaningful and that are related to vital aspects of one’s life or one’s true self. Although eudaimonia is about individual happiness, it also encompasses the process of realizing one’s true nature and how one ought to live (Deci & Ryan 2006: 2). Eudaimonia includes the “states and/or pursuits associated with pursuing and developing the best in oneself, in accordance with one’s true self and one’s deeper principles” (Huta 2013 p. 202). Generally, when scholars have focused on eudaimonia, they have highlighted the role of excellence in virtue (e.g. justice, courage). The Greek word for excellence is arete, which also translates into "virtue." Thus, for the Ancient Greeks the "excellences" or "virtues" were the qualities that made a life excellent. However, eudaimomia, in its most common conceptualization, refers to the pursuit of the distinct goals or growth, authenticity, meaning, and excellence. Eudaimonia purposes are particularly suited for times of crisis, because these goals are concerned with realizing one’s potential despite setbacks and challenge (Ryff 1989).

Recent empirical support suggests that eudaimonia purposes are relevant to the study of crisis because they represent fundamental elements of the human experience that contribute to human thriving (Ryan, Curren & Deci 2013; Ryan, Huta & Deci 2009). These elements include intrinsic goals of growth, having close relationships, regulating behavior through autonomous action, and living a reflective life – elements that meet the basic psychological needs of the individual required for vitality and thriving. These intrinsic goals are positively related to self-actualization, positive affect, vitality, and negatively associated with negative affect, anxiety, and depression (Schmuck et al. 2000).

In some ways, these four purposes represent competing values in an organization. Research suggests that certain values, such as control and creativity, or collaboration and competition, capture tensions that exist in organizations and relationships (Bakan 1966; Grant and Gino 2010; McAdams and de St. Aubin 1992). Scholars from a variety of disciplines have repeatedly and independently discovered two-dimensional models of valued human behavior that maps into four categories (e.g., Fiske 1993; P. R. Lawrence & Nohria 2002; R. E. Quinn and Rohrbaugh 1983). Eudaimonic purposes can also be competing. The purpose of being authentic, being true to one’s values, competes with the purpose of growth, the value of learning and adapting. The purpose of excellence, a drive for individual acquisition of immaterial goods like virtue, can compete with the purpose of meaning, the value of contribution to others. These characteristics can be compared to the competing values framework, which has been studied and tested in organizations for more than 30 years (Cameron, Quinn, Degraff and Thakor 2014). These values enable leaders to navigate organization and relational tensions, contradictions, and interdependencies to create value (Cameron and Quinn 2011). During a time of crisis, leaders can ethical purpose find and balance the tension among competing values by articulating and pursuing all four purposes. For example, “We are a company that will remain true to our value of putting the customer first” (Authenticity), “we will learn from our experience (Growth), and we will become the safest restaurant in the country” (Excellence); “we will do so to protect our customers” (Meaning). This kind of balance in framing can help the perception that a leadership is being opportunistic or insensitive by focusing on a crisis as an opportunity. In the next section, I introduce each eudaimonic purpose and describe how it is related to ethical purpose finding during crisis.

Ethical Purpose Finding Through Growth

Leaders can engage in ethical purpose finding by framing crisis events as opportunities for growth and learning. Growth is defined as a process of learning, mastery, and fulfilling one’s potential, either individually or as an organization (Huta 2013; Quinn and Quinn 2015). When two black men were racially profiled and arrested inside a Starbucks, without a crime being committed, the fallout was significant. Protests erupted, customers lost confidence, and lawsuits ensued. During this crisis, Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, described the training and learning that would occur to prevent an incident like this from happening again: "Starbucks was built as a company that creates a warm welcoming environment for all customers, and that didn't happen in this case. So it's my responsibility to ensure that we review everything–we review the actions of the store manager, we review the guidelines that were provided, and we review and invest in the training necessary to ensure that doesn't happen again." This CEO was interested in reviewing and learning from the past to promote growth. By announcing and conducting the training, he demonstrated confidence that Starbucks could learn and grow from the crisis.

When leaders reframe events as an opportunity to grow, they tap into a fundamental need of individuals to grow (Ryaff 1998), engaging them in intristically motivating work and motivation resilient behaviors. When leaders frame crisis as opportunity to grow, they model and encourage a mindset of growth. Research on growth mindsets has been conducted in applied psychology, management (Heslin et al. 2005; Heslin et al. 2006), and education (Blackwell, Trzesniewki, & Dweck 2007; Rattan, Good & Dweck 2012), where scholars find that growth mindsets influence one’s learning, behavior, and performance by guiding how actors think, feel and behave in a given moment. When employees hold this mindset, they believe that their personal abilities are malleable, and can be improved with practice (Dweck & Leggett 1988). Growth mindsets in organizational crisis are useful because they cause individuals to embrace challenge, learn, seek out feedback, and concentrate efforts towards the mastery of difficult tasks and circumstance (Blakwell et al. 2007). For instance, Rattan and Dweck (2018) found that employees with a growth mindset are more likely to confront prejudiced coworkers with positive expectations, believing that they could learn to find a positive outcome, and experienced greater workplace belonging and satisfaction following the confrontation.

Research on growth mindsets has typically focused on mindsets concerning intellect and general abilities, but individuals also develop these mindsets for other, more specific abilities such as empathy (Schumann, Zaki & Dweck 2014). Building on these findings, we propose that individuals develop state-like mindsets about their organization as a whole to positively learn and adapt during crisis, or an organizational growth mindset. When leadership make sense of challenging circumstances by framing the situations an opportunity to grow, they are encouraging an organizational growth mindset. When individuals experience an organizational growth mindset, they believe, at least for that moment, that their organization has the ability to be improved. In contrast, when individuals experience weak organizational growth mindsets, they view their organizational abilities as fixed and rigid, limiting their ability to adapt to a disruption in business. Because mindsets guide how individuals think, feel and behave (Blackwell et al. 2007; Heslin et al. 2005, 2006; Rattan et al. 2012), when individuals experience an organizational growth mindset, they may engage in the learning activities necessary to respond and adapt to a crisis event (Dweck and Leggett 1988).

Thus, framing the purpose to learn and grow can encourage adaptive organizational learning (Glynn et al. 1994). Organizational learning can not only lead to achieving short-term desirable goals, but also to avert future crises (Brockner, James, Edmodson & Cannon 2005, Sitkin 1992). Reframing for organizational growth can help individuals enact “who they want to be” and to activate new roles or identities (Power & Baker 2014; William and Shephard 2016). When individuals are focused on what is intrinsically motivating and worthwhile for human beings (Deci and Ryan 2000), they may experience a heightened ability and motivation to react and recover from disruption (Linnenluecke 2015, Sutcliffe and Vogus 2003).

Ethical Purpose Finding Through Authenticity

Leaders can engage in ethical purpose finding by framing crisis events as opportunities for authenticity. Authenticity is striving to live in accord with one’s values and to integrate them into different aspects of one’s life (Huta 2013). Values are important guiding principles in an individual’s life. However, commitment to values can be influenced by context and external factors, varying over time (Darley and Batson 1973). Framing for authenticity involves interpreting crisis as an opportunity to clarify the organizations values, stay connected with them, and act in accord with them. When leaders frame crisis as moments of authenticity, they convey the organizational purpose of being true to the organization’s values and endorsing the freedom to choose one’s activity as opposed to being controlled by others. When a passenger died on a Southwest Airlines flight, Gary Kelly, the CEO, framed the crisis as a moment of authenticity by reaffirming values. He said, "The safety of our customers and our crew is always our uncompromising priority." As a result, "We're giving the National Transportation Safety Board our full attention and cooperation and support as they go about the important business of investigating this engine failure." When leaders convey authenticity, they model and endorse the exercise of self-regulation and self-monitoring through reflecting on their values – an exercise that can lead to personal growth, and the courage to act.

Framing for authenticity is important because when individuals understand their values and are encouraged to act accordingly, they tend to act more ethically. Practicing values in organizations “is saying or doing what is normatively right or wrong for it’s own sake. Scholars have concluded that values are largely shared across context and culture, and that people primarily differ in priority of a value rather and the presence or absence of a value such as autonomy and benevolence (Schwartz and Bardi 2001). Clarifying values through framing for authenticity can provide the clarity needed to help others act ethically. Abstract views of moral issues, including values, can increase hypocrisy, causing individuals and organizations to present themselves as more moral than they really are (Lammers 2012). Moral abstraction allows individuals to apply moral values selectively, and often in self-serving ways. As a consequence, when values are understood in the abstract, employees are more harsh judges of others and more lenient toward themselves. In contrast, clarity of values enables individuals to act more ethically.

Framing for authenticity can also increase motivation. Authenticity communicates autonomy (Ryan et al. 2013) and is related to persistence, cognitive flexibility, vitality and creativity (Hutu 2013). Once more, when individuals assume goals that are concordant with one’s self and their personal values, they feel a greater sense of commitment and make meaningful progress toward achieving their goals (Koestner et al. 2002). When purposes are aligned with personal values, individuals will overcome conflict and obstacles in order to achieve their goals (Keostner et al. 2006).

Ethical Purpose Finding Through Meaning

During a crisis event, leaders can engage in ethical purpose finding by framing crisis events as opportunities for greater meaning. Meaning, in the modern eudaemonic sense, is feeling that one’s activities or contributions have value (Huta 2013). When leaders frame events for meaning, they can articulate contributions to others to demonstrate how activities have value. For example, when the travel industry was upended by COVID 19, Marriott’s CEO stated "What we’re facing is daunting… I remain optimistic that our world will thrive once again. Today, I want to let you know how we’re focused on supporting the communities where our associates live and work. Marriott has committed to provide $10 million worth of hotel stays for healthcare professionals leading the fight against COVID-19 in the United States. The initiative, called Rooms for Responders, will provide free rooms in some of the areas most impacted.”

Meaning can come in the form of valuable contributions to a variety of stakeholders including customers, employees, and communities. The greater the understanding of the stakeholders needs, desires, and values, the greater the potential for contribution. When leaders deeply understand the perspective of stakeholders, they are in a better position to create value through their contributions and increase meaning. Indeed, leadership scholars have identified that an orientation towards others is essential for managing relationships (Yukl 2002, Stogdill 1974, Kellet et al. 2002) and encourages the understanding of other’s perspectives, values, and needs (Parker and Axtell 2011, Grant and Berry 2011). In this state, individuals ask more questions, listen more, and are more attentive to the views and needs of others (De Dreu, Weingart, & Kwon 2000). Furthermore, they are able to understand how to meet individual needs and how to align their actions with other’s goals and preferences (Meglino and Korsgaard 2004). Understanding the emotions of others and their individual needs is critical in a leader’s ability to inspire others to follow (Barbuto & Burbach 2006, Rubin et al. 2005).

When a leader is focused on meaning through contribution to stakeholders, this mindset promotes deep, engaging relationships that go beyond the basic notions of exchange and self-interest. One way that management scholars have conceptualized contributing to others is prosocial motivation. This orientation cultivates empathic concern and increases the motivation to act to benefit the individual or group (Batson 1987; Grant and Berry 2011). Individuals who experience prosocial motivation are likely to feel positive emotions and increase their ethical behavior including through increased expressions of love and sacrifice for others. They may also increase trust, harmony, and a shared sense of identity. Prosocial behavior is associated with whistle blowing, (Dozier and Miceli 1985) considering the consequences of one’s actions on others and placing the interests of the group above self-interest (Grant 2008). For these reasons, scholars have argued that prosocial behavior is closely aligned with behavioral ethics and an ethical climate (e.g. Taylor and Curtis 2018).

Framing for the purpose of contribution can also help personalize a crisis, encouraging acts of compassion and ethical behaviors. For example, during the Tide POD challenge, when teenagers were risking their health, David Taylor, Procter & Gamble’s CEO wrote, “Let’s all take a moment to talk with the young people in our lives and let them know that their life and health matter more than clicks, views and likes. Please help them understand that this is no laughing matter.” By personalizing the crisis and encouraging others to deeply engage in the meaningfulness of their work, leaders can motivate individuals to increase the positive impact of their organization. The meaning that comes from focusing on contributions to others can motivate individuals to act with persistence and to increase productivity and performance (Grant 2008; Thompson and Bunderson 2003).

Ethical Purpose Finding Through Excellence

Finally, leaders can engage in ethical purpose finding by framing crisis events as opportunities for excellence. Excellence is striving for higher quality and higher standards in one’s behavior, performance, or ethics. It is the concept of striving for something better or higher (Huta 2013). The concept of excellence derives from virtue ethics, one of the most prominent theories in moral philosophy, a field of study devoted to understanding human flourishing. Individual flourishing requires the acquisition of some material goods, but depends more on acquiring immaterial goods such as knowledge, love, friendship, appreciation of beauty, and self-esteem (Aristotle 1985). The acquisition of internal goods such as compassion, ambition, humility, and curiosity, leads to learning and improved relationships. Virtue ethics is a theory about aspiring to an ideal, the ideal being the commitment to live virtuously.

When leaders frame for excellence, they envision a future when the organization has increased standards of behavior or performance. For example, during the financial crisis in 2008, Ford was projected to lose $17 Billion. Alan Mulally framed the situation as "We're gonna be best in class, we're not gonna deliver one vehicle, unless it's done and is the best in quality." Framing for excellence is to identify a virtue that an organization wants to bring into existence. Increased standards of excellence could include “better products”, “better marketing”, “better distribution” as Steve Jobs articulated when he returned to Apple.

This kind of purpose finding is similar to future thinking as described by philosopher Alfred Schutz (1967, p. 61). He explained that this is a process in which an "…actor projects his actions as if it were already over and done with and lying in the past…Strangely enough, therefore, because it is pictured as completed, the planned act bears the temporal character of pastness… The fact that it is thus pictured as if it were simultaneously past and future can be taken care of by saying that it is thought of in the future perfect tense.” Weick (1979, 1995) introduced Shultz’s theory of future thinking into management research by suggesting that when a desired end is identified, the meaning created enables individuals to identify a path that leads to that end. When leaders frame for excellence, they are focused on the result that they want to create, and develop a cognitive representation of the desired virtue (Buckner and Carroll 2007; Hesslow 2002; Schacter et al. 2008).

Ethical purpose finding through excellence can inspire others to work with greater motivation and improve their own ethical behavior. When a person appraises another person’s actions or words to have exhibited excellence, they experience elevation, which involves warm and uplifting feelings. Individuals may also feel reverence, admiration and an expectation that the individual demonstrating excellence is capable of accomplishing impressive things (Conger et al. 2000). The other-praising emotion of elevation also translates into motivation and action by the person experiencing the emotion. Indeed when individuals appraise excellence in a leader, they are more likely to show kindness and warmth to others, strengthen connections with benefactors, feel energized, and a desire to work harder to achieve goals (Algoe & Haidt 2009). Appraising excellence leads to inspiration, which involves feelings of transcendence (Thrash & Elliot 2003). When leaders articulate and pursue the ethical purpose of excellence, they encourage organizational resilience (Table 1).

Table 1 Examples of Ethical Purposes

Proposition 1

During a crisis, ethical purpose finding by framing crisis events as opportunities for growth, authenticity, meaning and excellence will be associated with increased employee motivation, adaptability, learning and organizational resilience.

Stages of Crisis

Scholars have described organizational crisis as a series of stages through which an organization must pass in order to successfully navigate a crisis. Similar to the Kubler-Ross (1972) model that documented phases of individuals coping with trauma, scholars have proposed that organizations experience shock, defensive retreat, acknowledgement and finally adaption and change (Fink et al. 1971). Each stage is important in the recovery of an organization. To that end, the role of the leader is to motivate individuals to and through each stage of crisis. By ethical purpose finding at each stage, a leader can help organizations accelerate through each stage, increasing the speed of recovery. In the following sections, I describe each stage and describe why ethical purpose finding can be effective at each stage (See summary in Table 2).

Table 2 Ethical Purpose Finding at Each Stage of Crisis

Stage 1: Shock

The first stage of a crisis is shock. In this stage psychological alarm bells sound and individuals sense the presence of a real danger. These threats to self-preservation can lead to state of helplessness and fear (Fink et al. 1971). Individuals may feel uncertain about their future when the firm’s fundamental purpose or its fundamental operating model is challenged. If the organization’s future is less certain, individuals may feel anxiety to the point of panic, fearing for their jobs. If left unaddressed, individual anxiety can lead to inaction, weakening the possibility of recovery. If an individual feels helpless, they may be less likely to take action to recover from the crisis. In this stage individuals may be unwilling to acknowledge the cause of the crisis, let alone engage in the process of transitioning to change and adaptation.

During the shock stage of crisis individuals can be focused inward, on the effects of the crisis on them and their future. Focusing inward can lead to acts of self-preservation or blaming that can undermine the organization’s ability to move to the next stage of a crisis (Boin, Hart, McConnell, Preston 2010; Cho and Gower 2006). As architects of purpose (Carton 2018), leaders can reframe the situation and encourage others to shift from an inward focus to an outward focus by articulating the ethical purpose of meaning. Meaning is the feeling that one’s activities or contributions to others have value (Huta 2013). When a leader is focused on meaning through contribution to others, this mindset promotes acts of courage and compassion that transcend existing orientations towards self-interest. Meaning through contribution to others can promote a mindset and the motivation to act prosocially for customers, employees, and other stakeholders (Batson, 1987; Grant and Berry 2011). Individuals who experience this state are likely to feel positive emotions and engage in sacrifice for others. Leaders can engage in ethical purpose finding by reminding individuals why the organization exists, the customers their serve and the value they create for others.

Proposition 2

During the shock stage of a crisis, ethical purpose finding by framing crisis events as opportunities for meaning will be most effective in motivating employees and promoting organizational resilience.

Stage 2: Defensive Retreat

The second stage of crisis is defensive retreat. In this stage, individuals may not be able to tolerate the chaos of the shock and can seek to return to the familiar. Individuals may desire reassurance that they are still the same and that nothing has changed. In this stage employees may become rigid and reject the notion of adaptation and change. Their priority is securing a feeling of stability, and control (Fink et al. 1971). Here, the erosion of individual and shared assumptions about the familiar during a crisis can lead to greater failure (Peason & Clair 1998).

During this stage, leaders can help individuals find the sense of control they seek by framing the crisis for authenticity. Framing for authenticity reminds the organizations of its most deeply held values, helps employees to stay connected with them, and anchor on them. Framing for authenticity provides reassurance that there are somethings that have not changed. When leaders frame crisis as moments of authenticity, they convey a shared identity around their most important values. Framing for authenticity can also increase motivation during this stage because it helps individuals experience greater control and autonomy (Ryan et al. 2013). Once more, by anchoring on values, individuals can feel a greater sense of commitment to the organization (Koestner et al. 2002). When one’s work is aligned with core values, individuals can be more open to engaging in conflict (Keostner et al. 2006), including acknowledging and working through the causes of a crisis.

Proposition 3

During the defensive retreat stage of a crisis, ethical purpose finding by framing crisis events as opportunities for authenticity will be most effective in motivating employees and promoting organizational resilience.

Stage 3: Acknowledgement

The third stage of crisis is acknowledgement. In this stage individuals can come to realize that life will not return to its former state and that some of the ways in which they have understood the world and their organization are no longer valid (Fink et al. 1971). In this stage employees may acknowledge the reality of the situation and recognize that they cannot resist the change. They can become open to new aspirations.

When leaders frame for excellence, they envision a future when the organization has increased standards of behavior or performance. For example with Netflix experienced a sudden influx of streaming competition, Reed Hastings stated “We’re going to try to do the absolute best content that we can. And ultimately that’s going to draw in more subscribers" Excellence is striving for higher quality and higher standards in one’s behavior, performance, or ethics. It is the concept of striving for something better or higher (Huta 2013). When leaders frame for excellence, they help shift the focus from past events to future aspirations. They are focused on the result that they want to create, and develop a cognitive representation of the desired virtue, which can motivate individuals to strive for the desired aspiration (Buckner and Carroll 2007; Hesslow 2002; Schacter et al. 2008).

Proposition 4

During the acknowledgement stage of a crisis, ethical purpose finding by framing crisis events as opportunities for excellence will be most effective in motivating employees and promoting organizational resilience.

Stage 4: Adaptation and Change

The fourth stage of crisis is adaptation and change. Having experienced shock, defensive retreat, and acknowledgement, individuals may now be ready to engage in the difficult process of change. In this stage individuals can explore resources and future potentials. They can become grounded on the meaning they have found in benefiting others, a sense of shared values, and the collective aspiration of new ideals and goals. They are coping with a world and no longer feeling in crisis (Fink et al. 1971).

During this stage of crisis, leaders can engage in ethical purpose finding, and encourage resilience, by framing crisis events as opportunities for growth and learning. For example, when experience and ignition switch malfunction that resulted in the deaths of 124 individuals, the CEO Mary Barr said "I never want to put this behind us. I want to put this painful experience permanently in our collective memories…we will learn from this and we will be a better company." Leaders can accelerate growth and adaption by promoting, rewarding and recognizing learning, mastery, and fulfilling one’s potential (Huta 2013; Quinn and Quinn 2015). With an orientation towards learning, individuals may perceive the events of a crisis as important information and feedback to help refine and improve their strategies, processes, and activities. Employees will be more likely to be energized by the opportunity to make meaningful progress towards important goals for improvement.

Proposition 5

During the adaptation and change stage of a crisis, ethical purpose finding by framing crisis events as opportunities for growth will be most effective in motivating employees and promoting organizational resilience.


Scholars suggest that the frequency and likelihood of crisis events is increasing (James, et al. 2011). As a consequence, for businesses operating in today’s fast-paced and globally connected economy, it may not be a question of “if” a crisis of purpose will negatively impact business operations, but rather “when”. Learning to respond and manager crises is becoming an increasingly important activity for leaders. However, crisis management practices and strategies are not well defined—particularly, practices that encourage growth, adaptability, and organizational flourishing need further examination and elaboration (James et al. 2010). In this paper, I articulate framework to help organizational leaders leverage fundamental human purposes that encourage ethical and adaptive behaviors during crisis.

Integrating theories from ethics, leadership and organizational behavior, I have identified a typology for ethical purpose finding in times of crisis. I have also described how these purposes can enable adaptability, ethical behavior, organizational learning and resilience at each stage of a crisis. For the sceptic, the eudaimonic purposes of excellence, meaning, growth and authenticity may appear to be scripted talking points to appease disquieted stakeholders during times of crises. In some cases, this may be the intent. However, as I have articulated, these ethical purposes have greater power. Indeed, these purposes tap into the most fundamental of human purpose and one’s true identity. Because leaders are actually aligning the purposes of the business with the purposes of human existence, they are accessing greater motivation, effort and resilience than they would through alternative purposes. In accessing greater motivation, they are articulating a way to transform a crisis into a successful outcome.

Organizational purposes have important implications for the practice of ethics. Solomon (1992) observed that business is a social enterprise which involves the interaction of stakeholders to achieve collective purposes. He emphasized that the role of virtues in business should be to guide and motivate behavior for the betterment of the community. However, during crisis events, the stated purposes of an organization can be disrupted, causing confusion, anxiety, and even unethical behavior among stakeholders. In this paper, I elaborate a theory that describes how leaders can reaffirm or establish ethical purposes to help individuals make sense of their situation and encourage organizational resilience. My paper contributes to virtue ethics by identifying specific ways in which leaders can model and encourage the practice of virtue ethics. I also articulate how the practice of virtue ethics can lead to organizational flourishing in times of crisis.

This framework also has implications for leadership research. Purpose finding has been an essential role of leadership where leaders help make sense and provide direction for future action. Despite the emphasis on the leader’s role in finding purpose, there is relatively little research on the kinds of purposes that inspires others to follow. During challenging times, it is reasonable to believe that leaders will focus on survival, theirs or the organization’s survival. Fixing the problem, restoring business operations and maintaining financial measures are important aspects of keeping a business running. However, because these kinds of purposes may be less motivating, and less intrinsically valued, the focus on these purposes may actually undermine the organization’s ability to survive. To be clear, problems need to be fixed and financial measures should be improved. These desired outcomes can happen as second order consequences of a larger, more inspiring and more fundamental purpose. When leaders and organizations strive for growth, authenticity, for meaningful contributions to society, for excellence, they may find more collaborative and creative ways to solve problems and ensure financial viability.

In this paper, I examined the specific characteristics of purposes that can lead to organizational resilience amid a crisis. These purposes can represent competing values in an organization (Bakan 1966; Grant and Gino 2010; McAdams & de St. Aubin 1992; Wiggins 1981). Scholars have identified four fundamental values in organizations that can often be competing (e.g., Fiske 1993; P. R. Lawrence & Nohria 2002; R. E. Quinn & Rohrbaugh 1983). This model helps leaders avoid the trap of trying to address competing values in the same stage of crisis. Rather, leaders may be more effective in promoting resilience by focusing on one value at a time by considering the value that is most motivating during a stage of crisis.


There are a number of potential limitations of this theory that could help identify moderators or boundary conditions for its effectiveness. Most of these boundary conditions relate to the individual interpretation of an event. For example, the discounting principle (Kelly 1973) states that an apparent causal inference will be discounted if an alternative, plausible explanation is present. Within a business crisis, the discounting principle suggests that individuals will weigh competing interpretation in understanding “why the crisis happened” and “where the company should go from here”. Individual interpretation will also be influenced by other factors including the ex ante values of the company and leadership. For example, if one of the core values of the company has been to maximize profit, it may be difficult for leaders to pivot by articulating an ethical purpose, largely because employees may find it difficult to believe the sincerity of the newly defined purpose. We also know that the effectiveness of a difficult purpose is contingent on the acceptance of that purpose by those who are involved in its enactment (Erez et al. 1985). Therefore, ethical purpose finding may be moderated by the acceptance of the articulated purpose by employees. Employees who have a different view of the crisis, or affirm an alternative set of values, may be less inclined to accept the ethical purpose.

Future Research

There are a number of ways in which this theory can be elaborated and tested. Researchers began to comment that there were few avenues to detect whether or not an organization had ‘resilience potential’, prior to demonstrating a resilient or non-resilient response (Linnenluecke and Griffiths 2012). Furthermore, researchers argued that more attention should be devoted to the period of detecting a threat (i.e. realizing that an external threat or uncommon situation requires a resilient response) and activating a corresponding, and possibly latent organizational response (Burnard and Bhamra 2011). Future research could explore the role of ethical purposes in detecting crisis, or building organizational resilience prior to a crisis event.

Additional research and theory could examine the efficacy of ethical purposes at varies stages of crisis management. Fishman (1999) suggests there are four stages of crisis communication. The first is the detection phase, or the early warn stage, followed by the acute crisis phase in which events unfold with great speed. The third stage is characterized as the chronic crisis phase, when organizations engage in self-doubt and self-analysis. Finally, organizations enter into the crisis resolution stage, in which the company makes a full recovery. Perhaps the ethical purpose of authenticity is more effective during self-analysis, and the ethical purpose of growth is more effective during crisis resolution. It may also be that the ethical purpose of meaning may be most effective during early detection, in helping individuals understand the impact of their actions on others and determine negative effects before they escalate.


One of the most interesting characteristics of human beings is the ability to direct their attention inward and mentally envision future situations in the form of a purpose (Buckner & Carroll 2007; Hesslow 2002; Schacter et al. 2008). However, not all purposes have the same power. While having a clear expectation of a desired future state or reward can focus attention and harness individual energy, some purposes are more motivational than others.

Leaders can play an important role in creating meaning and purpose during difficult times. Tactical measures to identify and correct problems during crisis are important steps, but may not yield the transformation needed to endure and thrive during and post-crisis. Leaders need ways to inspire the very best effort of individuals within an organization, encouraging resilience and strength in the face of challenge. Humans have an incredible capacity to rise to the occasion in times of turmoil. It is only in tapping into the most fundamental of human purposes that leaders can harness the power of individuals and organizations to overcome. This framework can help leaders be more targeted and effective in making sense of crisis and articulating goals that will motivate ethical behavior and enables organizations to flourish. After all, “would we not, like archers in possession of a target, better hit on what is needed?” (Aristotle 2012, p. 2).