Leading in Times of Crisis

“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.”

—Publilius Syrus

Global Coronavirus Death Toll Passes 3,000

Coronavirus Sends Ripples Through Global Economy

Wall Street’s Worst Week Since the 2008 Financial Crisis

These are just a sampling of this week’s headlines.

It’s amazing that something so tiny, only 0.1 microns in diameter, can have a global impact by its spread. The coronavirus, so named because it is shaped like a “crown” is testing the resilience of the people who have gotten sick, and those caring for them. But it is also testing other things as well, including huge sectors of the global economy. China, the epicenter of the outbreak accounts for a fifth of the world output and their isolation as a result of the virus has had vast repercussions. Finance, manufacturing, retail, and tourism are all being stress-tested by the disruption caused by the virus’ contagion.

Stories abound of people stuck in their homes unable to work, feeling anxious, worried and uncertain how to manage. For example, Bloomberg news reported the story of Janey Zhang. She owns an umbrella factory in Shangyu, China. She is unable to travel to her factory and is reliant upon the news of coronavirus updates that will inform how and when she can reopen her factory. She describes taking anxious calls from her workers who are trying to find answers she doesn’t have.  People are facing deep uncertainty about how to manage the global health emergency: manage the outbreak, the unknowns about the outbreak, and resulting business decisions that have wide-ranging implications.

The disruption and looming uncertainty from the coronavirus outbreak cannot be underestimated given the importance of Chinese exports, labor, and demand for goods to the global economy. For most leaders tasked with managing amidst the global insecurity the goal is always to mitigate risk while focusing on what is within your locus of control.

It may seem trite to suggest that something as simple as emotional intelligence can prove pivotal for leaders who are dealing with the coronavirus unknowns. However, in times of crisis, great leaders demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused amidst potentially catastrophic situations. In the book Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Goleman et al. stated, “Even if they get everything else just right, if leaders fail in this primal task of driving emotions in the right direction, nothing they do will work as well as it could or should”.

I argue that in the face of a global health emergency, leading with emotional intelligence is perhaps the single most important skill set necessary for successful endurance. Consider Army leaders who operate in complex global environments. They work with significant resource constraints and must make rapid decisions in situations characterized by threats, uncertainty and tension. The Army charges its leaders with building cohesive teams, promoting resiliency, cultivating trust, and fostering positive climates. Army leaders are taught leading under extreme circumstances requires emotional agility, an emotional intelligence skill.

Researchers including Goleman, Congleton, and others have identified four specific processes for building emotional agility:

  1. Recognize your emotions. Especially how your thoughts influence your emotions. Leaders need to realize when their thought patterns have become repetitive and they have become stuck in them and are not helpful.
  2. Practice “stepping back” from your thoughts and label them to recognize them as helpful or unhelpful. For instance, if you think, “They aren’t listening to me,” you can label that as, “I’m having the thought that they’re not listening to me.” This prepares you for the next step.
  3. Learn to accept the fact that thoughts come and go – and you don’t need to believe them as “true and valid.” Instead, take the time to recognize thoughts and emotions and find out if they merit action or are simply mental rumination.
  4. Be grounded in your values. Awareness of core values enables emotional agility to be purposeful, not willy-nilly. It means that you carefully consider your emotions before acting and will consider the actions which best serve others and the organization including alignment with its mission and values.

A global health crisis provides an immersive learning experience in emotional agility. When crises erupt leaders need technical skills, like science, technology, and data, but these skills are not enough. They also need the skills of emotional intelligence including, self-awareness, emotional agility, empathy to successfully enable their teams to navigate through turbulence. Practice the four processes to build emotional agility in yourself and your teams and then observe the impact it has. I believe you will witness greater team cohesion, trust and stability amidst the current turbulence.

If you’re interested in further developing yourself as an emotionally intelligent leader, consider one of our 12-week online EI courses. We also offer enterprise packages for employee leadership development.

Published by

Ann Flanagan Petry

Ann Flanagan Petry

Ann Flanagan Petry is the Chief Product Officer of Goleman EI. She is also a Positive Organizational Development Consultant, Coach, and contributing author of the new book Advancing Relationship-Based Cultures. She has over 20 years of experience driving performance improvement in organizations. Ann partners with leaders to cultivate resilient, mindful, emotionally intelligent teams who improve their own and their client’s or organization’s performance and well-being. She has published articles on popular news sites including Fulfillment Daily and enjoys paying it forward through volunteer work and supporting professionals as an active mentor with Everwise, an online service connecting executives who volunteer their time with people looking for mentorship. She is also a mindfulness instructor with the Mindful Teacher Foundation.


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