Leadership in turbulent times

By Randi B. Noyes

The current financial upheaval is affecting companies and individuals the world over. Reminicent of the panic instilled by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, today’s crisis has billions of people crippled with worry about what is going to happen with the economy and whether they will be able to keep their jobs and homes. Many corporate leaders are relatively new in their positions and have little experience in managing uncertainty and even those individuals seasoned in guiding others are struggling to readjust to this newest trauma.

Fear is contagious
As a sounding board for top leaders and investors, the primary question I am asked is -how can I manage to mobilize myself and others when everything is so uncertain? This is an important question, because in the middle of all the panic and uncertainty, the leader continues to be responsible for seeing that things are done – and that the best possible results are obtained. How can leaders optimally lead themselves and others through turbulent times – such as those we are experiencing now?
The very first order of business is to acknowledge reality, not to stick one’s head in the sand and make believe the problem isn’t real. The time is past when leaders believed they could suppress all their feelings, and that this would yield the best results for employees. It is entirely necessary for a leader to acknowledge his or her own feelings. Failure to do so might otherwise result in harm to one’s health, both the loss of strength and the power to envision. If you feel frustrated and angry, avoid taking your negative feelings out on your employees or your family. This will only make things worse because feelings are incredibly contagious. It is much better if you can admit to yourself that these feelings are only about you- and stem from you.
Fear spreads quickly, and can have a paralyzing effect on people. As a leader it is important to learn how to steer and manage your own feelings so that you do not spread fear, but rather grasp it by the roots. The ability to be able to work with feelings, rather than against them, is of the utmost importance for a leader. By simply working through this process, a leader can see what is going on lower down in the organization, and thereby serve as an example and a support.

Using feelings to make the right decisions
The use of one’s emotional intelligence is even more important in turbulent times like today than ever. The term emotional intelligence was first defined by Professor John Mayer and Professor Peter Salovey in 1997 as “the ability to perceive feelings, get in touch with feelings in order to think better.” Mayer and Salovey have also developed the following model of an approach to using emotional intelligence:

It is first a matter of identifying and acknowledging one’s own feelings and those of others. It is then necessary to use these feelings to think better (to channel and integrate feelings). Finally, it is necessary to understand feelings. It is only when we understand that we are in a position to manage and regulate feelings.
Emotional intelligence, put briefly, is the ability to understand and utilize feelings to think better and make the right choices. For a leader this means that he or she can reach desired results by acknowledging, using, understanding, and managing one’s own feelings and those of others. Good leaders are whole people who, through constructive use of feelings, are able to strengthen ties to family, friends, employees, and business relationships- in good times and in bad.

The whole person
All of the leaders I speak with have tools they use to pick themselves up when things are looking down. They use their emotional intelliegence to weather the storm and get safely to the other shore.
When you as a leader acknowledge that you are having a difficult period and take stock of the fact that employees are also afraid and uncertain, you are showing emotional intelligence. You quite simply have the perfect opportunity to show that you are a whole person, and you are giving others the opportunity to do the same. You are leading through the example that you aim to be.
There was a CEO in New York who came to his office the day after September 11, 2001. He nodded briefly to his employees on the way to his own office, just as he had always done. There he stayed until he went home at 5 o’clock. Such a story reveals his ineffectiveness as a leader and his inability to show himself as a whole person. He failed to assemble his shocked and stunned employees to tell them that what they all had experienced was terrible, and that they would all need time to digest it. He failed to say: Today is no ordinary workday. Go easy on yourselves. Talk together, talk to those you are close to. Do what you need to do! We’ll get through this together!!

Be true to yourself
By going through all your feelings until you have regained your calm, you are giving yourself as a leader or investor the chance at a fresh start. There are many ways to reach this calm state. Some howl in the shower, some run in the woods, others meditate and some stay in their feelings until they finally let go. Do what works for you- but don’t try to fool yourself into believing that everything is just like it was before. Speak the truth to yourself and let yourself process what you are feeling! This may seem simple and trite on paper, but it is a demanding process and one of the toughest challenges you will face as a leader. However, it will serve as a concrete opportunity for you to see more clearly and make better assessments. Leaders who use their emotional intelligence in this way gain more energy while becoming stronger and wiser. One leader put it like this: “I used to see the world in black and white. Now I see my duties and the world in multidimensional color images. I am much richer within myself.”

In turbulent times it is therefore important for a leader first and foremost to account for oneself. It is like an emergency situation in a plane: Make sure your own oxygen mask is firmly in place before helping others. What is it that you need to pick yourself up? More exercise? A walk in the woods? Peace and quiet? Now more than ever it is important to be true to yourself and your inner values. When you can stand stronger, so can all those around you. The Chinese symbol for “crisis” consists of two figures meaning “danger” and “possibility.” There is nothing to dictate that you cannot acknowledge and act in accordance with danger while also seeing the possibility. On the contrary, it is critical to be able to survive properly. The crisis and upheaval may be long, but your possibilities may be greater than ever.

Randi B. Noyes is a leadership consultant and founder of Leadership International. She is the author of the book The Art of Leading Yourself, which has been translated into a number of languages and describes practical application of emotional intelligence. In 2001 the book was the business Book of the Year silver award winner in USA.