Leading in a Hostile World: Dealing with Collective Stress – and Our Own – in Times of High Tension.

The world today is facing a number of crises that are impacting our lives. They include the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, and climate change.

The global economy is undergoing major changes, and their social implications are creating significant challenges worldwide. Shifts in working practices and lifestyles are widening social gaps and deepening inequalities, while democracies are struggling to preserve their core principles and values against a backdrop of rising populism.

We are caught between the desire to get back to the world as it was before and the conviction that change is on the way, challenging some of the paradigms that have dominated until now.

The vision, mission, and attributes of leadership  

In times of transition, when values and institutions may be losing their relevance, or when long-term prospects seem uncertain, the role of leadership is of vital importance.

Leaders' vision and mission act as compasses, steering actions, decisions, and behaviors towards the future. It's leadership that inspires people to move from where they are today to where they've never been before, and often never thought possible going.

The key attributes of leaders faced with such challenges include courage and strength of character: courage in choosing between difficult and complex options, which calls for transcending routine; and the strength of character to sustain a course of action for which the benefits and risks are not fully understood at the time of decision-making.

For their mission to succeed, leaders must act both as strategists and educators – communicating objectives, assuaging doubts, and rallying support.

As strategists, leaders are faced with an inherent paradox: when action is required, room for maneuver is often greatest when information is most limited. Once more data become available, that room for maneuver tends to diminish. In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, authorities were tempted to view the emerging threat as transitory or manageable by established standards. By the time it became clear that the threat was real, the scope for action had narrowed and the cost of controlling it had become prohibitive.

As educators, leaders must be visible and engage in clear, early, and frequent communication. Regular communication reduces anxiety and provides stability in times of crisis. Start by giving people the facts to keep them informed to help them make sense of the crisis and earn their trust. Next, tell them what you're going to do to address the key challenges, what resources you – and they – have at hand to deal with the situation, and what their role is in helping navigate the crisis.  

Lessons from history: how to deal with a crisis that generates collective and personal anxiety?

If history serves as a guide, think of some of our greatest leaders – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, or Winston Churchill – all of whom succeeded in providing stability, a steady hand and hope, even when they were unsure of the path ahead, explains Nancy Koehn, author of Forged in Crisis. They communicated openly and sincerely with their constituents and were able to find private outlets for their own anxieties. Above all, they celebrated small victories, even when losses seemed large.

Franklin Roosevelt's strategy during the Great Depression in the early 1930s was not just focused on saving the American economy, but also its democracy, while other economically hard-hit countries, such as Spain, Italy, and Germany, sank into fascism.

Leadership during Covid-19: the example of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

·      In a widespread crisis, such as Covid-19, odds are you can't be sure that all will end well. There is no clear, GPS-like path out of the crisis. So, the leader must show faith and accept that his mission is to navigate from one point to the next without seeing beyond the next point. He might not know exactly how to ride out the storm, but he will know which way to go, so that the waves are gentler and the winds less violent.

·      That is exactly what we saw New York Governor Andrew Cuomo do when his state became the epicenter of the U.S. Covid-19 pandemic. He did daily press conferences where he’d say things like, “Here’s what’s going to happen over the next two weeks” or “Here’s the spectrum of possibilities” and “Here’s how we’re preparing.” In a crisis, you navigate step by step, based on all the information you have, while at the same time always keeping the mission in plain sight.

·      Once you know that the problem is not going to be resolved quickly, you need to let people know. During the Covid-19 crisis, Andrew Cuomo referred to Covid as a multi-chapter book. Then he reassured people that they would be better off in chapter three than they were in chapter one since their resilience muscles would only get stronger. He would emphasize progress and victories. No matter how small, there's always a victory to celebrate.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s actions following the 9/11 attack provide another textbook example of crisis leadership

·      On and after 9/11, Mayor Giuliani was very visible and out in front of the public; witnessing the situation for himself was central to all his responses during the crisis. He visited ground zero at least six times on 9/11.

·      He was a great communicator. The message he conveyed was one of hope and optimism. The very next day, he went on NBC’s Today Show to reassure his fellow citizens about their ability to overcome and recover from the disaster.

·      He held timely press conferences with senior police, fire, and emergency management officials, as well as Governor George Pataki. He solicited everyone's expertise as team leaders and was quick to praise and show appreciation for their contribution. Together with his unified team, Mayor Giuliani kept control of the message and inspired public confidence.

·      Furthermore, within a few short days, his team was able to open a family assistance center that ultimately helped over 20,000 people during the crisis.

·      One of the key factors in Mayor Giuliani's successful handling of 9/11 was his preparedness. His vision was that “careful preparation, well-thought-out experimentation and rigorous follow-through" were of great value. As early as 1996, he had established a system for crisis planning and management, called the 'Mayor's Office of Emergency Management'. This experience proved essential to the planning and implementation of emergency measures on 9/11.

Control fear and anxiety to be a better leader

Leading in times of crisis can be very challenging. Just because you are in a leadership role doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing fear, anxiety, and worry. However, you need to be able to manage these emotions and be a model of resilience to best help your team navigate tough terrain.

It's important to understand the difference between fear and anxiety to help manage stress and burnout. Fear expresses the certainty of immediate danger. Anxiety, on the other hand, represents the apprehension of an uncertain future. Dealing with anxiety in a healthy way means recognizing the positive aspects of the experience.

Two misconceptions about anxiety are widely spread:

First of all, it's always a debilitating experience. So, we naturally tend to avoid and suppress all feelings of anxiety. The harder we repress them, the more difficult it becomes to keep them at bay, and the less control we have of the situation.

Secondly, any experience of anxiety is a dysfunction. In reality, it's an inherent part of human nature. Anxiety is an emotion we have developed over the course of our evolution – an ability to think into the future: to plan, dream, imagine, and hope.  It also makes us more resilient and more socially connected.

Final thoughts

Leading in a hostile world requires the leader to be at the forefront of the action, to remain calm and collected, to communicate clearly and regularly a message of optimism and hope, to work closely with his team and, in the best of cases, to be prepared in advance.

While the vision of the inspirational leaders featured in this post was always perfectly clear, none of them knew exactly how they were going to achieve their goals. Basically, their approach was to focus on the first step, then the next, and so on.

A quote from John Kenneth Galbraith resonates particularly well with one of the key messages of this post: “All of the great leaders have one characteristic in common: it is the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

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