Leaders with good emotional intelligence will rise to the top after Covid-19

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How are you feeling as a leader right now? When our team of coaches ask this of our clients there has been one response expressed across the board since the first cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in their towns and cities: “I am feeling anxious”.

Some of these leaders can express how they feel – to their coach and to their colleagues; others can’t. Others don’t have the emotional literacy or the courage to allow themselves to feel vulnerable enough to express with honesty what they’re going through.

Whether emotionally expressive or not, some of these leaders can understand the impact of their feelings on their work and on the relationships around them; some can’t. And some can take action to help themselves to calm down, cool down and to look after their emotional wellbeing – in other words to self-regulate – and others cannot.  

The two types of leaders to emerge from the coronavirus crisis

In working with a diverse range of business leaders in our role as leadership coaches, the Equal Talent team are privileged and curious to observe, when put to the ultimate test during this Covid-19 pandemic, which leaders are thriving, which are barely surviving and which are self-combusting and therefore won’t be in post by the end of this crisis.

It’s interesting to observe which leaders can maintain the trust of their people, customers and shareholders, and who will navigate these stormy waters towards recovery, and conversely, which leaders will lose support and respectability, and who will ultimately put their jobs at risk.

In general, the leaders who perform well will be the ones who have always invested in their professional and personal development. This pandemic will be no exception to their growth curve – in fact it presents a range of developmental opportunities for those self-aware, courageous and eager enough to capitalise.

In contrast, those who have always maintained a fixed mindset, as Stanford University professor of psychology Carol Dweck describes, will languish and will fall from grace more speedily now than if we had not faced this adversity.

Succinctly and crudely put: Covid-19 will ‘sort the men from the boys’ – and, of course, the women from the girls – among our business leaders. 

Emotionally intelligent leaders

A powerful armoury for the flourishing leaders will be their emotional intelligence. Those who will succeed will be those who have invested over the years in understanding themselves and others, from feelings through to behaviours, and who have learned to put this wisdom to optimal use in order to nurture strong relationships with their people, customers and shareholders.

These leaders have learned that the skills of…

  • Empathy – taking the time to listen to others and to respond collaboratively
  • Self-awareness – understanding why they are who they are and how they can make a positive impact on others
  • Self-control – knowing how to keep one’s cool when under pressure
  • Self-reliance – harnessing one’s inner strength to make confident, if not popular, decisions

Emotionally intelligent leaders don’t shy away from asking others how they’re feeling, and they make the time to listen and to prioritise a response, no matter how messy and time-consuming it is. Strong leaders know that nothing matters more than their people.

And let’s face it: it’s more problematic than ever to ask someone on your team today, during this pandemic, how they’re feeling or doing. We are experiencing the gamut of emotions: from anxiety to hope; from exhaustion to adaptability. This is our brain’s way of self-regulating, of attempting to recalibrate, to process and adapt to what’s going on around us. 

Emotionally intelligent leaders are also capable of expressing how they’re feeling, with little concern as to how vulnerable – or human – this may make them look.

Professor Brené Brown and her team have discovered that most people can only express an average of three emotions – “the mad, sad and glad trilogy” as Brown calls it. How we’re feeling now, however, as coronavirus sweeps across our communities, threatening the lives of so many, can’t be described in such simplistic or limited words.

Learning emotional intelligence

Why is it that so many of us struggle to recognise, understand and articulate our emotions? It’s because so few of us have had an emotional education.

We weren’t taught personal, social and emotional (PSE) education as part of our school curriculum. Boys were told they can’t cry and to ‘man up’; while girls were accused and judged as the weaker sex for being over-emotional.

It is only now in the early 21st century that we are starting to understand and to harness the science behind, and the power of, our emotional brains, largely thanks to the more recent advances in neuroscience and psychology.

It’s too late for the ‘neanderthal-esque’ leaders – you know the ones we mean, those who continue to wield their weapons of anger, threats, bullying and discrimination. The ones who don’t look for the win-win in relationships, those who look to dominate and to lead by inciting fear. They are a dying breed, thanks to the work of academic centres of excellence, such as Yale Center For Emotional Intelligence, who are nurturing the leaders of the future.

Acknowledging the impact of emotions on our cognitive systems

The leaders who will survive the fallout of this pandemic, who will thrive in overseeing their businesses way beyond recovery, have done their homework.

They know that our emotional system is inextricably linked with our cognitive system; that we’re not purely rational creatures. They understand, for example, that if tomorrow they have to present a restructure plan for business survival to their board of directors, but are feeling scared, unsure of the future and anxious for the health of their family and staff, they will not be able to concentrate on this cognitive task. Emotional regulation must come before optimal cognitive functioning can resume.

These same leaders understand that physical and mental health correlate; that anxiety, depression and dysfunction drives our cortisol levels up, and this harms our body. They know that the answer isn’t to numb these stress levels with sugar, alcohol or other drugs consumption, or with addictive behaviours, such as over-working. 

Many outdated and outgoing leaders will have successfully managed to avoid dealing with the messy business of people’s emotions up until now in their careers, delegating it to their HR team or others deemed to have the softer skills required to mop up any ‘people problems’. But not now.

Time for a welcome change in leadership style

Think about it, even before Covid-19, what is the majority of the incoming work that CEOs have to address? It’s the ‘people stuff’: managing shareholders confidence, directors losing it with one another during a board meeting, people behaving discriminatorily, managers avoiding difficult conversations or being unable give or receive feedback constructively, and the list goes on. 

Emotions matter. In business and in life (the two are more inextricably linked than ever now that we work at home). Do you agree? Because if you don’t you are going to struggle as a leader during this crisis.

Aggressive, carrot and stick, bullshit communication is no longer working and it won’t be tolerated after this period where integrity, compassion and creativity – social smarts – is required; where people need to trust and they need to feel safe. Leaders who can’t instil that sense of safety and belonging aren’t going to stay the course.

The wide-reaching, and hopefully long-lasting, legacy of Covid-19 will include a new wave of emotionally intelligent leaders. Leaders who are attuned with the essence of humanity because they have looked humanity, in life and in death, squarely in the eye and been unafraid of the mess and the enormity of the task ahead in supporting their people towards mental and physical recovery.

If you’re one of those leaders who know that people matter, then we’d love you to join us in our Facebook group, Leading Through Change. We are building a supportive community of business leaders, who want to help their teams through this crisis in order for people and business to survive, and come out stronger on the other side. 


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