Leading through uncertainty: The courage to care
If you are a leader reading this, you will know that leadership is extraordinarily tough. It is tough at the best of times, let alone when attempting to navigate a crisis, such as the pandemic we find ourselves in. One which has swept across the world, eroding our long established social and economic constructs. While all of us will have been thrown into crisis management, it’s likely that far fewer leaders will have stopped to consider the legacy they wish to be remembered for, once this has passed; such is the way in which our attention narrows, to focus on our immediate survival, when under immense pressure. There is little doubt that leaders are feeling the pressure right now. That pressure is likely manifesting itself as fears and anxieties about what the future holds, both for themselves and for their loved ones.
As a leader, you will have the additional burden of worrying about workflows, business continuity, the retention of clients and the financial stability of your organisation. And of course, you will also have the added pressure of leading and supporting your team during these uncertain times. However, it is equally true that some of those in leadership positions will defiantly expect their teams to step up in a crisis and will show little empathy towards those who do not. There could be any number of reasons for this difference in approach, but one very real reason is likely to be tied to the amount of subjective pressure that a leader finds themselves under. There is evidence demonstrating that our empathy levels decrease significantly when we experience elevated levels of cortisol. For example, experiments have shown that, when given a stress blocking agent, people’s empathy levels are able to return to normal.
When we feel stressed or anxious, we generally become less concerned with others and far more concerned with our own self-preservation. It’s a natural biological survival response that stems from our evolutionary biology. In those moments, we see a significant shift in the biochemistry of our brain (as well as the body) which tangibly affects the thoughts that we have and the actions that we take. For many, this tends to manifest itself in fight or flight, which sees far more aggressive, confrontational or self-isolating behaviours rise to the surface. However, it is also possible to become pro-social in such situations, by engaging our tend and befriend response. Our tend and befriend response is the lesser known reaction to stress. It is fuelled by oxytocin and endorphins, and naturally lowers circulating levels of cortisol in our system.
Managing your stress and anxiety inducing thoughts, as well as your automatic response to such stressors, during these uncertain times is therefore crucial for you, as a leader, if you wish to remain empathetic, effective and resilient. The challenge that many of us face, is that, as a human being, we are more likely to engage our fight or flight response (as opposed to our tend and befriend response) when we do not feel safe to share our vulnerability with those around us. If we find ourselves in a culture that sees the display of emotions (or prioritising self-care) as a weakness, we will find ourselves having to fight our inner demons alone.
As a leader, you set the foundations for your organisation’s culture through your actions and inactions. If your natural response to stress, is to fight your battles alone, without letting anyone else in, for fear of undermining your own position (potentially exposing your vulnerabilities), you inadvertently force every single other person in your organisation to do the same. That is troublesome when you consider research published last year, which found that workplaces that foster a culture of care – a culture in which people band together in a crisis and are candid with one another - are more than three times more resilient than those who opt to tough it out alone.
Research from the Limeade Institute in the US, published in September 2019, found that three times as many people agreed with the statement that stress was manageable and three times more people disagreed with the statement that they felt burned out, when they felt cared for at work. The same research found that levels of engagement were more than double in those organisations that did care, compared to those that did not. For an organisation to be resilient, people need to feel cared for, which means that you, as a leader, need to care – not just for others, but as the research demonstrates, for yourself as well. Only then, will your organisation be able to thrive.
Prioritising your own wellbeing in a time of crisis can seem self-indulgent. Yet, your ability to think rationally and strategically will suffer when you do not. For those highly empathetic leaders, who desperately wish to protect their people, prioritising yourself is a must if you wish to show up at your best. If you do not fasten your own oxygen mask first, you will not be able to show up for others in the way that you would like. You will also increase the risk of making substandard decisions and edging closer to burn-out. You also risk setting the wrong expectations, encouraging others to wilfully ignore their own self-care in an attempt to mirror your stoicism.
Similarly, for those leaders whose mantra centres around toughing it out and not showing an ounce of vulnerability or emotion, this approach will likely undermine your resilience and the resiliency of your organisation significantly from the inside – much like a trojan horse. Like it or not, if you have armoured up ready for battle, it is likely that everyone else will have armoured up too. The problem is that the armour doesn’t protect us (or anyone else), it prevents us from connecting with one another and protecting each other; leaving you at the mercy of your worst enemy – yourself. The armour isn’t made of iron or steel, but of cortisol and adrenaline. It weighs heavily on your psyche and corrodes your resolve from the inside out. It is something you should choose to wear only in exceptional circumstances, such is the toll it exerts on your physical and mental health.
To experience emotion, in all its messy splendour, is what makes us human. Emotions aren’t to be feared or something to be ashamed of. They are there to be acknowledged and expressed. While the armour that many of us cling to so desperately may well help us to feel safe, it does not in fact keep us safe. It only serves to erode human connection and with it, our collective resilience to grow stronger together. It is only when we find the courage to take off our corrosive shield, that we appreciate the true beauty of human connection and our ability to inspire others to harness their own courage to remove theirs – such is the burden placed on the shoulders of a leader. Now more than ever, leaders must prioritise their self-care, so that they can lead with courage and compassion though these uncharted waters. If you are looking for some inspiration, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, is a good place to start.
To lead successfully, we must rediscover the truly human basis of leadership.