Leadership in Times of Calamity

Mina Chang is Chief Executive Officer of Linking the World, which helps to link the world through aid, empowerment and advocacy.

Arriving in Haiti in early 2010 was a devastating experience. As our plane circled the nation’s capital, my team and I fell silent. With a bird’s-eye view of the impoverished city, we gazed in awe at the sheer devastation of the magnitude-7 earthquake.

As I grappled with the gravity of the disaster, I knew I’d need to do more than blithely offer instructions. To effectively provide relief to the disaster victims, I’d need to support my team as human beings, not just as employees.

Whether handling natural disasters, financial emergencies or public relations nightmares, leaders must come to terms with their emotions and empathize with their teams to properly address crises.

Disengaging our feelings and digging through the rubble might seem like wise courses of action, but the best leaders know that empathy forges the strong bonds that engage the hearts and minds of team members.

Empathy as a Business Tool

Often confused with pity, empathy might sound like a soft, fuzzy emotion that drains us of time and energy. Actually, it’s quite the contrary — it’s an incredibly valuable tool for today’s leaders. Brené Brown, a well-known sociologist and the author of “Daring Greatly” says empathy involves connecting with the emotion someone is experiencing, not the event or circumstance. “It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone,’” Brown writes.

I knew my response in Haiti couldn’t just be about the damage of the earthquake itself; it had to be about resonating with the feelings of hopelessness my team was experiencing. Empathy is useful not only in natural disasters, but also in healing wounds associated with difficult business situations.

In author Daniel Pink’s book, “A Whole New Mind: Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age,” he discusses the importance of strong interpersonal skills in today’s marketplace. One critical trait Pink mentions is empathy, which allows us to create meaningful relationships and care for others. To overcome real challenges — both humanitarian and business-related — we must connect with those at stake on a human-to-human level.

Harness Empathy in Times of Crisis

As leaders, we tend to approach business challenges with tactical, battle-ready mindsets. However, with this mentality, relational obstacles can often separate us from our teams and the goals we hope to accomplish. Here are three ways to practice empathy and triumph over interpersonal barriers:

  1. 1. Acknowledge Your Team’s Humanity

Team members — no matter how skilled — are not robots. They, too, have emotions and fears about the challenges they face. Redirecting staff members’ feelings toward a shared mission will not only help them feel recognized and part of the solution, but also instill a deeper sense of ownership in turning disasters around.

Companies that give employees time to grieve after crises benefit from team members’ renewed loyalty and trust. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, companies near Ground Zero were forced to make decisions on how to move forward, and the company leaders who fared best tended to their teams’ emotional needs. Companies that kept right on moving, however, paid a higher price of turnover later.

  1. 2. Be Vulnerable

It takes courage to allow others to see our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, yet opening up to team members is one of the surest ways to build trust over time. Life requires vulnerability. “Experiencing vulnerability isn’t a choice,” Brown explains. “The only choice we have is how we’re going to respond when we’re confronted with uncertainty, risk and emotional disclosure.” But vulnerability is also a courageous leadership trait. We must be honest about our fears and weaknesses to overcome them. It’s about connecting with our teams through empathy and shared emotions. Vulnerability also means taking responsibility for our own mistakes and choosing to respond with compassion rather than blame.

  1. 3. Promote Open, Productive Communication, and Listen Actively

Regardless of the situation, the best leaders position crises as growth catalysts. Further, they’re task-oriented in their communication, leaving no room for misinterpretation. Because team members often have valuable solutions to their leaders’ most challenging problems, their feedback is critical in crisis management. Rather than dictating action as a leader, listening can help pool together resources for more profound change. Listening allows leaders to hear what’s happening at the ground level from those implementing the steps to alleviate calamities. When entire teams invest wholeheartedly in solutions, loyalty and innovation are established.

Crises are unavoidable in life, but they can also be turning points. Empathy allows us to dig deep into problems without being mired in them. As I learned during my time in Haiti, empathy can imbue others with hope, inspiration and drive. Next time we face challenging problems, let’s lead with open hearts rather than stone faces.


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