We love growth journeys

I’ve worked with, and listened to, a lot of business leaders over the past few months, since the coronavirus crisis started. One thing I’ve seen most of us have in common at the moment is the uncomfortable fact that none of us really know what’s going to happen next.

This means that Strategic Leadership as we normally understand it is hard. If you cannot make assumptions and predictions on the future, you cannot really strategise. You have to be reactive, dealing with issues and opportunities as they come, rather than have concerted initiatives to push forward, the anathema of good strategy. During a recent conversation with Ken Kelly, owner of The Furniture Practice, one of the UK’s largest furniture dealers, he shared with me that they are taking things in three month timeframes, first getting everyone focussed, not losing money etc and then deciding how to continue – feelings I think many of us share.

Emotional Leadership

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Some leaders naturally gravitate towards this part of the job, but I’ve always found it the more challenging part of what I do (I once hired someone with the words ‘I do not consider myself at all responsible for your emotional well-being’ – it didn’t work out).

Right now, people that work for us are stressed – they’re scared, may be fearful of their jobs, their family & health, and uncomfortable with the level of uncertainty around them. Even just going to the shops at the moment, it’s tangible to see people’s levels of anxiety.

So, in this kind of situation, people need Leadership, someone to show them that it’s going to be OK, to listen to them, and provide a sense of certainly and security when they need it most.

Leadership Model

Les Hayes and Scott Offerdahl at the Entrepreneurs Organisation put together this model several years ago, and I always think I never got the attention it deserved. It outlines nicely the distinction between Strategic (it uses the term ‘intellectual’) and Emotional parts both of self-management, and of Leadership (using the terms ‘Inner and ‘Outer’):

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Take a look at the bottom-right hand corner – the skills of Emotional Leadership (how we deal with others emotionally). I always find it a helpful reference list.

One of my team members shared with me recently feelings of frustration at the situation we’re in. I couldn’t offer him a clear direction for the future, but I could listen, recognise his feelings, tell him ‘It’s OK to feel that at the moment’ and talk about acceptance, and how to personally approach this difficult time.

I realised that it’s OK to reassure people without knowing how the situation is going to be fixed. You don’t have to have a plan for people to follow you. You just have to have a belief that things will be OK (which they will), and an honesty to share your journey with one another.

Helpful List

So, here’s a helpful list of actions of good Emotional Leadership, drawn from a mix of experience, observation, and brainstorm:

  • Listening. Really ask ‘How are you?’, not the greeting kind, but to get under the skin. Take extra time to check in with team members, more than you’re comfortable doing, and ask about emotions. Don’t just make it an addendum to other calls, but actually put time in the diary to: Listen Listen Listen (NB. This is counter-intuitive – planning for unstructured time).
  • Share. Get vulnerable and open, share your real emotional journey. The best responses I have gotten from people recently have been when I have let down the mask and removed that distinction of ‘professional’ me and ‘personal’ me (my most popular article ever discussed the personal challenges of being an autistic entrepreneur during lockdown). There’s so much more visibility into each others family and home lives right now, so go with it, see it as an opportunity to forge deeper bonds. It’s hard to keep up appearances when you have a 2 year-old crawling over you, so accept that it’s not necessary to.
  • Do fun things. In our team we spend more time now on ‘ice-breakers’ and fun games than any other item in our team huddles – e.g. sharing childhood photos, family rituals, thing from the home, or new hobbies or pastimes. Many people are experiencing lockdown in fairly similar ways – your experiences are my experiences – so there are opportunities for commonality and bonding. I’ve had so many laughs, jokes, and smiles from people sharing wonderful little anecdotes of what they’re doing, and everyone – including clients and partners – have heard about my unexpected new enthusiasm for gardening. Explore this experience for the amazing emotional journey that it is. This is what ‘being in this together’ actually means.
  • Reassure. People need to hear, from us, that they’re going to be OK. Words such as these will be your friend:
  • ‘You’re going to be OK’
  • ‘We will be fine’
  • ‘You’re doing great’
  • ‘It’s all going to be OK.’

It always feels a little trite to me saying it, but never ceases to amaze me how much people want / need to hear it.

  • Don’t give false hope. If you haven’t come across the Stockdale Paradox, then take just under 3 minutes to watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpgLAuZdutM . Let people realise this will take a long time to get through, and be clear on the brutal facts of the situation.
  • Deal with people that can’t handle it. Yes, we’re there to support people, but sometimes that also means letting go of those that just can’t handle it, for the sake of everyone else. If there are individuals consistently bringing everyone else down, adding to the stress or drama, then you may have a difficult choice to make.
  • Talk about Acceptance. It’s important for people to understand what acceptance means. It is not about capitulation or inaction. It does mean: don’t fight reality. It means get past any frustration or anger at being in this situation; accept it for what it is. Then you can start to take action. People will find soulfulness and peace in this realisation.


Don’t let the fact of not knowing where you’re going at the moment prevent you from stepping up for the other key part of leadership – Emotional Leadership. Look at this crisis as an opportunity to grow and deepen as a person and forge closer ties with those around you.

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