The psychology of crisis leadership: Looking beyond gender

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Written by Tamson Amara on 18 November 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

Tamson Amara takes the notion of leadership in a crisis beyond gender stereotypes.

Cultivating a refined psychological skill set enables leaders of ALL genders to respond effectively to disruption. We can all learn to lead with authenticity, empathy, presence and decisiveness - by nurturing these qualities within ourselves.

The gender and leadership debate

You may have, like me, followed the viral analysis of why women leaders seemed to out-perform men during the early stages of the coronavirus crisis. We certainly watched a panoply of toxic behaviours from Johnson, Trump, Putin, Amlo, Bolsonaro et al; denial, arrogance, recklessness, exceptionalism, self-interest, evasion and buck-passing among them.

Unfortunately ‘strongman’ type behaviours, perhaps perceived by some voters to be valuable in times of social/political unrest, corresponded with higher infection and death rates during the first wave.

Meanwhile Ardern, Merkel, Ing-wen, Čaputová, Jakobsdóttir, Marin, Solberg etc were spotlighted as offering an alternate reality’ of compassionate, relationally skilful, risk-averse and decisive leadership; in touch with both scientific advice and citizens’ concerns.

Cue a slew of articles on the differences between male and female styles of leadership and the leadership lessons that men could learn from women.

I can confidently report that people of all genders benefit from doing the personal work that makes a great leader in a crisis, and beyond.

Commentary became more nuanced as the crisis continued, pointing out that ‘dividing men and women heads of state into homogenous categories isn’t necessarily useful’ and discussing some of the other political and societal factors at play.

For example greater trust in government and a welfare focus in societies with less gender disparity. And of course female heads of state may have already had to excel across a more diverse set of leadership strategies than their male counterparts due to the inherited sexist structural and cultural barriers in place.

From my years of using powerful tools from neuroscience and psychology to coach successful leaders, I’m in full agreement that ‘real leadership qualities traverse gender lines’, but I’d also like to progress the debate. I can confidently report that people of all genders benefit from doing the personal work that makes a great leader in a crisis, and beyond.

What psychological insights offer us

Sure, we all bring gendered conditioning and biological hardwiring to every table we sit at. But every human brain has an amygdala and a prefrontal cortex, and every amygdala is activated in response to perceived threats to power, security, ego and/or territory.

People’s emotional responses differ wildly, and there will certainly be gendered and cultural patterns at play. But we ALL have emotional drivers that need to be satisfied before blood can divert our emotional thinking brain (amygdala) to our human logical thinking brain (prefrontal cortex).

Drives for power, security, ego and territory are normal and healthy, increasing our chances of survival. Our capacity to contain, rationalise and manage these drives comes from perspective - our beliefs and values about how to lead and achieve successful outcomes.

 

Perspective is a human logical (prefrontal cortex) skill. Collaboration, listening, sharing and negotiation are all qualities supported by ‘human’ thinking. When hijacked by emotional drivers, these qualities are lost.

Control, security and power under threat, we’ve seen Trump and other ‘strongmen’ operate using highly unregulated emotional drivers: bypassing neurological pathways of empathy, cooperation and perspective and leveraging any means necessary to retain control.

It’s important to recognise that we all have the potential for our drives to spiral out of control. Once the momentum starts it can become harder and harder to pull back from compulsive and addictive behaviours.

In No. 3 in this Series I discussed how self-awareness is crucial for leaders who want to manage their emotional responses, master their mindset, and stay present to the needs of their ‘troop’ during crisis.

Essential personal work for leaders

  1. Understand your emotional drivers

Knowing and owning your emotional drivers; security, territory, power, ego, pleasure etc, is vital. We all have our good and bad days. Knowing how to manage your shifting states will help you remain at your best longer and bounce back when you’re not. When your emotional needs are met, for example by prioritising R&R or creating boundaries, you will show up with greater consistency for your team. And by accepting your feelings and seeing your emotional triggers as a valuable info source, you will more likely act constructively in response.

  1. Communicating authentically - and listen!

Strong leadership does not have to mean bullet-proof. As a leader, one way to manage loss of security for yourself and your people is by truthfully sharing your vulnerabilities. It’s wise to do this in a way that communicates clearly and decisively how you’re tackling them, and what you need from others. This can feel risky - however managing this communication well will help you stay present and open (rather than closing down and flipping into control responses). Your authenticity will empower others and build trust, empathy and rapport.

  1. Stay present - and aligned with your responsibility as a leader.

During a crisis it’s important for a leader’s attention and intention to align quickly with what’s happening in the moment. The more skilled you become in managing your emotions, the more present you can be to the emerging situation. By receiving information and input from others alongside your own understanding, you are better equipped to respond decisively and innovatively (rather than reactively) for the good of all. By listening to the fears and needs of your troop / wider community from a place of service, and communicating a clear shared purpose, you will inspire trust.

Conscious leadership brings gender diversity

If these qualities of self-aware leadership feel familiar, that’s because they mirror the emotionally connected AND clear and decisive capacities highlighted amongst female leaders’ during the first wave of Covid-19.

The more psychologically astute the style of leadership, the healthier, more inclusive and gender diverse becomes the whole organisational ecosystem, and one in which everyone is enabled to thrive and rise. Conscious leadership not only transcends gender, it helps bring gender diversity.

 

About the author

Tamson Amara is an executive and team coach. Find out more about her work here.

 


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