Whole Leaders in an Emotional Pandemic

Whole Leaders in an Emotional Pandemic

A new reality is upon us. An opportunity – to be our best when it’s a bit tougher to do so. The uncertainty of a biological pandemic is likely to impact everything we see, and a host of things we can’t. What we do see around us isn’t only a need for further preparation in the midst of the storm, but also a moment where we wish we had prepared better. The problem, however, isn’t just biological – it’s also an emotional reality that’s impacting every one of us and all those who surround us. And, an even more complete perspective on that reality is that it isn’t only our biology that’s contagious, but also our emotions. While it’s easy to focus on the biological contagions around us, it’s the seemingly invisible emotional contagions that may be just as problematic. 

In Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman, one of the grandfathers of emotional systems, describes anxiety as an emotional virus that is so contagious, it can be spread by simply being in the proximity of an anxious person.  With the advent of social media, anxiety no longer requires the physical presence of an anxious person for it to spread – only 140 characters and someone we’ve never met can infect us with their anxiety about a problem that may or may not be our own.  In complex emotional systems, we are never simply experiencing our own anxiety about the reality, we are also experiencing the anxiety of everyone else about their reality, and so it goes. This is the way emotional systems work, and without some intentional thinking as well as action, we may be tempted to drink the dangerous cocktail the system of emotions around us so readily provides.

Emotions Aren’t Logical

We may be consciously aware that our responses to the issue are disproportionate to the threat, but in an anxious system of human beings, it’s oftentimes not logic that governs our decisions, but our fight or flight response.  In so many ways, giving in to the emotional monster in front of us when self regulation and clarity is needed can be as bad as the actual monster of uncertainty we are facing. Like our tendency to simply stare at a car accident, it’s our personal decision to do nothing that will lead to nothing being done for the wider community’s sake. While swift decision-making is so important in times like this, it is also our capacity to make clear and thoughtful decisions in the midst of the emotional tornados swirling around us that will make a difference. 

Emotions are Contagious

Next time you watch a news report on the current state of the world, pay attention to two things that are interconnected; the facts that are being claimed and the emotional context driving them. Each has a healthy dose of reality and a healthy dose of human bias that may or may not be our reality. If I show you an empty shelf at a grocery store and you have just been to a grocery store in your region where the shelves were relatively full, what are you to believe? And, what are you to feel? It would be naive to assume that your own experience isn’t valid, but equally naive to believe that your experience is like that of most other people. However, those projected facts and data leave us with a choice. Are we going to default to anxiety and then begin to pass that anxiety to others, or are we going to be thoughtful and intentional while also staying connected to the dangers and realities in front of us? It doesn’t take a biological pandemic for each of us to understand the contagious aspect of emotions. We pass around anxiety like relay batons every day in our work and homes, and that anxiety has many faces – some of which are helpful and others of which are quite simply, dangerous.


Mirroring happens when I respond to you in such a way that it mirrors what you’re feeling.  In these simple moments, whether high or low, mirroring helps turn a stranger into a friend, as we see our own emotions in their eyes.  Mirroring is great when we’re passing along positive emotions, but when our anxiety levels have increased to the point of panic, this mirroring simply transmits anxiety.  A primary job of a leader in an anxious system is to stop the spread of the emotional virus, a skill many leaders haven’t developed yet. Leaders who mirror the anxiety of their people will provide a momentary comfort, but it will likely not stop the advancement of anxiety.  This is not the time to mirror anxiety, but to connect to the experience of others without becoming what they don’t need us to be – an anxious and problem-focused mess. An accurate and thoughtful assessment of the problem is absolutely critical, but it’s one part of the leader’s job, and that’s where it gets interesting. Differentiated leaders make the choice NOT to mirror our anxiety, but when we have become so accustomed to seeing our emotions mirrored in them, this can feel like a personal rejection.  The opportunity is right in front of us to be and support leaders who are accurately sensing what’s needed without reflecting the spiraling anxiety those in our influence are feeling.

A Different (or Differentiated) Response

As we said earlier, emotions are contagious, and that’s not all bad. In fact, it’s a key tool in our toolkit to realize that just as quickly as negative or uncertain emotions can spiral us downward, a different response can settle us. One individual who avoids the temptation to default to the pressure and choose clear and present thinking can have a profound impact on so many people. But, it takes a tremendous amount of courage when others on both sides of us want us to join their emotional unhealth. One clear and present person in the center of an emotional pandemic can have an exponential impact on the system (team, family, community, organization) around them. A person like this sees the anxiety and names it for the monster it is, is aware of their own tendencies under pressure, and chooses to listen more effectively than ever before while communicating more clearly than ever before. 

So, where do we begin? Here are three research based steps for maintaining your composure in these moments. While we could talk all day long about the power of emotions to derail us, there are specific strategies that can help in these moments.

  1. Name the anxiety, and then rename it: Name your default response to pressure, and then name your developmental response. Our default response to pressure is the response based on emotional reactivity. It sometimes comes in the form of anxiety, fear, or even more concrete things like loss of revenue or a job. Our default response is our emotional response if we were to do nothing but react. Our developmental response is our response that comes from a higher level of thinking – a thinking rooted in the reality that anxiety is seasonal and not always chronic. It’s also based on maintaining a perspective on our capacity to choose, even in the worst of times. When we name our developmental reality, names like opportunity, care, clarity, and presence under pressure emerge as an additional way of perceiving our world. What is your default response to pressure, and if you shifted your perspective to consider your developmental reality, what would your response be?
  2. Enact your sense of purpose: In our research on thousands of leaders under pressure we found that the top predictor of an individual’s capacity to compose themselves in the emotional storm was the extent to which they were clear about their sense of purpose – their reason for being in the current situation. Clarifying your sense of purpose isn’t psycho-babble, but an actual strategy that we found to have a profound impact on the person being able to be clear, decisive, thoughtful, and connected to their multiple stakeholders. Knowing why they were in it, even before taking action, was the critical ingredient to being their best selves in the storm. When you think about your current emotional context, what is the purpose you serve in that moment, and who will be helped if you can show up on purpose?
  3. Look for Potential: Beyond sense of purpose, the second biggest predictor of an individual’s capacity to show up well under pressure was the extent to which they could maintain a focus on potential when so many others only see the barriers. Barriers are real, but they aren’t the only thing we need. In fact, those who focus on potential in the storm – positive possible outcomes (or hope) that could arise from the systemic decline, are powerful in spreading calm in teams, families, organizations, or systems where the default will be to anxiety if that leader isn’t there. As you think about the emotional context or anxiety you or others are feeling, what are two or three positive potential outcomes that could come out of this situation? 

Our hope is that no one would feel we are minimizing the dire reality in our current or future high pressure moments, but also that we would each maintain our own capacity to show up at our best. It’s so easy to be impacted by the words, data, emotions, pictures, and videos that are all around us in our modern world – and we must stay in touch with these channels to understand the reality of others. However, if that is all that governs our response, we are in deeper trouble. The emotional pandemic is upon us, and the reality is that it always was, or it was just around the corner. However, what was also upon us was our capacity to name our emotions, to get clear about why we are here and for whose sake, and to communicate and see the hope that becomes even more needed when so many are feeling anxiety. Not all of us will be in a position to be our best selves in every moment, but our hope is that enough of us will be ready to fight the emotional pandemic for the rest of us. 

Rob McKenna & Alex Johnson

Recently named among the top 30 most influential I-O Psychologists and featured in Forbes, Dr. Rob McKenna is the founder of WiLD Leaders, Inc., creator of the WiLD Toolkit, and Chair of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Seattle Pacific University. His research and coaching with leaders across corporate, not-for-profit and university settings has given him insight into the real and gritty experience of leaders. His clients have included the Boeing Company, Microsoft, Heineken, Foster Farms, the United Way, Alaska Airlines and Children’s Hospital. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters on leadership character, calling, effectiveness, and leadership under pressure. His latest book, Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure, focuses the specific strategies leaders can use to stay true to themselves and connected to others when it matters most. 

With a broad range of leadership experience across a broad range of organizational contexts, Alex Johnson has a deep appreciation for the unique joys and pressures that leaders experience and face and the critical role that leader health plays in overall organizational health. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Seattle Pacific University with his research focusing on new and paradigm shifting approaches to leadership development. He is a die-hard Cubs fan and will always root for the underdog.


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