Leadership Under Crises
Crises demand and stretch our psychological resources. A crisis event is also often an ambiguous situation; a sense of uncertainty surrounding most, if not all crises. At the time of writing, the world continues to grapple with the health crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic. While often assume that prosocial behaviours are derived from past positive experiences, there is also evidence suggesting that altruistic, self-sacrificial acts can too, be born of suffering . History highlights and commemorates leaders who engaged in self-sacrificial acts during times of strife and immense challenge; leaders who stood firm to the ideals, setting aside personal interests, for the greater good of their nation during war. Wartime leaders, from Churchill and Roosevelt to Stalin and Hitler all exerted an important influence on their nation’s fortunes during conflict of a global scale. War is the perfect context and example of how crises can cast the spotlight on authentic, effective leaders, and on how charismatic leaders are created – not just by the situation, but by followers’ perceptions of those in positions of authority and influence. It is well-established by empirical research that crises are often associated with the emergence of charismatic leaders . In times of crises, we look to leaders for guidance to set what we call the ‘emotional tone’ of the situation. What should we make about the whole crisis? How should we act? And of course, how should we be feeling during this time? If we paid attention to and supported the leader, are we assured in obtaining what’s best for us, and the collective?
Charisma is Contagious
A considerable amount of research suggests the importance of the leader’s expressions of emotions as an important determinant of their charisma. In a series of studies by Joyce Bono and Remus Ilies, charisma was found to be shaped by how much positive mood was transferred from leader to follower. As such, one essential component of charisma was simply how positively the leader made their followers feel. Followers who felt positively toward their leaders rated their leaders as being more effective, saw them as more attractive – and importantly, as being charismatic . Another study showed that this occurs because followers and observers pay attention to, and mimic the non-verbal expressions showed by the leader. In two experimental studies, Paul Cherulnik and colleagues found that because participants paid more attention to non-verbal cues (such as smiles), they were also more likely to ‘catch on’ the expressions and consequently, feel the same emotions alongside their leader . The researchers explain that the emotional core of charisma is what makes these leaders so appealing and attractive – and, when paired in situations of crisis, are used by followers as subtle, but important cues on leader effectiveness. Charisma is contagious, and this can be explained through the processes of emotional contagion – the subconscious mimicry and synchrony of others’ non-verbal cues that result in the convergence of emotional states. We unknowingly copy the facial expressions of others, resulting in us sharing that emotional state with the person we are observing. This phenomenon occurs in leadership settings – and particularly during a crisis, when uncertainty abounds, and when leaders are perceived as important sources for much-hoped-for clarity and direction.
The “Right” Emotion for Crises
But it is not enough for leaders to show emotion. They must too, display the “right” emotion. Important in understanding why some leaders succeed – applauded and recognized for their leadership while others flounder, is knowing whether their emotional expressions are appropriate for the given situation. This depends on three considerations: (i) Is the type of emotion required/expected present; (ii) is the type of emotion not required or inappropriate absent and (iii) is the intensity of the emotion felt or expressed suitable for the situation? These considerations form part of what researchers simply call emotional appropriateness. It is multidimensional and multifaceted in that it is not enough to display certain emotions – leaders must show them with the right intensity and refrain from expressing emotions inappropriate for the situation . Expressions of inappropriate emotions by the leader can be costly. Indeed, Erik Bucy found that when leaders displayed inconsistency in their message tone with their non-verbal gestures, participants rated that leader as being less honest, less credible, and less trustworthy, than if their non-verbal gestures matched their message tone . These findings have important real-world consequences. In crises, leaders almost certainly have only one chance to form a strong, firm impression on how they will lead. Failure to set the tone of their leadership by not displaying the right emotional expressions (and in the right intensity) can be detrimental to their credibility, ultimately diminishing the trust that followers have toward them under the most demanding of situations.
Another consideration for leaders is the role of certain discrete emotions in their crisis communications. Discrete emotions are those that are categorized as being distinct from other emotions. For instance, joy and delight are not distinguished from one another (at least in the psychological sciences), whereas anger and fear are. Crises exert a range of discrete emotions – almost exclusively unpleasant ones such as fear, sadness, grief, anxiety, anger and hopelessness. And leaders have the unenviable task of choosing to match the right emotion to counter and to express empathy and recognition of the emotions that their followers are experiencing. Interestingly, it is not just discrete, positive emotions that are essential here. Few, if any, followers would like to see their leaders expressing joy, unfounded hopes and blind optimism under crises. Negative, unpleasant emotions can be important too. A series of studies by Madera and Smith shows the appropriateness and necessity of these negative, unpleasant emotions during a crisis. Examining followers’ evaluation of their leader in a crisis, these researchers found that followers rated their leaders more favourably when they expressed sadness and anger than when they expressed solely anger as their response in the crisis. Expressions of sadness, in this case, reflected the leader’s sense of empathy and willingness to resonate with the followers’ concerns and loss resulting from the crisis.
Crisis demands not just the best in leaders’ decisiveness, agility, and speed – but also, their most appropriate and empathetic responses. When it comes to a crisis, leaders don’t get a second chance at making a good first (emotional) impression.