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7 Traits Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Need in a Time of Crisis

The great test of leadership often comes in moments of crisis. Whether it’s leading an organization through an unprecedented global pandemic, facing an unexpected technological disaster, or managing the impact of an economic recession; navigating uncertainty requires mental and emotional stamina, courage and compassion.

Emotional intelligence is essential for leaders whose communities are impacted by crises, whether interpersonal and small-scale or as widespread as a pandemic. Think of Emotional Intelligence (EI)  as your internal toolkit, a collection of faculties you can develop that help you to understand and regulate yourself, and more skillfully manage your relationships. Developing emotional intelligence equips leaders with reliable internal resources to exercise in times of increased complexity.

Being prepared for the unexpected requires patience, compassion, empathy, trust, and a grounded emotional understanding of the self and the ever-evolving situation around you. The ability to lead with these qualities requires a solid foundation and a ‘search within’ to better navigate the world around you as it is.

Crisis response requires a thoughtful approach and leaders who employ these seven Emotional Intelligence traits will face challenges with confidence and resilience. We can look at a few examples of positive leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic to see EI leadership in action.

Emotional Intelligence Traits

1. Calm and Focused Approach.

Crises are inherently stress-inducing, and leaders need to remain calm and focused in order to manage the situation, maintain their own well-being, and support those around them who are seeking guidance. Unless we have developed the skill of self-management and learned how to calm the neurologic stress response, we may act based on our habits rather than the information at hand.

When a crisis hits, whether acute or long-lasting, being able to focus on the task(s) at hand with presence, clarity, and confidence is a required skill set. When tasked with employing creative and practical solutions, the ability to focus attention and energy is a necessity in a rapidly changing landscape. New research has shown that self-regulatory practices like the body scan can significantly reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, allowing a calm disposition when making critical decisions.

2. Clear Vision.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell stressed the importance of getting to know the “ground truth” before proceeding into action. Emotionally intelligent leaders observe not only the situational data but they are equipped with self-awareness to recognize their own biases, emotions and opinions that may influence how they approach the challenge. Mindfulness-based emotional intelligence requires non-judgemental awareness, which is key to a balanced view of the challenge.

3. Adaptability.

The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world that we live in requires adaptive resilience, and leaders who fixate on keeping the status quo will lose the trust of the people they work or interact with. Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), modeled adaptable leadership when he made the controversial decision to cancel the NBA season during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic well before official restrictions were in place around the United States. After consulting multiple experts to examine the threat of coronavirus, Silver acted swiftly and made a change that required courage and paved the way for other leaders to follow. It wasn’t the easy choice, but it was one that responded to the immediate need of the community he leads. Emotionally intelligent leaders have the resilience and agility required to respond to the moment at hand to make those tough decisions.

4. Effective Communication.

Trust is earned through honesty, and great leaders trust that people can handle the truth. Transparency requires vulnerability and, sometimes, having the self-awareness to admit what we don’t know. When a leader demonstrates authenticity by acknowledging what they are uncertain about, they create a clear channel for trusted communication.

Emotionally intelligent leaders provide clear guidance and honesty, but they also know how to listen, which is what Gravity CEO Dan Price did when he asked his employees for creative solutions that would avoid bankruptcy for the company. The employees came up with the strategy of volunteered pay cuts to avoid layoffs and save the company.

Our CEO, Rich Fernandez, also believes deeply in the importance of communication. When the shelter-in-place began in San Francisco, SIY Global headquarters, during the pandemic Rich began sending a transparent and detailed update every Monday morning, making sure every single team member is up-to-date on all priorities and financial forecasts. “During uncertain times, and especially while working remotely, having ongoing, reliable and transparent internal communication is critical for team members to stay focused on priorities, continue feeling motivated, stay connected as a team and adapt with greater agility” says Carolina Lasso, SIY Global’s Marketing Director.

5. Empathy.

Creating an environment where team members feel safe to ask questions or express concerns is another essential aspect of emotionally intelligent leadership. Psychological safety is the number one predictor of a team’s success because members can feel at ease to contribute to creative solutions. One way to create the conditions for psychological safety is by demonstrating empathy. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson posted a video message to his staff, where he honestly presented the facts of the impact COVID-19 had on the business. Poignantly, Arne took the time to acknowledge the impact on the workers and even seemed to hold back tears as he expressed the difficulty in some of the decisions he has had to make. This demonstration of empathy revealed his humanity, the care for his organization, and the humans within it.

6. Compassion.

Leading with compassion includes not only considering others’ needs but sensing what would genuinely serve them best. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson could have used his power to dictate a re-opening strategy that would apply to all branches. Instead, he asked the significant question, “what would be of service?” and recognized that local leadership could respond best to their community’s needs. Local leaders were empowered to make critical decisions knowing they had the support of the CEO. In addition, Starbucks also took action by opting to pay all employees (which they call partners) for 30 days–whether they chose to come to work or not.” Compassionate leadership can take many forms as it responds directly to what is needed in the moment.

7. Hope and Vision for the Future.

Influential leaders have a vision of the future grounded in truth and lifted with optimism. Cultivating the ability to envision unseen possibilities can provide leaders with a roadmap to navigate through challenges. Trusting ourselves and our teams to put the vision into action quells fear and inspires hope.

Emotionally intelligent leaders thrive in times of crisis based on their exceptional ability to acknowledge difficulty, communicate openly, adapt, navigate uncertainty, and create psychological safety.


At SIY Global, we have supported countless leaders in improving their company culture, and our research has shown that they emerge more present, resilient, and compassionate.

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