The psychology behind effective crisis leadership


Crises always test visionary goals, and most don’t survive. When there’s a fire in a factory, we don’t need a call to action. We are already motivated to move, but we often flail. For the Harvard Business Review, Gianpiero Petriglieri outlines what is needed from leaders in crisis circumstances.

When I ask groups of managers what makes a good leader, I seldom have to wait long before someone says, “Vision!” Then everyone nods. I have asked the question countless times for the past 20 years, to cohorts of senior executives, middle managers and young students from many different sectors, industries, backgrounds and countries. The answer is always the same: A vision inspires and moves people.

This enchantment with vision is the manifestation of a bigger problem: a disembodied conception of leadership. Visions hold our imagination captive, but they rarely have a positive effect on our bodies. In fact, we often end up sacrificing our bodies in the pursuit of different kinds of visions — whether it is by dying for our countries or working ourselves to exhaustion for our companies. Just as it can ignite us, a vision can burn us out.

When a leader’s appeal rests on vision alone, leadership is not whole. And the limitations of visionary leadership become painfully obvious in times of crisis, uncertainty or radical change. Take the coronavirus pandemic. No one had anything like it in their “Vision 2020.”

Crises always test visions, and most don’t survive. When there’s a fire in a factory, we don’t need a call to action. We are already motivated to move, but we often flail. What we need is a type of “holding,” so that we can move purposefully.

What do I mean by holding? In psychology, the term has a specific meaning. It describes the way another person, often an authority figure, contains and interprets what’s happening in times of uncertainty. Containing refers to the ability to soothe distress, and interpreting to the ability to help others make sense of a confusing predicament. Think of a CEO who, in a severe downturn, reassures employees that the company has the resources to weather the storm, and gives clear directions about what must be done to service existing clients and develop new business. That executive is holding: He thinks clearly, offers reassurance, orients people and helps them stick together. That work is as important as inspiring others. In fact, it is a precondition for doing so.

It was Donald Winnicott, a pioneering British psychoanalyst, who first conceptualized holding in this way. He observed that being held well was necessary for healthy growth in children. Parents who were available but not demanding, reassuring but not intrusive, responsive but not reactive, present even if not perfect, Winnicott observed, provided a “holding environment” that made children comfortable and curious. Holding made space for them to learn how to make sense of and manage their inner and social worlds — and to develop a robust sense of self.

Caretakers who held well, Winnicott noted, did not shelter children from distress and turns of fate. But they buffered children enough that they could process distress, and helped them find words to name their experiences and ways to manage it. Children who are held well, Winnicott discovered, became more sociable and independent as grown-ups. They neither became paralysed when faced with challenges, nor sought rescue from parental figures. They did seek help when needed and made good use of it.

Children are not the only ones who need holding to survive and grow. Adults do too, throughout their lives. To face difficult circumstances, master new conditions and develop in the process, we need holding from leaders and organizations. And we need to hold each other.

When we expand the definition of holding beyond child development, it becomes clear that there are different kinds of holding. In my own research I have drawn a distinction between interpersonal holding and this broader institutional holding. Ideally, good leaders provide both, in a crisis and beyond.

Leaders provide institutional holding by strengthening the structure and culture of an organization or group. They do it, for example, when they put in place policies and procedures that reassure people about their job security or how fairly the organization is treating them. They do it when they promote dialogue that lets diverse people participate in decisions and in adapting to new challenges together, rather than encouraging polarized factions. Failing to provide institutional holding makes expressions of sympathy and understanding ring hollow. Providing it, conversely, will often make people forgive even personally unlikable leaders their remoteness.

Once you have provided institutional holds, turn your attention to interpersonal holding, offering it to others and modelling it for them. To do this well you must let yourself be in the present. Your impulse may be to focus on the future, but that will be little more than escapism, if you cannot witness and understand people’s immediate experience and concerns. You need to muster a lingering, attentive availability that lets others “go on being,” as Winnicott put it. This is more than just being around and supportive when needed; it is a mixture of permission — to feel whatever it is that we are feeling without being shamed or overwhelmed — and curiosity — to consider different ways to understand our circumstances and, eventually, to imagine our future. Remember, as Winnicott described it, the core of holding is acknowledging distress and difficulty without giving in to powerlessness.

People never forget how managers treated them when they were facing loss. And they will remember how our institutions, managers and peers, held us through the crisis — or failed to. They also see the consequences of past failures of holding in those institutions struggling to mobilise an already depleted pool of resources. It is tempting to resort to command and control in a crisis, but it is leaders who hold instead that help us work through it. And it is to those leaders, I believe, that we will turn to when time comes to articulate a vision for the future.

When I ask managers to reflect a bit more on the leaders whose visions they find most compelling and enduring, they usually realise that none of those leaders started from a vision or stopped there. Instead they started with a sincere concern for a group of people, and as they held those people, a vision emerged. They then held people through the change it took to realise that vision, together. Their vision may be how we remember leaders because it can hold us captive. But it is their hold that truly sets us free.

(c) 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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