The history-making events of 2020 — including a pandemic, anti-government protests, and political and economic instability — have left people around the world stressed out and with serious unmet mental health needs.
This charged-up environment is why leaders with outdated leadership and communication skills are at high risk of failure these days. Much like the young cowboy who tries to hop on a wild horse for a leisurely trot, both are headed for a reality check and a very bumpy ride.
According to renowned communication scientist Dr. Vincent Covello, leaders must quickly demonstrate empathy every time they communicate in times of high stress or high concern. In other words, people must first know you care before they care what you know.
Therefore, it should not surprise us that people who lead with an empathetic leadership style — which includes the values of humility, courage, authenticity and vulnerability — appear to have much success these days. Let’s take a closer look at why that is, what they are doing differently and how we might follow in their footsteps.
A New Renaissance?
Renaissance is a French word for rebirth, a time of major cultural change. The first Renaissance took place in the middle ages and was set in motion by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. This was the beginning of mass communication.
It was an age of skepticism and new ideas. Sound familiar?
The 2020s appear to have launched us into a new Renaissance along with two modern inventions — cell phones with broadcast-quality video capability and social media. For the first time in history, the average citizen can mass communicate with their mobile devices. That makes everyone a reporter and broadcaster.
Through the power of social media, people around the world witnessed George Floyd begging for breath at the hands of a police officer during an arrest for a petty crime, which led to fiery anti-racism protests. We also witnessed alarming footage of vulnerable seniors, where many more are said to die more from social isolation or neglect than the virus itself. This has resulted in demands around the world for more just treatment of vulnerable populations by police and others in authority, including the businesses we serve.
The very values of freedom, justice and equality are being questioned in this new Renaissance. Does freedom of the individual need to remain the dominant value underpinning our global economy, or does individual freedom need to take a back seat to the values of equality, justice and the common good of society as a whole?
Stress and Leadership
High stress changes things.
Witnessing vulnerable people get victimized in the news makes us naturally question if we are safe. It is stressful and makes us skeptical of authority. And that fear is the elephant in every room we communicate in.
Leaders and business communicators can’t ignore it.
Excessive stress also can spell a high cost for business — it can compromise employee performance and morale and may impact job satisfaction, erode physical health and lead to post-traumatic symptoms.
And all of this unease amounts to another significant business risk: the potential for harmful miscommunication and conflict. According to Covello, up to 80% of what is communicated in times of high stress can be lost. A more mindful and compassionate approach to leadership is easing stress, winning over skeptical audiences and getting messages through more effectively.
Authenticity = Alignment
Global leadership expert, author and podcaster Daryl Black argues that authenticity is an essential ingredient of modern leadership. “Being authentic is simply living your values and being true to yourself,” he explains.
“These days, we expect leaders to know themselves and the values that drive their own behaviors. Most importantly,” he adds, “we expect perfect alignment between a leader’s words and actions. Whenever they don’t line up, trust is lost and that’s very hard to repair.”
“Trust is still one of the most important aspects of leadership,” he says. “It is the glue that builds cohesion and connection among teams.”
Deepfakes and Authenticity
Yet another technological innovation is making new challenges for leaders who want to show up as genuine and authentic. Cybersecurity author Brennen Schmidt warns us about the growing threat of deepfake videos. “Deepfakes are simply propaganda,” he explains. “They pull together reams of video footage in a way that can make leaders appear to say pretty much anything.”
How can a leader appear authentic in this new age where deepfakes are a possibility? Schmidt admits that, while “there is no quick fix to this challenge, leaders who weather these storms can be those who have built up enough good will in advance of a controversy. Because, after all, image is to leadership as power is to technology.”
A Key Shift in Leadership: Who Serves Whom?
“Leadership used to be about providing purpose, direction and motivation that was more fear- and rule-based,” Black explains. “The direction was very leader-centric and the motivation was more command-and-control than anything, and where the team served the leader.”
“This turbulent new era demands a shift to a transformational and connective leadership style,” Black says. “This approach is firmly rooted in the leader’s core values, such as kindness, respect, professionalism and honesty, as well as the needs of the community.”
In other words, transformational leaders set an inspiring vision of the future to set direction. They listen, their actions and words are consistent, they demonstrate vulnerability, and they inspire their audiences rather than dominate them.
Empathy is defined as our desire and willingness to see as others see and to feel as they feel.
Jacinda Ardern, former PR pro and the prime minister of New Zealand, and Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer for the Canadian province of British Columbia, are two COVID-19-era leaders who are getting attention for their values-based leadership style that marries empathy, courage and vulnerability. In short, they place community needs over ego.
In a BBC TV interview, Ardern challenges traditional assumptions about leadership. “I’m very proudly an empathetic, compassionately driven politician,” she says. “I can only be true to myself and the kind of leadership I believe in.”
This philosophy in action meant Ardern took time during a formal news conference to respond to the obvious questions of little ones and families who must — of course — be wondering if the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy can still visit their homes during a global pandemic. It was the mark of an emotional intelligence-savvy leader to foster hope, comforting rituals and joy at a challenging time for her citizens.
Henry also made waves and even gained a global fan club on Facebook for her empathetic leadership style that is married with concise and compelling language. She fought back tears during a formal news conference as she cautioned the public to protect vulnerable seniors.
These leaders, and others around the world, demonstrate the importance of thorough audience analysis, which includes assessing both the practical and emotional needs of our publics. And they are gaining trust as a result.
Most importantly, these and other empathetic leaders appear to be communicating more efficiently and effectively than others. In the midst of a global pandemic, that means following their example might even save lives.
Author’s note: Thank you to Daryl Black and Brennen Schmidt, who contributed to this piece as advisers.
Celine Brassard, BA (Hons), CMP
Celine Brassard, BA (Hons), CMP, is a global expert in leadership communications. She has more than two decades of experience in corporate communications across North America in healthcare, with member organizations and financial service clients. She is a certified Communication Management Professional (CMP) and was a presenter at the IABC 2020 World Conference on the 7 Science-based Rules for Communicating in High Stress Environments. Brassard graduated magna cum laude with B.A. (Hons) in communication from the University of Ottawa, with a specialization in media and culture. She is currently writing her first book, “Gone Wild: The New Rules of Leadership Communication.”