Female political leaders across the world have been admired for their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our conversations with female leaders across a range of industries suggest that empathy provides leaders with a tool and a buffer to lead amid the crisis. Here are the insights.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, female political leaders around the world are gaining acclaim for their clarity of communication, speed, decisiveness, and empathetic actions. They lead nations large and small, wealthy and poor, land-locked and coastal. From Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany to Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs in Sint Maarten (a small island in the Caribbean with a population of just 41,500 and only two ICU beds), women are demonstrating outstanding leadership as measured by low death tolls and high approval ratings.
In Taiwan, an early decision by President Tsai Ing-wen to screen all passengers from Wuhan as early as December 31st and to implement 124 measures (that excluded a full lockdown) in early January resulted, to date, in only 443 cases and 7 deaths in a population of 23 million. In an early model by the Johns Hopkins University, the country was expected to have the second highest number of cases due to its close links and proximity to China.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a six-month long 20% pay cut for the senior government leaders to recognise the impact that her strict lockdown measures would have on New Zealanders. Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg addressed the children of her country by holding an unprecedented press conference, in which adults were not allowed, to answer children’s questions and to explain to them why it was okay to feel scared during the outbreak.
Research shows that in times of crisis, people value stereotypically feminine attributes such as cooperation, emotional sensitivity, and the ability to build morale. These attributes are by no means limited to women. Conversely, being a woman guarantees neither possession nor command of these attributes.
Nevertheless, the business world is replete with examples of this ‘think crisis–think female’ bias, which can lead to the glass cliff phenomenon, the tendency for women to be more likely promoted to positions of leadership when firms are struggling or in crisis. Think, for instance, of Anne Mulcahy, who became CEO of Xerox in 2001 when the firm was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Mary Barra at General Motors who, immediately after her appointment as CEO in January 2014, faced a massive recall due to an ignition switch defect that caused 124 deaths and 275 injuries.
Given this connection with crisis, we believe that understanding how female leaders approach these challenging times might be helpful for other leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, what helps female leaders navigate crisis so effectively? In our conversations with female leaders – through our research as well as two virtual forums with alumnae of the Women Transforming Leadership Programme – we find that empathy, the ability to understand and re-experience the feelings of others, encapsulates the insights we learned about how female leaders are successfully leading through the pandemic.
These insights suggest the following recommendations for leaders during crisis:
First, empathy requires one to sense the emotion of others. Lockdowns, social distancing, and virtual offices may make the suffering of others abstract and remote. To overcome the challenge of virtual communication, leaders need to be more explicit – asking questions and listening attentively, which involves not only paying attention to what is said, but also allowing silence for others to reflect. Moreover, lockdowns, social distancing, and virtual offices have blurred the line between personal and professional lives. Leaders need to be more attuned to the personal aspects of their team members’ lives. They need to go deeper into the territory of the personal, crossing into the realm of the private by intentionally reaching out to individuals to understand their context, show concern and offer support.
Second, an empathetic response requires empathy to oneself. One of the key insights of our forums is that, even though empathy usually refers to “empathy towards others”, an empathetic response in time of crisis starts with empathy towards oneself. Leaders can achieve empathy to self through gratitude. Research shows that that gratitude reduces stress and anxiety, increases happiness and well-being, and fosters emotional resilience. By focusing on the small things for which they are thankful in their lives, leaders can tap into a source of positive emotions that furthers their ability to handle the crisis. Moreover, gratitude buffers stress and its negative effects on empathy. Neuroimaging studies show that stress enhances the emotional aspect of empathy (feeling the emotion of others) but deteriorates its cognitive aspect (allowing us to process complex information about others ‘context and tailor our emotional responses appropriately). By being grateful for positive aspects of their own situations, leaders can safeguard from the burnout and biased decision-making that can result from stress and ensure that their empathetic response to others will be appropriate.
Finally, empathy with self and others might help organisations survive during the crisis through the creation of novel solutions and ideas. By showing empathy to self and others, leaders can let go of prior expectations, pressures and assumptions and encourage generative ideas to emerge. Positive psychology studies suggest that positive emotions allow individuals to broaden their horizons and build new resources, promoting discovery of new resources, ideas, and actions. Neuroimaging studies show that compassion activates areas of the brain associated with learning and decision-making. Moreover, research on the effect of leaders’ emotional intelligence shows that leaders’ empathy towards their teams encourages team creativity.
By tapping into empathy, both for themselves and for others, leaders can foster an environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish, thus helping organisations to weather the crisis and hopefully build a better and kinder world.
Andromachi Athanasopoulou, Kathryn Bishop, Sue Dopson and Michael Smets contributed to this article.