How to be an Authentic Leader in Turbulent Times (and why it matters)

Monika Barton
Apr 06, 2020

In the last few years, the world has seen many dramatic changes, with uncertainty forcing businesses to become resilient and agile.

At present, we face multiple unknowns. This uncertainty raises a range of concerns— after all, our brains are biologically wired to scan for danger. Naturally, we look to our leaders for guidance, advice, and reassurance for a way forward.

As a society, we have recovered from challenging scenarios before, like the financial downturns of 2001 and 2008. We will do so again. Trialling times give way to new opportunities and offer a chance for us to grow and develop.

We recently spoke to Nick Van Dam, Chief Learning Officer at IE University, and Jacqueline Brassey, Director of Learning at Mckinsey & Co, about strength management, authentic leadership, and emotional stability in times of stress and uncertainty.

“To lead organisations and teams successfully everything starts with ourselves.”

Why authentic leadership must start with self

As emotions run high, leaders must manage teams and organisations under increasing pressure. Feelings such as anxiety, fear and insecurity impact on both physical and mental well-being.

To provide much needed psychological safety, leaders themselves must begin by looking within. As in an emergency, when you should always put your oxygen mask on first, leaders must attend to their own well-being before they can provide meaningful external support.

“To lead organisations and teams successfully everything starts with ourselves,” says Nick.

By regulating your own emotions and recognising stress triggers, you can begin to understand your individual strengths and weakness. Moreover, as a leader, you must remain calm and composed, and this means being able to detach from emotionally charged situations so that you can make clear and balanced decisions.


Understanding the impact of stress and how to manage it

Stress can manifest itself in different ways and degrees—from feeling a little bit tense or nervous to total mental paralysis limiting your perspective. In today’s world, triggers can be small but plentiful. Perhaps you see an unsightly typo midway through a presentation; maybe your child runs in on your live webinar. These are not the life or death scenarios many of our healthcare workers are dealing with right now, but they elicit acute responses.

According to neuroscience, a little stress can be a good thing. It can help us stay focused and sharp. Too much, and it takes over the reins, stops us feeling safe and, in extreme situations, can make us freeze or even faint.

What can you do about it?

1. Ensure you have a great maintenance system

You’re not running a short sprint but rather a marathon. Therefore, you must look after your health and vitality in a sustainable way. There are five keys areas to focus on: getting enough sleep, eating a healthy and nutritious diet, exercising regularly, awareness and calming practices like yoga and meditation.

2. Connect with meaning

In moments of stress, the science tells us to use our brain to connect with things that truly matter. Because having a purpose is a powerful antidote to the impact of anxiety and fear. Ask yourself, why is this thing that I’m doing relevant right now? By connecting and thereby identifying meaning in your work, you generate positive energy that enables you to stay on course.

3. Use your voice mindfully

To stay calm and help others do the same, regularly practise breathing from your belly (rather than your chest), speak slower and at a lower register – drop your voice an octave. These simple actions stimulate the vagus nerve, which is responsible for your inner nerve system, helping you put the brakes on stress by activating your relaxation response.

4. Harness the power of curiosity

What we need now more than ever is self-compassion, the ability to forgive and to foster a growth mindset. By leaning in, keeping an open mind and being curious, you can cultivate a psychologically safe space and create distance between negative thought patterns. For instance, when you walk into a meeting, rather than just focusing on the outcomes or making snap judgements, lean in and try to understand the ‘whys’ as much as the ‘hows’.

5. Practise acceptance in Action

We all suffer from the inner critic, even more so when under stress. In such moments, acknowledge your emotions and hold them—metaphorically and physically by placing your hand on your stomach or your heart where the emotions feel strongest. According to Relational Frame Theory by accepting your thoughts (rather than trying to silence them), you can learn to treat them as temporary as opposed to the truth.


Leaders as role models

In challenging scenarios, people take their behavioural cues from their leaders. Right now, people expect (and need) their leaders to be empathetic, honest, optimistic, and communicative. It’s not a time for cloak and dagger meetings being behind closed doors or mix-messaging. As a leader, navigating choppy waters calls for more than just engaging with the task of work. It means actively participating in finding out how your people are feeling and what they are going through. Try to put yourself in their shoes so you can better relate to their concerns and worries.

Furthermore, the constant stream of new information is overwhelming and unsettling. In response, it’s even more critical for leaders to foster trust by holding regular check-ins, updates and Q&A sessions. It can be tempting to avoid the unknown, but leaders need to remember it is reasonable not to have all the answers. By admitting you don’t know something but promise to share the information once you have it, you achieve two important things: you demonstrate your capacity for honesty and vulnerability and reinforce trust in your intentions.

Embrace a growth mindset.

“There’s nothing more depressing than to work for a leader who doesn’t believe in the future,” observes Nick. But we’re not talking about faux positivity for the sake of it. Instead, it’s about harnessing and responding to opportunities as they appear. For instance, many organisations are inventing or accelerating their digital business model in response to the changes happening in working practices. As a consequence, this is an excellent time for investing in oneself, learning new skills and capabilities and getting involved in critical business activities.

“Leadership is pivotal in times of turbulence. But, there’s an onus on everyone to step up and shoulder the responsibility.”

Final Thoughts

Leadership is pivotal in times of turbulence. But, there’s an onus on everyone to step up and shoulder the responsibility. And, it’s usually in a crisis that we witness people from unexpected corners standing up and showing leadership. It’s about maintaining the humility that we can only control the things we can, and accept the things we can’t. As a leader, it’s for you to carry your organisation and people by always talking, being open and creating a space of safety.

For a direct learning experience with Nick van Dam and Jacqui Brassey, CLICK HERE to access our recent webinar exploring the dynamic depth and detail of leadership in turbulent times.

Nick van Dam and Jacqui Brassey discuss authentic leadership through emotional flexibility


Monika Barton

Monika Barton

Monika Barton is a content writer and researcher with over 15 years of management and communications experience in the public and private sector in the U.K. She specialises in writing about H.R., the employee experience, and disruptive technologies and their impact on the world.