A lot of leaders have been canceled lately, and a lot of others have stopped posting on social media for fear of the same.
A crisis is the easiest thing to mess up and these are fraught times. We’re witnesses to division in higher education, distrust of big tech, airline safety fears and conflict over corporations in relation to geopolitics and war. These issues create an atmosphere that spreads to workplaces, schools and local politics. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching the mayor of my city handle a teacher strike. Both sides are dug in, each blaming the other and the mayor’s chief talking point is that the teachers are harming our kids.
I walk around asking rhetorical questions like, “Has anyone’s heart or mind ever been shifted by shame and blame?” Even so, I understand the pull toward self-defense. A crisis is often the most triggering thing a leader can face. Imagine that something you care about deeply is being threatened — your organization, your team, your reputation — and its survival depends on your actions. Triggered people react. Some get angry, lash out and blame. Others hunker down and hide. This is fight or flight in action, the evolutionary human response to danger that limits our ability to access logic.
A leader caught up in emotional reactivity is more likely to deploy shame and blame. On the other hand, mindful leaders can hold multiple truths, beliefs and experiences at once. During a crisis these leaders respond skillfully by inclining their minds toward the following:
Grounding vs. reactivity
Before a triggered person can access their logical brains, they need to come back into balance. Grounding techniques can help. Some of these include stepping away from the situation — and the phone — naming the objects nearby, feeling the floor below and its connection to the earth, walking among trees, visualizing a safe place or taking slow breaths making the outbreath longer than the inbreath. It can also help to place a hand over the heart to offer care and support.
Curiosity vs. assumption
Many formal meditation practices invite people to notice thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations with curiosity and non-judgment. This allows further inquiry into our attitudes toward ourselves, others and situations. Leaders who bring this level of self-awareness to a crisis widen their apertures. They ask themselves questions like, “What am I feeling? How can I meet it with compassion? What could I learn from this?”
Empathy vs. blame
Self-aware leaders are also more empathetic because their unconscious isn’t running wild trying to get its needs met out in public. These leaders see that underneath a protest movement is often a group of people caught up feeling unheard, unseen and undervalued. This group may be behaving badly, but once the true driver is visible, the path to solutions gets clearer. I suggest asking, “What don’t I understand about this group or person?”
Data vs. emotions
Seeing reality clearly is another benefit of mindfulness. In a crisis, reality is easily skewed. Data helps. Are sales and customer retention being affected? How about search results and overall social channel engagement? Trendlines are important because they keep leaders from being swayed by the recency bias that can plague many crises: we tend to focus on what’s happening right now because it feels most acute and therefore the most true.
Wisdom vs. outrage or consensus
The age of AI and social media has made it far more difficult to parse signals from noise. Anger isn’t implicit evidence of a crime. It’s also true that the most vocal people on social media often represent the edges: the majority usually opts out. Do these critics have all of the information? Do they have a specific agenda? Do they want a resolution or do they want a fight? Good leaders understand that outrage is not synonymous with consensus or wisdom.
Resolution vs. being right
Sometimes the best crisis response is no response. I ask my clients, “Will this response create another news or social media cycle or will it calm things down?” We are all tempted to right the public record. This might be warranted. It might not. Occupy Wall Street eventually went home. There are many strategies for cleaning up your social feeds and getting negative links onto page two of your Google search terms. “Winning” can sometimes mean giving up the need to be right.
Mindfulness strategies help leaders attune to themselves so they can attune to others. This lets a little light in so they can see that leadership is symbolic, not personal. Then they can seek to minimize harm to themselves and others. Because the goal in a crisis is almost always to find a way forward, together.
Beth Andrix Monaghan is founder and CEO of public relations firm Inkhouse and is currently earning her certification in mindfulness and meditation.