5 Hallmarks of Leading Through Difficult Times with Emotional Intelligence

Building high-performing teams during challenging times with emotional intelligence

In today’s VUCA world, how do you develop strong leadership skills? How do you build high-performing teams during challenging times in a working world characterized with uncertainty?

In today’s VUCA world, how do you develop strong leadership skills? How do you build high-performing teams during challenging times in a working world characterized with uncertainty?

The VUCA acronym stands for:

  • Volatility: The market is volatile and unpredictable.
  • Uncertainty: The present and the future are uncertain.
  • Complexity: Many interconnected factors cause confusion and chaos.
  • Ambiguity: Uncertainty or unawareness create ambiguous situations.

Adapting VUCA for businesses was the mission of Bob Johansen’s 2009 book, Leaders Make the Future. To manage the four VUCA threats, he suggests you need novel skills, approaches, and behaviors to manage turbulent and unpredictable forces of change.

Over the course of my nearly two decades in NATO, the world’s largest crisis management and security organization, I have seen all kinds of leadership styles. In uncertain and challenging times, leaders with high emotional intelligence were the ones who managed to build resilience within their teams.

A few characteristics that stood out:

  • Although their team did not always agree with them, they respected their decisions.
  • They had an unmatched level of credibility. As soon as they say they will do something, they do it.
  • Preventing fear from growing in people’s minds, they made sure their communication was clear and understood by everyone.
  • As leaders, they were vulnerable in the sense that they led through successes with their team in front, and led through failures with their team behind them.
  • Any situation was taken into their own hands, and they focused on achieving the best outcome possible within the constraints.
  • Their charisma made them respected by others.

How can emotional intelligence be demonstrated in behaviorial terms? Let’s take a look!

Lead with confidence

It is humility that separates confidence from arrogance. Recognizing that you are not better than anyone else, and nobody else is better than you. Generally, people are turned off by grandiose self-esteem as it leaves them feeling inadequate.

When you leave someone’s presence, how do you want them to feel?

Answering this question honestly will help you show up with intention more often in conversations and interactions. Having an intention before engaging others helps you focus on what you want to accomplish. In some cases, the outcome will make people feel worse because they disagree with your decision. It’s okay as long as you set an intention from a place of confidence, not arrogance.

Seek to understand before being understood

Instead of listening to understand, I often listened to reply. It wasn’t until I became aware of my behaviorial pattern that I was able to change it. Each of us have patterns based on our short-cut mental models and autopilot behaviors. It is possible, however, that your behaviorial pattern may cause more harm than good at a certain point in time. I encountered high levels of resistance from my colleagues, bosses, and team when I listened to reply. I was only able to understand their needs when I changed my mindset and practiced active listening. My focus was now on meeting their needs, and building a mutually satisfying relationship.

What’s in it for my team

As human beings, we are all wired to be self-centered across a continuum. Some people go to extremes and live for others’ approval, which is a pattern of emotional codependency. People at the other end of the continuum are most likely narcissists, sociopaths, or psychopaths. The majority of people fall somewhere between these two extremes. At least, one might hope so!

Leadership requires influencing and persuading skills. By using traditional command and control styles based on fear, people will focus on feeling less fear not necessarily change their behaviors. Your team won’t go the extra mile for you, and if given the chance, they’ll throw you under the bus. When you don’t understand their needs, why should they help you?

The way Nelson Mandela led tribal meetings is an excellent example of a leadership style which inspires trust. He spoke last. As soon as he listened, actively, to each tribe leader and understood their needs, he validated their needs, and then he made a decision. However, they followed him anyway. He understood first what was at stake for them and addressed their concerns.

Making difficult decisions with EQ

Kindness is a fundamental pillar of a strong leader. Often, kindness is seen as a weakness, but the opposite is true. Character is built by kindness. It was 14 years ago when the HR director of a big NATO agency called me in person to tell me the results of a job interview I did. At that moment, I really wanted the job since I was ready to move forward. Surely, I did a remarkable job, I thought. It bruised my ego to hear no. After all, I wasn’t so amazing after all.

He communicated the news, explained and provided feedback in such a humane way that I was inspired to keep growing and never doubt my abilities. Even today, I remember how he made me feel.

Staying grounded when the challenging consequences of your decisions manifest is essential to making difficult decisions and understanding how you make them. Be flexible in your thinking and don’t dwell on regrets. Leadership involves making decisions based on feedback loops from the external environment, orienting themselves within mental models of their mindset, setting an intention, making a decision, and then realizing their intention.

That’s all there is to it. They revisit their decisions without shame or regret if the consequences are no longer appropriate, while remaining grateful for the lesson and experience.

Embrace acute stress, avoid chronic stress

Stress’ reputation is deteriorating. Stress management is quite difficult if you are on the verge of burnout. When you have high energy levels and you get your adrenaline from high performance levels, stress is a driving force that keeps your performance levels high.

Short periods of stress are not the problem, but prolonging the ‘acute stress mode’ is. These short periods can accumulate into chronic stress, which is the leading cause of workplace burnout according to the World Health Organization.

I have worked with some high-performing leaders at NATO who understood the importance of balancing positive and negative emotions. It’s a simple formula:

  • Energy decreases as negative emotions increase.
  • Positive emotions generate more energy.

Their daily mission was to find a balance between the two ends of the spectrum, which was a choice they made every morning.

The building blocks of the EQ-i 2.0 Model

The EQ-i 2.0 model measures a set of emotional and social skills that influence how we perceive and express ourselves. Our social skills impact how we develop and maintain relationships, how we cope with challenges, and how we use emotional information.

Both theoretically and empirically, these abilities, which underlie communication, resilience, and time management, can be mapped to predict and improve social functioning. Performance, interpersonal skills, and leadership potential can be dramatically improved.

An excellent way to determine an individual’s emotional competency is through the EQ-i 2.0, a leading assessment tool for assessing emotional and social intelligence.

High-performance behavior can be predicted by assessing a leader’s emotional intelligence skills.

  • How well do they handle performance anxiety?
  • Are they skilled communicators who speak clearly and effectively?
  • How do they build rapport and trust within and outside the organization?
  • Are they able to make sound decisions under pressure?
  • Do they know how to handle stress in a healthy manner without compromising their quality of work?

These questions do not have a one-size-fits-all answer. Aligning organizational realities with people’s realities requires understanding people’s maps of the world, their realities, and their emotional intelligence. As a result, you move forward together on different maps of the world, but on the same sheet of music.

The Five Hallmarks of an Emotionally Intelligent leader

Leaders who master the five hallmarks of emotional intelligence have mastered their self-perception, self-expression, interpersonal skills, decision-making skills, and stress management skills.

1. Maintaining a healthy sense of self

First, self-perception involves self-regard, self-actualization, and emotional self-awareness.

The concept of self-regard refers to respecting oneself while understanding and accepting one’s strengths and weaknesses. It is often associated with feelings of inner strength and self-confidence.

Self-Actualization involves persistently striving to improve oneself and pursuing personally relevant and meaningful goals that lead to a fulfilling and enjoyable life.

The ability to recognize and understand your own emotions is the foundation of emotional self-awareness. This includes the ability to recognize subtle differences in one’s own emotions. Moreover, it includes understanding the cause of these emotions and how they impact one’s thoughts and actions.

2. Developing healthy self-expression levels

Second, self-expression involves  emotional expression, assertiveness, and independence.

One’s emotional expression involves both verbal and non-verbal expression of feelings.

In assertiveness, one communicates feelings, beliefs, and thoughts openly, defends rights, and supports values in a respectful, constructive, and socially acceptable manner.

Having independence means being self-directed and independent from emotional dependency on others. It includes autonomy in decision-making, planning, and daily activities.

3. Developing strong interpersonal skills

Thirdly, interpersonal relations consist of interpersonal relationships, empathy, and social responsibility.

In interpersonal relationships, trust and compassion are characterized by the ability to develop and maintain mutually satisfying relationships.

Empathy is recognizing, understanding, and appreciating another person’s feelings. To demonstrate empathy, you must be able to articulate your understanding of another’s perspective and respect their feelings.

The concept of social responsibility can be defined as the willingness to contribute to society, to one’s social group, and to the general welfare of others.

4. Processes for making sound decisions

Fourth, problem-solving, reality testing, and impulse control are hallmarks of sound decision-making.

An important function of problem-solving is being able to come up with solutions to problems even when emotions are involved. It is important to understand how emotions affect decision-making when solving problems.

The ability to remain objective is the ability to see things as they truly are. An important aspect of reality-testing is recognizing when emotions or biases can impair one’s objective judgment.

A person with impulse control has the ability to resist impulses, drives, or temptations, and avoids making rash decisions.

5. The use of emotionally effective stress management techniques

Fifth and final hallmark is stress management, which is characterized by flexibility, stress tolerance, and optimism.

Flexibility involves adapting emotions, thoughts, and behaviors to unfamiliar, unpredictable, and dynamic circumstances or ideas.

Stress tolerance is a person’s ability to cope with stressful or difficult situations, and depends on their belief that they can manage or influence the situation positively.

The level of optimism can be viewed as an indicator of a positive outlook on life and an optimistic attitude. Despite setbacks and challenges, staying hopeful and resilient is crucial.

Especially during these challenging times where many organizations are scratching the surface of a social revolution at the workplace, let us remember the inspirational words of the late Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Nadja is a human readiness and resilience expert, specializing in emotional intelligence and leadership. Her comprehensive approach addresses the human factor in an increasingly digitized world by combining her expertise in crisis management, strategic stakeholder engagement, and emotional intelligence. With nearly two decades of experience at NATO, the world's largest crisis management organization, Nadja brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to help individuals and organizations navigate today's complex landscape.

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