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Demonstrating calm and optimism in a crisis

A panel discusses how to attain an essential element of leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a crisis, effective leaders demonstrate “deliberate calm and bounded optimism”—an optimism that they are capable of meeting any challenge, even when constrained by a lack of certainty about when and how the crisis will end. In this webinar, McKinsey experts explained the six steps to attaining an essential element of leadership during the COVID-19 crisis.

Deliberate calm is a conscious choice to move from responding instinctively and emotionally to being in charge and in control of whatever happens. People want to follow optimists, but being optimistic during a crisis can result in a leader making promises that can’t be kept. Leaders with bounded optimism, however, are able to hold the tension between confidence in their ability to solve problems and not making promises that can’t be fulfilled.

External factors, always in flux during a crisis, have an impact on leaders’ emotional and physical being, so leaders need to learn to be aware of their internal reactions and train themselves to respond in the moment in a way that’s helpful to their people. Simultaneous situational and internal awareness and understanding how they interact is integrative awareness—the skill a leader needs to master to be able to demonstrate deliberate calm and bounded optimism. Using these six tools will help a leader do so:

1. Set your intention. Do this either at the beginning of the day or before an important meeting. Visualize how you want the meeting to run, how you want to feel, how you want to interact with other people, what you want the outcome to be, and even what you want others to feel in response to your behavior.

2. Regulate your reactions. To regulate your reactions, recognize your stress-response patterns, catch the signals of oncoming stress and control your emotions before they hijack your behavior. This intervention requires a lot of practice.

3. Practice reflection. Use reflection time to process all the recent emotions, the events, and lessons and thereby unload your system and create space to listen to your mind and body. However you do it—through meditation or while running or walking the dog, for example—it’s important to make reflection a regular planned practice.

4. Reframe your perspective. When you’re down, ask yourself how to reframe your point of view in a way that puts you in charge, makes you accountable, and makes you more positive about the situation.

5. Manage your energy. You may think you’ll manage your energy later, after the crisis is over, but that’s not possible if the end is a long way off. If you don't manage it now—and continuously—you will become more and more fatigued and lose the flexibility that enables you to be aware and regulate your reactions.

6. Adapt your personal operating model. This is the step where it all comes together. Your priorities, your roles, your time, and your energy are all elements of the way you operate daily. To manage the complexity of this this crisis, how do you manage your own mental and physical health and your effectiveness as a leader?

For more on this topic, please watch the recording of the panel discussion, read the McKinsey article “How to demonstrate calm and optimism in a crisis” and listen to the podcast “Leading in a crisis: Five practices that help most.”

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