Harvard Business Review
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The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership

Summary.  It is often said that a strong vision makes a good leader. But in a crisis, people don’t need a vision to inspire them–they’re already raring to act. Instead, they need what psychologists call “holding”–leaders who acknowledge their emotions and give them a sense of context and reality. Holding allows people to channel their desire to act into something purposeful, and it allows them to more fully be themselves (and thus to be more mentally healthy). People never forget how managers treated them when they were facing loss. It is leaders who hold through this crisis, the author believes, who will keep their organizations afloat and to whom we’ll turn when time comes to articulate a vision for the future.

When I ask groups of managers what makes a good leader, I seldom have to wait long before someone says, “Vision!” and everyone nods. I have asked that question countless times for the past 20 years, to cohorts of senior executives, middle managers, and young students from many different sectors, industries, backgrounds, and countries. The answer is always the same: A vision inspires and moves people. Expansion, domination, freedom, equality, salvation — whatever it is, if a leader’s vision gives us direction and hope, we will follow. If you don’t have one, you can’t call yourself a leader.

This enchantment with vision, I believe, is the manifestation of a bigger problem: a disembodied conception of leadership. Visions hold our imagination captive, but they rarely have a positive effect on our bodies. In fact, we often end up sacrificing our bodies in the pursuit of different kinds of visions, and celebrating that fact — whether it is by dying for our countries or working ourselves to exhaustion for our companies. Visions work the same way whether mystics or leaders have them: They promise a future and demand our life. In some cases, that sacrifice is worth it. In others, it is not. Just as it can ignite us, a vision can burn us out.

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