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How to Lead When You Don’t Feel Leader-ly

How to Lead When You Don’t Feel Leader-ly

As a leader, you have many responsibilities, responsibilities that the pandemic has made harder and more complex. One of those responsibilities is to create team culture and reinforce corporate culture.

It's easy during these unprecedented times to let tending your culture take a back seat to the immediate, urgent needs of the day.

Now more than ever, connecting with your teams and continuing to build strong relationships is critical to ensuring success during this pandemic and retaining your best talent when it's over.

Gallup has some recommendations on how to maintain culture. They call out four universal needs of followers:

  • Hope: Excitement about a better future.
  • Trust: Belief that words will connect with actions.
  • Compassion: An understanding of others (how they feel, what is on their mind, knowing you are listening).
  • Stability: Employees want to know some things will be consistent, even in times of immense change.

But what if you, as the leader, aren’t feeling so leader-ly? What if you have fears, anxiety, and concerns for your own wellbeing and that of your family? What if you are struggling with these universal needs for yourself? What if you aren’t feeling particularly hopeful, trusting, compassionate, or stable?

First, let me acknowledge that if you are feeling this way, you are not alone. Most of the world is feeling fear, anxiety, and concern for themselves and others. It is totally normal to be feeling this way in the current environment of uncertainty and confusion.

But as a leader, you also want to do the best you can for your team. You want to be a role model. You want to help them shift to the new environment. You want to help them stay positive and focused. It just feels really hard.

How can you maintain your team culture and reinforce corporate culture while dealing with your own uncertainty?

[Related: Dealing with the COVID-19 Slump]

One way is to develop your Emotional Intelligence, and more specifically, to expand your self-awareness. Daniel Goleman defines Emotional Intelligence as:

A person’s self-awareness, self-confidence, self-control, commitment, and integrity and a person’s ability to communicate, influence, initiate change, and accept change.

All of these components of Emotional Intelligence can help you lead your team more effectively. They all start with self-awareness, because without self-awareness it’s almost impossible to consciously develop the other components.

With that said, self-awareness doesn’t come easily when we are stressed, because human beings unconsciously resort to automatic reactions when stressed. Stress triggers many automatic reactions:

  • Thoughts: "I have to take care of this." "Is this really happening?" "They expect too much."
  • Actions/behaviors: Over/undereating, slamming doors, sleeping too much/not enough, withdrawing, teeth clenching.
  • Feelings/emotions: Anger, frustration, anxiety, overwhelm.
  • Body sensations: Headaches, stomach upset, tight shoulders or jaw, nausea, digestive issues.

None of these reactions require any effort or thought on your part. They just happen. You may be aware of some of your automatic reactions, but it is more likely that you have very little awareness of all the ways you, or your body, react under stress.

Let’s return to one specific component of Goleman’s components of Emotional Intelligence: Initiate and accept change.

[Related: Managing Change Personally and Professionally]

If you are like the majority of us, just about everything in your life has changed – where you work, how you work, when you work, what you do during the day and on weekends, how you shop, when you shop, when you sleep, where you work out…and none of this was your choice. These changes have been thrust upon you.

How are you accepting these changes?

If you are experiencing a lot of physical issues that are not normal for you, if you are "should-ing" all over the place, if you are feeling more tired or anxious, if your mind is racing and you find it difficult to focus…my guess is you are not accepting these changes well.

What is the antidote to these automatic stress reactions? The other component that Goleman mentions: Initiate change.

It may seem counter-intuitive that creating change can help balance or neutralize the impact of change that is thrust upon you. Why is this?

It has to do with your sense of control. Human beings like to feel like they are in control; it is part of our whole fight-or-flight mechanism. When you feel in control, you feel safe.

Change that you create, change that you choose to implement, is far less upsetting to the body and mind than change that is out of your control.

Let’s circle back to you as a leader. How can you use this concept of initiating change to help you feel calmer, more focused, and more leader-ly? Linking this idea of taking control and initiating change with Gallup’s four universal needs of followers offers a place for you to start.

Take each of the four universal needs from Gallup and identify for yourself and/or your team: What is one change you can choose to make that will increase that need?

Let’s explore this with hope…

  • While remote working has strained many areas of work, it has also shown what you and your team are capable of. You are likely still getting the job done, perhaps even better than when you were in the office in some ways.
  • What ways are you and your team meeting or exceeding expectations? What are the implications to the team or the organization? How can you keep this change once the pandemic is over?
  • Now think about specific actions you can take to keep the positive changes you have identified going. What change will you need to put into place to make sure that happens? Outline these clearly and specifically.
  • Share this all with your team. Tell your team what you see as being positive about how they are working together; call out what each individual is doing differently that is helping that positive shift and tell them your thoughts on what you propose to change moving forward to keep this positive aspect as part of your "new" normal.
  • Solicit their input, comments, and feedback to create a shared vision and plan that everyone can buy into and be a part of.

You have just increased hope and excitement about the future for yourself and your team. Repeat with the other three elements that Gallup calls out as universal needs.

Using these elements with a specific focus and intention will help reduce your fear and anxiety and minimize your automatic thoughts, actions, and behaviors. You will feel more in control and less helpless. You will be able to focus on the bigger picture and to choose how to respond versus just react.

Actively and consciously focusing on taking control of these four universal needs will help you lead when even if you don’t feel particularly leader-ly.

[Related: Coping with Healthy vs. Unhealthy Habits]


Yvette Costa is a certified Professional Coach with 25+ years in corporate America and 10+ years teaching yoga. She is a Happiness Advocate who specializes in helping women be "Happy in Place." Learn more at

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


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