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  • Writer's pictureMalar Villi

Painful Leadership

"You need nausea. You need pain. It is a message and we must listen. They are telling us something has gone wrong with the way we live. We need to stop trying to muffle or silence or pathologize that pain. Instead, we need to listen to it and honour it. It is only when we listen to our pain that we can follow it back to its source and only there when we can see its true causes, can we begin to overcome it."

~ Johann Hari, Lost Connections

Yes indeed. This article is to check-in on Emotional Intelligence; the essential ingredients for leaders in managing the current crisis.

Pain is inevitable.

I feel overwhelmed by the surge in activities, articles, e-learning modules, webinars, and videos that flood the media space. I am grateful that it kept me occupied; distracted me when I was in a state of shock. And now that I am feeling calmer, the noise is an overload for what I can manage. As I try and sieve through the avalanche of material and wait for the dawn of the new normal, the spotlight on leadership increases as is the pressure to make the right choices.

What makes a choice right? Right for whom?

Well, that will depend on whom leaders think they are serving. The purpose to serve will inevitably surface during a crisis. The feelings or emotions (used interchangeably in this article), will lead us to the values that are rooted in our identity. A leader may internally experience feelings and values, but the choices and decisions made will shape the lives and well-being of many employees and their families.

While some may argue and insist that leaders make objective decisions and are rational, I choose to take the path of psychology and brain science, where emotions exist, and the consequences on individuals and the generations to come are life-long. I don't think there are leadership privileges here, so even the decision-makers will not be spared.

Here's a check-in list that will determine the decisions one makes:

Check-In 1 - Emotion, the energy within that gives life to our actions.

What are some of these basic emotions that may surface? Is there any wisdom that I can draw from it?

Anxiety & Fear of unprecedented crisis

  • How do I show up as an excellent leader to my organisation: save money, implement the strategies in an uncertain future and grow the business?

  • How do I show up as the ideal leader to my people, especially in this social media era?


  • I am just another employee who carries out orders. I shouldn't take the blame.

  • It's not fair for me to make these decisions or carry out the choices that I don't believe.


  • I have lost so much. There goes my plans, people, future, and past success.

  • This place will not be the same any more.


  • I am not good enough for my people. It's too painful to show up like this.

  • I feel helpless and hopeless.


  • I have let them down by not speaking up. My best didn't show up.

  • They trusted me. I have my job but they will lose theirs.

While these may not be part of any leadership discussions and that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist or doesn't matter.

Where are these emotions coming from?

Past Programs – the system I have been operating from where patterns of thinking, feeling and acting have been established. These programs showcased our values, conscious or not.

Current Programs - the system I am operating from at this moment as my past program face an interruption or can't serve the current situation as :

a) I need to consciously check for relevance in the current situation, especially as the risk increases

b) I need to interrupt a past pattern that is irrelevant

c) I have no precedent from the past to follow

We are animals who are either driven towards pleasure or away from pain. Pain, more than desire, forces us to be stronger by going inside where it truly hurts. So, when unwelcomed emotions show up, we experience it, gain insights, aligning it with who we are (identity) and then make choices. These choices serve our values (what is important to us ) and hopefully a right purpose.

The right purpose serves humanity. In businesses, it serves individual employees who serve their families, the future generation and communities. These decisions have long term impact on society at large. It impacts general health, hope and happiness. The decision can build or break an individual first, family, community and then the country.

Healthy, hopeful and happy individuals will bring their best while the opposite will result in ill-being, depression, addiction and suicide that will affect a few generations to come. These numbers were on a rise even before this crisis.

If one acknowledges the former, then, the need to calm down first precedes the ability to think clearly. In the chaos, we use short cuts from past choices, which may be irrelevant or inappropriate.

Check-in for Patterns

  • Is my anxiety normal, given the current situation?

  • If yes. Does my concern make me less of a good leader?

  • Does it make me human?

  • What do I need to calm down?

  • If no, what does this anxiety mean to me? Eg. I may need to win all the time.

Check-in for Motivation

  • What is driving me in my choices (pleasure or pain)?

  • Am I anxious about showing up as an effective executor to my management?

  • If so, am I inspired by the joy of recognition (self-esteem ), or do I want to ensure I keep my job by achieving my boss' goals (insecurity).

  • Which of my values are in play now?

  • Is it Recognition (Self Esteem)? Security (Family)? Or, is it something else?

  • Should I continue to play or pause or stop?

  • Are my drivers more important that my employees' livelihood?

Check-in for Expression, i.e. feelings:

  • How are my feelings showing up at work and how am I choosing to express or control them?

  • Am I looking and sounding optimistic while I am not at all sure of the future?

Check-in for Empathy:

  • Am I curious and courageous to empathize with others, i.e. what it means to be in their shoes?

  • That their skill set may not get them another job for a while or as a single parent, they may lose custody of a child?

Check-in for Courage:

  • Will I bring this truth to the board so that we make the best possible choice with compassion and empathy?

  • What am I afraid of?

Check-in for Crucial Conversation:

  • Will I manage and communicate with courage and integrity as these conversations will be difficult, yet crucial?

  • When everyone is hurting, pain is inevitable. Do I know how to have these conversations?

Check-in for Calmness and Care:

  • Can I stay calm and take self-care measures knowing I have given my best?

  • Can I be present for those who are hurting and show genuine care?

“I don't want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” ~ Oscar Wilde

The choices and decisions that are made in organisations today, typically, by 'the management' will showcase the cumulative values of the leadership team and the true employer brand. There will be very difficult choices, higher risks and the aspirational leadership competencies espoused in the past will be put to test. And whatever these actions maybe, in this world of social media, it will be recorded, remembered and lend itself to the future of personal and professional brands of leaders. Brand values will surface through these brand ambassadors, the leaders. Most importantly, the individuals will live with the truth for a long time as it resides and rules from within. So choose right, choose ubuntu.

Alternatively, we can stay away from this pain, numb our emotions, and make logical choices and act as if we are not impacted.

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