Once upon a time, there were human leaders

Marie-Josée Michaud

Marie-Josée Michaud

Author, leadership and psychological health strategist at work.

How are our executives doing after a year and a half of crisis? Certainly not like a fish in water.

Any entrepreneur or executive knows that there are decisions to be made and risks to be calculated in relation to their respective markets. These are reflected and mitigated with five-year forecasting models based on understood, adopted and integrated rules. Actuaries are frantically calculating the likely changes ahead, generations of businesses and services are aligning their knowledge and technological developments to ensure that the appropriate resources are in place to achieve the set objectives.

All of a sudden, the Covid-19 crisis with its infinite variants is looming on our familiar horizon. After almost a year and a half of crisis, some organizations are doing well, even very well, and others are unfortunately on life support when all indications were that they were heading for success.

What happens when leaders can no longer pool the resources they need to succeed due to out-of-the-box measures dictated by governments, upsetting rules and budget forecasts?

I believe that some of those senior managers who felt like a fish in water in March 2020 have lost, in 2021, a large part of their ability to manage, forecast and coach effectively. They probably have the painful feeling of being stranded on the shore, no longer able to cope with these successive waves of crisis, lacking time and solutions to find the open sea, that familiar water in which success is possible.

This well-crafted story of shipwrecked executives, myth or reality 

How are our senior executives doing in reality, those superhumans who thrive on mastery of their expertise and success?

According to a recent survey conducted in the spring of 2021 by LifeWorks' research group, in partnership with Deloitte Canada and CHRO20, the report titled: " Inspiring Ideas: Executive Wellness and Resilience" highlights through qualitative and quantitative data thatthey are not doing so well! The results clearly show the extraordinary pressure felt by executives. Surprisingly, this pressure affects the mental strain of executives more significantly than that of employees or middle managers.

According to the 1158 senior managers who took part in this survey, working in the private and public sectors worldwide, 51% of them are thinking of changing function in the next year or retiring* .

They admit to being affected by the conditions beyond their control, imposed by the crisis. They no longer know how to support their employees and how to avoid tensions between colleagues, which ultimately affects their own mental health.

We had to wait until 2021 to have a report that explicitly exposes psychological tension among our senior managers. Does this surprise you? For my part, I have been questioning them for years through surveys, meetings or targeted coaching. I have read, heard and seen how self-stigmatization and stigmatization are still too present for them.

In fact, it was noted in the survey report that executives fear that known mental distress could harm their careers* . In 2018, qualitative and quantitative surveys I initiated with over 3,000 executives working in the public sector identified this fear as a primary reason for avoiding talking about mental health with their employees or immediate supervisor.

However, it is known that executives have a high level of stress and seem to be less at risk for problems related to burnout or anxiety disorders.

Some research explains the ability of senior executives to juggle long hours and stress more easily as a result of being in a position of power that allows them to innovate, while demonstrating their ability to meet challenges. According to neuroscience, this euphoric feeling of empowerment and innovation ensures that stress or long hours do not lead to negative stress. The neurotransmitters that contribute to good mental health are well stimulated.

Thus, it is logical to think that positive stress will turn into negative stress when executives are no longer able to exercise discretion, in which they can provide efforts that lead to the recognition of an outcome. In other words, the ability to focus their efforts on goals that are perceived to be achievable is diluted by shifting beacons beyond their control. The report states that " Increased work demands and decreased control are creating undue tension* in our senior leaders.

There has always been a perception that executives get the job done, no matter what it takes

However, of the 1158 executives participating in the survey* :

  • 82% feel psychically or mentally exhausted when they finish work
  • 59% are unable to relax or take a break
  • 49% have difficulty sleeping
  • 43% report increased irritability
  • 38% have less energy or experience emotional changes.

For those of you reading this who are senior managers, I hope these numbers will help you normalize and avoid feeling incompetent, weak or not enough.

There are solutions, even in crisis situations, and the first is to understand that it is not alone in your corner doubting yourself, your team or your colleagues that you will regain your power to act. It is important to understand how these emotional changes influence irritability, difficulty resting and leave you mentally and psychically exhausted.

It is these emotional changes that prevent you from effectively accessing your frontal cortex to strategically decide when, for what and with whom the efforts that will save your organization or project should be put into action.

Since 2009 I have been observing the increase in stress for leaders, observing what is offered to help them and studying the best ways to counteract it. I have not found anything more effective than emotional quotient development. MJ MICHAUD

In addition, by studying neuroscience and applied neuroplasticity on an ongoing basis, I validate that the programs developed through my leadership and workplace psychological health coaching practice are effective and work on the right elements. Recent studies have shown that a high EQ allows for better team performance and better decision-making in emotionally charged assignments.

Understanding the role of emotions is critical to your role as a leader 

According to Joseph F. Ledoux, an American neuroscientist whose research focuses primarily on survival circuits, including their impact on emotions such as fear and anxiety, states

" Fear and other emotions are based on assumptions, presuppositions, and expectations; they are constructed in the brain from non-emotional ingredients.

Aren't these non-emotional ingredients familiar to senior executives? It seems to me that I recognize the essential foundations for creating a five-year forecasting model!

The important thing to remember here is that emotions serve as cues to determine appropriate behaviors and responses to challenges or opportunities that arise. In fact, they guide the decision-making process, allowing us to choose a path between what we feel is a risk versus a reward , while allowing us to identify errors along the way.

The new neurobiology of emotions confirms that people who cannot generate or process emotions will have great difficulty making decisions.

It is also important to know that these will be fed by your body, your environment and your past experiences.

Programs that restore hope and empower leaders to make decisions

I have developed programs that promote the development of emotional intelligence and allow leaders to regain their decision-making power, even when there seems to be no hope. Understand that the perception of hope is unique to each individual. You must learn to cultivate it through, among other things, empathy and resilience. This knowledge is essential to guide your organization into these resourceful waters.

I worked with a vice president several years ago who was going through an organizational crisis that was impacting their global market. I was asked to coach him because his teams could no longer meet his conflicting demands. In our first session together, he told me he was very disappointed that this one was used to consciously identify his emotions. He said, 'Marie, I thought you were going to teach me to stop having emotions because I need to be focused on the issues to save my team!'. When this executive logically understood and was able to experience the power of emotional messaging, he not only saved his team but was also recognized by his organization as one of the most unifying and creative executives in the turmoil. That was heartwarming!

Learn more about our EQ development programs: Description of programs and services

*Reference: LifeWorks Research Group, in partnership with Deloitte Canada and CHRO20, report entitled "Inspiring Ideas: Executive Wellness and Resilience," published Spring 2021.