People often aspire to be leaders because they want to commit to excellence, make a difference and deliver results. When in positions of leadership, leaders quickly realise that they have many people relying on them. They are required to understand, relate to and be sensitive to staff and colleagues. This relational aspect known as emotional intelligence is an important foundation for building staff capability, developing accountability and sustaining direction. Leaders often respond to other competing priorities such as dealing with pressing administrative, political and community demands. At this time of rapid change and increased complexity, those in leadership positions are called to respond to a range of challenges and opportunities. To respond effectively to change and complexity, leaders need support and time to maintain their own resilience and sophisticated interpersonal skills.
Leadership theory has involved defining authentic, transformational and visionary leadership (Bass & Riggio, 2008). Transformational leaders are described as those who inspire, engage and challenge the staff they lead by seeking to understand each staff member and by building the leadership capability of each staff member. This type of effective leader can have a positive effect on staff performance, engagement and wellbeing. Qualities of effective leaders such as giving positive feedback, leading by example, building collaborative teams and helping staff feel like they are contributing toward team and strategic goals requires time, energy and balance. As well as the positive developmental work of staff and direction, those in leadership positions also manage developmental challenges. For example, there are problematic staff issues to be managed, relationship dynamics to be negotiated, personal difficulties to be supported, conflicts between staff to be resolved and critical incidents to be contained. While there is an increasing emphasis on empathetic leadership for staff, at what point can an effective leader be the recipient of professional support and empathy?
Giving and receiving empathy as an effective leader
Empathy is the ability to understand and share another’s feelings. It is a key aspect of emotional intelligence (Goleman et al, 2002) and an essential capability for leaders. According to Daniel Goleman and his colleagues, emotional intelligence comprises self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Self-awareness refers to a person’s ability to understand their own emotions with realistic self-assessment. Self-management refers to the leader’s ability to regulate emotions, demonstrate transparency through integrity, and to achieve and demonstrate optimism (Goleman et al, 2002). Social awareness relates to the leader’s capability to demonstrate empathy, organizational awareness and service orientation for staff. Relationship management refers to transformational leadership capabilities of working with staff to create a vision to guide change and improvement through inspiration. When a leader has high emotional intelligence, their staff are more likely to experience relational trust and safety.
While effective leaders demonstrate empathy for their staff, they also need to receive empathy from their colleagues and line managers. The process of change and improvement can be a challenging time for staff as well as leaders. Leaders have the complexity of dealing with staff who may be upset, angry and perhaps in some circumstances, unsafe. At times there is a perception that leaders have more resilience than their staff and can therefore absorb more stress. However, the need for professional support, such as peer networks and confidential psychological check-in processes for leaders, has been identified as important for the ongoing development and resilience of effective leaders (Sutcher, Podolsky & Espinoza, 2017).
Confidential psychological support for effective leaders
Leaders can be psychologically affected in different ways through change, critical incident containment and ongoing prolonged stress. These may include lack of sleep and fatigue due to worry, feelings of guilt when hearing of the impacts of their decisions on people’s personal situations, physical responses such as headaches, stiff shoulders and necks and some disengagement from the work environment. Confidential psychological support or professional supervision from an experienced psychologist, external to the organisation, can offer leaders a safe space to reflect and recalibrate. This confidential process provides leaders an alternative contact point to discuss and problem solve complex work relationships and situations, difficult performance conversations, the management of conflicts, support for staff through change, recovery and resilience for people during and after and critical incidents, and other leadership concerns. At On Axis Psychology and Wellbeing we provide confidential psychological support and professional supervision for leaders.
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Bass, B. M. & Riggio, R. E. (2008). Transformational leadership. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School.
Sutcher, L., Podolsky, A., & Espinoza, D. (2017). Supporting principals’ learning: Key features of effective programs. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.