Tender Tough Leaders and Emotional Contagion #42
By Graham Bell
The world isn't remotely normal anymore. If indeed it ever was. But it won't always be like this.
It’s amazing what you uncover in your reading lists when you have more time to browse around. I came across an account of the great plague of Edinburgh in 1645. Two years later it would disappear from Edinburgh, never to return.
In all probability, the disease which had been spreading across Europe for more than two centuries, came in through the Port of Leith. Indeed, Scotland had not been spared over these years but it was the magnitude of the mid seventeenth century outbreak that wreaked havoc. It was estimated that almost half of the then 6,000 population of Leith died. Its spread into the city centre of Edinburgh did not take long.
There aren’t accurate numbers of how many died but it was certainly in the tens of thousands in Edinburgh and its environs at a time when the population of the city was around 35,000. The impoverished areas were hit hardest and the city walled up people here to prevent the spread of the disease. That's what civilization sometimes did to threats, real or perceived. They walled them off. Us against them. Survival of the fittest. You die so I can live.
The ’treatment’ made little difference – if you got it you died anyway. In Edinburgh, as across Europe, a plague doctor visited contaminated properties on a daily basis. These new-age medics were distinctively dressed in long leather cloaks, large brimmed hats and grotesque beaked masks filled with sweet-smelling herbs. Doctors believed the herbs would repel the “evil smells” which were thought to carry the disease.
These were hard times – they seem ignorant and primitive to us now. But as we are finding out our modern ‘civilisation’ has its limits. Our pride in our scientific understanding is being eroded. Our independence and self-sufficiency has been found wanting.
And yet. It won’t always be like this. Society will begin to return to a sense of a ‘new normal’. And through it all leadership will be needed. It is needed now and it will be needed when the tide is turned.
And there is so much to be encouraged about, even if we haven’t quite tamed nature or really are the masters of our own destiny.
Governments across the globe are taking actions to reduce the worst effects. To manage what really is the unknown. And that has taken courage. Because these actions have implications that will cause damage too. They know it is about harm reduction not a quick fix. This is leadership underpinned by realism and pragmatism.
This is tough tender leadership – a lesson we all need to heed. Tough in that it is continuing to take hard decisions in spite of the hardship, and being strong in the face of having only limited understanding of the results of their actions. Tender in taking action for what is believed to be in the best interests of wider society. And whether these actions will ‘work’ is unknown.
And perhaps the greatest unknown is the emotional impact, how people feel, and how that all ripples through. It is being referred to as emotional contagion.
"Emotional contagion is the phenomenon of having one person's emotions and related behaviours directly trigger similar emotions and behaviours in other people".
So how the leader acts will directly trigger confidence – or panic – in those being led. And leaders are not immune to society’s mood music. But we need to remind ourselves that we can influence and sometimes pick the tune, in spite of how we might feel or what we see happening around about us.
Can we exude strength and stability, clear-headed thinking, careful planning and compassionate implementation? It won’t always be like this.
"People who are truly strong lift others up. People who are truly powerful bring others together."
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