Leadership in Times of Crisis: Remote Leaders Must be Brain Aware.

Sotiris Karagiannis, MEd MBA, Graduate Business Programs Director, University of New York in Prague, interviews Dr Carlos Davidovich, Neuroleadership expert and experienced C-Suite corporate coach, on what leaders must do to keep their teams in focus today.

Karagiannis: So, Carlos, our society is experiencing an unprecedented crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic. What makes this crisis so different from previous ones?

Davidovich: Sotiris, I think it is mostly attributed to the strong survival response. This involves the primitive flock reaction of let’s get toilet paper! From our three brains (reptilian-instincts; limbic – emotions and prefrontal – rationality) when we are in a crisis the reptilian brain takes control: survival response: fight – freeze – flight; and the rational brain is deactivated. We cannot think properly. We need to regain control.


Karagiannis: I see, and I guess from our early reactions we seem to be more in a freeze or flight mode. Why is this so?

Davidovich: It has to do with the level of uncertainty. The brain is very sensitive regarding lack of information and our current reality is characterized by a high level of uncertainty, not to mention that the situation came too fast to be digested.


Karagiannis: Quite true! But we see people reacting differently to the situation. How can you explain this phenomenon?

Davidovich: The way we react to crises depends on our different personalities. Some of us feel they can control their own future and act proactively and independently. Some others feel the situation is way out of their control and depend on others more than they depend on themselves.


Karagiannis: Besides personalities, Carlos, how do we react to a crisis that nobody really knows when it will end?

Davidovich: When the crisis lasts longer than expected, the brain needs to find a new norm. There are two levels or stages: first one, the survival response (reptilian brain) and the second one, the cooperation response (rational and emotional brain). We understand that together is better and faster. This is the reason why we are hearing so many acts of altruism, compassion, and solidarity. A healthy tribal response, to feel being protected by the group.


Karagiannis: So, let’s turn to the corporate environment, then. How can leaders use this information to lead their teams effectively in these conditions?

Davidovich: Leaders must create a psychological proximity environment: make people feel connected. We now know, thanks to our experiences with current technology, we can feel closer despite physical distance. Leaders must be present and be relevant. They must show the right direction-that they can take things under control.


Karagiannis: True, but we know that in these times some leaders increase the level of control-often in an authoritarian way, as if they don’t trust their teams.

Davidovich: Yes, we have seen cases of companies where managers return to the habit of micromanagement. But this is only for those who have little faith in themselves and their abilities to lead an independent team-these managers are still directed by the need for survival-the reptilian brain dominates leaving little space for emotions and logic to seize control. So, they don’t see cooperation as the way forward. They want to depend on their own instincts because they trust them more than their people.


Karagiannis: It would be hard to change the mindset of these managers. So, what would you suggest the rest of us must do?

Davidovich: The solution is to engage everyone in the process: we are all co-creating this new reality, nobody has a formula. There is no excuse, we are all responsible. Leaders must create a new routine for their teams asap. The brain replaces uncertainty with routines. They should communicate with their teams as often as they can in a systematic and organized way. But, they don’t have to be always the ones to monitor communication. They must delegate the responsibility to their teams, each time having a team member take charge.


Karagiannis: Sounds like a great idea. We have all suffered from endless meetings with the boss talking and the rest listening. And then not really knowing what to do next. What else?

Davidovich: Establish a concrete working and resting time for your team. Build an internal network of communication. Who is contacting who if there is an emergency? Everyone should have the contact info of only one person for any emergency. The leader is part of the network not the main “to go” person.
Also, don’t let anyone spread negativity or play the victim…for too long. Move them to take action, don’t play the savior. Make them accountable. Check if someone is needing professional help to overcome this situation.

In a nutshell, keep your team busy. Clear goals are needed!

And remember: As Frances Rei and Anne Morriss say in their book “Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You”, ‘Leadership is about empowering other people as a result of your presence — and making sure that impact continues into your absence.’


Karagiannis: Thank you Carlos! I am sure many of us will make our absence useful today following your tips.