Leaders in times of crisis: authoritarian or mother figure?

Smaranda Boros

By Smaranda Boros

Professor of Organisational Behaviour

21 November 2022

What do people need from their leaders in times of crisis? The answer to this question can be glimpsed by looking at the profiles of those who are appointed, or whose popularity increases, in periods of crisis.


Source: Management Team (07/11/2022); Author: Smaranda Boros

On the one hand, we see that in times of crisis or prolonged anxiety (which is the overarching emotional colouring of uncertainty), we find authoritarian leaders more attractive. What is it though about their discourse that is so appealing?

The what: One thing that is deeply reassuring in periods of extended uncertainty is our belonging to something ‘bigger than ourselves’; we find comfort in the expression of unambiguous ‘black-and-white’ opinions that reassert our cultural identity and worldview. This is where discourses that capitalise on our social identities in non-ambiguous terms, and which reassert the positivity of our identities, are very appealing.

The how: The other reassuring aspect belongs to how the message is packaged, namely offering certainty – of any kind. In his research of tweets following a ‘local’ catastrophe (e.g., the bombing in the Manchester Arena), Almog Simchon found that words expressing certainty – like must, absolute, imperative etc. peaked in the tweets of people from that community, whatever the topic they were discussing. When the world is tearing at the seams, we need reassurance, we need to draw back to something safe – and a discourse that uses words expressing certainty does just that.

On the other hand, research has shown beyond doubt that in terms of economic downturn or crisis we see a higher occurrence of appointments of women in leadership positions. This is called ‘the glass cliff’ (for those curious to learn more, check out Michelle Ryan’s work on this topic) – and aptly so, because most women will end up falling off it. One of the explanations the authors propose here is truly as simple as the archetype of women as carers, which becomes attractive when we feel under threat.

Now, so far we seem to be in a catch-22 of leadership in crisis. What are the options: to be an authoritarian leader who promotes polarised thinking or to be a mother figure? In fact, we need to go deeper and analyse the traits that make these two archetypal figures attractive in a crisis – and then mould our communication accordingly.

  1. First, research shows that we often mistake certainty for clarity. While yes, certainty is reassuring, you can obtain the same effect through clear, non-ambiguous communication. This does not mean taking rigid positions; it simply means being very clear and direct on how things are, what we know and what we do not know, what we do to steer the ship through the storm. In crisis we need frequent, clear, transparent communication from our leaders.
  2. Second, we still need the boost of belonging to something greater than ourselves (and religions throughout the world and history have understood this for thousands of years). But this something greater does not need to polarize us. Discourses that connect us to future generations, discourses that capitalise how humanity has come together in times of crisis and managed to achieve impossible feats, discourses that make us aware of the larger ecosystem we are part of – they all offer that belonging without the tribalism of polarisation.
  3. Third – what we want from our leaders is compassion. Yes, we want empathy, we all want to be seen and heard and recognized, but in dire times we want more than that. Empathy is the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their affective experience. Compassion is action that you take from a place of empathy. So, in such times, we want actions, not words. Action that is compassionate towards our difficulties, action that doesn’t just follow profits, but which is also humane. Compassion is expressed both in actions and in words – how we frame and explain our actions, opening bridges and dialogue.
  4. One last but crucial thing. You cannot do all those things – sit with the uncomfortable truths and name them, lift people to higher moral ground, and acting with compassion, if you yourself are not in a very grounded place. Showing compassion to yourself as a leader, being clear in your ideals but also in your boundaries, and constantly coming back to what you believe in – all these elements ground you and lead to grit – your capacity to build resilience through hard times.

I love the metaphor of a beating heart: in order to function optimally, a heart needs to take as much as it gives. Making sure you are in a good place, and taking time to rebalance yourself is not selfishness. It is the first step to becoming that point of equilibrium that brings balance in a world gone wild.

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Smaranda Boros

Smaranda Boros

Professor of Intercultural Management and Organisational Behaviour