Philbrick: Leadership in times of crisis
Norman Y. Mineta is featured in this file photo.

As our country continues to reel from COVID-19 and the pandemic of systemic racism, effective leadership is needed to bring a sense of justice and hope to this grieving nation.

Effective leaders understand and give voice to the needs, concerns and hopes of others. They adapt, persevere and strive for fairness and equity. They also exhibit emotional intelligence. We have seen these qualities over the past century in leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez and Norman Y. Mineta, whose distinguished leadership skills were forged in crisis.

Despite being forced into a U.S. internment camp during World War II, and despite facing discrimination as a Japanese American for much of his life, Secretary Mineta succeeded in becoming the kind of leader we seek today. He was the first Asian American mayor elected to lead a major U.S. city, and he subsequently served in Congress for 21 years.

Later, he served in two different presidential administrations from two different political parties. On Sept. 11, 2001, as U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Mineta directed all flights over our nation’s airspace to land immediately, averting potential attacks like those suffered in New York and Pennsylvania. Today, he is recognized and celebrated for his remarkable leadership in the fields of transportation and social justice.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the oppression they faced and the injustices they overcame, these leaders understood and practiced key components of emotional intelligence, including:

Listening to people’s needs: Leaders should listen carefully to what people are saying and feeling. In times of crisis, people often feel frustrated and powerless, but effective leaders use their emotional intelligence to give voice to those feelings, helping people make sense of the chaos during uncertain circumstances. Situational uncertainty and the unknown require leaders to improvise and adapt, much the way many state governors have created guidelines for protecting against COVID-19 as new data becomes available.

Encouraging resilience and self-care: In times of crisis individuals may act quickly and out of fear. They may forget to take care of basic needs like sleeping and eating. It is OK, and actually important, to take moments throughout the day to step away from work, pause, and breathe. Pushing yourself too hard can result in becoming overworked and burned out, which in turn leads to inefficient behaviors and increased processing errors. Effective leaders not only find ways to promote and maintain their followers’ health and resilience, but also model the desired behavior by taking care of themselves.

Conveying a sense of purpose and hope: Effective leaders channel frustration, fear, and anger into constructive action designed to effect change. In times like these, the voices that remind us to be tolerant of difference, to listen well, and to use peaceful processes to achieve a just and equitable society are the ones that will endure.

People already are suffering from quarantine fatigue (the mental and physical exhaustion resulting from overwhelming uncertainty and repetition during this long-term crisis), as well as physical fatigue from multiple competing demands (working from home, raising children and being confined under shelter-in-place recommendations). We need leaders who listen, encourage self-care, inspire hope and model perseverance to see us safely through these crises.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. 

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