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To Be Calm or Outraged: What is Best for a Leader in Crisis?

Recently there has been considerable press coverage from political analysts who criticize President Obama for not showing enough outrage about the BP oil spill, regulation of Wall Street, and other highly contentious matters. Not all of this criticism is directed at his actions or policies, but rather at his lack of emotion when talking about these events. In other words, they say, he is too calm.

With the importance that emotional intelligence plays for leaders, it makes me wonder, what is a leader to do in the face of crises like the Gulf Coast disaster? New research might help answer this question.

By appearing calm the president is open to criticism that he is not appropriately angry about the spill. Therefore some people may not trust that he is taking the spill seriously, and is not acting decisively to clean it up. They think that calmness is an indicator of apathy. 

But on the other hand, what if he stood in front of the cameras on an Alabama beach and kicked sand in the air, gnashing his teeth and cursing BP? Would this be more pleasing to the American public? Would people have more confidence in his actions to clean up the mess? Or would some people think he’s a raving lunatic who can’t handle the responsibility of leadership in a rational way? 

It’s not easy to be president. However, recent research sheds some light on why people suppress their emotions, and the impact this can have on others. Leaders of all sorts may find this information helpful when confronting their own challenges. 

An article in the New York Times discusses this research and explores the benefits of expressing emotion. In the article, one of the researchers notes that Mr. Obama remains calm because this strategy has worked so well for him in the past; it has become his preferred behavioral pattern. If he were to suddenly blow up, people would be confused by the disparity between his normal calm demeanor and his sudden anger. Many people would perceive him as insincere, leading to even more criticism from the pundits. 

So again, what is a leader to do? Researchers point out the importance of using different strategies for handling emotions. In particular, they discuss three such strategies: concealing (suppressing emotions), adjusting (for example, quickly calming one’s anger), and tolerating (openly expressing emotion). They state that the most socially skilled individuals can identify the need for different strategies, and then employ those strategies as different situations dictate. These individuals recognize the emotions they want to express, and express them at precisely the right times. It is people who are inflexible in their approach, who rely on a single strategy, who run into the most trouble.

For more detailed information on this research, you can read the New York Times article here.

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