How to Face Challenges with Intentional Leadership

The tragic events that played out over the past few weeks in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, are weighing heavily on my heart. We are living and leading in challenging times. I am a huge proponent of positivity, but I’m also a realist. Our employees and teams are coping with everything from workplace violence to inclusion and diversity tensions.

And many are looking to leaders for comfort, safety and stability. I am reminded of a quote from a CEO who participated in a study I was involved in several years ago: “I have learned … that the energy I brought to any situation was reflected and absorbed by the team. I have become more conscious of the power of my energy and more respectful of its effect on other people than I was before.”

How wise. As business leaders, we have an obligation to be mindful of the energy we bring to the table, and to keep that energy running high. We can consciously set the tone and be mindful of the impact we have on others.

And, in times of great challenge, it’s easy as leaders to become so caught up in events that we work ourselves beyond a healthy point to help our employees. I have many colleagues who admit to 70- to 80-hour work weeks, especially in times of crisis. But, we have to ask ourselves: How helpful and effective can we be at that continued pace? I’ve learned that when I dip too many times into the well, I’m actually depleting the lifeblood of leadership–my energy and positive example.

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The study I referred to found that energy is contagious and that a leader’s energy has an amplified effect on the organization. Finding the right balance between intensity and calm can mean the difference between engaged, healthy employees and scattered efforts. Hershey CEO Michelle Buck calls herself a chief energy officer, saying: “I’m intentional about lifting up those who are pushing the bounds and creating the future now.” Imagine if all C-suite officers thought of themselves this way.

In another study, conducted almost a decade ago, employees were asked to name the top attributes of their best boss. Here’s the list:

  • Encouraging
  • Inspiring
  • Kind
  • Positive
  • Calm
  • Supportive
  • Fair
  • Decisive
  • Smart
  • Visionary

Note how many of these adjectives have to do with personal energy and attitude versus intellect.

In a review of several-hundred leadership studies, can you guess what one quality among leaders had a consistent positive impact on their employees? It’s the capacity to recognize potential in individuals that they don’t yet see in themselves. To do that well, our own personal energy tanks must be filled.

We are visible. Our teams look to us regularly, but particularly in challenging times, to be a compass and a gauge. What do your teams see when they look at you? Someone who is inspired, and thus, inspiring? Energetic, and thus, energizing? Compassionate? Discerning? Someone who raises the energy level of a room just by walking into it?

We’ve all heard the studies, but allow me to mention just a few more numbers to complete the picture. There’s the Stanford study showing that, after 55 hours of work in a week, productivity declines sharply. Working 70 hours versus 55 actually produces diminishing returns. This wisdom, from the CEO of a small company, says it well: “As the CEO, your job is to stay sharp, well rested, emotionally stable and self-aware. The moment you stop being any of those things, you suffer, your team suffers, your work suffers and your company suffers.”

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And yet, the numbers show many of us aren’t keeping some time sacred to recharge. A Harvard study showed CEOs work 79% of weekend days at an average of 3.9 hours daily, and 70% of vacation days, with an average of 2.4 hours on those days.

Founder and CEO Andrew Hoag has learned a lesson many of us still struggle with: “On Sunday, I completely turn off. I don’t open emails, check Slack notifications or try to respond to anything. I find it’s really important to have a day completely away, and even the smallest peek at your inbox can interrupt that recuperation. … I also think shutting that part of your brain completely off for at least a day is incredibly critical and allows you to recharge before the start of the week. This is my second time as CEO (sold my first company), and I can say I didn’t honor the boundaries enough the first time around, so it was a hard lesson learned. Like working out a muscle, you need to avoid overtraining. By not having a part of me constantly attuned to work, it actually makes me more effective and better when I am focused.”

I’m currently midweek and running full-steam ahead. But this weekend, I’m looking forward to spending cherished time with my husband and daughter, taking care of myself with some Pilates and outdoors time. I’ve recently returned from some time off with friends, time where I was not Eva the global executive but just–Eva: friend, mother, wife, individual.

And my resolve, particularly strong after recent national events, is to keep a bit of time for myself each week sacred. I owe it to myself, to my family, to my team to bring the best version of myself. Join me, won’t you? And let me know how it works for you. I’d love to hear your stories.


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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected].