Mindfulness. Self-awareness. Self-control.

Leaders who practice these three skills are better equipped to deal with crises, particularly those that hurt people.  

When you’re mindful, especially in a crisis, you have a keen sense of your surroundings, you’re aware of your own emotions, and you have heightened empathy for your fellow human beings.

By then adding self-awareness and self-control to your mindfulness, you’re able to be composed, think quickly, and instill hope in yourself and others through your words, actions and body language.

For example, consider Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria, she’s been sleeping on a cot, wading through flood waters, hugging residents, searching for basic supplies, and doing everything else in her power to try to make life better for people in harsh, almost apocalyptic conditions.

The current president of the United States has interpreted Mayor Cruz’s cries for help as being “nasty” to him, as reported by The New York Times. However, for the people in Puerto Rico the mayor is showing she has their back. She can’t fix their problems, but she can voice them. Her pleas for help were to get residents basic yet unavailable necessities – water, food, and shelter.

Mayor Cruz is textbook case of how a successful leader acts after a natural disaster.

But why am I contradicting the current president of the United States who accused the mayor of “poor leadership” from the comfort of his New Jersey golf club?

Because my co-author and I wrote the book on Leading People Through Disasters, Berrett-Koehler 2006. It’s a practical primer on how to prepare for and deal with crises with people, especially employees, in mind.

In 2005 shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, my co-author Kathryn McKee and I interviewed two leadership experts about important competencies that leaders need for preparing for and then dealing with the human side of crises. We featured their contributions prominently in our book.

The expert who identified mindfulness, self-awareness and self-control was Richard Boyatzis. The Distinguished University Professor of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, and Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University is also the co-author of the best-sellers Resonant Leadership and Primal Leadership.

The other leadership expert was Wayne Brockbank, Professor at the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan. He addressed the competencies needed for disaster preparation. They are strategic decision making, culture management, market-driven connectivity, and fast change.

The desire for the book, including the competencies for leadership behaviors, was  based on Kathy’s belief, as a senior HR leader, that a critical leadership void existed. Over the years, we both had firsthand experience with a number of crises, including fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and a steam-pipe explosion.

Yet many of the executives and government officials leading the disasters stumbled in their responses, especially in addressing key stakeholders, including employees. For example, some of the leaders went missing; others focused only on inanimate problems, rather than people concerns; and others lost their cool and routinely put their foot in their mouth making conditions worse.

While our book has never been a best seller, it has served its niche, helping leaders, HR professionals, business continuity experts, and others in the United States as well as in Japan and China (thanks to translations) improve their crisis and disaster planning and their responses.

Also, government agencies, including Ready.gov, insurance companies and others have stepped up to cover the human side of disasters. Kathy also does training on disaster preparedness and response.

Technology changes, especially the popularity of social media, also have helped with disaster preparation and recovery. These days – unless your power supplies are wiped out as Puerto Rico has experienced — leaders and their stakeholders, such as employees, residents, and others, can stay better connected and informed during a trying time, both emotionally and physically.

Several years after writing the book with Kathy, I became interested in neuroscience as well as behavior design. I’ve not only studied both extensively, but I also apply the concepts in my leadership coaching, consulting and facilitation work. This knowledge and experience gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the human experience during crises.

For example, it’s not just the duress of finding food, water and shelter for yourself and your family that can feel overwhelming. Or the twisted ankle that aches from running away from danger.

It’s also the social hurt. Research has shown that social hurt can be just as or even more painful and longer lasting than physical pain or trauma. (Check out What’s your tolerance for pain at work?)

Just think about the residents of Puerto Rico who have been called “these people” and “they” rather than “our fellow American citizens.” Ponder the brave individuals in Las Vegas who risked their lives saving the lives of their fellow concert goers. Yet these heroes haven’t received the thanks and recognition from government leaders who have been praising the first responders and law enforcement officials.

Anyone who goes through a disaster can benefit from being with leaders who feel and show them empathy.

Do you have what it takes to express care, humility, and hope for your fellow human beings?

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