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Why authentic informal leaders are key to an organization’s emotional health

Tapping into the collective wisdom of authentic informal leaders can help a company build the capacity to weather the worst crises.

Written by: Jon Katzenbach, Augusto Giacoman, and Paolo Morley-Fletcher
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Businesses and governments are mobilizing to fight COVID-19, and their top priorities have included stabilizing the workforce’s health, ensuring business continuity, securing liquidity, and maintaining supply chains. These are all efforts an organization relies on to ensure the effectiveness of its systems. But one important factor is often overlooked: the emotional health and effectiveness of the organization.

As New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who has emerged as a popular figure by virtue of his daily coronavirus press conference / therapy session, put it: “Call it psychological. Call it feelings. Call it emotions. But this is as much a social crisis as a health crisis.” People’s individual and collective feelings are the most powerful source of energy that exists in an organization — for good and bad. That’s why it is vital for organizations and governments to get in touch with and understand the fear, anxiety, and worry the virus is causing, and to find ways to replace those negative emotions with love, empathy, and other positive feelings about the work itself. In recent months, we have all gained an appreciation for antibodies — the substances inside the body that rise up to fight viruses and ultimately act as protection. To cope in this new environment, organizations will have to focus on building up emotional antibodies.

This is no easy task. Leaders are often too far removed from the front lines to understand the feelings and emotions at work. Sometimes, emotions can simply get lost in the complexity of managing a crisis. But leaders have an important resource that, if developed, can generate organizational antibodies: authentic informal leaders (AILs). These people possess and exhibit certain leadership strengths, often without having formal titles or authority. AILs include those who model and teach desired behaviors (exemplars), those who connect with people across the organization (networkers), and those who instinctively link peers’ positive feelings with day-to-day activities (pride builders).

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