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Effective Crisis Leadership Requires Emotional Intelligence

Crisis Leadership Requires Emotional Intelligence

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After reading several articles about McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski’s ill-conceived comments regarding the recent shooting deaths of two children in Chicago (including one in a McDonald’s drive-thru) last year, I began reacquainting myself with the concepts of the Emotional Intelligence Quotient, or EQ (I even took a few online tests to measure my own EQ).  Kempczinski created a crisis with his callous text message to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot followed by a lukewarm “apology.”  Bill Murphy, Jr., writing for Inc., explores how the CEO’s lack of emotional intelligence created a firestorm of criticism and calls to resign.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Kempczinski texted Mayor Lightfoot about the tragedies, writing, “…tragic shootings last week, both at our restaurant yesterday and with Adam Toledo. With both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can’t say. Even harder to fix.”  In other words, in his opinion the parents are to blame for the deaths of their children.  

In this situation, it was comments originally directed to this audience of one that fueled the flames of an emotionally charged issue. It took Freedom of Information Act requests from activists to learn what he had said.  According to Murphy, Jr., Kempczinski has a serious lack of emotional intelligence. I find it hard to disagree.

The CEO tried to defuse the crisis by apologizing in a letter to McDonald’s employees, but apparently not to the mayor or, more importantly, to the parents he threw under the bus. And he never actually said “I’m sorry” or “I regret my actions.” This ill-conceived move instead further fueled his self-inflicted crisis with growing calls for his resignation.

Many experts posit that emotional intelligence (EI) is a critical skillset for effective crisis leadership in today’s volatile business and sociopolitical environment.  In fact, they argue that EQ may be more important than IQ for leaders.  Three important elements of EQ are, in my humble opinion, fundamental to crisis leadership:

Empathy.  High EQ leaders who lead effectively through crisis have a strong sense of empathy–the ability to deeply understand the experiences, perspectives and emotions of others and what it is like to be in their situation. Company leaders should be expected to make the extra effort to express empathy and consider how their words might be perceived through the lenses of others.

Self-Awareness.   High EQ leaders understand their own feelings and recognize how their opinions and decisions are shaped. They can better consider the many factors that shape emotions and can communicate more easily with honesty and transparency.

Self-Control.  The CEO himself admitted that “not taking the time to think about this from their viewpoint was wrong…” High EQ Leaders are better able to avoid knee-jerk reactions, take a step back and think rationally before communicating.

When looking to hire or promote individuals to leadership roles, organizations should consider a candidate’s EQ, especially if they will be tasked with managing crisis and/or communicating with stakeholders in a crisis. The long-term survival of the organization may someday depend on it.


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Deb Hileman, SCMP

Deb Hileman, SCMP

President and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management