When the Covid-19 pandemic hit this spring, my keynote speaking business was already operating in tight circumstances. My organization had recently bought a new building, hired new staff, and been spending aggressively to expand. Getting a loan or grant wasn't guaranteed.

And while there is never an ideal time for a downturn, the past few months we've thankfully been able to fall back in prior training on dealing with stress.

Over the past few years, our executive team invested heavily in leadership training. Week after week, our leaders (including me) worked with coaches to improve communication, decision making, and emotional intelligence. When the pandemic wiped out the market for conferences--the mainstay of every keynote speaking business--I can't say our leadership team wasn't worried; however, I can say we were prepared to deal with the crisis. 

Here are a few tips my team learned about using emotional intelligence that helped--and continues to help--lead the company through the crisis. 

Be self-aware.

The first step for leaders in handling a crisis is to be self-aware. You need to recognize you're under stress and how it affects you--physically and mentally.

Some of the physical symptoms might show as feeling hot, sweating, nausea (or "stomach butterflies"), tension headaches, or a tightened chest. You might even observe yourself tightening your hands into fists or leaning back away from people and things.

Your behavior might also change. The flight, freeze, or fight nature of stress might exhibit itself as avoiding the problem, shutting down (and doing nothing), or being short-tempered with others. You might even exhibit more than one of these behaviors.

Understand stress effects.

The next thing you must remember is how stress can affect your ability to handle a crisis. When you're under stress, cortisol (your body's main stress hormone) floods your brain. The effects can last hours.

Cortisol can affect your brain function in three principal ways.

  1. Reduced working memory. This means your focus becomes narrow and you won't be able to think of new ideas.

  2. Fixation on the perceived threat. You might keep reading the market news, looking at  Covid-19 case numbers, or reading about ways you can get infected.

  3. Default to self-protection. Basically, your priorities become "me first." You'll forget about helping your colleagues, employees, and customers.

Use the SOS strategy.

To prepare to handle stress, my company trained with Bill Benjamin and J.P. Pawliw-Fry of the Institute of Health and Human Potential. We learned how to apply their SOS strategy: Stop, Oxygenate, and Seek Information.

When in a crisis situation:

  1. Stop: Take a moment to examine what's going on in your mind and body. If you're alone, get up to stretch, or maybe go for a walk to clear your head. If you're with another person or members of your team, they suggest you drink water so you can have time to reflect, open your palms (which have probably tightened), and lean forward (because you're most likely leaning back), which will take you out of the effects of stress for a moment.

  2. Oxygenate: Next, take a deep breath. Get some fresh air into your body. Fresh air will dilute and reduce the effect of the cortisol chemicals in your system. You'll feel less stressed when you breathe.

  3. Seek Information: Finally, look for information about yourself and those around you. First, get information about yourself. Is this "threat" you're feeling real or imagined? Is your business really going bankrupt from the downturn or are you just afraid it might go bankrupt? Second, get information from others. It's limiting to have only your own ideas and perspective to help you. Your team or employees may have dozens of good ideas or other perspectives to help you handle the crisis.

We're all under stress these days. Many of the threats to our business are real during the pandemic, but some aren't. Whether they are real or not, the best way to lead yourself and others during a crisis is to use your emotional intelligence. Be aware of your patterns for stress, understand how stress could be affecting your decision making, and follow the SOS steps to help you get back on track to better decision-making.