Covid-19 requires more courage and less defensiveness


Julia Kerr Henkel, MD of Lumminos, encourages leaders to be brave enough to lean into their discomfort.

While the majority of business leaders understand that strong, clear communications in the workplace, especially during times of uncertainty, change and upheaval, leads to better staff engagement and business performance, many are unaware of the real barriers to open and transparent communication. In many instances, the emotional armoury that leaders and employees use to ‘protect themselves’ might leave them feeling at risk, awkward and exposed.

Put simply, armouring up refers to a multitude of self-defensive behaviours and mechanisms that we use to avoid feeling vulnerable. In the devastating wake of Covid-19, there couldn’t be a more vulnerable experience we are collectively living through - and as a result, a greater need for us to be more courageous.

While self-protection is sometimes necessary, we need to develop enough bravery and self-awareness to recognise our specific ‘go-to’ armour that we grab onto during difficult situations.

Our armouring shields might lead us to do one or more of the following things:

  • Move away: Withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, keeping quiet and even keeping secrets; or
  • Move toward: Seeking to overly engage, appease and please others; or
  • Move against: Trying to gain control and even power over others, being confrontational, even aggressive, and using tactics such as micro-managing, shutting others down, shaming, blaming and finger-pointing.

Think about a leader or business owner who is faced with the current Covid-19 scenario, and who is sitting with more questions than answers and still has a pressing responsibility to provide clarity to his/her people and stakeholders.  Their armouring up process and inner dialogue while feeling this pressure may lead on to feelings of shame, scarcity and comparison.

Common forms of armouring up

To help leaders along the path of developing keener self-awareness, there is a long list of behaviours - based on the research of Dr Brené Brown - which speaks to armouring up and encouragingly, corresponding invitations to practice more daring, courageous and authentic leadership.

Armoured leadership behaviours

Daring leadership behaviours

Being a knower and needing to be right

Being a learner and getting it right

Weaponising fear and anxiety

Normalising fear and anxiety and demonstrating clarity, hope, empathy and kindness

Driving perfectionism and fostering a fear of failure/mistakes

Modelling and encouraging healthy striving, experimentation and self-compassion

Zigzagging and avoiding tough conversations and decisions

Straight talking and taking the right action

Using criticism, resignation and cynicism as self-protection

Making contributions and taking risks

Feeling the need to hustle for our worth (performing, people-pleasing, perfecting, policing, politicking, polling, etc.)

Knowing our worth (experienced as a quiet calm knowing - without arrogance or aggression)



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What’s the likely impact of these avoidant behaviours and ‘armouring up’? 

More often than not, they lead to leaders not being fully attentive and present to the needs and ideas of their people because the focus is on upholding their front and maintaining their own needs. Secondly, it shifts the organisational culture as others do not feel it’s safe or even worthwhile to fully engage, speak up, share their fears and feelings, challenge ideas and concepts, take risks, own up to mistakes, and tackle hard decisions and conversations.

The tendency amongst leaders and colleagues to armour up can lead to a general lowering of innovation, courage, compassion, connection and empathy in the workplace – coupled with an erosion of trust and a lowering of engagement levels (all the fundamentals that companies are going to need right now to pull through this crisis).

Replacing armoured behaviour with daring behaviours

Fortunately, these negative patterns and tendencies can be tackled with the practice of keen self-awareness. For example, leaders can begin to coach themselves by reflecting privately on key questions such as:

  • What situations or people are most likely to lead me to armour up?
  • What are some of my triggers during this time?
  • What does my armouring up process look and feel like?
  • What am I noticing about my body language?
  • My words?
  • My thoughts?
  • My go-to behaviours?
  • What can I shift right now at this moment?

Essentially, the key to developing sharp self-awareness is deep curiosity and courage to go to some hard and difficult places. The ability to ask genuine, open-ended questions of yourself and others can assist leaders to lean into the discomfort of these vulnerable moments. Increasingly, savvy business leaders who understand the importance of developing their own ‘softer skills’ and emotional intelligence will be far better equipped to steer their people and organisations through the turbulent times ahead - while still focusing on the necessary achievement of profitability to ensure ongoing business and employment stability.

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