Crisis Leaders Need Emotional Intelligence

Reading McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski’s ill-conceived comments about recent shooting deaths of two children in Chicago (including one in a McDonald’s drive-thru) prompted thoughts of the Emotional Intelligence Quotient, or EQ.

Kempczinski created a crisis for the iconic company with a callous text to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. He followed with a lukewarm apology.

Bill Murphy, Jr., in Inc., explores how the CEO’s lack of emotional intelligence created a firestorm and calls for Kempczinski to resign after a two-year stint.

In a text to the mayor, Kempczinski wrote, “With both, the parents failed those kids...which I know is something you can’t say. Even harder to fix.”

In other words, Kempczinski blames the parents for their kids’ deaths.

Kempczinski showed a serious lack of emotional intelligence, Murphy, Jr., argues. It’s hard to disagree.

Kempczinski apologized to McDonald’s employees in a letter. Apparently, he did not apologize to Lightfoot or, more importantly, to the parents he threw under the bus. And he never said ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I regret my actions.’

EQ and Crisis Leadership

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, some argue EQ may be more important than IQ for leaders.

There are three important elements of EQ that are fundamental to crisis leadership:

Empathy. Leaders with high EQ have a strong sense of empathy, the ability to deeply understand the experiences, perspectives and emotions of others. CEOs should make an extra effort to express empathy and consider how others might perceive their words.

Self-Awareness. A high-EQ leader understands her feelings and recognizes how her opinions and decisions are shaped. She can better consider the many factors that shape emotions and communicate more easily with honesty and transparency.

Self-Control. Kempczinski admitted not thinking about his words from others’ viewpoint “was wrong.” A CEO with a high EQ is better able to avoid knee-jerk reactions, reflect and think rationally before communicating.

When hiring or promoting to leadership, organizations should consider a candidate’s EQ, especially if they will manage crises and/or communicate with stakeholders in, or outside, a crisis. The organization’s long-term survival may someday depend on it.

- Deb Hileman

Deb Hileman, SCMP, is president and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management.