My personal journey through crisis and my discovery of the importance of gratitude, empathy, and emotional intelligence

By Areije Al Shakar, Kauffman Fellows Class 24

There is something about the last year of a decade that creates a sense of new beginning. At the end of 2019, I had placed such grand goals and expectations for how 2020 would be different. The world was excited to ring in the new year — and as I gathered with my family, it seemed to us it would be yet another quiet family gathering in Bahrain.

Suddenly overnight, things changed. As a family, we were faced with something that we could never have predicted or been able to understand the way it would unfold. My mother was diagnosed with an aggressive disease.

With the barrage of appointments, surgeries, and treatments came a host of uncertainties and uncomfortable waiting periods that challenged my usual clear-headed, structured thinking and composure. I was no longer able to see clearly because I didn’t have the answers or know where to get them. No one (doctors included) could tell our family anything with certainty. I felt utterly helpless.

For someone who others come to for strength, feeling helpless was an entirely new feeling and experience. Still, I wanted to get to the bottom of what I could — and fast. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and the world halted.

At the time, I couldn’t see the similarities between what I was feeling at home and what was happening in the outside world. Now that I’ve had time to reflect, I can see how uncertainty can challenge the sustainability of relationships, teams, and especially one’s own mind.

At some point, the whole world went into survival mode with airports, offices, schools, entertainment, and many other services shutting down. Things that we took for granted like going to the supermarket or taking a flight for a day business trip became impossible. People were scrambling for information and explanations, but we were all met with unknowns.

We witnessed different countries implement different sets of rules, lockdown restrictions, and overall strategies for how to handle the pandemic. No one knew truly what was better or worse, because the reality was that there was no playbook to follow. Governments and their citizens were doing their best based on the circumstances.

We heard how some countries did better than others and how some places were able to control the pandemic better. When digging a little deeper it became apparent that the countries who fared better had strong leadership and great support teams in place. Are these the two secret ingredients to handle a crisis successfully?

Looking back at my own experience, without someone to guide our family forward, it would have been very hard for us to get to where we’re at currently. As we continue to battle this crisis, I have come to realize that good leadership is not enough in family settings. There needs to be existing trust in the person(s) who are tasked with leading.

A lot of issues and anxieties surfaced as I experienced our new reality — and the same was true for the family members around me, challenging the strength of our bonds. What I started to discover is that when people are anxious, they feel like they are under attack. When they cannot find answers, they look for someone or something to blame which then takes the focus away from the actual issue at hand.

While a lot of time and energy can easily be spent trying to explain the who, how, or why — we needed to use what little energy we had to look forward or to find solutions. Everything was new, and the treatment was not straightforward. This required a lot of patience for discovery and learning about my mom’s health situation (which was very difficult to manage while still having to adapt to the emotional and physical changes and challenges that my mom was enduring). Without trust in one another, we would have fallen apart.

In the past, I’ve been considered a pillar of strength for our family, but that was during times that we could predict.

Could I still be considered the same pillar of strength during this time of sudden and complicated crisis?

Initially, I thought what I was experiencing at home was isolated and unique to my household until I saw how people around me were reacting to the pandemic. Individuals who I knew to be as organized, calm, and grounded were now frantic, uncovering a side to them that I never knew. I realized that crisis has an effect on everyone and that no one is “untouchable.”

Rarely do we speak about how sudden, abrupt, and tragic changes in the “status quo” effect relationships, both personally and professionally. We have all seen and experienced scenarios where relationships or companies have suffered (or even ended) because of abrupt change.

But how often do we actually examine what ‘change’ means to the long-term viability of relationships or companies?

This is something that especially needs to be discussed when managing or investing in teams. I have learned through my experience that certain key characteristics need to be present in a team or individuals to ensure they make it to the other side of the unknown.

Recently, I sat down over a virtual chat, speaking to a pioneer in venture capital in the MENA region, a mentor, and someone whom I admire, Fadi Ghandour, on how crises define companies and the venture industry. Fadi makes some points that are especially worth sharing:

  • Crisis causes panic. It is in crisis when true leaders are unveiled. Some dwell in denial and others shape up and show up.
  • People tend to forget the importance of communication in a crisis. Communication is the key to leadership. If a team does not see their leader at the frontline and does not hear from them it is very easy to lose trust. Once you lose trust, you will most likely lose the team and hence jeopardize sustainability and success.
  • Being able to not only show emotion but showcase empathy through your own actions is paramount. When I pressed Fadi further about this he said, “Empathy is at the core of this story. You cannot effectively communicate if you are not empathetic. You need to be able to feel and see what others are going through. You need to lead by example, and not only communicate your plan for handling the crisis, but exhibit those solutions in the way you conduct yourself through your own actions.” Fadi also said that delivering on promises is part of empathy, as it shows that you understand what people need, and do everything in your power to make sure it happens.

When asking Fadi if the global pandemic has changed his initial view of leaders (especially in venture and startups), he said “Of course. True startup founders had to make sacrifices in this pandemic and not everyone did. It is the ability to sacrifice to help sustain the business and it is hard to test that in normal circumstances, but comes up during any crisis. It is also up to mentors and investors to help guide and remedy situations when startup CEOs do not show the ability to be a soldier.”

We ended our insightful chat with Fadi telling me that “a true visionary and leader is a great listener, has the ability to appreciate what people are going through, and the sensitivity to know what people feel and make it actionable.” An entrepreneur and expert in venture investing, Fadi learned his key leadership skills and insights gained through his experiences. He believes that true leaders are built through what they experience.

Exploring this topic further, I sat down with psychology professional Dr. Saliha Afridi, who is a founder and entrepreneur of the Lighthouse Arabia, the largest mental health and awareness group in the Middle East.

I started my conversation with Dr. Afridi by asking her what she felt are key characteristics of people who can successfully lead teams through crises. She took a moment to listen carefully to my question. While I threw out words like optimism, determination, empathy, and resilience she replied with: “Yes, indeed it is optimism, resilience, and everything you mention, but one thing that you didn’t mention explicitly, which I think is key for people to move through crisis, is emotional intelligence.”

She continued to say, “Emotional intelligence is a word used often and without a true understanding of what it means. At its core, emotional intelligence is first about self-awareness — understanding the emotions that are arising inside of you — and then being able to regulate those so you can remain calm. For leaders, it is critical to self-regulate so they can create space and contain other people’s difficult emotions in times of crisis.”

For anyone to lead a team through calamity, she repeated, it’s essential to have self-awareness and self-regulation. As the ‘captain’ of the ship, people will look to the leader for direction and as a way to anchor themselves.

Dr. Afridi also spoke about how many organizations need to create a space for psychological safety. The ability for employees to feel safe to express what they feel. In that same vein, she did warn that there needs to be a balance between high support and high expectations. “Too many people might expect their companies to give them high support, but that does not mean that the employees are absolved of their own responsibilities towards their work and their own mental health. This is what is meant by high support and high expectations environment.”

She continued, “You can expect excellence from employees while providing them with mental health and skill-based support.” Meaning, companies should offer support when it comes to mental health especially when someone is faced with crisis scenarios, but there should also be a clear expectation as to what they expect from their employees during such times.

When she said that it made me think that this applies also to homes and personal relationships. The ability to feel safe and express how you feel, but also taking ownership of how you act and remedy, is vital to creating a healthy and productive environment.

One thing that Dr. Afridi said at the end of our discussion that resonated with me deeply and made me reflect on my own family situation:

“Resilience does not mean that people don’t fall apart. It means you can fall apart but then pick yourself up and show up for yourself and others.”

Her answers forced me to question my own strength and resilience. While I may have “fallen apart” regarding my mom’s health crisis, I could still show up for her and my family.

My discussions with both Fadi Ghandour and Dr. Saliha Afridi highlighted the importance of empathy, communication, and emotional intelligence. I realized that to have emotional intelligence is the ability to empathize and communicate, but also to understand yourself and raise self-consciousness because by knowing yourself well you can better lead.

It made me reflect on my year facing this horrific disease that my mom battles that has plagued our family and how many times I saw what Fadi spoke of: denial and lack of communication causes so much unnecessary pain for all of us.

Speaking with Dr. Afridi, made me evaluate my own self-awareness and my self-awareness of those around me. As I face one of the most difficult things I have ever gone through, I realize the importance of better understanding myself — both my strengths AND weaknesses.

I also came to understand that when I fell apart before my mom’s surgeries or after doctors’ appointments…

This did not make me any less resilient. It made me human. My ability to still show up despite all of the pain and sorrow is my superpower. And it can easily be others’ superpower if they let it be.

This past year and a half have been the hardest time in my life. I thought about how different my experience of the pandemic would be if my mom wasn’t ill, I also thought of how many of my decisions would have been different about my career and otherwise. I thought about what Fadi Ghandour said about empathy and what Dr. Afridi said about self-awareness. Was I being empathetic and self-aware? Was I facing this crisis to the best of my ability?

I then recalled something that my mentor (and a human being I admire not only for his success but more importantly for his values), Marc Benioff, said to me, “Areije what you are doing for your mom is not a sacrifice, but a blessing. Your ability to be there for her during this incredibly tough time is a complete blessing and nothing else.”

He frequently reminds me about how life is about constantly realigning priorities and defining where you are at. As humans, we talk about things we do as sacrifices, but in reality, the ability to be able to support someone through a crisis is truly a blessing.

Marc’s words changed my view of the hardest year of my life and I now see it as a blessing that I’ve been able to be right beside my mom. Would I have been anywhere else? Would I have missed out on anything?

Knowing what you want is part of the process of self-awareness. If you are not where you want to be, you will not be able to thrive and succeed.

This may seem obvious, but how many people actually take the time to think through this (especially when they are faced with a crisis and have to go into survival mode)?

When you are faced with a crisis, how do you want to be remembered and how do you want to grow from the experience? For my family, our crisis has not ended. Similarly, the world still battles the pandemic with many countries seeing the light, while others still fight.

With so many unknowns, I DO know SOME things to be true:

Although it’s been a struggle of a lifetime — heart-wrenching and seemingly impossible at times — it is a part of life. The ability for me to be by my mother’s side is a blessing and the ultimate honor of my life.

My mother’s health scare will define me for the rest of my life. It has undeniably changed me and will change how I view many things in the future. For leaders of organizations and countries, how they lead through a pandemic will also define them.

You will always need time to carve out for yourself to reflect and “raise your own consciousness,’ as eloquently stated by Dr. Afridi. Also, the importance of empathy as, “one needs to be empathetic in totality, being able to feel, listen and act; without all three there is no empathy” said Fadi Ghandour.

Leaders show resilience, empathy, optimism, and emotional intelligence. To truly thrive is to possess the ability to understand yourself and your abilities (yes, even your downsides) with clarity so that you can face what is ahead, even when things are unclear and unpredictable.

About the Author

Areije Al Shakar (Kauffman Fellows Class 24) is a senior leader in Bahrain’s financial industry, bringing 15 years of experience in the startup and banking sectors to Al Waha Fund of Funds via her role as Senior Vice President at Bahrain Development Bank. A regular media commentator and columnist for outlets including CNBC, Entrepreneur, and Arabian Business, Areije is often called upon to offer analysis of the full-entrepreneurship cycle, public policy, and ecosystem development within the region.

Areije is frequently invited to share her expertise in local and regional innovation events and has also been featured among “Bahrain’s Most Influential Women” by Business in Gulf. Areije is also a Kauffman Fellow and co-chairs the program’s MENA Chapter. At Al Waha, Areije works to build out a venture capital ecosystem within the region by meeting with funds, building networks, and connecting startups with funding opportunities, including as part of Bahrain’s annual delegation to the World Economic Forum.

Before joining BDB, Areije worked in banking and advisory roles at BNP Paribas, and Lehman Brothers, contributing to setting up their respective Advisory and Investment Management desks for the wider region. She also worked at Citibank and Investcorp B.S.C. Areije graduated from the John Molson School of Business with a Bachelor of Commerce in Finance and holds a Master of Science in Public Policy and Management from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. During her free time, she enjoys literature and has been recognized as a talented writer and storyteller.

About Al Waha Fund of Funds
The $100M Al Waha Fund of Funds was established in 2018 to address the nascent VC community in the MENA region. The government-led initiative seeks to invest in VC funds that will invest directly — or that have a strategic interest — in the MENA region (at seed, early, and growth stages of funding). The expertise and commitment behind the Al Waha Fund of Funds team allow for a unique platform for venture capitalists. Not only are they granted access to Al Waha’s portfolio of VC managers and limited partners, but they also gain access to a trusted partner, offering ecosystem support in Bahrain, including partnership opportunities and networks.

Kauffman Fellows is the world’s premier venture education program with the largest and most connected network of VC investors.