Leading In The Storm of Crisis: A Field Guide

“Crisis.” If ever there were a time to use that word, a global pandemic would be it.

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ In this light, a crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. It’s something that shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. By this definition, events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the launch of the Internet, 9/11 and the 2008 housing crash were all crises. More recently, there’s been Brexit and the last U.S presidential election. Whether you see these events as “good” or “bad,” they each cleaved a new world. The novel corona virus has been a cleaving like no other, separating us so profoundly from life as we knew it that we can scarcely get our bearings.

And here you are, leading others through the wild storm of crisis. People are looking to you for guidance, but you may be thinking, “How do I guide others in terrain that’s alien and scary to me?” Or in simpler terms, “How do I lead when I don’t have a clue?”

It’s natural to hunker down, drive yourself harder and work longer – as if somehow you could get it all in order. But you’ll exhaust yourself if you try to outrun the hurricane of crisis, and you’ll be upended if you ignore it. The safest place to be in a hurricane is the eye, where things are quiet and still. It is the place where you can go to regain your balance, strength and sense of perspective. Visiting the eye isn’t a ‘nice to have’ in times of crisis; the people you lead actually need you to go there. They need you at your best so that you can help them be at theirs.

What exactly is the leadership work in the eye of the storm? I think there are six essential tasks, which I’ve gleaned from the immense wisdom of the leaders I work with, my colleagues, friends, community, and spiritual teachers:

  1. Catch one’s breath (if even for a moment)
  2. Confront reality
  3. Connect to what’s essential and enduring
  4. Discern the next right step
  5. Innovate
  6. Extend care

These tasks aren’t sequential. They’ll vary in how often you need to do them. Some days, you may need to do them all. Below, I’ll explore each task and start the virtual brainstorming of the practical things you can do for each.

Task 1: Catch one’s breath

In crisis, the winds of change howl at hurricane force. For most of us, the instinct is to jump into the swirl and do something. But in the swirl, we run the risk of being more active than productive, because we’re often taking action from an off-balanced place. The signs of being off-center are different for everyone, but can include:

  • an inability to sleep, and/or chronic exhaustion that is not improved by rest
  • increased irritability
  • feeling confused, anxious or overwhelmed
  • obsessive thinking and/or engagement in media
  • a change in eating or drinking habits (e.g., consuming more carbs, fat and alcohol)

Even if you notice these symptoms in yourself, you may tend to override them and just keep powering through. But these signs are actually your greatest allies, because they’re telling you that you’re probably not at your best. Heed them as a call to pause. In times of wild change, leaders need to come back to center over and over while on the run – much like tennis players reset their stance between every stroke.

The most accessible reset button is the breath. Slowing and lowering the breath, even for 30 seconds, stills the inner winds. It returns oxygen to the brain, which lowers anxiety and clarifies thinking. Here’s a link to a ‘controlled breathing’ technique that you can try.

Catching your breath also means grounding yourself – in who you are, what you stand for and what really matters. Maybe you find your ground in a personal mission statement or a set of core values; in writings or practices from your faith tradition; in nature; in a favorite writer, poet or musician; in creative pursuits or physical movement; in meditation and silence, or in connection with others.

Self-reflection can also be a crucial way of catching your breath. Consider journaling as a way to check in with yourself and process what’s going on. Neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, recently published a set of “Daily Quarantine Questions” which might guide you in daily reflection:

  • What am I grateful for today?
  • Who am I checking on or connecting with today?
  • What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today?
  • How am I getting outside today?
  • How am I moving my body today?
  • What beauty am I creating, cultivating, or inviting in today?

Where and how you catch your breath is a deeply personal and intimate thing. What matters is that you know what works for you and that you do it. Often.

Task 2: Confront reality

Fake news, opinion-as-fact culture, and partisan information bubbles make it very challenging to get an accurate picture of reality. But facing reality is essential in taking action that is rooted in discernment, not distress.Here are a few tips for getting your bearings in the swirling hurricane of change.

  • Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” Navigating crisis requires leaders to model the ability to stay curious, keep learning, and adjust as you go. Try not to assume (or let others assume) that you know how this situation is going to go. Take care not to shut down to perspectives or people that you disagree with. Stay open.
  • Engage your stakeholders. Don’t assume what your customers, suppliers, competitors, employees and bosses are experiencing. Ask them and let in what they’re telling you.
  • Get educated. Facts are the best stars by which to navigate this new terrain. Listen to the experts. Consult legitimate media sources on the left and the right. If you’re wondering if media reports are accurate, here’s a link to an article by FactCheck.org on how to spot fake news.
  • Tell the truth. Repeat facts. Share opinion as opinion. Beware of over-simplifying a complex and nuanced reality. Address rumors quickly.

Once you gather information about what’s happening now, you have to help your team make sense of it. I think questions are the best way to guide the meaning-making process. Here are some that might prime your thinking:

  • What are we noticing? What do we know?
  • What do we not know, and when/how will we find out?
  • Given what we know right now, what are the most likely scenarios? Best and worst case?
  • What are the opportunities and threats in each of those scenarios?
  • What assumptions are driving and limiting our thinking?

Disruptive change isn’t just difficult intellectually; it has a profound impact on us personally. Failing to deal with these impacts is often what inhibits our ability to adapt. Here are examples of questions to help people confront the personal impacts of this strange new reality:

  • How does this all affect me? How does it affect us?
  • What do I/we need to confront about the world or ourselves to really let this information in?
  • How do we feel about what we know? What emotions does it stir in us?
  • How might our emotions and reactions be clouding our view or impeding our progress? How might we manage that?
  • How can we leverage our emotions to foster positive action?
  • What might others need to hear from me right now?

The special challenge of ‘confronting reality’ in crisis is how radically and fast ‘reality’ changes. So, like all the other tasks, you may need to do this every week, every day or even every hour.

Task 3: Connect to what’s essential and enduring

In crisis, people become preoccupied with potential loss and threat. Covid-19 has put at risk our routines, physical and financial security, connections, identities, and our very lives. Looming loss can overwhelm us, obscuring what abides. Values (personal and organizational) abide. So do our shared purpose and history, our collective gifts, our accumulated wisdom, our commitment to each other, and our common humanity. Tapping into those essentials can sustain and stabilize us all.

I’m not talking about regurgitating corporate platitudes; I’m talking about connecting with what is true and lasting. Articulate fundamental purpose; remind people of what sustains us; reaffirm those commitments we’ve always held and will continue to hold until we can’t. Ask others to remember all of that, to lean on it, and use it to guide action now. Not everything is going away, and what endures can stabilize, comfort and unify us.

One of my clients, the CEO of Windmill Microlending in Canada, gave a master class in leadership in a recent letter she wrote to her staff. She’s given me permission to share portions of that letter, in which she reaffirms the enduring commitments of the organization:

“When so much is changing, it’s somehow grounding to remind one another about what’s as solid and true today as it was last year and will be next year and next decade: 

Windmill is in the business of helping people out of difficulty. Our organization is in the business of helping people who want to help other people, by putting their skills to work.

We are here to serve and will be a decade from now, living out the vision of Windmill’s founders for converting potential into prosperity. Humanity is resilient and we learn our best in situations of challenge and stress. Stress can bring out the best in us, and can enable us to fulfill our potential.

Serving others and managing stress can be exhilarating and rewarding. Even more surely—those things are exhausting. It’s normal that you are feeling very tired right now.”

Task 4: Discern the next right step

Normally, leaders map out long-term strategies and execute against them. But in crisis – when the world as you know it is falling away and something new is emerging – it’s often impossible to see far enough ahead to map more than a few next steps. Yet even for the action-oriented, moving forward in a crisis can be daunting. Here’s why.

First, crisis often invokes a sense of powerlessness. The forces of disruptive change are frequently far beyond your control, especially when so much is unknown and fast-evolving. It’s sobering (and sane) to recognize the limits of your influence, especially when your team is looking to you to handle it all.

So, in critical times, focus your efforts where you have control. Stay attuned to the larger, uncontrollable forces at play, but don’t let them distract you from taking action where you can.

The second obstacle to moving forward is the desire to establish the “perfect” plan before taking action. These days, the stakes are high and you want to get this right. But in crisis, there is rarely a perfect plan – so if you wait for it, you might not act. Rather than asking yourself what the right thing is, try asking what the next right thing is. Do that, and learn from there.

Otto Scharmer, a Senior lecturer at MIT, calls this “prototyping.” It involves sketching out an initial strategy and testing it through action. Each action cycle produces new learning, which in turn informs the next cycle of action. This iterative approach often builds momentum more quickly and effectively than searching for the elusive perfect plan. And in a time where reality is changing day by day, prototyping cycles will naturally speed up.

One of my favorite prototyping models is the “OODA Loop”, a decision making process for complex, rapidly changing situations.

You can also prototype yourself! In this crazy time, you may be stretched to develop a whole new skill set or aspect of yourself. (I can help you with that.) Don’t attempt to take on all the changes in one fell swoop. Pick one or two areas to start and make small new moves. Then reflect on the results, recalibrate, and reengage.

Task 5: Innovate

Crisis is necessarily a time of re-creation, but I’m not sure there’s ever been a time in history that has spurred such drastic adaptation on such a global scale and in such a short time. The extent of the disruption is dizzying. But so are the opportunities.

It’s a time of immense creativity, driven by immense and immediate need. Almost overnight, virtual corporate coffee breaks, government by zoom, online worship, neighborhood errand brigades, and social safety nets have sprung into being.

But part of the leadership work at the eye of the storm is to take a longer-term view to seize the opportunity coming out of the disruption. Here are some questions that can prime your thinking:

  • What are we discovering – about ourselves, values, culture, mission, marketplace and stakeholders – that we didn’t know before?
  • What’s holding up really well, even in times like this?
  • What weaknesses are showing up?
  • What ways of working have we had to abandon that we might not want to resume when things go ‘back to normal?’ Why?
  • What perspectives, attitudes, practices, programs, structures and practices are proving their worth under duress? Which need to be strengthened or created? Which have outlived their usefulness?

Task 6: Extend Care

While the coronavirus may give rise to many good new things, it is fundamentally threatening our lives, livelihoods, and ways of living. We grieve both realized and anticipated loss, as this excellent Harvard Business Review article explores. My friends, colleagues and clients are consistently talking about how exhausted they are: finding it harder to think clearly or concentrate, ready for bed much earlier at night. An insightful Rolling Stone article talks about this phenomenon as “moral fatigue.”

All of this to say: many of us and many of you are feeling the effects of stress, and what’s called for is extra care and kindness.

Starting with you. I mean it.

In my mind, caring for oneself should be the first task of a leader in stressful times, not the last. Yet in every call I’ve had with my executive clients in this COVID crisis, their own well-being has been the last thing on their minds. For those who think that self-renewal is some squishy, indulgent thing, I offer this wisdom from philosopher Parker Palmer:

“…on the vocational journey, I have become clear about at least one thing: self-care is never a selfish act. It is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can … give true self the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

Actively care for yourself. Remember that you, too, are being buffeted by life in the coronavirus. Maybe adjust your expectations of how much you’re going to get done or how elegantly you’re going to do it. Rather than pushing yourself to the max in your exercise routine, consider engaging in gentler forms of movement to lower the overall stress on your system. Keep returning to the ‘Catch Your Breath’ practices at the beginning of this post. And, importantly, remember that caring for oneself includes letting others care for you.  

Why should you focus on self-stewardship? Because a sound and grounded ‘you’ is the best place from which to then extend care to others.

I’m in awe of the things leaders are doing to reach out to their stakeholders. They’re reaching out with simple emails saying “How’s everyone doing?” Holding virtual lunches. Acknowledging the stress of this difficult time and encouraging people to be forgiving of themselves and each other. Spotlighting great work. Mobilizing support for team members in need. One of my clients holds a “Daily 10:15,” a quick virtual staff meeting at 10:15 each morning to connect and strategize for the day ahead. One of my state’s candidates for governor has retooled his campaign machine into a COVID-19 response team for citizens throughout the state.

Again, my client at Windmill did a beautiful job of extending care in that same letter to staff:

“As we end this week, I want to reach out and share my joy with you at some of your work and accomplishments this week….

In closing, our physical health and our mental health are our most precious commodities. Please look after yours and your families’. If you need to adjust your work or need access to any services, please reach out. We have a benefits plan and paid time off that are there for you when you need it. We can only help our clients and one another when we are healthy, so please look after yourselves.

And thanks for being such a great team. I truly feel blessed to work with each of you and look forward to the time when we can be together in person again. In the meantime, thank you for living Windmill values so well each day.”

The creativity and commitment I see from business and community leaders is giving so much hope and comfort to so many. 

What about you?

Normally in this section of my posts, I offer questions for your reflection. But I’m hoping that you will share your experiences, discoveries and strategies in leading through crisis. I also hope you’ll share your struggles and questions.  I’d love to update this post with your input.

In the meantime, please take care. Remember to return to the quiet eye of the hurricane to get your bearings. And for all that you’re doing and shouldering, thank you.  Please let me know if I can help.

2 replies
  1. Reggie Marra
    Reggie Marra says:

    Hi Leslie. Thanks so much for this writing, and for the diversity of voices you share, from your own and your client-leaders to Harvard Business Review, Rick Hanson, FactCheck, Rolling Stone, Otto Scharmer, Parker Palmer, et al.

    What I’ve found important is to reflect on the practices, rituals and intentional habits I had in place before the pandemic and to see what needs to be kept as it is, what needs revision and what needs to be let go (in some simple ways consistent with Tasks 1-6 above). Thank you again for putting this information and these resources in one place.

    • Leslie Williams
      Leslie Williams says:

      Reggie, thanks for your comment! And thanks for adding a tangible way that people can reexamine and update their personal practices for extraordinary times. Be well, friend!

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