A “Holy Shit” Moment for Leaders

Are we actually experiencing a true liminal event? Is this how it all begins? Or is this an ephemeral black swan event that will eventually pass, but teach us some very important lessons?

By Rob Schuham, co-founder of Undercurrent

It’s truly a holy shit moment for the world. COVID-19 is a pandemic. Entire countries are in lockdown. The stock market is gyrating and down considerably. Uncertainty has led to panic and hoarding. And we are in a state of fear that I can only recall feeling after September 11. Not quite as scary, but very unnerving to say the least.

So what’s the move here? Are we actually experiencing a true liminal event? Is this how it all begins? Or is this an ephemeral black swan event that will eventually pass, but teach us some very important lessons?

I personally like to think the later. Lord knows I (and many others) have been yelling from the rooftops about the climate crisis and that change is a’ comin’. This isn’t climate-change related (at least not yet…we still need to understand how this virus reacts seasonally), rather this is a loud warning about the global systems fragilities that we exist in which can tumble like dominos when existential threats occur. Witness the stark statement from the World Health Organization saying simply that the world is not prepared for this. Period.

I’m not going to go into the details of how unprepared the U.S. and other governments are for a pandemic of this nature, or how the top administrators are stumbling and bumbling through this. Nor am I going to use this as a moment to preach. Because right now, we’re in a mission critical moment, where a massive market correction and a hyper-volatile fear index translates to survival mode for most companies.

What I want to talk about is the actual fear itself. And the danger this presents. Because right now, fear is more dangerous than the pandemic. Or your peoples’ 401Ks getting hammered. Fear is toxic. And it will directly impact your people inside your organizations. And while many of you are going virtual, stopping business travel, cancelling long planned corporate events and gatherings and more, top leadership is struggling with exactly how to communicate this internally. It’s not so much a “What’s my role?” moment, rather it’s a “How do I navigate this as a leader?” set of moments.

Here are some thoughts from someone (um, that’s me) who has led multiple companies I founded or co-founded through intense uncertainty (Y2K, the dot-com meltdown, 9/11, the great recession) and has helped large companies manage through these times as well.

Some of your people are scared. Some are terrified. My hunch is you yourself might be too? Particularly given that you are in a leadership position and therefore trying to see through the matrix, and what’s to come? You might even have some residual PTSD from those 9/11 jitters and/or the recession? And through all of this, you believe you need to “act the leader” in order to have your workforce keep calm and carry on.

So here are some informed thoughts:

  1. Honor your own fears. This is important. Exercise self-care. When the oxygen mask drops from above, put it on yourself first so you don’t pass out while trying to help others. Talk openly and candidly with people close to you, trusted advisors, your therapist…whomever. Just make sure that you know you are not alone.
  2. Next, your people. We are in a global state of anxiety right now. Healing cultures will recognize this, and how important their/your role is in holding and supporting people in your organization. This is an opportunity for you to re-affirm the company’s values and what you stand for. Inviting your workforce into a safe place to voice fears and get answers to questions is critical. This can be done in person of course. But if you’ve already made the decision to go virtual, than I’d suggest (and depending upon what size your organization is) all-company, all-division, or all-workgroup videoconference meetings. Make sure you communicate your stance, how you plan on supporting your teams, and most importantly, be ready with a set of actions that demonstrate the organization’s values and intentions around that support. And if you have clear planning for the business in the short and mid-term, communicate this a well. And then stick to it.
  3. Acknowledge that we are in a period of uncertainty. And that while intentions won’t waver, actions might need to adjust on the fly. Give examples of those actions so as not to leave people in a further state of distress. For example, travel restrictions, continued virtual operations plans, healthcare plan updates etc.
  4. Appoint a coronavirus task force. If you’re in leadership at a large company, appoint a task force (or someone specifically) that stays on top of the science and data and can help you and the rest of leadership make more informed decisions, as well as impart useful information. Related, some of your workforce’s version of going virtual doesn’t help “flatten the curve”. For example, discouraging them from working out of crowded coffee shops, socializing in large groups and participating in other activities that puts them in close physical contact with many other people at the same time is extremely important right now.

Things NOT to do:

  1. Don’t saccharin-coat your communications. Don’t say everything is going to be fine, if you don’t authentically believe it yourself. Hence why I recommend a strong set of intentions, but a fluid set of actions. And just own it. Importantly, stress that you and your organization are all on this journey together. That you (as a human, a mother, a father etc.) are watching the same news that everyone else is. And that there is no secret task force that absolutely and precisely knows the way forward.
  2. Don’t panic yourself. As I alluded to earlier, you may have some residual trauma from past business experiences. You may have had to lay off people you cared about. You may have been laid off yourself. You may have lost a lot of money in the last downturn, or had a company fail as a result. Most importantly, you may simply be scared that you, your family members including aging parents, or other relatives and friends, are at risk from the virus. This doesn’t mean be stoic in your leadership style, while burning up on the inside. It simply means take many deep breaths. Do what it takes to find your own place of calm. Panic = reactivity and “neck-up” decisions. Calm = balanced and more embodied decisions.
  3. Don’t stop healthy habits. Get outside if you’re not quarantined, take walks, look at the sky, the trees, think about what blessings you enjoy. If you’re stuck inside, download an exercise app and keep active. Do yoga. Again, whatever it is you need to take care of your body, your health and your mindset. And encourage the rest of your organization to do this too. You need yourself and your teammates strong and vital when this all passes.
  4. Don’t run stories about a dystopian future. Spend time envisioning a more beautiful future. The world you want to live in. Picture it, meditate on it, heck do whatever you do that can help you envision this. If there is a wide field of positive energy, perhaps we might eventually inspire a culture of optimism.

If I’m being totally honest, just writing this made my nervous system relax a bit. In times of uncertainty, we can sometimes feel disembodied, thus making it hard to bridge what we know with what we feel. If you’re leading a company and need an ear, give me a shout here at Undercurrent. During these uncertain moments, I’m loaning it out for free. Because we’re all in it together.

Much love,