Graham Birkenhead, March 31 2020

Look after You - Leading in a Time of Crisis

My last blog was about leading your newly home-bound team.  In this blog, I am going to talk about one very important member of your team – you.    

As the leader, it is essential that you pay attention to yourself, and to ensure that you are in a good place to lead.   As the flight attendant says: ‘put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others’.  

Before you can lead others, you must ‘lead yourself’ – and to do that, you need to be connected with yourself – how you are thinking, acting and feeling. And to help you, here are 6 areas to discuss with that little voice in your head: 

1.   How am I feeling?    Most leaders will be feeling a great sense of responsibility for their staff, their company, their families - and often place themselves last. All people will be reacting differently, some taking it more in their stride than others. Some will be shifting into survival mode, this is where our values start changing, and at an extreme level can cause us to freeze (we may just want to curl up and go back to bed), flight (we just want to run away), or fight (we get angry – with anybody or anything).  Whatever you are feeling, it is normal.  The important thing is to recognise that you are feeling those things – and I know this is far easier said than done – don't be defined them; they are responses to the situation you find yourself in.  It’s time to reach for that oxygen mask, and often that can involve standing back, taking a break, or talking to someone and sharing a burden. 

2.   What am I focused on?    When we are faced with uncertainty or challenges beyond our experience, we tend to focus on the ‘here and now’.  Humans are great problem solvers, and to save mental time and effort, we jump to tried and tested solutions.  Hence, if we are not careful, we will break any new situation down into component parts of problems that we recognise and solve them with what we know. This may sound like a great way forward; indeed, it gives us the feeling of doing something, but we may be missing a lot of vital information (we have seen recently seen several governments doing this with potentially disastrous consequences).  This is a new and rapidly changing situation, stand back a little and instead of relying on what you know you know (see my One Rule and One Tool Blog for the Know-Don't Know matrix), start asking questions of the world around you – find out what you don't know. Bring in people with other perspective, experience, expertise – maximise the diversity of ideas created by the people around you!  

3.   My Opposable Mind*   F Scott Fitzgerald described intelligence as the ability to hold 2 opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and yet still retain the ability to function.  Situations like the COVID-19 pandemic are creating many such opposing ideas and needs:   I have to function as normally as possible, but my whole world is changing.  I have to keep my people going (busy, working, productive) but I have to keep them safe through physical distancing.   I have to focus on operations now, but I have to predict how to respond to a world that may be very different when this is over. This opposable thinking hurts mentally – it is hard and requires new understanding, new insights and new solutions.  But take comfort, it is this very challenge that brings the best out of humanity and out of this will come the foundations of our new world order – many of the solutions that we are developing now, will become part of our new normal in the weeks, months and years ahead.   What solutions are you developing that will be part our new normal? 

4.   Have Courage.    No one said that leadership was easy – it isn’t.  And one of the most important attributes good leaders have is courage. The definition of courage that I like the most is that “it is OK to be scared or daunted, but you go and do it anyway”.  As a leader, you are not alone – you have a team with you that can support you as much as you support them.   Sure, you may need to provide the vision and direction, the good example and encouragement, but don't forget to let them to play their part in getting the whole team over the finish line. Courage (and I don't mean recklessness) is contagious. 

5.   Where am I going?   The future is a place that we are creating – never lose sight of that.  We, collectively, have created the situation that we are now in, and we are now creating the post COVID-19 world. Within that, there are possibilities and opportunities. Some of us will just arrive in the future of others’ creation, some of us will arrive in the future that we have created.  We need to keep an eye on the future and particularly the future we want to create – what does it look like?

Right now, we are in a swamp and we have to take it one step at a time, sometimes we have to go to the side or even backward – but we mustn't lose sight of the future.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”     

Sun Tzu – Art of War 

6.   Who am I?    ‘Know yourself’ – every good leader knows what they are good at and what they have difficulty with.  There is no such thing as the perfect leader; we are merely human – not superhuman.   We can do a lot, but we can’t do everything.  Share responsibilities with your team, especially in identifying people that have strengths where you have challenges.  

And will you send us a reply?

We know that if you are the CEO or business owner, that despite being surrounded by people, it can be a lonely place – and a lot of the value we provide (in normal times, never mind a crisis) is just being there to talk with – give us a call.  We’d also like to hear what challenges you are facing, what solutions you are coming up with, what does the future look like from your perspective? 

*From the title of a book by Roger Martin [2007] – The Opposable Mind

Written by

Graham Birkenhead


Previous Getting Back to the Future
Next I See You - Leading in a time of crisis