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How to Lead Through the Chaos

How to Lead Through the Chaos

In one way or another, virtually everyone on the planet is affected by the recent outbreak of a novel coronavirus. People are panicking and it is up to the leaders of our governments, communities, families, and businesses to light the way. But many of these leaders (especially parents and employers) are unsure of how to proceed in this chaotic time. It’s important to remember that people are looking to us–and it is our responsibility–to provide reassurance, honesty, and a clear path forward

Fortunately we have a lot of tools we can use to do this effectively. We can take cues from history, psychology, and time-tested frameworks when choosing how to respond. Here’s a short list of the most useful techniques for leading through this pandemic-induced chaos…

History: What have others done in the past?

As they say, “history repeats itself”. Maybe this particular version of the virus is new, but we can look to other national (and global) crises in the past to see the cause and effect for the responses tried.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an in-depth article in this vein entitled “What We Can Learn From the 20th Century’s Deadliest Pandemic”. One takeaway from the Spanish Flu: In regions where government leaders took the threat seriously lives were saved. “Cities which implemented isolation policies (such as quarantining houses where influenza was present) and “social distancing measures” (such as closing down schools, theaters, and churches) saw death rates 50% lower than those that did not.” 
Lesson from Spanish Flu: Act quickly and systematically

Following the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the BBC posted an article entitled “How Ebola changed the world.” Though Ebola is a much deadlier illness, and it struck some of the most impoverished nations, the lessons may still have some merit. In the article the author credits people’s humanity with the containment of the disease: “Local volunteers going house-to-house to explain the virus…Communities accepting the realities of the virus and changing their everyday lives…families allowing their loved ones to be taken to isolated treatment centres all played a strong role.”
Lesson from Ebola: Work together and support each other 

In a LinkedIn article posted back in January, Stephane Grand, a financial consultant based in Shanghai, remembers the impact the 2003 SARS outbreak had on his business. “A few weeks into the Crisis, the rules of the game had changed. It was about who would live to see another day, at least in terms of business. At the end of the Crisis, businesses had closed, a large number of foreigners had left China, many an entrepreneur was considering going back to the stable income of a normal job in a multinational company.” He also noticed one challenge that every business was facing, regardless of size “…it was almost impossible to get in-person meetings.” Grand was inspired to create “a multilingual, secure, online management platform,” an innovative product which is still in use today. 
Lesson from SARS: Decide to persevere and adapt 

Psychology: How are people feeling?

During times of panic emotions run high. People need to be reminded to remain calm. They need to have clear direction, and we as leaders can only provide that if we have control over our own fears and anxieties. We need to align our thoughts and intentions so that we can serve others:

  • Foster clarity in our own minds through meditation, yoga, or other exercise. (Check out Mindful Leader’s new free service for help with this —
  • Be consistent by acting in accordance with our values and your goals.
  • Move forward by letting go of “gravity problems” and focusing on the things we can control. *a gravity problem is “like gravity, it’s not a problem that can be solved.” (Burnett, Designing Your Life) — more on that here:

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Marcus Aurelius

Once we have control of our own thoughts we can lead others. Remember, people are counting on us to provide reassurance, honesty, and a clear path forward.

  • Reassurance — As mentioned in this thoughtful discussion with Entreleadership, the first thing people need to hear is “you’re ok”. We must start by stabilizing the situation, framing it with safety. We need to make sure our employees know that their safety is our top priority.
  • Honesty — When people don’t trust their leaders, more chaos ensues. We need to have open conversations, ask what others need, and work together to overcome the most pressing challenges.
  • Confidence and hope — The darkest hours are when true leaders shine. We must stand tall and model the mentality needed to persevere.

Frameworks: How do we decide?

Sometimes it’s hard to think clearly when we are under stress. I remember experiencing this clouded common sense once when I was mountain biking at night. I knew the trails like the back of my hand, but they looked different in the dark. At one intersection a large animal moved nearby and I panicked. I tried to find my way back, but my heart was beating so fast I couldn’t think straight. My mental map had vanished. Fortunately I had a compass with me and instead of relying on my frantic gut instincts (which were wrong), I pulled out my compass and let it guide me home.

When our thinking is clouded by fear or other emotions we can rely on tools, like a compass, to help us make more logical decisions. Using frameworks ensures that we stay on track and we don’t miss important considerations. A warning though:

“…you’ve got to have multiple models—because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least, you’ll think it does.”

Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman, Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffet’s long time business partner)
This Bubble Map illustrates *some* of the possible impacts of the virus. Many of these outcomes have already been documented…select the underlined items in the PDF for more details.

Here are a few frameworks that we think are useful in times like these…

  • Bubble Map. A mind map is a great way to brainstorm, and in a situation where lots of industries will be affected, it is useful for visualizing the possible outcomes. This map I created shows some of the possibly unforeseen outcomes of the coronavirus. While not every branch may have a direct relationship to your business, your employees, your customers, and your competitors may be affected. Creating a bubble map of your brand may help illuminate some potential issues before they arise. A great piece of advice from Designing Your Life: “Don’t start with the problem, start with the people, start with empathy”.
  • Predicting Hindsight, also called “Prospective Hindsight” (Mitchell, Russo, and Pennington) OR “regret-minimization” (Jeff Bezos), or “Pre-Mortem” (Klein). In this exercise we envision ourselves in the future looking back. Of course we can’t know what is going to happen until it actually happens, but we can probably imagine a couple of the most likely outcomes. What would we advise our former selves to do now that we *know* the outcome?  
    • For instance, five years from now what will we remember about COVID-19?
      That it was a deadly pandemic that decimated whole populations and industries, or that it was a wake up call to be more prepared for future epidemics, or that it was quickly forgotten aside from a temporary impact on the economy? With that in mind, if your five-years-older-future-self were to give you some advice about how to act/react during this time, what would it be? 
  • Decision Tree. First defined in the 1960s, the decision tree has become a a staple in machine learning. Unlike a bubble map, it can help you make a specific decision. According to Magee’s 1964 article, “A decision tree of any size will always combine (a) action choices with (b) different possible events or results of action which are partially affected by chance or other uncontrollable circumstances…”(Magee). Each path can be assigned a probability and an estimated cost/yield to help weigh the decision more accurately.
  • The New York Times Rule. How would you feel if a reporter were to write about your decision on the front page of the New York Times?
  • S.M.A.R.T. Goals – Check your potential solution against these criteria:
    • Specific – Does it clearly define what is included and what is not?
    • Measurable – Can the results be quantified? How will you know you are making progress?
    • Assignable – Who is responsible for each part? Does everyone know who is accountable?
    • Realistic – Is it possible? Could additional resources be sourced to make it possible?
    • Time-related – Does it have a deadline?
  • Best practices checklist. For front-line workers, having clear guidelines and strict checklists can go a long way in saving lives–not just in preventing the spread of disease, but also in responding to catastrophic events (see Atul Gawande’s example of pilots successfully landing a badly damaged passenger plane by relying on a checklist, in Checklist Manifesto). Mangers can also benefit from utilizing best practices. According to Erik Larson with Harvard Business Review, “managers who made decisions using best practices achieved their expected results 90% of the time…[however] in a study of 500 managers and executives, we found that only 2% regularly apply best practices when making decisions” (Larson).

One final tool that is invaluable for your leadership development and your brand’s ability to persevere: Cross-Pollination!

We are facing an unprecedented event, but we are not alone. Other businesses (and families and communities) are addressing some of the same challenges we are trying to overcome. Why go it alone when we can go together? Reach out to fellow leaders to brainstorm, share knowledge, and inspire each other. Who knows; you may find a collaborative opportunity or at least a little sense of camaraderie in these trying times.

Join our network to engage with other leaders and see how you can cross-pollinate!

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