“It’s going to feel like a combat deployment.”
We were talking about medical leaders and the strain of the COVID-19 crisis. My friend observed that a year’s worth of daily life-and-death crisis at the hospital – with people you may-or-may-not get along with – will feel like a 12-month deployment to a war zone.
Daily threat of death. Tempers flaring. Fear of the unknown. Realizing how much you dislike someone. (Or how much they dislike you.) Mistakes amplified. Uncharted territory. Innovation. Success. Sudden death. Personal risk. Enduring beyond capability. More fear. Success that’s hard to remember.
This is like nothing you’ve seen.
Whether you’re at a hospital or in your brand new home office running your corporation, all the stakes are higher. Work just got more “real life” than ever. And it’s going to be hard.
I went to combat twice. The second time, I wasn’t fun to be around. I had a horrible habit of dealing with stress by emotional volatility. (There’s a lot of stress in combat.) If something wasn’t working, more intensity, more rage would fix it. Sadly, those I led were often the recipients of that rage.
Whether or not you have that flaw, at some point this crisis will test you to the limit. Colleagues will see the best AND the worst of you. Maybe they already have – and we’re just a week or two into it. That said, here’s some good news:
You’ve got a chance not only to lead well through it, but also to emerge as an even better leader. Battle proven.
There are practical things you can do to get there.
Here’s a few:
Say, “this is scary.” Out loud. Because it is. Both you and the people you lead will benefit from acknowledging this human reality. It IS scary. More for some than others, but ultimately for all. As Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Give a chance for your people to say how this is impacting them, what specifically makes them fearful. Then “be exceedingly human” in how you respond.
Connect with your team and over-communicate. As one of my clients observed, we take for granted all the little in-person interactions at the proverbial water cooler or in the “got a second?” Be more deliberate about phone calls, texts, Zoom, etc. to connect. It’s a human need. Do the same for your family.
Practice gratitude. It’s incredibly easy to resonate the negative around us. For one thing, there’s a lot of it. For another, it still earns a lot of revenue for our news networks. One of the best antidotes is to seek out – and express – reasons for gratitude. (Harvard Business Review: gratitude’s impact on those around you and its link to resilience.)
Do your job, and expect others to do theirs. This will be hard for some. However, it’s necessary both for your organization and for the individuals. Routines and standards during crisis are healthy. Whether it’s the comfort of rituals, the sense of accomplishment at tasks completed, or simply pride in enduring, this is a good thing.
There will of course be adjustments and adaptations. But that should never mean throwing out reasonable expectations of the team. It’s part of your job, as the leader, to discern what the new normal should look like. Expect your people to rise to the occasion, like so many of our nation’s teachers have in maintaining education continuity during this crisis.
Read / listen to stories. Our predecessors have learned countless lessons during previous crises. Find them. Share them. (Like the short anecdotes in this article on 9/11’s lessons learned.)
Seek fresh ears. You need to process as well. Re-connect with mentors or others you know who have led through crises. Vent. State your concerns. Ask for insight. Brainstorm solutions. This practice has been very helpful to me.
Finally, apply the Stockdale Paradox.
In his bestseller Good to Great, Jim Collins coined the term “The Stockdale Paradox.” It emerged out of his interview with Admiral Jim Stockdale, who led well during his 7+ years as a prisoner of war (POW) in Vietnam. (Stockdale would receive the Medal of Honor for his leadership, which included endurance under torture.) After asking him how he made it through such depressing uncertainty, Collins framed this paradox from Stockdale’s response:
“Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. AND at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”
“We are not getting out of here by Christmas.”
At the same time, Stockdale was confident he would make it home, one day. But prevailing meant even more:
“I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person.”