Leading Through A Panic Epidemic

One of my favorite authors, James Thurber, wrote a story called, “The Day the Dam Broke.” It’s a memory from his childhood in Columbus, after the great flood of 1913, when someone yelled, “The dam broke!” A population already stoked by fear from the flood began to bolt down Main Street, certain that they were about to be smashed to bits by a roaring wall of water. Later, when thousands of people sheepishly returned to their homes, they learned they had never been in any danger at all. The dam didn’t break. The panic was more dangerous to residents than the perceived peril.

Here we are, 107 years later, facing a panic epidemic. I look at the landscape and think, “What a great time to be a leader!”  Leaders help others manage and respond to fear in a crisis. The only thing that spreads faster than a virus is panic. The deadly potion of negativity, news stories, fear, and anxiety, ignited by a lively imagination, can explode into a mental disaster movie that can be nearly impossible to overcome.

We must fight that internal disaster movie. The power of our collective emotions is as great, if not greater, than the challenges you and your team/family may face. They are relying upon you. As you go, they go.

Teams and people engulfed by fear will underperform. 

What’s a great leader to do?

START WITH SELF

Emotions are energy and the crisis the world faces today is truly an energy management challenge and opportunity! Leaders are of no use to anyone if they are consumed by their own emotions in response to the spread of the coronavirus, the ups and downs of the stock market, or the unavailability of toilet paper (this is apparently a global outcome of the coronavirus). I have extra if you need some.

What do you need to remain calm, positive, and realistic in the face of a relatively unknown and uncertain threat? Do you know? Let’s explore it.

Here are some thought starters:

  1. What are you most afraid of? Your children getting sick? A parent? Spouse? Your CEO? Your steering wheel is dirty? You forgot and touched your nose? Make a list and then add action items you can take to address the problem. Can’t fix it? Let it go.
  2. Think about how you’ve responded to a threat in the past. We’ve all been tested by the universe. Write it down and validate your response by projecting it upon the current situation. What does great leadership look like for you in your role and in this moment? What does your team / family need?
  3. Find your logic. The flu outbreaks hit us every year – it is a risk that the whole world has accepted as part of living. There have been fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes. A lot of it is outside of our control. Everything we face today is part of life. The coronavirus is no different – how you respond to that which you can, and cannot, control is one metric of a good leader.
  4. Move from “Me” to “We” – use your energy to manage yourself and then start doing the same for those who look up to you. Everything you do will be examined for clues to your own state – being calm, confident and courageous will reassure followers.
  5. Turn Off the News – in this 24/7 onslaught of information, it’s incumbent upon us to manage how much time we invest in watching the news. There’s a difference between being informed and being obsessed. Use your energy productively.
  6. Spend time outdoors. Go for the walk, visit a park, soak up the beauty of spring – it is coming and it makes everything FEEL better. It’s going to be 60 degrees in Michigan today. I can’t WAIT to go for a walk in the warmth. The birds sing and the warm breeze blows with no regard to the stock market or coronavirus. It’s a blessing – chicken soup for the soul. Lean on it. Let nature give you strength.

You can take your team/family through the above ideas and have a group discussion – but do that only after you’ve got yourself figured out.

LEAD TEAMS AND FAMILIES

Help others face fear by being curious and transparent yourself. Ask open ended questions. Tell stories, and encourage them to do the same.

“Wow, this virus sure is bringing out the worst and the best in people. (share some examples)”

“Based on what we know, what does common sense look like for us in this moment?”

“What are you most concerned about?”

“How can we help our teams/family feel informed and stable? What do they need that they don’t already have?”

“In February 2018, Forbes reported that over 4,000 people died from the flu in one week. I was surprised to read that fact and it gave me some perspective. We’ll get through this.”

“Everything we’re doing now will help us be even stronger after this is over, and it will be over at some point.”

“I’m trying to eat better so that my immune system remains strong. I’d love to hear from you about your choices.”

“Yes, this virus is scary. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that last week, a 30-minute storm killed more people in Nashville than the coronavirus has in the United States over the past month. Many of those poor folks have lost everything.”

“We owe it to one another to be responsible. If I’m sick, I’m staying home, and I want you to do the same. Follow the medical advice for good flu hygiene.”

“At one point, I found myself panicking after I read there was a run on hand sanitizer. And then I realized I don’t normally buy hand sanitizer. I wash my hands and will do it more carefully from now on.”

Bottom Line: Create space for everyone to ask questions, share concerns, and tell stories. Open conversation is soothing and relieves stress.

FIND & SHARE GRATITUDE

Yesterday I was at the post office and the grocery store, and I realized that there are some roles that by their very nature will be more exposed to disease than others. These folks will interact with thousands of people every day. We will expect them to be there for us (even as we choose to work from home!) I tried to be extra nice to them. Being kind is a GREAT use of any extra anxiety you have. Here are a few other ideas for leaders, teams, and families.

  1. Send a thank you note to your health care provider. I had hand surgery last Tuesday. The staff and the doctor were outstanding. I verbally expressed it – a thank you note will amplify my gratitude. This year I had my Cranbrook hockey team send a thank you note – a REAL handwritten thank you note – to someone that had championed their hockey journey over the years. When I met with them a few weeks later, the first thing we did was debrief on that exercise – their biggest take away was how much it meant to the recipient. What if every single person in the world sent a thank you note to someone who has cared for and supported them? Hmm…
  2. Feed your first responders – offer to bring lunch or dinner to your police, EMT’s, fire men – when people need help, they don’t stop and ask if the person has symptoms of the coronavirus. We need them.
  3. Take up a good cause and invest in it. Older and ill people seem most at risk. Is there a way to support a local retirement home? Are there charities that do so? I bet they’d love to have your help. If not, raise money to donate to those who suffered in Nashville or elsewhere. Take food to a pantry. Mentor someone. Engage your employees/family and do the same – explain why you’re doing it – you’re taking that fear energy and aiming it at something positive. That’s what courageous and successful leaders do.
  4. Be kind. Hold the doors for others. Be generous with praise. How we treat one another during difficult times can unify our country. It suffocates that cold indifference that is so easy to fall victim to.
  5. Watch a superhero movie. I know, you’re thinking I’m crazy. Talk about the behaviors of villains – they sow fear, hate, and selfishness to divide good people. Superheroes sow hope, love, and confidence – they help unify others so that they rise to the occasion. Ask how the viewers relate to the power of the villain and the choices made by the superheroes. Can they connect these topics to the challenge at hand? I recommend the Incredibles because everyone of all ages has a superpower and Inside Out, an animated movie about a little girl struggling to manage the emotions in her brain (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust!) as she is confronted by change. Comedies help, too!
  6. Keep talking about the changing landscape. Make it “normal” to talk about our fears, whether it is today’s virus or tomorrow’s unknown obstacles. This practice creates a culture of “we’re in this together and we’ll get through it together.” This important point is one I spend a great deal of time on with teams, including family teams. I’ve seen for myself that it is a winning formula. As I said above, teams and people engulfed by fear will underperform.

Leaders will face many challenges today, tomorrow, next month, and five years from now. We have a great opportunity to make a difference in our own world and positively impact our clients, employees, and families. Let’s make the best use of this time to practice our leadership skills and help others do the same.

You’ve got this!

Maureen

Here’s a link to the overview of that Thurber story I mentioned in the opening paragraph.

2 thoughts on “Leading Through A Panic Epidemic

  1. Thank you, Vicki! I remember the days when we faced similar challenges at IBM. You were REALLY great at helping people feel understood, safe, and then worked to solve the problems.

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