Episode #41: Leading Through Crisis

Boy with a superhero cape and glasses

What your people need right now, and by “people” I mean your teams, organizations, families and friends, is for you to show up as the highest and best version of yourself; someone who is grounded, non-reactive, transparent, consistent, and kind. In this episode I share tips for leading through crisis--through the lens of a few things to watch out for--so that can show up well for your people in the face of uncertainty and extraordinary stress. 

Intro

Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode. 

I have been promising to do this for a while, and I finally remembered as I was preparing this episode, I want to share a listener review! This one comes from Victory H. “I find myself looking forward to Booth’s podcast. Her authentic and real take on self care commonly challenges me to care for myself better. Thank you, Booth!” 

So I don’t know if ya’ll realize this, but it means so very much to me when people share that I am actually making a positive difference for them or for others. It is one thing to put your heart into creating a message, and it is another thing entirely to know that your words make a difference. So, thank you for taking the time to rate and share your experience Victory! I appreciate it so much.

Transcript

So, today I want to talk about leading and living through crisis, through the lens of some things to watch out for. What your people need and by “people” I mean your teams, organizations, families and friends. Right now, what your people need is for you to show up as the highest and best version of yourself; someone who is grounded, non-reactive, transparent, consistent, and kind. Because the world itself is already one big pressure cooker; now amplified by a global pandemic which frankly just brings us that much closer to the reality that everything is uncertain all the time and the fact that we, as humans, are vulnerable. 

Most of us spend a fair amount of time and energy trying to find certainty in SOMETHING, ANYTHING and trying to absolutely deny at all costs the fact that we are vulnerable human beings. And right now, the world around us feels very out of control, and we are staring down our own vulnerabilities on a daily basis. Which of course, makes us want to find something we can control. 

In truth, I think I have shared this before, but I’ve come to believe from my own experience that the only thing within your control is how you respond to and interact with other people. And these interactions, in some ways, are perhaps more important than they have ever been before. 

With that in mind, a fews on leading through crisis: 

#1 You can only live and lead in crisis mode for a finite period of time. 

Adrenaline can be AMAZING in the short term. Massive productivity, hyper awareness, focus and vigilance can feel like superpowers. Until they don’t. I want to re-read a passage from Ruby Wax’s How to be Human that explains this phenomenon in an accessible way (with a little humor thrown in for good measure):

"When we get a scary vibe, which you will recognize because your hair is standing on end, you’ve broken out in goose pimples, your heart is pounding, it means you are pumped to the max ready to scram, kick ass, or just stand there like a frozen statue. If you stay in that state, the first thing to go down will be your memory, then your immune, digestive and reproductive systems. At that point, what with the missing memories, you won’t even remember what your options are. This is all happening under your radar, so you won’t be aware that your system is deteriorating or why your brain cells are beginning to atrophy. Trust me on this, we all have myelin sheaths that cover each of your nerve cells or neurons to speed up the signals to each other. If those sheaths get damaged, the neurons connecting different regions of your brain get weaker and the result is you can no longer put your thoughts together, and your ability to be rational goes AWOL. In effect, you’ve been dumbed down. If we can’t think straight or be rational, we begin to feel threatened, even if there is nothing nearby that can harm us. We start to blame other people for making us feel paranoid, and so begins the 'them and us syndrome'. We stop thinking of them as fellow humans. Another result of neuronal atrophy is that our thinking becomes narrow and rigid and we begin to think that anyone different from us is the enemy. We all have specific fear triggers embedded in our memories which we react to emotionally without knowing why, especially when we’re stressed. We’re at the mercy of old associations."

When I first became a CEO, I was very aware of and intentional about the inputs I would require in order to show up as my highest and best self . . . and THAT was the person I wanted to bring to the workplace every day. Over time, however, as the personal stressors in my life amplified, I didn’t recalibrate the inputs. Instead of asking for more space, more support and more rest, I just kept pulling myself up by my bootstraps over and over and over again. I stayed in fight or flight because I didn’t know how to come down from it. Which worked. Until it didn’t. And when it stopped working, the compound effect of the exhaustion, depletion, and chronic illness I developed using that “persist at all costs” strategy almost took my life. 

I lived in fight or flight for decades. You may have been living in fight or flight before this crisis began. OR this crisis may have tipped the scales for you. In any case, we can only sustain fight or flight for a finite period of time. Maybe days, weeks, months or even years . . . but at some point, there will be a reckoning. 

The longer we live on crisis-fueled adrenaline, the more degraded our systems become. In Episode 39 of the podcast, I talked about the ways in which our fight or flight response can interfere with our executive functioning and shared some tips and tools that we can use to down-regulate our fight or flight response so that we can access our executive functioning. I encourage you to use these tips and tools on a daily basis and as many times a day as you need. BEFORE you meet with your teams. BEFORE you need to make any big decision(s). And any time you are starting to feel overwhelmed or exhausted. And use these WITH your teams. Your hyper-arousal will be felt by them, and they may be grappling with their own fight or flight response. I promise that you will have fewer messes to clean up if you can bring you and your team(s) down out of crisis mode into response, creativity, innovation and constructive problem-solving mode. 

#2 What to do when you are approaching the wall 

I hit the wall last week. Hard. I had started to anticipate being tired the week before. I said to one of my friends, “I am going to be exhausted when all of this is over.” I even took my first nap of quarantine on Monday. But then, my ability to stay constant in a crisis ran out of runway, and the crisis is still here. I woke up last Wednesday feeling completely run over. When I logged on for my 3x per week morning workout with my coach, I saw my face on the video before I connected to the Zoom call. I looked completely wrung out. 

After checking in, we decided that I would just take an easy walk that day, instead of doing the prescribed workout. Later that morning, or maybe it was Thursday (who can keep up?!?!) my son asked me to do something for him. And I ALMOST ripped him a new one. I have made it a practice to be patient with my children, probably sometimes too patient. So the desire to light into him was a HUGE red flag. Thankfully, I caught myself, and didn’t do or say anything that I would now regret. I also became aware that my screen fatigue was 1000%. 

So this is what I did next: 

  • I kept my Wednesday zoom calls because they were all life-giving connections for me. Otherwise, I would have cancelled. 

  • Thursday, I did cancel a call so I could take a nap in between commitments. 

  • Friday, I took a nap. 

  • I continued to back up my bedtime to my pre-quarantine schedule . . . in bed at 9, lights out by 9:30. (I had let this slip way too far and way too long given what I know about my need for sleep in order to stay well.)

  • I started paying more attention to my water intake.

  • I dialed back on my sugar intake.

  • I gave myself permission to stay away from my laptop screen ALL WEEKEND for the first time since mid-March.

  • Saturday, I didn’t set an alarm and I spent most of the day with a book and a journal under a blanket on the couch. 

  • Sunday, I didn’t set an alarm and I spent most of the day under a blanket on the couch. 

  • Monday, I gave myself permission to have a slow start and not rush into “productivity” out of fear or panic or guilt. And so on. 

I went back to the basics . . . sleep, water, food. 

Whenever you find yourself approaching the wall, or perhaps you’re already there, start to dial-in one self-care item or exercise at a time. And keep doing those things until you start to feel better.  

#3 What to do when you screw up

So what happens if you don’t see the wall coming and you make a mistake?

I was 9 months pregnant. I had been on bedrest for about 8 weeks. I had been a CEO for just over a year. In that year’s time, I had spent countless hours co-creating a certain culture and set of expectations for how I was going to interact with my team, and how I wanted them to interact with me and with each other. We were in the midst of a strategic, operational and cultural transformation at every level of the organization. And one of the key elements of my process was to engage the team in the creation of the path forward as opposed to “handing things down from the top.” One of the other critical expectations was that we would have direct, tough conversations with each other as opposed to being passive aggressive, running side agendas, etc.

I came back into the office about the time we were trying to firm up our first organizational chart reflecting our new vision, culture and strategic priorities. Once we had an idea what the broad job descriptions would be for my direct reports, the members of the ad hoc leadership team I had pulled together a year earlier would “apply” for the positions they felt most passionate about. My commitment to them at that moment was clearly defined--I would select one person for each position. 

As I started to try to match people with positions, I felt a sense of unease. Something didn’t feel right. At the same time, one of the members of the ad hoc group approached me directly with a different structure. And I, very, very pregnant and knowing I was on “borrowed” time, panicked. Instead of going back to the team and saying that I had some concerns about the structure and wanted to revisit, I bought in on the NEW structure that had been proposed to me essentially surreptitiously. AND THEN, oh this moment I am not proud of, I SENT THE TEAM AN EMAIL telling them that I had supplanted the structure we had all agreed to. 

Here is the good news and the bad news. My team took me at my word. And by that I mean, they raised hell. In a very respectful way. They called BS on the fact that I went against my own cultural expectations and called an audible; supplanting months of work and my own commitment to them without having any direct conversations with them. I remember sitting on my bed, heaving crying (and if you have listened to me up to this point you know that crying is something I have actually had to learn to do) with my big belly out in front of me feeling overwhelmed and angry and full of shame all at once. 

In that moment, I almost destroyed a year’s worth of culture and trust building. Yes, I panicked. I was sleep deprived. I had not been sleeping through the night ever since I’d been put on bedrest. I was going to give birth in a matter of days and I am sure my hormones were bonkers. Yes, I had valid and real concerns about the structure and the potential “fit” of various team members within that structure. And I almost destroyed what I had built so far by letting my panic and overwhelm and fear drive the bus. 

What I did after that was probably one of the most important moments of my leadership experience and career to date. I called the team together, and I apologized. I told them I was wrong. I told them I was sorry. And I doubled-down on the commitments I had made to run the organization and to engage with them in a certain way. And, within days, I gave birth to my son. 

There is a good chance that you are going to make a mistake during this unprecedented time. There is a good chance that you are going to snap, lose your cool, or make a poor decision. And the impact of that decision could reverberate for days, months or years to come. You will be less likely to make a potentially destructive decision if you are doing the work to take care of yourself, to stay grounded, and to recover from the stress, and to down-regulate your nervous system and so on. 

But I am here to tell you that most poor decisions do not have to be “terminal” and some of them can actually cement for your team in a good way who you are as a leader. There is incredible power in being brave enough to acknowledge your mistakes, to say you are sorry, and to recommit to the principles that guide you in front of your team. And when we own our own mistakes, we also give our people permission to own theirs. (As a side bar, how much energy do we as leaders spend navigating muck in the workplace or at home created in part by the fact that people are afraid to admit when they mess up!?! I would venture, A LOT; unless we are building a courageous culture, and role modeling with our own example, the power of owning up to our own mistakes.)

So to recap these tips on leading through crisis, stress, or just the constant change we find ourselves living in today: 

#1 You can only live and lead in crisis mode for a finite period of time. 

#2 When you feel yourself approaching the wall, intercede on your own behalf early and often.

#3 When you do make a mistake, take responsibility and apologize.

Outtro

Thank you for listening today. And, if you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. When you subscribe and rate, you make it easier for other people to find this content. If you write a review of the podcast, I will share it on air in a future episode.

I look forward to being back with you next time!