Coronavirus and fear: Two things every leader should do right now

March 17, 2020


In just a few short days, coronavirus has turned the world upside down. To help the people around them, leaders need to do two things.

First, get people breathing again, which is another way of saying help them develop a positive, healthy perspective on the scary but temporary “new normal” we find ourselves in. When people are afraid, they can’t listen, think or make decisions very well.

When FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” he was talking about the Great Depression, but his message applies here, as well. Leaders need to separate legitimate coronavirus fears from false, needless ones, the type that FDR termed “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts.” Then they need to help others do likewise.

Second, help people understand that they can only control what they can control. As human beings, we sometimes feel that the more we worry, the better things will be when, of course, the opposite is true.

My way of offering those perspectives was to send everyone in my company a message from the heart, drawing on my background in Stoic philosophy (my original aim was to be a philosophy professor), which emphasizes living in the moment, working together, taking care of one another and not letting ourselves be controlled by fear.

My message went something like this. (I removed items specific to my company.) I hope this helps you shape your thinking around internal communications:

Some days we wake up and the world feels different. Big events that happen in the world outside of our control can trigger feelings of anxiety and doubt. This is a very normal reaction, but it doesn’t feel great.

At times like this, we, of course, think first of ensuring the safety and well-being of our colleagues, friends and families. That’s noble and laudable.

But don’t forget yourself. Keeping yourself healthy is important. Without you, who’s going to take care of others, right?

Even if you don’t consider yourself a “meditator,” I encourage you to give it a try. It’s not hard. Just do this:

  • Take a moment, sit down in a comfortable spot and take one… deep … breath.
  • Now, close your eyes for a few seconds. Make it the deepest breath you have taken all day.
  • And before you open your eyes, do these breaths two more times.

Better, right? More present? All the experts say this is how you get your attention out of your mind and feelings and into your body, into the present. Try practicing these breaths two times today.

Also, practice perspective. The reality is that the sun will rise this morning and will set this evening. Our family and friends will still be here. Our lives and work and the resources we need will still be here. Sure, some trips and gatherings will be canceled. Kids will be home from school for a while. Some people will describe going into public as feeling strange. But all those feelings that the world is different today than it was before are just feelings. Who knows, maybe we can take these coming weeks to do some projects around the house we have been avoiding or to take those longer runs you have been promising yourself. You get to control your own experience of reality even when other things are not up to us.

Most of us will not get sick from this novel coronavirus. And, God willing, if we do, we will recover quickly. After our own health and well-being, our job as mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, colleagues will be to take care of those around us. 

Maybe the biggest value we can project right now is to be positive. Maybe we can’t shake hands or hug right now, but we can greet each other warmly, we can genuinely ask about how people are doing, we can check in on our members and send them positive messages. Despite the current crisis, it’s an amazing time to be alive.

Here is our take-care-of-ourselves-and-others homework:

1)    Take deep breaths twice a day.

2)    Prioritize personal health and well-being—get out there and walk or workout.

3)    Check in on each other, our neighbors and the elderly.

 The world is still here, and we have big roles to play in it.



I hope this has been of some help to you as you consider how you will help employees, friends and family weather the coronavirus storm. The wisest path is to first identify and dismiss false fears, then confront and overcome the real ones.

We can do this. Together.

Onward and upward.