The Corona Diaries, Vol. 1: Uncertainty, basement cleaning and the art of leading people through a crisis

May 5, 2020

In my experience, people fear uncertainty more than they fear change. This greater fear is that something will be taken away from them against their will and that the loss will be permanent. On the other hand, some change can actually be exciting and positive. We call this growth. Leaders can nudge people in this direction and help them turn uncertainty into positive movement and then into growth every single day.

Here’s a little story along those lines: Most of my company’s 1,300 team members are now working at home. And even those few who are working in our essential physical functions are working almost alone in pretty quiet spaces. We are fortunate that we can do that. With everyone dispersed, though, communication can be challenging and we have to concern ourselves with more than day-to-day work. Now we have an almost complete overlap in our business and personal lives.

Our first step has been to communicate differently. We decided we needed to use distinct modes of communication for the different types of messages. We acknowledged that email and Slack are great tools for communicating new policies and procedures and even to share certain sorts of draft and completed projects. But these tools are not necessarily great at conveying emotional support.

We created a completely new approach that we now call the The Daily Driven on how the company and our people are weathering the coronavirus storm. The main messages are personal videos from me and other leaders about what we are doing to adapt to our new working and living reality. For my messages, I mostly leave the business updates to others and focus on the human element of the crisis and how we can thrive in the face of it. My goal is to provide perspective, stay positive, and keep everyone focused on what we can control, not what’s out of our control.

A recent video went something like this:

Good morning, team. I hope that you had a productive weekend. Maybe you did some of your deep breathing and got some exercise. Maybe you got out there to do one of the hobbies that you truly love. I know that we spent a lot of time cooking with the kids, did a lot of exercise and started some massive housecleaning projects. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had that junk drawer of a room in the basement that is just filled with holiday stuff and painting supplies and all of these different things, and it needed attention.

So, I finally took it on, and I immediately realized there’s a lot of stuff that we carry along with us in our homes and lives. There’s a good lesson there, I think, and that is it’s OK to shed some of the physical and mental things in your life that you just don’t need anymore. Even now. Now, in fact, is almost always the right time to do something. No ship ever left port by endlessly preparing to launch.

So don’t waste this extra time you have at home. Put it to good use. Right now. We may all be sheltering in place but life is precious and time is short. Let’s go into the basements of our lives. Let’s get things organized. Let’s work on something new because something truly beautiful can come out of this difficult time. Let’s discard old things and old ways we just don’t need anymore.

Hard times are, yes, hard, but they’re also an opportunity. Life is all about choices, and we can choose to use this time to do something really powerful. Ann Landers, the advice columnist, was once asked for the single most useful bit of advice she knew, and her answer was, “Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life, and when it comes, hold your head high, look it squarely in the eye and say, ‘I will be bigger than you. You cannot defeat me.’”

The response to adding these video messages to our new communication rhythm has been profound. For the regular business and policy stuff, people were happy to read the links and updates. For the more personal needs, the videos are being felt and valued.

If leaders want to use these times to guide people from uncertainty to growth, we must remember that we don’t just lead minds, we lead hearts. What people are looking for is someone to inform them, reassure them and show them where all of this is going and that we will all get through this.

They also want someone to model their own behavior after, meaning someone is deliberately calm, quietly confident and emanates a “we can handle this” attitude.

I encourage you to be that person for your colleagues, families or friends.

Onward and upward.


Photo by Tania Melnyczuk on Unsplash