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View of earth from inside a spacecraft

Between crisis and re-entry: living now

Matt Driver
May 5, 2020

If you came to one of our recent Learning Labs, you may have heard about leadership lessons from the Apollo 13 space mission, or the rescue of the Chilean miners in 2010. And there’s a lot to learn from those events. They are good examples of crisis leadership. Crisis leadership is important – in a crisis.

At the other end of the scale, you may have been brought up on a diet of ‘strategic leadership’ or ‘strategic planning’ – long term thinking that can also be essential - where there is some stability ahead.

Right now, we are hearing the word ‘crisis’ used constantly to describe what is happening during the pandemic. And at the same time there are new voices, in the UK government for example, inviting individuals and businesses to look ahead and consider the ‘new normal’.

Words like ‘crisis’ and ‘new normal’ are becoming clichés bandied around with the assumption we all know what we mean.

But do we?

A crisis is generally short term or limited in scope:  but our lockdown has been going nearly two months and is world-wide. The Apollo 13 ‘crisis’ lasted 3 days. Covid 19 will last a minimum of 6 months. For 3 days you can go without sleep or food, you can put everything else aside: family, mental health, your feelings, your colleagues’ feelings, your future career. But for 6 months you can’t.  

And it’s hard to know when re-entry will be: when any kind of normality will resume. And will ‘normal’ be what was, or what is, or a hybrid of the two? Lots of organisations are trying to look forward – and rightly so. But we cannot live vicariously in a better future. We still have to pay attention to the present.

So neither way of thinking helps us navigate the present time. Neither really addresses the here and now leadership and relationship challenges faced across every sector and indeed in every household.

So we are caught between crisis and re-entry – but without Mission Control to guide us back.

One symptom of this is that people, even those not on the front line, are saying they are working harder than ever. Often without realising it we are putting ourselves and others under strain. We are trying to live ‘crisis’ for 6 months with no clarity about the future.

It’s not surprising that about 20% of the UK population are concerned about their mental health and 42% of 18-24 year olds say they are not coping with lockdown (1). In most organisations, across many sectors, people are talking about a kind of rumbling, low-level anxiety: even if you haven’t had the virus, you’ll know people who have and maybe people who have died. This creates pressure. Add this to the normal pressures of change and the unknown and you can see that most people are under pressure. And probably more than they are aware.

Davis Kessler, who helped define the six stages of loss, and a world authority on grief, talks of a ‘collective grief in the air’ and says that much of what people are experiencing now is in fact ‘anticipatory’ grief: feelings about an uncertain future (2).

So now is different. And it happened fast. Normal change management theories did not apply. Normal leadership theories do not apply. So what does?

Like many of our MF friends, since most of my work was cancelled in late March, I have never been busier. Probably like you, I’ve spent hours on my laptop screen. And with colleagues and clients, I’ve been reflecting on what kinds of approaches are needed right now.  

Because the people we lead or work with are likely to be more anxious and less resourceful than usual, and because we are too are affected, our approach needs to be even more skilful than before. We have seen that what is needed in these circumstances is a flexible, skilled interpersonal approach which pays attention to the person and the tasks in hand. That’s what we call a coaching approach.

Coaching is not one single approach though. In all our conversations, how we use it can vary. So, while attending to my colleague’s anxiety or my patient’s upset I do not lose sight of the fact that we both have a job to do or that I need to administer a treatment. An interesting and very common finding is that using a coaching approach can help reduce anxiety and head off problems for the recipient – leaving them more able to handle their work effectively. And an equally common experience is that the person coaching also experiences a reduction in their own stress levels. It seems that coaching is the ultimate win-win!

So how can you get this?  How can you walk this fine line?  How can you balance these coexisting priorities?

MF would like to help with our range of workshops aimed at helping you work effectively now.

First up...

Our next Learning Lab on May 14th (15:00 to 16:30)

Between Crisis and Re-entry:  How a coaching approach can help (and how to do it!)

Click here to register

We’ll then be supporting you with further Learning Labs over the coming months...


(1) UK Office of National Statistics, April 2020
(2) Harvard Business Review, March 23rd 2020, Scott Berinaro

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