A crisis is really a terrible thing to waste. – Paul Romer, Stanford economist
In college, while on the track team, I was inspired by the university’s volleyball coach. He had a mantra that guided all his practices. Every time the ball came on your side of the net he would say, “use it.”
“The ball is not your enemy,” he would continually remind his team. “Don’t be in a hurry to get rid of it. Use it as a way of developing your capacity.”
The ball of COVID-19 has been served to our side of the net and just as in volleyball where you have three touches before you return it, three leadership opportunities arise today. Our response to these opportunities enables us to develop new capacity so we won’t waste this time afforded to us.
1. Community. Being thrown into chaos has elicited a response of community. We see this all over the planet as people open their hearts to each other in the midst of separateness. This is a time for leaders to build community by reaching out and connecting (even if it is virtual and imperfect). It is a tremendously important time to stay together while being apart. Forgiveness and patience are called for as we stumble forward through this uncertain and unfamiliar terrain. Many employees are juggling trying to homeschool their children while managing the demands of their work. We are dealing with economic uncertainty and layoffs. If there was ever a time for compassion and grace, it is now.
Don’t compromise accountability, but don’t push for productivity; it will emerge naturally from your best people. Extend trust. Most importantly, find any way you can to express appreciation. Of course, our health care professionals and grocery store clerks need our gratitude. But all those who are working tirelessly to provide essential services in the background – electricity, gas, water, and internet, waste removal, to name a few – also need our appreciation right now. Let’s be a little more kind to ourselves and everyone around us. Remember that just because we are expected to have social distance, doesn’t mean we have to be socially disconnected. It’s a time to deepen our community.
2. Creativity. The second authentic response to crisis and accompanying chaos is creativity. While productivity will surely wain at this time, what is spreading as fast as the fear and the virus is human creativity. From John Krasinski’s Good News Stories to the myriad creative responses to isolation, to the writing of poetry and performance of music, celebrating and expressing the human experience helps keep us entertained and enlightened, and brings light into such potentially dark times.
In a recent coaching call, I was speaking with an owner of a feedlot who is in the middle of reforming her business model. Ordinarily she would be sitting with her team to get their input. And she can’t do it virtually. Only two of her entire team even have computers. So she gave each of them a piece of paper with an initial vision sketched out, along with a request to provide input. What she is getting back is remarkable creativity and innovation. Most importantly, the introverts on the team who ordinarily would be quiet in a group setting have risen to the occasion and are shining brightly for the first time.
In times of crisis, authentic leadership opportunities emerge. How can we help our teams and our families access their creative side amidst the challenge of uncertainty? It’s all there if we simply step aside and allow it to come forth.
3. Contemplation. There is a third equally important response required in this time of chaos and uncertainty: contemplation. There is a huge difference between surviving this crisis and actually allowing it to change us. To change we must allow ourselves to really s-l-o-w d-o-w-n, get our bearings and allow ourselves to be fully impacted by what is happening.
We live in a time of profound disruption – when something is ending and dying and something else is wanting to be born. How we have been living and working has not been working. It is becoming evident that it is not sustainable. What is dying is a civilization built on a mind-set of excess, of bigger is better, of confusing standard of living with quality of life, and of organized irresponsibility.
What is being born is less clear. It is a future that requires us to connect with a deeper level of our humanity and discover who we really are and how we want to be as a society. We are already seeing changes emerge – both within ourselves and in the environment.
People in the northern Indian state of Punjab are reacting with awe at the sight of the Himalayan mountain range, which is now visible from more than 100 miles away due to the reduction in air pollution as a result of the Coronavirus lockdown. Indians in the city of Jalandhar haven’t seen the peaks of the Himalayas for decades.
There might be a few extra endangered sea turtles in the ocean thanks to the Coronavirus after lockdowns in Brazil left nearly 100 new hatchlings with a clear path across the beach and into the waves. Wildlife officials were the only humans on the beach in the town of Paulista last week when 97 endangered hawksbill sea turtles hatched in front of their eyes.
In Italy, the lockdown is giving the outdoors — which is typically flooded with tourists — a chance to recharge. In Venice, the city’s canals are clearer because there is less boat traffic, allowing the sediment to stay at the bottom. And, with fewer water taxis and boats ferrying tourists and residents along the canals, the air has also become cleaner.
What are we allowing to see more clearly and cleanly in our own lives? All social change – from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. – began with a connection to a deeper essence of what our life and our work is about. Nelson Mandela’s capacity to influence came, in large part, from the contemplation amid years of being unjustly imprisoned and emerging with the power of forgiveness. Such movements share an understanding that creating sustained change in the world requires us to connect with an inner authentic self.
If we stop, reflect, and make room for contemplation in order to connect with a deeper side of our nature, the world will change. While it is important to connect with each other and connect with our creative side, it is also vitally important to connect with our inner, most authentic self, to reset the inner compass, and be guided by a life that may well have been buried in the busyness and tyranny of the urgent.
Like the ball that has come to our side of the net, this COVID crisis is not our enemy. Let’s use it. While distraction is, at times, part of the journey, let’s be careful not to distract ourselves to the point that we waste this huge opportunity before us. Authenticity asks us to embrace what is in front of us so it will change what lies ahead of us. This crisis truly is a terrible thing to waste.