working from home to flatten the curve
Wouldn’t it be nice if we all woke up this morning and the Coronavirus pandemic was a big April Fool’s joke? Unfortunately, it’s not and won’t go away soon. But it will go away.

In 1848 William Blackwood wrote in Blackwood Edinburgh Magazine,

“When an Eastern sage was desired by his sultan to inscribe on a ring the sentiment which, amidst the perpetual change of human affairs, was most descriptive of their real tendency, he engraved on it the words: — “And this, too, shall pass away.” It is impossible to imagine a thought more truly and universally applicable to human affairs than that expressed in these memorable words…”

We seem to need constant reminders of this timeless truth. As the long arc of history repeatedly shows, despair and helplessness make it harder — if not impossible — to overcome catastrophic events like this pandemic.

We need help to avoid what psychologist Steven Stosy has called, “headline stress disorder.” This often stems from the Availability Heuristic; our tendency to estimate risk and probability by the most recent anecdotes, examples, and attention-grabbing news (especially when it’s sensational and negative).

We are in a very serious emergency, and we all need to closely follow the advice of our healthcare experts to reduce the spread of this new virus. And we need to find ways to guard against fear damaging our mental and physical health. That feeds a vicious circle of pessimism and helplessness that reduces our action and makes the problem worse.

Today we publish my March blogs in the April issue of The Leader Letter. This issue reflects the balanced leadership approach we need in these tough times, providing an open environment for straight talk and planning for the worst infused with hope, optimism, and positive possibilities. As we’re seeing many politicians do, leaders need to control their egos, let the data speak, and face reality. At the same time, we can’t lose hope and let fear overwhelm us. As President Roosevelt said during his 1933 inauguration in the midst of The Great Depression, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge published a thought provoking series of reflections from their professors and researchers on How the Coronavirus Is Already Rewriting the Future of Business. This is a good time to reflect on what we can take forward from this big disruption. Here are a few leadership lessons that stand out:

  • “…reminds us how our wellbeing is interconnected, and the flurry of heartwarming responses people have exhibited in the face of this crisis reveals our tremendous willingness and ability to help one another.”
  • “…hiding bad news is never a good idea. That will mean recommitting ourselves to mastering the leadership skills to tell the truth and to engage people in the hard work of creating solutions together.”
  • “…provides senior management a huge opportunity to develop a trust-based culture rapidly…”
  • “…working remotely is very effective if you can also restructure the organizational processes for how communication happens, how socialization happens, and how coordination happens.”
  • “Companies with the strongest stakeholder and partner orientations are best able to survive and transcend crises, because they can plan together, gain local knowledge from each other, and draw on good will to get back to business quickly when the crisis abates.”
  • “Renewing and reinforcing good workplace practices can make a big difference to productivity as well as well-being. For example: abundant communication, cross-training, flexible work schedules, goal clarity, empowerment of people, and broad purpose.”
  • “We will realize we need far fewer face-to-face meetings than we thought.”
  • “By auditing your work responsibilities and project commitments, along with all the meetings, emails, and other tools you use to collaborate, you can become more focused and intentional about how you spend your time…”

Centuries of evolution have hard-wired us to notice what’s wrong much more so than what’s right. We all MUST follow the advice of our healthcare leaders and take this pandemic very seriously. But giving in to despair and helplessness is self-defeating and will only prolong the agony. Hope, optimism, and positive action is what’s always led humanity through wars, depressions, countless disasters. We multiply our misery if we allow the pessimism plague to infect us as well.