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Strategic Thinking


Coping With Crisis

Posted by Nicholas Mayhew on 09/04/20 08:15
Nicholas Mayhew


Get in touch: nick.mayhew@alembicstrategy.com

Whoever you are, the coronavirus crisis will be affecting you and your business.

This is a time of unprecedented change: everywhere, constant, and while we know there will be an end, we cannot yet see it.

Huge change is in all directions, and through it all is the threat of serious illness, possibly even death for us or those we love. How do you cope with all this?


Leaders must be part of the solution, not the problem

Rebecca Hilsenrath, CEO at the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (watch here), says it is vital that leaders stay part of the solution and don't become part of the problem. The key point here is to look after yourself if you have leadership responsibilities. In this article I explore why this is important.


Fight or flight overdrive

At times like these, the threats are pervasive. I am sure you are worried about the health of your family, friends, colleagues, yourself, even people in the street. I'm also sure you are doing your best to help where you can while keeping those closest to you safe. This virus ignores boundaries and that's a factor. 

And this is before you have to lead your business and team. For some clients, businesses will have simply come to standstill, some have had to pivot wildly to a new demand. Almost all have had to work through multiple new and uncertain regulations to try to keep jobs safe and avoid redundancies wherever possible. At this time many leadership teams are working around the clock to keep the business and people's livelihoods safe too.

Stress responseWhether or not we are prepared to admit it to ourselves, there is no such thing as an unemotional human, we all have feelings. The body unconsciously searches for balance, even during sleep: we are always on alert for any serious threat.  

At times like these, our stress response is on overload.  Often the reaction is to panic and over respond, or freeze and under respond.  Threat can also create a focus, but in a heightened state that focus can become tunnel vision - meaning we lose perspective. In doing so, we may lose the bigger picture, and critically, fail to see threats other than the one taking up our attention right now.

To avoid this happening to you, as Rebecca says in her interview on Strategy Café, your self-leadership needs to be your first point of focus, so that you stay part of the solution.

Air ambulance


Pause and take a breath

I remember listening to an air ambulance paramedic being interviewed about handling the arrival at an emergency scene. He would undoubtedly have sees some harrowing scenes! A cool head was vital and a key part of his role was helping relatives and friends of the injured with their anxiety, so that he could focus on the patients.

You would think he might dive in, using the precious time he has available to move quickly and save a life.


The first thing he does on arrival is pause, focus on his breath for 20 seconds, and force himself look at the everything, taking in the whole picture.  He then formed a plan and started to organise the response.


Crisis management checklist

So what is your checklist for crisis management? Here are some thoughts following on from my comments.

  1. Put yourself first
    Your job is to serve and you cannot be the leader that your people need if you are not coping or are unwell. This means your health, exercise and sleep routines are really important. Exercise and mindfulness are priorities during a crisis simply because they help you avoid tunnel vision, maintain the bigger picture view, and keep your energy levels up.  

    It does not take much time and it is easy to ignore it as other things seem so pressing, and you might feel guilty.  This is a mistake, put yourself first.
  2. Focus on the bigger picture
    While rapid problem solving is the key skill for crisis management, without a clear idea of how you want to end up, it can lead you to many mistakes.  Always start with the bigger picture and keep coming back to it to ensure you are not creating serious long term damage with short term solutions.

    How do you want to come out of the crisis?  What is essential and must be protected, think about values and relationships as well as tangible resources - including your own: how you want to feel about yourself.
  3. Don't work in isolation
    At this time, self-isolation is the watchword to save lives. However it is a real problem in crisis management. What you need is rapid feedback from experienced people around you, and teamwork to deliver any changes needed quickly and successfully. Pull people together and work through problems with your team. Delegate as much as you can and save your own attention.
  4. Create a short term plan
    Flexible and agile is the modus operandi when you have limited experience and there is low predictability. Work across your collective expertise in small teams (like a Cobra meeting) and take little steps if you can. Research and rapid feedback is vital at times like these.
  5. Watch out for these mistakes
    • Not looking after yourself
    • Indecisiveness when the moments come
    • Not having worked through your scenario planning
    • Poor prioritisation
    • Crucial conversations handled badly and 
    • Getting the tone of your communications wrong
  6. Get advice
    If you do need to downsize or redeploy, it's entirely possible to make mistakes, some of which are costly. There are always choices about how to deal with things, and getting expert advice at times like this is essential.

I hope you find some useful tips as a starting point in this article. We have a series of helpful short videos and a free webinar series to discuss these and other crisis leadership techniques and issues. Hope to see you at them.  Just check out our Get Involved page for details.

On a personal note, Covid-19 seems like the contrast medium used in a diagnostic test.   

It reveals the interconnectedness of things and calls out the falsehood of our fantasy of individualism. Even the response, social distance, is a reaction within the system. 

We are called back to an understanding of our true connection to the world we live in, and shared responsibility for our actions, far beyond what we can easily see.

Get in touch: nick.mayhew@alembicstrategy.com

Topics: Stress, Communication, Covid-19, Cope, Crisis, Difficult Conversations, Family Business, Handling Emotion

How are you coping?

How are your team coping?

We are all crisis managers now, as Covid-19 wreaks indiscriminate havoc on every business.  The stresses are significant.  We hope you are coping with it all well. 

This article has key tips you to cope better and be the leader your team need.

Register for our updates to keep reading our crisis management tips over the next few weeks.

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