think, let go, serve – and face your fears

Today is March 15, 2020. By now, the corona pandemic[1] has far-reaching consequences for public and private life around the globe. As of today, the WHO reports over 150,000 confirmed cases and almost 6,000 deaths[2]. Countries and companies are issuing travel bans; theaters, music halls, cinemas, gyms, restaurants, and shops as well as schools and daycare facilities are closing down.

The crisis is creating an enormous workload for many: Healthcare professionals are working 24/7, caring for those infected (as well as for other patients) and engaging in research to find a cure or a vaccine. Politicans are more than busy discussing, developing, and implementing strategies to prevent the disease from spreading to fast. All those employed in critical sectors are struggling to keep infrastructures up and running. Families are grappling with supporting the weak, looking after the young, and keeping up work under adverse – often: remote – working conditions.

In the midst of all this, business leaders are scrambling to come to grips with what the crisis means for their companies – trying to keep up with daily or hourly changes in boundary conditions. In principle, crisis management is a bread-and-butter skill of seasoned managers. However, to many, this crisis feels different – and it indeed is different.

Face Fear

Only a week ago, most Europeans saw the first measures to #flattenthecurve[3] as nothing but an annoying disruption to their personal and professional lives. Some could not go on planned holidays to Italy; some could not see a show they had been looking forward to for months. Some had to reschedule meetings; some had to grapple with supply chain issues resulting from production bottlenecks in China.

Within days, mild annoyances have turned into substantial worries, and for many, substantial worries are now turning into existential fears: What if our customers no longer buy? What if those who already bought don’t pay their bills? What if production stands still? What if logistics break down? What if our company goes bankrupt? What if I lose my job? What if can no longer provide food for my family? What if I fall sick and cannot look after my kids? What if my parents catch the disease and – given their age and overall health – have to go to hospital? What if they die? What if I die? What if we all die[4]? These are fears at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – fears which, in general, our saturated societies have gotten used to burying under dreams of (self-) esteem and self-actualization[5].

So: If you’re a leader, your first job these days is to face fear. All those you work with carry their own particular set of fears, born from their own particular set of personal circumstances: Some will worry most about elderly relatives; some will worry most about money; some will worry most about their partners’ small businesses; some will worry most about how to keep their kids occupied when there is no school; some will worry most about getting infected themselves; some will worry most about others behaving irresponsibly. You will not be able to take away these fears, so don’t even try. This time: “Don’t worry”, won’t work – but would be reckless and rude, because it’s not up to you to decide what others worry about. Rather, you have to acknowledge the fact that people are suddenly deeply fearful, respect the fact that all fearful people are different, and – at the very least – make dead certain you don’t add more fears on top of those already crawling people’s hearts and minds.

If you’re a courageous leader, this might be the time to ask yourself what you own biggest fears are. The better you know, the better you’ll be able to help others in getting to know their fears and face them in turn.

Serve Society

All countries, all communities, all industries, all companies, and all individuals go through times of crisis. We are quite used to managing the effects of earthquakes and tsunamis, wars and terrorist attacks, dotcom bubbles and housing crashes, liquidations and take-overs, firings, accidents, and personal catastrophes of all kinds. So far, however, even the most global crises have had their limits, either in terms of geography or in terms of industries affected.

This time, there are no limits[6]. The corona pandemic will soon affect all countries and all companies – and thereby all people worldwide, directly or indirectly. As a consequence, companies and countries can no longer hope to escape the crisis by self-optimizing aginst their respective ecosystems. When the ecosystem crumbles, all survival strategies fall short. For companies, this is a radical disruption to the basic idea of competiton which by definition assumes that there is a way to be a winner. This time, however, there will be no individual winner – there will just be different ways to collectively not lose too much.

If you’re a leader, your second job therefore is to trash all self-orientation and stop putting first your country, your industry, your company – let alone yourself as a person. In contrast, especially as a company leader, you need to rethink your business as a part of society: Which of your activities contribute to covering basic needs of society? Which don’t? How can you bolster the former? How can you minimize the latter while the crisis lasts? On the one hand, this is about products and services – and about accepting that time and energy now have to go to those offerings which serve society, regardless of the revenues and profits they bring. On the other hand, however, this is about costs, too: The bigger your company, the bigger the contribution you’re making to society by paying salaries to your employees. This is the time to stop seeing salaries as costs – instead, see  them as a way to support society in times of global crisis.

If you’re a courageous leader, this might be the time to consider cutting your own and your top managers’ salaries in order to enable your company to support more employees over a longer time[7]. The more you support others, the more they, in turn, will be able to support those who need it most and thereby serve society better.

Create Choices

These days, companies – like countries – struggle to keep pace with the dynamics of the changing boundary conditions around the spread of the corona virus. This morning’s decisions are easily obsolete by midday, and this noon’s ideas seem useless when night falls. What felt realistic and rational yesterday feels utterly irresponsible today; what feels feasible and logical today will feel impossible and crazy tomorrow.

Combine this uncertainty with the omnipresence of basic fears and with the pervasiveness of the pandemic, and it is practically impossible for business leaders – as for politicians – to make “right” decisions. If you’re too strict too early, everybody will blame you for unnecessary harshness and hysteria. If you’re too lax too late, everybody will blame you for carelessness. Plus, inflicting any measures on your employees will increase the pressure they feel – and thereby add to their fears. While politicians might have no other choice than to impose restrictions on their citizens, business leaders do have choices as to what to demand from their employees in times of crisis.

If you’re a leader, you third job is therefore to create choices which allow your employees to navigate the fine lines between too many restrictions and too little restrictions themselves. Nobody but the individual employee can decide whether it makes more sense for them to stay at home with the kids – or whether they have a  partner who can work from home, while they continue to come to the office (with all due precautions). Nobody but the individual employee can decide how much work they can actually realistically deliver while working from home, sitting around the kitchen table with three kids who are not allowed to go to school. And beyond the individual, for many business units, the best place to decide which tasks to push through and which to postpone is the smallest team unit. Only with in the team will people have a fair overview of who can really work and how much, of what really needs to be done – and of how best to assign resources to the tasks at hand[8].

If you’re a couragous leader, this might be the time to choose to let go, delegate, trust your teams, and let them come up with solutions that work for all involved. The more you create choices for those you work with, the more they, in turn, will be able to juggle their respective professional, public, and private loads.

Look to the Longterm

At some point, one way or another, this crisis will end. This might take a couple of weeks, months, or even a year or two. But eventually there will be some kind of normality again – even if it turns out to be another “new normal”, possibly fundamentally different from the much less disruptive “new normals” we saw over the past decades[9].

When normality returns, fears will subside, markets will pick up, and planning will once again be something worth considering. This will be the moment when those who are well prepared will – once again – be able to outcompete others. So there is business value in looking ahead.

If you’re a leader, your fourth and final job is to look to the longterm: What will the crisis have done to your company? What will it have done to your industry? What will it have done to the countries you operate in? Once you analyse and understand how this all might have played out, you can roll back to what you need to be ready for when normality kicks in again[10]. There will be new ideas for winning and interacting with customers, for products and services, as well as for improving processes and structures. There will also be tons of learnings about how to be truly agile when facing truly volatile, uncertain, complexe, and ambiguous challenges. And there will be new assessments of liabilities, risks, and existential threats. The earlier you start to think about what insights to build on for a more resilient future, the better.

If you’re a couragous leader, contrary to first intuition, this might be the time to take time off from the seemingly urgent in order to think more – and act less[11]. The more you think now, the more you’ll be able to help other to act successfully when the pandemic subsides.

So: Think, let go, serve – and face your fears.

Good luck!


[1] On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the Corona Virus Outbreak a pandemic. All – constantly updated – information from the WHO can be found on this page [retrieved Mar 15, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] The WHO has a dynamic map on this page; of course, if you click the link tomorrow, numbers will look different [retrieved Mar 15, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT

[3] “#Flattenthecurve is the popular hashtag which quickly emerged as the main reminder for people to make their individual contribution to not spreading the disease further, in order to slow down the increase in infections to a point where the health systems can cope with severe cases. BACK TO TEXT

[4] Which, of course, we eventually will – regardless of what happens with this pandemic. However, our societies have become extremely skillful at blissfully ignoring the fact that all that is born is bound to die. By and large, we like to pretend that this is no time to die [retrieved Mar 15, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT

[5] “Self-Actualization” and “Esteem” are at the top of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, while at the bottom are “physiological needs” and “safety needs”. BACK TO TEXT

[6] See, for example, this article from the current issue of “The Economist” [retrieved Mar 15, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT

[7] On a country level, an equivalent to this idea might be the (tempoprary) introduction of an unconditional basic income for all citizens, currently for example pursued by this petition in Germany [retrieved Mar 15, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT

[8] Accidentally, such an attitude is very compatible with the approaches preached by many who promote “New Work”. It will be interesting to see whether, indeed, companies who established new work routines over the past years now follow through (and if so, with what results), or if they, too, fall back into command-and-control types of leading their business. BACK TO TEXT

[9] Just do a web search on “new normal” to find a broad variety of situations this term has been applied to since its inception during the 2007/8 financial crisis. BACK TO TEXT

[10] My former employer, McKinsey & Company is trying work on such perspectives already – have a look here, if you’re interested [retrieved Mar 15, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT

[11] I’m serious about this piece of advice. These days, it is more than important to really ask yourself whether what you’re about to do really needs to be done now – and in the way you were about to do it. This starts with how to behave when meeting other people – and it goes all the way to how to make a difference in this day and age.BACK TO TEXT

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