What verb tense is your mind spending most of its time in – present, past or future? How about the members of your team – what time frame are their minds working in? You might consider those questions to be a bit weird or out there, but if you stop and examine the nature of your language and the quality of your thinking, you may find they’re more relevant than you’d initially think.

If you want to examine it, start by paying attention to the language you and your team members are using. Is it reflective of minds being in the past, the present or the future? Here are some clues to listen for.

If you hear a lot of discussion about the way things were before COVID-19 disrupted everything then you or your team are having trouble letting go of the past. Tip off phrases include, “I wish that…,” “I miss…,” and “I’m sorry that…” Thinking back to the past can be a source of energy and motivation when we’re reflecting on peak experiences or how to apply lessons learned. There’s a big difference though between reflecting and ruminating. When we ruminate, we stew. The ancient root of the word actually means to “chew over.” The sense of loss or regret that comes from spending too much time and attention chewing over the past can mire you in the mental and emotional muck that keeps you from taking constructive action in the present.

The flip side of being stuck in the muck on the way things were is freaking out about the way things might be. This is what happens when folks start catastrophizing about things that haven’t happened yet and may not ever happen. The mind can spin out of control into what Richard Carlson and Joseph Bailey in their classic book, Slowing Down to the Speed of Life, called thought attacks. When you start hearing language (either in your own head or from the mouths of others) like, “I’m worried that…,” “I’m nervous about…,” and “I’m overwhelmed by…,” those are clues that you or your team members are over indexing on the future tense. Anxiety, fear and dread are the kinds of emotions that flow from that time frame of mind.

And, as I wrote about last week, your feelings flow from your thinking and the actions that lead to results (positive or negative) flow from the emotional state of feelings. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the connection between leadership and the time frames of mind. Clearly, the only verb tense in which anything can get done is the present tense, so, as a leader, that’s where you want your team to direct most of their thinking, time and attention. That’s not to say that you’re not working on preparing for and creating the future. It is to say that you’re making strong connections between what’s done today and what happens tomorrow. As Gandhi wrote, “In regard to any action, one must know the result that is expected to follow.”

Focusing your leadership on the present tense and how it creates the future gives you and your team a sense of agency and control. One way to do that is to regularly ask, coach and lead around the question, “What can we or should we be working on or doing today to put us in a better position one month from now, three months from now or six months from now?” Before you ask the question, you might push the mental reset button by asking everyone to clear their mental chatter by taking three deep breaths. But before you do either of those, check in with yourself. What time of frame of mind are you in? If you need to make your own adjustment, now is a great time to do it.

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We all know by now that
leaders must communicate in a crisis. It’s approaching the point of cliché
because it’s true. The benchmarks for effective communications from top leaders
are honesty, transparency, frequency, facts and empathy. Judging by the acclaim
and appreciation he’s been receiving the past couple of weeks, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has been providing a
great example of how an effective leader checks all of those communications

In times of crisis, it’s
almost a societal default to look to the people in charge to transmit what they
know when they know it while painting a picture of how we’ll get through this
together. Its why Napoleon Bonaparte observed 200-plus years ago that leaders
have a two-part job: the first is to define reality; the second is to offer

So, yes, top-down
communications that originates from both the head and the heart is vitally important
to successful crisis management. There has been so much emphasis on top-down
communications over the past month or so, though, that it can be easy to
overlook other aspects of crisis communications that are at least as
important.  The best crisis leaders
understand that they need to be not just top-down transmitters of information
but also facilitators of side-to-side communications and receivers of bottom-up
communications. They run a 360-degree communications approach that incorporates
these three elements: top-down, side-to-side and bottom-up.

We’ve already touched on
what great top-down communications looks like; here are some ideas on how to
bring side-to-side and bottom-up communications into your 360-degree crisis
communications plan:

Side-to-side: When crisis leaders
focus on facilitating in addition to transmitting and receiving, they help their
teammates create connections that solve short-term problems while building
long-term cohesion. Facilitation can look like something as urgent as bringing
the right people together to develop a unified plan to allocate, distribute and
share scarce resources during the crisis. Or, facilitation can look like the
not urgent but highly important task of making it easy for colleagues working
remotely in different locations and circumstances to share their stories and
needs in ways that build empathy, connection and collaboration.

Bottom-up: Recognizing that it can be all too easy to get cut off from what’s really happening on the ground, the best crisis leaders take time away from transmitting and facilitating to make sure they’re also receiving bottom-up information and perspective from the folks on the front-lines who are dealing with the day-to-day impact of the crisis. It’s a well-observed phenomenon in history that top leaders are all too often sheltered from what’s really going on by staffers who, for whatever reason, are afraid to share the whole truth. So, the best leaders cultivate relationships with people closer to the action who will tell them what’s going on. Often, the very best leaders will visit the battlefield, as Lincoln literally did on numerous occasions, to listen and see for themselves. What leaders learn from those bottom-up communications channels enables them to make better-informed decisions during a crisis.

Top-down, side-to-side and bottoms-up. When practiced together, they form a 360-degree approach to crisis communications. Which one could use a bit more of your time and attention right now?

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As I write this, most of us in the United States are marking
one month of stay at home and work from home orders to mitigate the public
health impacts of the coronavirus. Those of us who are working from home
recognize it’s a privilege to do so and have enormous gratitude and admiration
for the health care workers, grocery store clerks, delivery people, first
responders and so many others who are going to work so the rest of us can stay

That said, staying home and working from home can present
some unexpected challenges. The biggest one that I’m noticing in talking with
my clients and observing myself is that many of us are actually putting in more
hours working from home than we did pre-pandemic. That’s not at all what I
expected when we started this new phase a month ago. In the early days of WFH,
my expectation for my clients was since their commuting time was going to shrink from
“home to office” to “bedroom to den,” they would suddenly
have way more time available to them during the day than they did at the end of

Initially, I thought, “Great, everyone will have more
time to sleep and work out.” What’s happening instead for most people I
talk with is that they’re spending that found time on more Zoom meetings. Then
things get compounded by the fact that a day of Zoom after Zoom means you’re
sitting at your desk even more than usual. Before you know it, it’s dinner time
and you haven’t done anything in terms of physical, mental, relational or
spiritual routines that help you be at your best for yourself, your family,
team, colleagues, customers, etc. You’re sitting more than you’re used to
because all of your meetings are in front of a screen and there’s no conference
room down the hall that you have to get up and walk to. You’re not going out
for lunch or coffee since you’re doing your meet-ups virtually from home. As
one client pointed out to me last week, your brain is becoming rewired from the
lack of fresh visual input when you drive back and forth to work. The days run
together because they all feel exactly the same. As I wrote to a client in an
email this morning, “Happy Monday – second verse, same as the first.”

So, what can we all do about this? As it happens, this is
also the period that in normal times a lot of people would be taking Spring
Break trips with their families. One of my CEO clients reminded me of that when
we talked last week. He, his leadership team and everyone else in their
financial services company have been working overtime these past four weeks to
take care of their customers and each other. He told me that he asked his
leaders to pick a weekday or two in the next couple of weeks to go offline for
a mini, stay-at-home Spring Break to renew and refresh the health and
well-being of themselves and their families.

That’s good advice for all of us. Just because you’re working
from home doesn’t mean you don’t need a little Spring Break time away from the WFH
routine. And, when you’re working that routine, make sure to schedule little
breaks throughout the day that get you out of your seat and away from the

In following my own advice, I took an extended nature walk
today and found the guy in the accompanying photo along the way. It brings me a
small sense of peace to consider that this bird has no idea there’s a pandemic
going on. It’s just another day in the pond for him.

So, this would normally be the point in the post where I’d
give you a little list of things to do to take a break. I’m not going to do
that this time. You know what to do. Please do it. Take care of yourself and
stay healthy – physically, mentally, relationally and spiritually.

Please share what you’re doing to take care of yourself during the pandemic. We’ll all benefit from the collective wisdom.

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My Crisis Leadership Playbook

Along with testing our public health and economic systems in unprecedented ways, the COVID-19 pandemic will test leaders at all levels in all organizations as never before. When I talk about the ideas in my book, The Next Level, one of the first things I usually say is that the next level is any leadership situation which requires different results. Since different results require different actions, leaders need to make adjustments of picking up new behaviors and mindsets while letting go of others to create the results that are expected or hoped for. Well, here we are. The apple cart has been turned completely upside down and leaders everywhere are going to need to make some big changes to restore health and well-being for the people in their organizations, their communities, their nations and our planet.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how what I already know about
leadership applies and what else needs to be in the mix for all of us in
leadership roles now that the world has changed so dramatically. The ideas I’m
sharing in this post are the basics of a crisis leadership playbook that is something
of a work in progress. I’ll update my thoughts as I learn more but wanted to go
ahead and share what I have now in the hope that there is something in here
that may be helpful to you and the people you love and lead.

The first thing I’m sure of is that effective leadership in
this new era begins with effective self-management. When I was writing the 3rd
edition of The Next Level in 2018, I summarized a lot of what I’d
learned in the 6 years since writing the 2nd edition with three
leadership imperatives:

Manage YourselfLeverage Your TeamEngage Your Colleagues

You can think of these three as forming a pyramid with
managing yourself at the base. Nothing else works as well as it could or should
if leaders don’t manage themselves effectively.

So, what does it mean to do that well? Back in the old days
(February 2020 and before), I focused on four domains of routines – physical,
mental, relational and spiritual – that are the building blocks of effective
self-management. I practice what I preach with those routines but, like
everyone who is reading this, have had to learn over the past couple of weeks
how to adapt those routines to the new realities of social distancing and life
and business operating rhythms that are radically different than what they were
pre-pandemic. I’ve always talked about optimal routines and “good enough for
today” routines. For example, my optimal physical routine is a 75-minute hot
yoga class in a room with 60 other people and a great instructor. That’s not
happening now so, like a lot of you, I’m using online yoga and fitness classes.
Not my old optimal but good enough for today and it’s helping me be at my best.

What I haven’t spent as much time thinking about over the years that I am definitely thinking about now is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There’s about a 100 percent chance you’ve heard of it, but if you haven’t looked at it lately, Google it and give yourself a refresh. The base of Maslow’s hierarchy is Physiological needs like air, water, food, shelter, sleep and clothing. (If Maslow were alive today, I imagine he’d add toilet paper to that list.) The next level of his pyramid is Safety needs like personal security, employment, resources and health. The pandemic strikes right at the heart of this level of needs. The third level of the hierarchy is Love and Belonging with characteristics like friendship, intimacy, family and a sense of connection. Have you noticed how many FaceTime or Zoom calls you’ve been on the past couple of weeks to check in with family and friends? That’s because, even in the age of social distancing, you have a need for love and belonging. The top two levels of Maslow’s pyramid are Self-Esteem and Self-Actualization. My sense is a lot of high achieving leaders are not as immediately concerned about these two as they were a month ago. Other, more basic, needs have taken priority.

crisis leadership

And that brings me to a new way that I’m thinking about
leadership in these early days of the pandemic. As the accompanying picture
illustrates, it’s about the way great leadership radiates across concentric

The center and smallest circle, but a very
important one, is You. To be any good for anyone else, you have to take
care of yourself and manage yourself effectively. Your personal routines may need
to be modified but you still need ones that will help you be at your best.

The next circle is occupied by your Family
and Friends. You want to meet their physiological, safety and relational
needs because you love them and care for them. When you do that at whatever
level you can, you then free up mental and emotional bandwidth that you need to
serve and lead your Team.

Your Team is where your leverage is. When
you lead and serve them well, you can do great things together. The first task
is to do whatever you can to help them meet their own basic needs. The second
is to role model the approach you want them to take. Remember, as a leader, you
control the weather. However you show up is completely predictive of how your
team shows up.

From there, your work is about how you engage
with your Colleagues, your Partners and other Stakeholders
and, ultimately, the Customers and Citizens that rely on your

I’ll wrap up for now with some basic building blocks that,
along with self-care and caring for others, are essential for leading
effectively in a time of crisis:

Establish Clear Short-term Priorities: Long-term
visibility is impossible to come by right now, so focus yourself, your team,
colleagues and other stakeholders what you’re trying to solve for in the next
90 days. What do you collectively need to do in the next 30 days to create that
90-day picture? What can you and your team do this week to support the 30-day agenda?

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: The old cliché has never been more true than it is now – you can’t over communicate (virtually as much as possible of course). As you organize and execute on your communications strategy, consider using William Bridges’ Four P’s checklist:

Purpose – what are we trying to do, why
are we doing it and who are we doing it for?Picture – what will success look like in
the timeframe we can envision?Plan – what’s our plan for doing that?Part to Play – what are the roles and
responsibilities of everyone on the team? Where are the interconnects and who
has accountability for what?

Create Way More Connection and Touch Points Than Usual:
As the leader, be super intentional about keeping everyone informed,
encouraging and creating opportunities for support and celebrating the wins
along the way. There will be some to celebrate!

So, those are my current thoughts on running a crisis
leadership playbook? What resonates with you? What would you add? What’s
working for you? What else is on your mind? Please let me know. I’m here to
support you.

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