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In light of recent global events, this new series will be dedicated to science-based leadership strategies for leading through the impacts of the coronavirus.

This series will give you tools to improve your leadership mindset, organizational communication, self-care to keep you fueled, tactics for remote work, and leading your family.

It should be clear to most people by now that our world is not the same as it was a week ago. The ground has shifted under our feet.

For the last several weeks and months, the world has been watching how leaders of companies—and countries—have navigated the public health crisis. Some have been ahead of the curve, some have been behind.

The Big Idea—We have a huge opportunity to learn from what we have seen so far, and demonstrate strong leadership today. Don’t take the risk of being behind the curve.

Even if it doesn’t end up being as bad as it could be, you won’t be sorry you took proactive steps to guide your team, and the people you most care about, through this situation.

Panic shuts down your brain

For the last 13 years, my friends and I have enjoyed one of our favorite pastimes of backcountry snowboarding.

We hike up the peaks around Lake Tahoe, then we ride down.

No lift lines, no expensive tickets—we earn our turns. Yes, you only get one run, but it’s usually unforgettable.

Good friends, hard exercise, solitude, silence, nature, and great conversation—an unbeatable combination.

On April 14th, 2018 I was slogging up Stevens Peak with my good friend Eric. It was late in the season, so the first hour of our hike was over dirt, not snow.

The weather was beautiful, and we had perfect spring skiing conditions.

We arrived at the top exhausted and very much ready to enjoy our descent.

We took in the expansive views, strapped on our helmets, and were grinning ear to ear.

I went first—and let out a yelp of joy as I carved a few turns.

I stopped and turned around, expecting to see Eric behind me, but he wasn’t there.

Trying not to worry, I scanned the mountain.

A few moments later, a hand shot up from the snow and I heard a groan—“I need help.”

You must understand, in 20 years of our friendship, Eric has never once said these words. He is not the kind of person to ask for help unless he really needs it.

I dropped my avalanche pack and did my best to move quickly uphill through the slippery terrain.

We later discovered that his leg had been broken in several places, and his ACL was completely torn.

Thankfully, there had been a couple other skiers on the mountain that day (often we see no one), and with a combination of their help, we spent the next 4 hours scooting and sliding back down several thousand feet we had just climbed.

Months later, Eric shared with me some feedback that I have come to really appreciate—my initial response wasn’t helpful. He said I looked panicked.

What he needed most in that moment was calm reassurance that we were going to get him off that mountain.

Because of that conversation, I read an incredible book, Deep Survival.

In the book, author Lawrence Gonzales does an exhaustive look into why some people make it out of the wilderness—or through life’s greatest challenges—and why some don’t.

His conclusion is essentially this—panic shuts down the brain.

Those with the ability to remain calm think of better solutions—and are thus more likely to survive the greatest trials of life. Neuroscience confirms that fear shuts down our creative thinking centers.

Be a great steward of your mood as a leader, because your mood is contagious

John Maxwell has written more than 100 books on leadership and is widely considered the modern voice on leadership. He says this—The first rule of leadership is that people do what people see.

As a leader, it’s not just your own mood and mindset that you must consider. Your approach will have a big impact on your team, and your family.

Science has shown that moods are contagious, so you have a responsibility to your team to remain calm and stay strong.

Your mood might even be more contagious than the coronavirus.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman says that the leader’s mood has the most influence in shaping the mood and behavior of the group. It has a “trickle down” effect on the entire team.

This happens because of a special mechanism we all have called mirror neurons.

Because of mirror neurons, when you smile at someone you actually activate neurons in the other person’s brain that makes them more likely to smile back at you. People do what people see.

We have seen a wide range of this effect playing out over the last several months across the globe.

Some leaders have taken a proactive approach to the potential threats of coronavirus while others have minimized it.

This has resulted in some people buying a years’ worth of toilet paper—while others are crowding beaches and bars—blatantly disregarding the advice of leaders and health officials across the world.

Leadership in any form is a great privilege. And as a leader, it is your responsibility to your team, and your family, not to under or over-react.

Don’t panic, but don’t stick your head in the sand either.

Be calm, be proactive, and remember to communicate more during times of uncertainty.

Turn information into action

Ask yourself one question every day this week—Who do I want to be as a leader?

  1. Stay calm, demonstrate courage. Winston Churchill once said, “Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning.” Like a child that falls off their bike, and then looks to their parent to see how worried they should be—your team and your family are looking to you to see how they should react. They need hope and encouragement. Your strength can inspire them.
  2. Look for the opportunities to serve people in the crisis. Ultimately all leadership is about service. Our pastor reminded us this weekend that this crisis brings almost infinite opportunities to serve others. Leaders look for opportunities when crisis strikes. Helping others is also a great way to stop worrying because it takes the focus off yourself. Look for creative ways to serve your team, support your boss who is probably exhausted, ask a neighbor if they need toilet paper, find a senior who needs groceries, or call a friend who is coping with suddenly having kids out of school. I’ve already talked to several people who may not have jobs after this week. People can use your help right now.
  3. Pace yourself, keep your tank full. I don’t know about you, but this last week has been a whirlwind. Our entire operational model changed almost overnight. Many employees and leaders have been pulling long weeks. This situation could last a while, so make sure you get into a good rhythm of refueling right now. I listened to a great coronavirus podcast with Deepak Chopra today and he encouraged everyone to really prioritize things like sleep, exercise, prayer, and meditation. Build a routine and stick to it. You’re going to need it, and people will follow your lead.
  4. Recognize that people are having a wide range of emotional responses to this situation, and extend a lot of grace. I’ve seen a huge range of psychological responses this week ranging from denial, to anger, or panic and depression. The energy is tense. Friends and family members are arguing through text and social media. Now, more than ever, we need an extra portion of grace, tolerance, and patience—as people try to cope with how quickly things have changed.

Suggested Resources

  1. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
  2. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell
  3. Deep Survival by Lawrence Gonzales
  4. I highly recommend Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Coronavirus Fact vs. Fiction daily podcast. He is CNN’s chief medical correspondent. He interviews people who have been covering the story in China for the past 3 months, ER doctors in New York, and the head of the CDC who has managed several different pandemics over the last 30 years. It provides a great range of perspectives.



Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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