"Never waste a crisis."
On the face of it, this sounds callous and unempathetic, especially in the face of extreme unemployment and personal disruption. An alternative version might be:
"Make sure the outcomes of a crisis include meaningful betterment for [individuals | organizations | society]."
But whichever phrasing you prefer, what does it really mean? And for people in leadership positions, what action does it require?
Let's start with what it really means. In crisis situations, people, for at least some time, put aside day-to-day behaviors and come together to respond to the crisis. UK and US citizens' actions during World War II are often held up as exemplars, from enlisting for the armed services to shoring up manufacturing and embracing rationing at home. Most recently, federal spending packages, community efforts, and businesses enacting temporary pay cuts, to say nothing of all the efforts by healthcare professionals, all serve as examples. Staying at home, maintaining physical distance from others, and wearing masks also count here.
Then there's the outcomes side of the phrase. It's not enough to weather the crisis and return to what was. We should also seek to come out the other side in a better situation than when we entered it. The protests occurring throughout the US and elsewhere speak directly to this by confronting structural inequalities, some of which are exacerbated by COVID-19. News and social media are full of the stories of people taking risks for a chance at meaningful betterment for their society, regardless of how directly those people may benefit.
In general, we pull through crises because of this impulse to help the organizations and communities of which we're a part. But that impulse is not sustainable on its own. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the limits of counting on individuals' self-sacrifice to see us through a prolonged crisis (and possibly making it even worse). In some cases, people show great capacity for helping society -- again, healthcare professionals are doing their work understanding the risks they take. We're also seeing frustration with restrictions like mask-wearing and restaurant availability result in people discarding those temporary norms in the name of "individual freedoms," which take us away from working together.
That's where the second question comes in. People in leadership positions are expected to guide their charges through a crisis at whatever scope or size they have responsibility. This may include:
- Identifying what changes are necessary to make it to the other side of the crisis (in hopefully an improved place)
- Communicating what the situation demands, why changing behaviors is crucial, and how we'll get through it together
- Reinforcing those with tangible changes, personally modeling behaviors so everyone understands the new norms
- Steering culture change by articulating what is (and isn't) acceptable and holding everyone (including themselves) accountable for change
The change in question depends on the situation. It may be as large-scale as combating a pandemic or as specific as breaking down silos in a business. As long as the change is being demanded, it needs to be considered and acted upon.
It's vital that leaders step up because they're the catalysts for the larger organization or community to follow suit. People want to be part of the organizations and communities they choose and look to leadership for inspiration and guidance so they know they're doing what's best for their organization. Through that leadership, we can pull together and make it through this, or any, crisis.