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Transformative leaders know how to do this one thing in the midst of crisis

The CEO of a crisis communications firm notes that crisis energy is—like uranium—a rare and powerful thing.

Transformative leaders know how to do this one thing in the midst of crisis
[Photo: Ricardo Rocha/Unsplash]
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Nothing is more disorienting and uncomfortable than a crisis. In addition to putting a leader’s strategic and technical skills to the test, the crisis also generates its own form of energy. In my work, both in crisis management as well as in hospice, I have experienced time and time again that crisis is a catalytic fusion of physical, emotional, spiritual, economic, and temporal movement which leaves enormous change in its wake.

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It is also multilayered. For a business leader, this can mean that the energy arises across an organization, within individual team members, among external constituents, or within the leader themselves. Crisis energy can manifest itself as adrenaline, pain, worry, guilt, or anger. It can even come in the form of shifting beliefs about the nature of life. It motivates existential questions: “Why me?” “Why this?” and “Why now?”

The first step in leading during crisis is understanding that crisis energy exists and becoming attuned to the ways it shows up. For example, in a long-running global crisis like we’re experiencing now, crisis energy is present in an intensely magnified way. The COVID-19 pandemic has been ongoing for months and impacts individual safety, companies’ ability to adapt to new market challenges and opportunities, as well as the global economy as a whole. It is crisis energy, layered on crisis energy, layered on crisis energy.

One way to think of that generated energy is like a hunk of uranium. Uranium is unstable and difficult to work with, but also holds tremendous potential to cause great harm or accomplish great good. Both personally and professionally there are only three possible ways of handling uranium (crisis energy) once it has been extracted:

  1. Bury it deep underground, surround it by vaults of concrete, and wait for it to eventually poison the groundwater
  2. Wait for some sort of trigger or detonating force to cause a massive explosion.
  3. Harness it to power a city.

Buried energy poisons everything

People in crisis bury their energy by avoiding it. I see this in hospice when family members stay perpetually busy with tasks as a way of avoiding the impending death of their loved one. With business leaders, buried crisis energy often comes in the form of, “I feel fine,” or “I have too much work to do,” or “It wasn’t that bad.” In nearly every instance across the spectrum of human experiences, we bury crisis energy when we are afraid of the pain, when we feel overwhelmed, or when we don’t want to acknowledge the worst-case scenario. Burying energy, like uranium, works for a time but the outcome is always the same. The energy slowly leeches into your life. Pretending everything is fine in a crisis leads to behavior like passivity, lethargy, misplaced anger, or depression. Eventually, it becomes toxic.

Similarly, burying the crisis won’t make it go away. Like uranium waste, sooner or later you will have to dig it up and deal with the mess. One grief expert I know always says, “Grieve now or grieve later. The pain waits for you.” You see this with many people who have lost someone they love—a deeply personal form of crisis. They say things like, “I didn’t really address the person’s death and then years later I found myself at the grocery store weeping.” Or, “I felt nothing for years, and then one day I woke up enraged.”

Business leaders in crisis can fight the urge to bury crisis energy by asking “Where is my organization in denial?” and “What changes are we avoiding out of fear?” Unearthing this behavior can help a company better face the inevitable change caused by the crisis and react to it with adaptive strategies versus facing the longer-term consequences of avoidance.

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Explosive energy exacerbates the crisis

People in crisis detonate their energy when they direct it toward self-destructive or destructive behaviors toward others. It is an unskilled way of releasing the pressure that builds up in stressful situations and is exacerbated by common physical components of crisis (sleeplessness, increased cortisol levels, decreased time for exercise) and common emotional and spiritual components (lack of connection with family and friends, feelings of fear, guilt, shame). In other words, just at the time we need self-regulation the most, crisis conspires against us by weakening our defenses. What emerges are explosive responses.

Self-destructive crisis energy shows up in various forms of excess: overeating, drinking too much, impulsiveness. This comes in the form of, “A few drinks after work helps me relax,” or “What the hell, I’ll just buy a new car because I deserve it.” Most of us fall back on these types of escape behaviors periodically, but when they tip into habits, they can exacerbate the existing strain. Similarly, destructive behaviors toward others show up as outbursts of blame, vilification, and righteousness: “It’s not my fault, it’s yours,” or “If so-and-so wasn’t so useless, this would all be solved.” This wrecks relationships, demotivates employees and partners, and rarely solves any underlying problems. Explosive crisis energy invariably makes a crisis even worse.

The takeaway for leaders is to immediately reign in team members who are behaving explosively. Strong feelings are natural in crisis, but they can also destroy the cohesion of a group at the time when you need them most unified. Some questions to ask are: “What is triggering outbursts on my team?” “How can I encourage people on my team to look for self-productive outlets (time in nature, listening to music, dinner with family, a long workout)?” Sometimes in the midst of a crisis, it is hard to believe that anything is more important than the work at hand but remembering the ill effects of explosive crisis energy can help leaders operate more effectively.

Harnessed energy is powerful and productive

We don’t choose the crisis, but we can choose how it transforms us. We harness crisis energy when we affirmatively take control of it. Without a doubt, it is challenging work. Because it requires us to face our pain, it is somewhat counter to the natural human response.

Like engineers inserting control rods into a reactor, we can govern the level of crisis energy we have by making positive choices about our behavior. Choosing how much negative information to consume, utilizing practices such as meditation, and simply talking about our feelings to loved ones are very powerful acts. We use crisis energy when we set broad priorities and daily goals, ensuring that we are focused and constructive. We can also utilize the energy to take action on things we’ve put off, to do activities that bring joy, and to bring order to chaos. Harnessing crisis energy, like becoming a nuclear engineer, takes study, patience, and practice.

Winston Churchill, among others, has said that one should never let a crisis go to waste. Crisis energy is—like uranium—a rare and powerful thing. It might not be something you would choose to seek out, but when it is forced upon you, use it to power a city.

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Meredith Parfet is the CEO of the Ravenyard Group, a crisis communications firm that fuses strategic and technical expertise with a focus on well-being.