I spend much of my time now advising corporate leaders on ways to manage their companies through the COVID-19 crisis. Often, these conversations involve listening, encouraging, and coaxing my clients to follow their own best instincts. Many know that this time of upheaval is unlike anything any of us will ever experience again. They realize that there is opportunity on the flip side of the enormous difficulties. But, many are feeling suspended over the chasm – knowing they need to leap towards something new but not quite ready to leave everything behind.
My advice to them, and to you, is to leap and leap quickly. You have the greatest opportunities now for reimagining your life, your leadership and your business. But you need to act with agility and a sense of urgency because the window of opportunity is closing.
The beeswax has melted: Opportunity in crisis
There is an image that repeatedly comes to my mind as I contemplate the opportunities in front of us right now: the image of beeswax. A piece of beeswax, under normal circumstances and temperatures, is hard, brittle and very difficult to mold and shape. However, when the beeswax is heated, it becomes soft and moldable and can be shaped into many different forms.
Corporations can feel like this too. Organizational structures become static, processes and policies experience bursts of change before sliding back to a steady state, and cultural norms become ingrained. In times of stability, companies can seem like cold beeswax – hard to reshape and change.
Right now, everything feels upended and in question. Do we really need offices anymore? Why can’t we have a work-from-home policy for all? How does my business respond to a dramatic drop in demand? In this crisis, everything is heating up, and long-standing assumptions of how a business should run and approaches to doing so are beginning to lose their shape and relevancy. While this can sound and seem a bit scary, it is also an enormous opportunity for change.
Consider the massive and accelerated digital transformation that we are witnessing. Over the past two months, there have been giant leaps forward in remote learning, telehealth, contactless payments and ecommerce marketplaces. Thousands of companies have transformed practically overnight into digital organizations. Structured, multi-year digital initiatives suddenly seem irrelevant, and “go digital” has become the pressing priority of the day, the only way forward.
I have witnessed this on an individual level as well with the leaders I know. In a crisis, a leader’s true qualities are revealed and developed. She or he begins leading from instinct rather than following traditional managerial principles. Over the past few months, I have seen leaders abandoning old playbooks and choosing to be more human and compassionate leaders.
The heat of a crisis creates a burning platform, propelling organizations and individuals to make the pivots and changes that seemed too hard or overwhelming during normal times. And, if we seize the opportunity to make these changes while the wax is pliable and moldable, we are in luck. As the crisis cools and life moves on, the new shape of your company, teams and your leadership will, like beeswax, become hard and permanent. In short, the changes you make now during this crisis will last long after it has passed.
Leap before it’s too late
The time to make these changes is now. Data from many of our clients shows that the cooling down phase has already begun. With the cooling down, we experience a drift back towards a static and inflexible mode of operating. Once again, patterns and dynamics get locked into place. People and teams feel less urgency to accept new ways of working.
To understand why this happens, we need to look inside. Our human brains are wired to spend as little energy as possible on thinking. In our brain’s autopilot mode, we can complete many tasks (like driving a car) efficiently, accurately and without much conscious thought. However, when in crisis, our minds naturally open up so that we can navigate and understand the uncertain and rapidly changing world with more clarity.
But maintaining an open mind takes a lot of energy, and our brains want to stop that as soon as the new reality starts to feel familiar. This is happening right now as we all adapt to working from home and using technology in new ways. We are beginning to accept this new reality.
That is why the window of opportunity is starting to close. If you have things you have long wanted to change in your business, your teams or in your leadership, now is the time to leap across the chasm.
The Inner Playbook in times of crisis
So, you are ready to leap. Now what? Your feet may still feel stuck. Once again, you need to look inside because your biggest roadblock is a limited mindset.
The famous Zen master Shunryu Suzuki once said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” By this he meant that if we view ourselves as the experts of our business who know how everything should be done, we are limiting ourselves to very few opportunities. When the world is in crisis, many things change, and many opportunities arise. But to see these opportunities, we must let go of our expert-attitude and look at the new reality with a beginner’s mind. We must wake up every day with fresh eyes and truly discern what is different than yesterday.
The late Jack Welch said, “Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be.” He applied the words of master Shunryu Suzuki to business and emphasized the necessity of letting go of our desire to have things be a certain way. Capitalizing on the opportunities of a crisis requires you to take an unemotional step away from how things used to be and how you wish them to be. It requires facing reality as it is.
Facing reality can be hard because our brains are wired to be emotionally attached to how things used to be. The past seems known and secure, while an unknown future can make us anxious. We are attached to our past successes and want to have them back. Because of this emotional attachment, we are at risk of walking in the same direction even if the world has taken a sharp turn the other way. And while we do so, the beeswax begins to harden, and we lose the great opportunity to reshape ourselves and our organizations into something great for a very different tomorrow.
That is why leaders need a whole new playbook for this time of crisis. And, this playbook starts inside, with the mind. When you learn how your mind works, and how to rewire it for mental agility, to recreate a beginner’s perspective, you are taking a great first step towards seeing the opportunities ahead and preparing yourself to leap forward into the unknown. Now is your chance to reimagine the future and the possibilities. It all starts in the mind, in your mind. So look inside, and then leap.