People stockpiling food and other daily necessities.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
The new Coronavirus COVID-19 is keeping large parts of the world hostage. It leads to lockdowns and government measures that are unprecedented in peace time. And it leads to panic; to uncontrolled, irrational and asocial behavior that makes things worse rather than better. A good example is the hoarding behavior we witness in many countries. Despite supplies being more than sufficient, people stash up on groceries leading to short term empty shells in our supermarkets. And not for just food, soap and medicine, but also for refrigerators, freezers and—of all products—especially toilet paper (see #toiletpaperapocalypse and #toiletpaperpanic on Twitter).
The virus is certainly an enemy to be taken utmost seriously and for which it is very natural that it causes a lot of anxiety, uncertainty and even outright fear. But panic doesn’t bring us anywhere. Especially because the situation is so serious, Corona requires us not to panic and to keep a cool head. Not to pretend that things are not as bad as they seem, but to respond effectively and deal with the situation. While this is essential for everyone, it is particularly important for anyone taking a leadership role—in politics, companies, communities or any other place in society.
But how to do this? How to keep your cool when many people around your are panicking? Drawing from cognitive psychology, martial arts, Saint Benedict, personal experience, and a wide range of other sources, the research for my book “No More Bananas” revealed that there are nine steps you can follow to get rid of your stress and reclaim your calm and confident self. As summarized in an earlier article, these steps are mostly targeted at creating long term structural changes in your mindset and behavior. However, they can also be applied to keep your cool in a crisis like the current Corona crisis. Along the lines of these steps, this is what you can do:
Step 1: Calm Down: The first step in a crisis like this is to calm down your mind. As social animals, we respond immediately if we see others hoard or show any kind of panicking behavior. The result is that we can’t think rationally anymore and, based on our primary instincts, follow the herd. To stop this, before you can make any further progress, you need to calm down. The way to do this is to shut off the noise and notifications and drastically reduce your information intake. So, do stay informed about Corona developments e.g. twice a day, but don’t get absorbed in all the news about it. Instead, go to a quiet place and do nothing a couple of times a day.
Step 2: Let Go: Your next step is to stop trying to control the many things that are beyond your control and stop worrying about things that you cannot influence. Of course this is easier said than done. It might help to realize that whatever keeps you busy are your thoughts about the events, not the actual events. And even though you cannot control the events, you can control your thoughts. So, let go and accept that things are different and uncertain for a while. This will help you free enough brain space to start focusing on that what you can influence.
Step 3: Take Responsibility: Once you have calmed down a bit and let go of the things you can’t control anyway, the next step is that you take responsibility for what you can do. This includes taking responsibility for everything you can do to not get or spread the virus such as washing hands, keeping a distance and staying at home. But it also includes taking responsibility for your own mental response. You can only make further progress if you accept that there is nothing and no one else to blame and that you are the only one responsible.
Step 4: Dethrone Yourself: People only panic about things they hold for important. This means that another remedy is to make things—and yourself—less important. This means realizing that you are not as important as you think you are and that anything you do, say, feel, think or worry about isn’t so important either. The toilet paper panic is a good example. It suggests that people find wiping their butts one of the most important things there are. I would suspect that anyone reflecting on this would conclude that, perhaps, this is not really important at all.
Step 5: Build Character: One of the reasons why people panic in response to the Corona virus is that it disturbs their finely crafted image of the controllable and comfortable world. Corona bursts this bubble and shows us that many things are not as controllable as they seem. As referred to in an earlier article on “A New Dutch Disease,” in many Western countries we have become “comfortably numb,” not used anymore to any significant challenges or uncertainties. That is what this fifth step is about. Build character by stepping out of your comfort zone and by doing things that you normally wouldn’t do or that others wouldn’t expect you to do. This includes having the guts to stay calm in the face fo Corona.
Step 6: Detox Yourself: If there is one benefit of the outbreak, it is that it helps people reflect on their daily routines and rat races. Corona causes a hard stop and creates a naturally imposed moment of reflection. Accept this as a gift and use it to rethink what you were supposed to believe, aspire, say and do. Challenge your beliefs about yourself and use this to make a significant step towards a better you, a better situation for the people you are responsible for, and a better world.
Step 7: Get Organized: Keeping a cool head in the face of crisis is easier when your life and your environment is organized. Clutter disturbs your mind, so get rid of it. Also, along the line lines of Step 6, the Corona situation gives you an opportunity to rethink how you work. Being forced to stay at home, many people now work from home, commute less or otherwise need to reorganize their daily lives. Some of this may be temporary, but this is at the same time an excellent opportunity to change and improve your way of working for the longer term as well.
Step 8: Think Sensibly: Quite a bit of the unrest is caused by fake news and wrong information. Numerous fictions circulate about how to deal with Corona—such as that eating garlic would help or that taking Ibuprofen would be harmful. Companies like Google and Facebook are aggressively trying to filter out such information, but you can do something yourself as well. Of course, most of us are not experts and even the experts disagree, but we can use our ability to think rationally. To do so, you can put on your scientific hat and challenge what you hear and from which source it comes and start thinking sensibly.
Step 9: Pay Attention: The previous eight steps are meant to free your brain from the panic-inducing thoughts to allow you to think sensibly in the face of the Corona crisis. This enables you to make one more crucial step: pay attention. To others, to the things that really matter and to yourself. In this final step, you carefully and attentively monitor what is happening around and inside you using all your senses. This makes you focused on what you can and should really do in order to deal with the crisis—or otherwise.
When you are able to execute these nine steps in the current crisis, you have made a significant step forward in showing strong leadership. This, we can expect, will not only lead to more effective leadership behavior today, but also in the future.