What’s novel about COVID-19 isn’t just the coronavirus. It’s the sheer scale and depth of The Big Human Pivot that this tiny infectious particle has triggered. We are living through a moment that defies full comprehension before needing to act swiftly as global citizens, as leaders and as human beings. 

In unprecedented times like these, when there is little in our personal experience to fall back on, what can you do to lead mindfully through it? In this three-part series, Lili Powell introduces a Leading Mindfully strategy: “see it, name it, tame it and reclaim it.”

See It on a Broad Scale

Leading mindfully starts with recognizing what IS. It’s a courageous commitment to push aside distraction and denial and to stare reality in the face. First recognizing what we see and our experience, we can give perception shape and form by “naming it.”

If we take a look around right now, what do we find?

On a grand scale we have seen an extraordinary global economic flu take hold. After feeling a little warm, the U.S. economy has developed a full case of the chills. Wall Street trading has been halted several times in recent days and the so-called Trump-Bump has been wiped out. Global borders are closed — even between the U.S. and Canada — and airlines have requested an unprecedented $50 billion in U.S. government aid. Talk of the “kung flu,” a supposed reference to the virus’ origin in China, reveals the extent to which global fears have turned into a nasty contagion.

In your own sphere of influence, chances are your business or organization is in the midst of a series of reactions. You may be working around the clock to salvage what you can. Revenue streams may be slowing down. Big contracts are on hold indefinitely. No one is allowed to come to work. Your tightknit team has now shifted to all virtual work. The work flow is awkward, uncoordinated and inefficient as you grope for a new rhythm. Underneath immediate logistical concerns, you and others wonder what’s going to happen. You may have enough reserves to handle a few weeks, but what if this thing goes on for months? Some of you already know you won’t make payroll this month. 

We’re feeling it here too. Here at Darden and the University of Virginia, we have cancelled all in-person classes and in record time will move all classes online for the rest of the semester. Graduation is canceled. The dreams of thousands of students and their families. No walking The Lawn. No wearing the “honor of honors” to graduate in the purple shadows of the University. No “Good Ol’ Song.” Beyond this missed rite of passage, no one has said yet how internships and first job offers may be affected. But we can probably expect that to be next. 

See It on the Human Scale

On the hyper-local scale, each and every one of us is affected. Even if you are the stoic type, you may be surprised to find that others are affected in ways that range from slightly amusing to personally terrifying.

Pause and see — really see — what others are experiencing. If someone says he or she feels emotional, ask what that may mean for them. Here are just some examples that I learned in recent days. 

One colleague fears being trapped at home with her fiancé. As much as she loves him, the introvert in her cringes at being overwhelmed by his extroversion. She nervously laughs at her Odd Couple situation. Over the phone in the background, her terrier barks.

Another co-worker posts a distraught message on Facebook. Her father, who has dementia and is in assisted living, doesn’t understand why she cannot come to visit him. She tries to explain over the phone, but he keeps asking her to come. Her efforts to console him seem futile. 

Another colleague is at home with his 4-year-old son and his wife. His son, full of little boy energy, is bouncing off the walls. He wants to play with his friends. But how do you explain to a 4-year-old that because Dad had a kidney transplant years ago, he needs to be especially careful to protect his immune system? Instead, they bake cakes. 

Yet another colleague, who is usually bubbly and happy, the one who takes care of everyone else and makes sure they have everything they need, breaks down on the phone. Her medical condition requires frequent trips to the bathroom. She only has half a week’s supply of toilet paper and everywhere is sold out. She surprises herself and me when she poignantly breaks into tears. The consequences of hoarding toilet paper have turned from laughable to personally terrifying.

Name It, for You

And what about you? What are you feeling in this moment? What comes up for you? What are the thoughts, emotions, sensations in your own experience? 

Whatever your answers may be, do yourself a favor and write them down or speak them quietly to yourself.

Intentional phrasing can help.  You can loosen the power that thoughts, emotions and sensations have over you by expressing them in non-personal terms with the objectivity of a scientist. For example, you could say “There’s worry here.” “There’s fear here.” “There’s concern here.”

Once you have named it, sit with that recognition for a moment. And then another moment. And then another moment.  Quietly observe what you find as you internalize your awareness.

While you do this, it can help to pay attention to your breathing, which often holds more clues about how you are really doing. If you find that you are holding your breath, that it is quick or shallow, do this: Take a deep breath in, and then on a slow count of four, let it out. Do this three times and then let your breathing return to normal. 

It’s not uncommon to find that your thoughts, emotions and sensations are more powerful than you realized. In time you can learn to accept them as they are, neither right nor wrong. They just are.  And that’s okay. To learn about how to “Tame It,” read our next installment. 


Leading Mindfully Program:
Virtual program designed to help you lead mindfully through an unprecedented period of crisis.
About the Expert

Lili Powell

Julie Logan Sands Associate Professor of Business Administration, Darden School of Business; Kluge-Schakat Professor, UVA School of Nursing; Director, Compassionate Care Initiative, UVA School of Nursing

Powell’s current academic interests are mindful communication and leadership presence. She also has expertise in leadership and management communication, corporate reputation and diversity. In addition to her roles as professor at the UVA Darden School of Business and UVA School of Nursing, she also serves as director at the University's Compassionate Care Initiative

Powell has authored numerous cases and is co-author of Women in Business: The Changing Face of Leadership. She is currently working on a new book — Present: Leadership as Wise Practice. She has presented her work at the Academy of Management, the Association for Business Communication, the Management Communication Association, the National Communication Association, and the Reputation Institute’s Conference on Reputation, Image, Identity, and Competitiveness conferences.

Powell has been a consultant, facilitator, instructor and coach to a number of individuals and organizations. Her clients have included the Council for Public Relations Firms, Federal Bureau of Investigation, KPMG, Lagos (Nigeria) Public Schools, National Industries for the Blind, Premier, Providian Corporation, United Technologies, University of Virginia School of Medicine and World Bank. She has taught internationally and worked with Executive MBA students from IAE Business School (Argentina), IBMEC Sao Paulo (Brazil) and the Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden).

B.A., M.A., University of Virginia; Ph.D., Northwestern University