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.”

Finding a New Way Forward

Even in good times, Leading Mindfully requires playing both the inner and outer games of leadership.  Now in the context of COVID-19, you must simultaneously manage your own strong emotions while helping your team find its way through theirs and a redefined landscape.  As you may have noticed, when you feel off-balance and uncoordinated, this is no mean trick to pull off. 

This series offers three techniques for managing your inner resources: see it, name it and tame it.  “Seeing and naming it” is a courageous commitment to seeing and accepting what’s real, and “taming it” involves managing strong emotional reactions. Together, these three inner moves help you regain composure and adopt a more resourceful stance toward your surroundings. Now in a better state of mind, “reclaiming it” involves transforming this strange moment into a teachable one for you and the people you lead. 

Reclaim It

On a practical level, if the destabilizing forces of COVID-19 makes you feel like you’ve lost your grip,   how do you reclaim it for yourself and your team?   

By adopting a learning stance toward a new context, you are in a better position to craft new meanings that will allow you and others to move forward. Mindful attention to crafting new meanings is part and parcel of the leader’s role. As American Express CEO Ken Chenault is well known for saying, a leader’s job is to define what’s real and to give hope.  But how do you do that in the current context?

A few months since COVID-19’s destructive arrival on the human scene, you may find yourself moving past the initial shock and heading into a messy middle of change and transition. Drawing on William Bridges’ work on managing transitions, the COVID-19 crisis has imposed an external change that requires action but also the need to psychologically internalize what the change means. This process of transition has a beginning, middle and end. 

During the early months of COVID-19, the abrupt change to sheltering in place was an upheaval of the normal order of things.  This period was and may continue to be very stressful for work and home life, producing strong emotions such as fear, denial, anger and sadness. Initially, it was a time of disorientation and diving for cover, and yet it was also a time for accelerated improvisation. 

Now, as many across the United States grapple with reopening local economies and returning to work, many of us are entering a middle period. Here a leader has a choice to make — get lost in what my colleague Jeremy Hunter calls “The Zombie Zone” or begin building a bridge between an old and a new story about the way things are. This predicament invites the need for a transition story, one that is especially tricky when the destination is as yet unknown. 

As in the case of traveling through a wilderness, leaders will be helped by using two tools: a radar and a compass. In February, Barie Carmichael, co-author with the late James Rubin of Reset: Business and Society in the New Social Landscape, spoke in my Executive MBA course on Leadership Communication about how these two tools can help companies define and operate according with their purpose. A radar helps to accurately read the social landscape and changing conditions. A compass helps to define one’s “True North” through the changing social landscape. Individual managers and leaders can use these tools too for their own wayfinding through the current period of crisis, change and transition. 

Fine-Tune Your Radar and Define What’s Real

Think of the language you use as a giant pointing device. The words you choose, the metaphors you employ and the stories you tell direct your own attention and influence the collective attention of your team. Let’s consider some specific choices for crafting a “transition and resilience narrative” that will help you and others to navigate the great uncertainty ahead. 

As of this writing in late May, parts of the U.S. are reopening at a cautious pace, while on a global level the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to reach its peak. With so many global cross-currents and ongoing fluctuation, how should we start thinking and talking in new ways that better represent what’s real? 

  • “Beginning of a new era.”  A “crisis” implies a discrete event after which things get better or get worse. At this point, defining the present moment as “the beginning of a new era” better captures the sense of transition from old meanings to new. As a recent New Yorker article explained, human lives, economic welfare, social order and psychological well-being have been transformed by previous pandemics, and the big ones have ushered in new eras. The “beginning of a new era” helps us understand the enormity of COVID-19’s direct and collateral damage worldwide and signals the magnitude of change and transition ahead.      
  • “Changing conditions” or “the next normal.” Though some may use “the new normal,” this expression implies a new stability that is likely to be elusive for some time. Forecasts of the virus’ impact in the U.S. and worldwide suggest patterns of ongoing instability. Whether recurring small outbreaks, a monster wave or a persistent crisis, the COVID-19 virus and its social and economic aftershocks will come and go, at least until there is a widely distributed vaccine. Though in the aggregate the U.S. national curve appears to be flattening, conditions locally and abroad will be highly variable, making it difficult to generalize. Phrases like “changing conditions” or progressing to “the next normal” do a better job of representing the COVID-19 era’s shifting winds or evolving nature.1 
  • “The path forward.” Metaphors are powerful ways of framing what’s real. While the sense of conflict against an unseen viral enemy may tempt us to say we are “at war” with COVID-19,  bioethics researchers point to “journey” metaphors as being a better way to describe the experience of living with and through a pandemic. In the context of the HIV epidemic, the authors found that using journey metaphors led to greater long-term individual and collective resilience. “Journey” invites the possibility of being on a path forward, but allows for unexpected twists, turns or obstacles that with agility and ingenuity can be overcome. In Simon Sinek’s language, the journey is most like an “infinite game” that focuses less on a win/lose outcome and more on how the game is played. He found that business leaders who focused on the infinite game built stronger, more innovative and more inspiring organizations. Just the kind of qualities needed to make it through the ever-changing conditions of the COVID-19 era.

Try this new language on for yourself. What will keep you and your people going for the long haul? Fighting through a “crisis” that becomes a “war” to be won or lost, resulting in a utopian or dystopian “new normal”? Or “beginning a new era” on a “journey” through “changing conditions” that with agility and ingenuity will transform into “the next normal”?    

Access Your Inner Compass & Give Hope

If defining the big picture requires using a radar to read an evolving social and business landscape, then reclaiming requires choosing a compass to guide the way ahead.

In April, Queen Elizabeth II’s address to her nation referenced the British people’s inner compass in a way that reverberated around the world. In a strong appeal to national identity, she said: 

And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterize this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past; it defines our present and our future.

These words are strong at face value. And they are even stronger for Britons who would recognize in these words the echoes of Winston Churchill in World War II and Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day or “band of brothers” speech (Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3). With rhetorical courage, she reminds herself and her listeners of Britain’s history, identity and values, all serving as a powerful guide toward compassionate action. Though onlooking global citizens may not be British subjects, we too can listen in a moment of shared humanity. 

Following the queen’s lead, ask what parts of your team’s history, identity and values will help you summon the courage to weather the times. Try a fill-in-the-blank exercise and make Queen Elizabeth’s passage your own. Which three attributes would you and your company want to have in your pockets as you travel from the past into the present and into the future?  

* * *

If the COVID-19 crisis triggered health, economic, social and psychological changes that mean that we will be living and working through destabilizing moments now and for the foreseeable future, then all the more reason now to adopt and practice essential skills of Leading Mindfully. Use “see it, name it, tame it and reclaim it” to gather your wits, accept what’s real, get into a learning stance and guide your team’s collective attention. Following this practice will help you transform from a stress-induced hyper-focus on survival to an open and curious mindset for your pathfinding through the changing landscape ahead. 

  • 1. Indeed, Weather.com now has a COVID-19 website with an interactive outbreak map that may become a new part of our daily radar check.
About the Expert

Lili Powell

Associate Professor of Business Administration, Darden School of Business; Kluge-Schakat Professor, UVA School of Nursing; Interim 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 interim 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

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