“Stay Calm & Social Isolate” is one of the many memes that are popping up these days to show solidarity in our collective efforts to flatten the curve while tacitly recognizing that we are all feeling a great deal of stress and anxiety.  While the government is clear that social isolating means staying at least six feet away from any other person outside your home (and frankly limiting any time outside the home to essential tasks), it is not as clear how one can readily “stay calm” in this situation. After all, there is a lot in the news and on our minds:

  • How do we best keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy?
  • What will happen due to the expected severe economic disruption?
  • How will this impact our business, jobs, financial stability and investments?
  • What if supply chains are disrupted?
  • How will our kids be impacted by this upending of their lives and routines?
  • How long will we be in this situation?
  • Will things get worse?
  • Etc.

Care for Yourself is Caring for Others

Each person’s individual circumstances (age, geography, health, temperament, family situation, etc.) will impact how they are experiencing this national emergency on a personal level. Layered on top of this, many business leaders are confronting sometimes gut-wrenching decisions about their company; decisions which are harder to navigate when your higher thinking functions are “highjacked” by the emotions we all experiencing given the stress and uncertainty we are facing through this pandemic. 

I want to underscore that the emotional hijacking of your brain’s higher functions is an automatic, biological reaction. It isn’t a choice or a weakness – in fact, it is a survival response. When we are confronted with an emergency (real or perceived) the brain shifts to survival mode, moving blood flow to major muscles, narrowing your field of vision, shifting resources away from digestion and higher thinking to bring all energy to physical and mental reflexes centered on fleeing or fighting. While this neuro-chemical wiring in our body works well if we are suddenly in a burning building (where fleeing is an appropriate response), it does make it harder to address challenges that require us to think more rationally.

“The emotional hijacking of your brain’s higher functions is an automatic, biological reaction.”

While there are many thoughtful articles providing guidance to business leaders on how to navigate this crisis, I would like to share a few thoughts on how family business leaders can ensure they are bringing their best thinking to this situation. 

Take care of your health. Organizations need their leaders – you cannot afford to go down. 
In addition to the CDC guidelines that you wash your hands, avoid touching your face and keep at least six feet away from others – take the time to eat regular healthy meals and PLEASE get adequate sleep. It is shocking the speed at which higher brain function deteriorates when you are not getting enough sleep. The impact to brain function of even one night of inadequate sleep is akin to being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. None of us do our best thinking this way. While most of the business leaders I know are high-energy people, that does not mean you do not need your rest – particularly when you are navigating many difficult responsibilities. The burden of responsibility is heavy to carry and will lead to more, not less, fatigue. Listen to your body.  To the extent practicable take a short nap during the day if you feel a wave of fatigue hit you – especially if you are experiencing some sleep interruption from stress and anxiety at night.

Practice mind control.  You don’t have to be a Jedi master – though that might help.
One of the ways our species has survived as long as it has is this automatic “crisis response mode” that helps keep us out of physical danger. Our body is directed and prepared for fight or flight before we are even consciously aware of the threat in front of us. The instinctive (non-thinking) part of our brain sends chemicals that tense our muscles, change our blood flow, etc., which then is what tells our thinking brain “this is an emergency.” 

While this response is automatic and can contribute to the fatigue described above, you can use this mind-body connectivity to your advantage. Specifically, if you start to attend to parts of your body where you normally carry your stress – do you clench your jaw, tense your shoulders, shift your breathing? – and become aware of these sensations, this will tell you when your mind and body are in crisis response mode. Then if you work to relax the physical response, unclench your jaw, relax your shoulders, etc. – this will tell your brain to also “relax,” in a sense overriding the crisis mode that is more reactionary and pivoting to the thinking mode you need to engage in business problem solving. 

Take a deep breath.  Mom’s advice still holds…
While this may not feel like the time to start regular meditation, one simple practice used in meditation or mindfulness or yoga is deep breathing. It is remarkably easy to do and a very effective way to use your body to control your mind and emotions. Taking as little as two minutes of quiet time to shut off all distractions and simply focus on your breath can be a powerful way to clear your mind and quiet the body’s crisis response from going into overdrive.  Even three deep breaths before you have to make a difficult phone call can help center you so that you are ready to communicate and listen effectively.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Provide updates, listen to others, and reach out for the support you need.
People look to leaders for guidance in times of uncertainty. In a crisis, this can be challenging, as the correct guidance can be a moving target. Fight the instinct to wait until the “dust settles” or when you feel you have some more hopeful news to share, it is important to err on the side of transparency and consistent communication. Your stakeholders need to hear how the firm is handling the crisis, the steps you are taking to protect your teams, and the sacrifices or changes that may be needed to weather the storm. Paradoxically, hearing hard truths can often build confidence and reassure folks that leaders trust them with the truth and are taking realistic actions. 

In addition, keep your personal lines of communication open. Stay close to loved ones – even if you are physically separated. It is important to pick up the phone, set up Zoom dinners with extended family and find other ways to keep your sense of connection to your community and support network, these are critical ingredients for your emotional balance. And don’t hesitate to reach out for support from professionals if you, or others on your team are feeling overwhelmed.

Remember, Leadership is Isolating

It is always lonely at the top – and never more so than when confronting difficult decisions that impact many people. Lean into the support networks you have developed – from your board to your management team to your family and friends. Make sure you are taking care of yourself so that you are able to bring your best thinking and communicating to the important role you are playing. 

We need our leaders, now more than ever – as they provide the guidance and support that help everyone bring their best effort to meet the challenges in front of us. I hope these few words of guidance help you maintain yourself in top form – so you can play this crucial role.