Issue 5.11 | April 2020

In this Article: How to provide stable leadership when everything around you is unstable and threatening. This is the first article in a series on Leadership in a Time of Crisis.

by Jonathan Wilson

When I was nineteen, my world was ripped out from beneath me, and I don’t mean metaphorically. On August 1, 1989, an earthquake struck the heart of New Guinea where my family had, since I was a year old, lived among the Yali people. With some Yali friends, my brother Malcolm and I were exploring the high mountains to the north of our village. We narrowly escaped with our lives as the world fell apart around us (a story I tell in more detail here). Many did not survive. Perhaps ten percent of the tribe just north of us was wiped out. At least two thirds of the population was left in dire straits, their villages ruined or obliterated, their gardens and hunting lands either swept to the bottom of a mountainside or too dangerous to enter. In the months following I assisted in relief work, and heard many stories of both horror and bravery. 

Surrounded by loss and grief, and subjected to ongoing aftershocks and the threat of unstable land, the metaphorical ground also gave way beneath my feet. My trust in many things — the stability of the land, the predicability of life, the goodness of God — was shaken to the roots. In the following months, even a brief tremor would bring me to my knees in fear.

And in a way, this is what COVID-19 has brought upon us. Many aspects of life and business have lost any sense of reliability or trustworthiness. The instability is all-encompassing, just as it is after a major earthquake. For many of us, this results in a deep, underlying sense of threat. In other words, we are afraid. 

Many self-protecting behaviours are currently demonstrating this: for example, the shaming and reporting of those allegedly disregarding social distancing guidelines, or the anger expressed at restrictions — or, in contrast, the anger expressed at those who contest prevailing wisdom about the pandemic. Anger, shaming, resistance to debate — these are the behaviours of fear.

In a time of such overwhelming and threatening complexity, leaders who do not recognize, acknowledge and understand the powerful dynamic of fear will not be able to counter it with stable leadership. 

Understanding the Power of Fear

Earthquake Survivors

Survivors awaiting rescue after the 1989 earthquake (Credit: John D. Wilson)

Fear plays a crucial role in our lives. It was fear that drove my brother, our friends, and I to hurtle down the precipitous mountainside in a bid to cross the valley and climb to a stable area closer to home. It was fear, fuelled by adrenaline, that forced our legs to carry on after multiple falls down muddy slopes, push on through tangled and trackless forest, and run across landslides and crevices and up the final slope to crack-ridden but mostly stable ground. Fear impels us to instant, protective action. Its value is high — but temporary.

When it becomes an ongoing and dominant emotion, fear significantly undermines decision-making and team-work. In fact, it can wreck both, because:

  • Fear reduces our concept of time to the extreme short-term. 
  • Fear shrinks our social awareness from the group to the self (and perhaps those nearest to us). 
  • Fear focuses our cognitive processes into a narrow tunnel of self-protection. It has one agenda, and no time for grammar: me-escape-threat-fast. 
  • Fear therefore drives survival behaviours that are useful in extreme danger, but harmful in the long-term: flee, freeze, or fight. 

In short, fear distorts perspective, clouds judgment, and fuels self-serving behaviour. 

How does this play out in business? As the pandemic threatens everything we know, including our economic future, executives face a cascade of other, subsequent fears — fears of losing the trust and money of investors, fears of losing customers and revenue, fears of a suddenly redundant business model. Dominated by such fears, the energy of each individual on a leadership team is channelled into his or her own particular sense of what is best for self-protection and survival. This can give rise to very intense disagreements about what matters and what to do about what matters, about priority and strategy. 

At a time like this, it is common to see corporate leaders make fear-based decisions that protect margins and give only lip-service to employees’ livelihoods. Fear drives an extractive approach to employees and customers, trying to gouge value wherever it can be found in the interests of survival. 

This behaviour instantly heightens the vulnerability felt by employees. They now see their working environment, or the leadership hierarchy at least, as one more threat to survive. Self-protection breeds self-protection, with the result that each team member is now working firstly for their own interests. This directly undermines the very thing a company needs if it is to be effective in crisis: unity. This is the time for unified collaboration that drives creativity, innovation, and passionate, sacrificial effort in a single direction. As it happens, these are the ingredients for value creation, and the revenue that follows.

Leadership by Stabilization

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaking the foundations of societies. Fracture lines run through every conceivable aspect of our lives: how we work, how we school, how we govern, how we do business. It is not a time for hubris. It is a fiction that we can manage complexity with our tech and our algorithms, a lesson we were supposed to have learned from the financial crash of 2008. It is not just fear that makes us stupid, so does pride. We cannot control complexity, and we cannot stabilize our environment — but we can navigate it. The agility required to do so is possible only when leaders and their teams possess their own internal stability. 

Having worked with leaders in many crisis situations — regional wars, natural disasters, organizational meltdowns, and political coups — I have observed four qualities that build individual and organizational stability:

1. Perspective: In a crisis, the first crucial task is to lead our teams towards gaining perspective. Perspective does not deny threat. It is not cavalier about threat. Rather, it puts threat in its proper context. Perspective brings proportion. Proportion has a calming effect. It helps teams escape a) the tunneling effect of fear on their sight, and b) the shortening effect it has on their sense of time. It frees teams to break challenges into their components and develop strategies to take them on.

To gain proper perspective requires access to good information. At a time like this, information comes thick and fast, but unfortunately much of it is terribly unreliable. Very often statistics (and many are flung at us these days) are given without proper context or nuance, and result in significant levels of misunderstanding that heighten fear and fear-based behaviours. Leaders need criteria to assess both the validity and the utility of the information they access.

2. Foundations: Often, however, valid information is hard to come by, or it runs dry. This leaves leaders and their teams with nowhere to turn but to the basic foundations of humanity: to virtue, integrity, justice, love, kindness, selflessness, diligence, and sacrifice … to wisdom. Wisdom does not lie in the future, but in the past, which is a place the crisis cannot touch or shake. The second crucial task in a crisis is to draw colleagues into deliberate and careful reflection on what matters most.

3. Compassion: In crisis, many of us don’t recognize that fear is at at play — in ourselves and others — because it manifests in behaviours with other names. As a result, leaders may become impatient with their colleagues and other stakeholders. Fear-gripped colleagues will not shift from their fear if they sense that we judge them for it. Instead, judgmentalism heightens fear. Sympathy is not much better. It affirms the experience of fear but offers nothing more. Compassion, however, demonstrates that we are understanding of our colleague’s fear, but don’t plan to leave them in it. Compassion and understanding create the permission to then speak into the situation the perspective that is so urgently needed.

4. Trust: A crisis erodes trust in many things over which a leader has little or no influence. We cannot stabilize our environment, but we can off-set distrust in our unstable environment by cultivating trust within our team and our networks. Trust arises whenever people feel that those with whom they are working are safe, reliable and competent. Nobody is infallibly trustworthy in all these areas, but now is the time to work diligently on them, particularly the first two. Demonstrating understanding and compassion is one of the first things we can do to build trust. Consultation and transparency around our decision-making criteria is another: to be honest with our employees is to respect them, however difficult the decisions we may have to take to keep the company viable. In the end, trust helps leaders to build a team of comrades, where each has the other’s back in the shared mission of beating the crisis.

You may be familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There is no avoiding these stages as we go through crisis, whether as individuals or as communities. It will be much easier, however, to negotiate these difficult emotional states when we cultivate a leadership that stabilizes. It will strengthen us as individuals, and it will provide our team with the leadership they need while the ground everywhere else is still shaking.

Note: forthcoming articles, to come out shortly, will explore these four stabilizing qualities in detail, looking at how to cultivate them personally and corporately.


Another leadership insight from

Leadership by Soul™, Trademark and © Jonathan Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

Related Articles