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In troubled times, fear and panic take hold all too easily. Fending them off needs strong leadership, which comes in two varieties. On one hand, senior leaders provide a clear sense of direction. There’s also the more hidden, suck-your-teeth, ‘we’ll live to see another day’, sense of personal resolve that’s familiar to all of us, whether we manage a team or not. Right now, as Britain braces for the worst stage of the coronavirus outbreak so far, both are necessary.

Senior leaders are asking questions of themselves they never imagined facing, as they try to spell out an uncertain future to their teams. Managers are seeking solid answers to a fluid situation that’s changing by the hour. Creating answers from nothing was what Kipling had in mind when faced with the ‘unforgiving minute’. Empty space, empty time, empty questions demand to be filled. If you can fill the empty minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run then, as far as Kipling was concerned, yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it… which these days includes an international medical emergency and to me sounds like a big ask.

Supporting senior leaders

In business, managers can calmly protect routine and maintain productivity by demonstrating the best elements of leadership. Doing so will help strike the right tone among the workforce at large and thereby limit panic. We at Working Voices can help with this. One-to-one executive coaching can quickly bring you up to speed, supporting the skills-based behaviours, actions and techniques you rely on in managing the events unfolding around us.

Leaders must fend off uncertainty with a clear plan on what to do when their business needs to adapt in the coming weeks. To safeguard clarity and confidence, they are best advised to share the plan with their teams so that staff can see it exists. Change will have to be implemented, which is never popular. Here too executive coaching can help. As well as skills-based sessions, transformational coaching gets to the root of habits, beliefs and patterns. We can teach this suite of skills remotely, supplying international-calibre executive coaching through tailored online coaching sessions.

The fallout of fear

The rest of us must expect to step up to the plate too, with a renewed awareness of personal responsibility. We’ll need more of the response we always show after terror attacks, particularly those designed to spread fear and outrage. They never work. In London and in Manchester we came back as strong as before, resilient and returning to routine. Falling back on routine, where we keep calm and carry on, rekindles memories of the Blitz spirit. During WWII, fear shrouded the UK’s cities at night, though routine always returned during the day. Panic didn’t get a look-in.

Today we smile at the wartime signs urging us to keep calm. Yet, reproduced in a multitude of ways, they are now more popular than ever. During the Blitz, an American witness wrote “these people are staunch to the bone and won’t quit”. I wonder whether today he would have said the same, while watching panic-buying Brits hotfoot it up the street, clinging to giant packs of loo-rolls…in response to a respiratory illness conspicuously short on loo-likely symptoms.

Hoarding food and supplies isn’t forward-planning, it’s a panicked reaction to fear. It is human but can be damaging. “Panic is going to be more dangerous than the virus,” Joyce Leggate, the chair of Kirkcaldy food bank told the Guardian. Her food bank, which helps up to 350 families a week, has seen donations tumble by a third and is running out of staples including milk and cereal.

Fighting fear head on

In helping senior leaders maintain stability in such troubled times, we have recently developed courses on Leading Through Change, Managing Uncertainty, Advanced Critical Thinking Worshop and Motivating Remotely. These draw on our 20 years’ experience though we’ve also been inspired by some of the greatest triumphs in adversity, when times of difficulty produced exemplary moments of leadership. The Blitz spirit was inspired by Churchill, when he defied the threat of invasion and fired up the nation with a simple statement of intent. In baldly explaining that “we shall fight on the beaches”, Churchill ignited a burning sense of resolve that has been smouldering ever since.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is only a minute and a half long, yet in that time manages to wring blood from a battlefield and present in its place a gleaming vision of the future. Today it is seen as one of the greatest and most influential statements of American national purpose. Emmeline Pankhurst, embroiled in her own civil war, injected her cause with new-found emotion in her Freedom or death speech of 1913. And when Martin Luther King Jr. showed the world the suffering of millions of Americans, he knew the scale of the challenge that lay ahead, the personal risk he faced and the fact that once started there was no going back. Confronted by the unknown, the triumph of these leaders lies in the fact that, undaunted, they each took a daring leap in the dark.

After three years of Brexit uncertainty, a bruising election, floods and now coronavirus, we in the UK might be feeling the need to seek solace in a bunker. But we’ve been here before. And while other countries seal off swathes of territory or consider a forceful response, we shall do as we always do – keep calm, carry on and maybe even buy a t-shirt that says so. A new normal is coming, but it is manageable. Disrupting routines and replacing them with something new won’t come easy. For senior leaders, the test will lie in winning over enough people sufficient to maintain productivity in as short a time as possible. For all of us, the measure of success will come when healthy days return and questions are asked about what we did or didn’t do to help contain the crisis. Will our answers reflect cool and calm decisions? Or will we have a few quiet questions of our own, like what to do with a load of loo-roll?


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