“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” These are the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. If they had been written in 2020 they could not have been more appropriate!
I’d like to share with you the story of two people – Darby and Joan. Both successful businesspeople, Darby ran an engineering business with 65 employees, and Joan was the Sales Director of a large corporate. Darby had always been described as laid back. Always calm, nothing ever seemed to phase him. Joan was more highly strung. She worried a lot; often reacted too quickly to issues without taking the time to gather the facts; was given to high highs and low lows. She was exceptionally good at her job and her sales teams all did really well, but it was always at quite a high price emotionally. When the Covid-19 lockdown happened, as you can imagine, Darby and Joan responded very differently.
In the days before lockdown, Joan found herself in meeting after meeting with her principals in the European head office. They worried about adjusting forecasts, getting deposits in before lockdown, adjusting salaries downwards for non-essential staff and making sure that all deliveries were completed before lockdown. She had no time with her team except for half an hour on the day before lockdown when she breathlessly emphasised how important it was that they make sure that they don’t lose a single sale during this time.
During lockdown, she was all over the place. On and off social media, back and forth between her emails and phoning her team members to ask for progress on pending deals and new quotations. She continued with her daily meetings with her European head office and only discovered at the end of week 1 that she could have a team meeting on Zoom. When she did have a team meeting it was business, business, business. She seemed not to have the emotional capacity to deal with her team members’ fears and concerns.
She slept badly and was up in the early hours of the morning trying to figure out how to achieve the sales targets after lockdown – after all there were only 8 days/7 days/6 days to go. She was distracted when she was helping her children with their school work, and struggled to follow a routine every day. She endlessly ruminated over “what if this, and what if that”.
Darby, on the other hand, spent some time with his team before lockdown deciding how they were going to handle things. He wanted above all else to make sure that jobs were saved and that the business would be able to ride out the lockdown and recover quickly when it was over. He and the team agreed on various tactics that they would use to achieve that, and then they talked to the wider team and agreed on how they would proceed during the initial lockdown, and what they would do if the lockdown were extended. They agreed on how they would stay in touch with each other during the lockdown. Darby made sure he and his other managers were set up properly to do whatever business they could remotely. They got in touch with all their customers personally and informed them of the plan. Darby also contacted his bank to defer his bond payments on the business premises and some capital equipment payments for a few months so that they would have working capital when this was all over.
Following conversations with his wife and children, he designed a daily routine for himself that included waking at the normal time, an exercise regime of an hour, time during the morning to attend to business, lunch with the family, household chores and projects in the afternoon, followed by family story time and dinner. He and his wife also agreed that their children would do a certain number of supervised hours of schoolwork and how they would share this load.
Then Darby, being the measured, laidback soul that he was, proceeded to live in exactly this way. He took one day at a time. He refused to indulge in the excitement about “when we go back in 8 days/7 days/6 days time”, and was mindful of how much attention he paid to social media. He checked in twice a day and was very circumspect about how much credibility he gave to much of what he read. He stayed in touch with his team, encouraging them, calming them down, reminding them not to worry about what would happen after lockdown or ruminate over “what if this and what if that”. When they did venture into “what if” territory he would say “Well what if that happens? What will you do?” and stay with it until they at least had some actions that they would take in the event of that “what if” coming to pass.
Of course he was concerned, as any business owner would be, but he kept his attention in the present, and paid attention to what was under his control at that time. He regularly phoned his customers to find out how they were doing and how they were feeling about their businesses, taking time to encourage and calm them in the same way he did with his own team. He used his time to learn about new engineering processes that he wanted to explore, learning new skills and working on various household projects and hobbies that he had never had the time to before. And he stayed in touch with his friends and family, encouraging them and lightening things up for them.
He was optimistic about a number of things: that lockdown would end; that times would get better; and that the economy would improve. After all, bad times always roll around to better times, and the world economy has always recovered.
This time of Covid-19 and worldwide lockdown is causing us to draw on our very best selves or risk spiralling into despair and mental illness. Never has it been more important for us to “mind our minds”.
It has been said that the mind is a faithful servant but a tyrannical master. We can see exactly how this played out with Darby and Joan. Notwithstanding their different personalities, Darby and Joan clearly had different levels of mental discipline. For whatever reason, Darby has excellent skills that enabled himself to “mind his mind”. Let’s have a look at what they are:
- He recognises that he has a responsibility to other people – his wife, his children and his team – and understands that how he behaves will influence how they feel and behave. This is such an important leadership quality – the recognition that it is not just about how you feel. It is about how other people feel. If you want people to be cooperative, calm and thoughtful during a crisis, then the leader must create calm. Just by putting the needs of others before his own, Darby created calm for himself – after all, it is impossible to create calm for others if you are an anxious, worried mess yourself.
- He decides what is important right now – and in the case of his business, what was most important was that they all pull together so that the business and all the jobs could be sustained. He also needed some backing from his bank, and asked for it.
- He focuses on what is within his control and brings other people back to what is in their control when he talks to them. Within his control are his thoughts, his routine, his contingency plan (in the event that the “what if” happens), his conversations with his team and his customers, his impact on his children.
- He sustains optimism without obsessing about what life will be like when this is all over. Optimism is the quality of being hopeful about a positive future. It is not necessarily attached to a specific positive future. It might best be captured in this quotation that I love: “Everything works out in the end, and if it hasn’t worked out yet you haven’t reached the end.” So he doesn’t count down days because that will only result in disappointment if lockdown is extended – but he does speak about the likelihood that things will change and improve and that we may return to a nicer world than the one we left behind.
- He does not allow himself to be tormented by endless “what ifs”. When my clients play “what if” I always respond with “Well then answer the question! If that happens, what will you do?” This is a kind of scenario planning exercise – when you know how you will respond if your fear comes to pass, it takes some of the power out of that fear. In fact, this is exactly the approach I have been taking with clients who want to talk about life after lockdown. We don’t have a crystal ball, but we can explore the possible scenarios that could play out and think about how we will respond to each one.
- He sustains a routine. Healthy routines build our resilience during the best of times, and are especially important during the worst of times. Having a reason to get up in the morning, staying fit, having goals in the form of your domestic chores, projects and hobbies, having set meal times and family time, all create a structure and predictability to your day that keeps you and your family resilient.
- He reflects several times a day on the blessings this lockdown has given – time to learn new skills and processes; time to work on his projects and hobbies; story time with his children every afternoon; time to play with his children during the week; time to talk to people; and regularly notices how lucky he is. In doing this, he notices that this time is full of gifts.
The time will come soon enough when they can worry about targets – but right now, when nobody can get out there, when nobody is buying and when everyone is worrying about how their businesses will survive is not the time to be pushing the numbers. Reminding people that “this too shall pass” would be more useful. Joan’s attention is in the future, on things she cannot control and on needing to know what will happen – all redolent of someone who is a slave to their mind. She needs to learn to stop herself from doing these things. She needs to notice when she is doing them and bring her attention back to the present moment and those things she can control.
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