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Leading Well in Times of Crisis

BY: Jon Sanchez | Date:

If each of us has a belief, consciously or subconsciously, about our ability to control outcomes, what is yours? 

In SEAL training, I was the only officer in my class of 140 guys. This was unusual because typically, there might be 10 or 15 officers in a class. The helmets worn by officers were different from those worn by enlisted men. Although the same color, officer’s helmets were green with a wide white stripe painted from front to back. As the only officer out of 140, I might as well have had a target on my back.

One day, as we entered our classroom, we all took off our helmets and lined them up neatly outside the door, with the officer’s helmet, mine, placed on a separate line from the enlisted men’s helmets. You can imagine how this one helmet with the bright white stripe, separated from a long line of green helmets, drew the attention of the instructors as they quickly realized there was only one officer in this class. And if they could harass this one officer enough, maybe he’d quit. The instructors soon made it their mission to find out if I had any quit in me.

Every day as I sat in class, I heard, “tink, tink, tink,” as my helmet was bounced across the parking lot, collecting dings, nicks and chips as it went along. After class, I’d search for my helmet, set it on my head and endure an entire day of harassment and ridicule for my dinged helmet. When the day ended at 11 p.m., I’d returned to my room to spend the next three hours painting my helmet. At 4 a.m., the day started again: class; helmet kicked across the parking lot; ridiculed all day; repainting at night; two hours of sleep; repeat.

By the end of the second week, my performance began to slip due to exhaustion and lack of sleep. Noticing this, the instructors decided to up the ante by asking me to join them at the beach to put me through a rigorous, seemingly unending workout—all while my class stood and watched. Six enlisted instructors, one trainee officer. One after the other after the other, commands were shouted at me. Instructors yelled at me to quit, and I found myself in the middle of one of those moments—those very dark, am-I-going-to-make it moments. I was overwhelmed. The odds seemed to be stacked against me. The instructors weren’t letting up. I didn’t know when this would end, or how much harder this was going to get. It felt like a helpless situation.

Maybe you can relate to this as you find yourself navigating this historic COVID-19 health pandemic. Here you are, trying to lead from home, with your team working from their homes, while juggling homeschooling, disrupted vacation plans, watching your 401k plummet, as well as maintaining your home and relationships. It’s overwhelming. At times, it feels hopeless.

Leading Well Through a Global Pandemic

At TPI, we’re managing some of the same complexities, with varying degrees of success. Together, let’s take a look at practical ways we can manage ourselves well through this pivotal season. There are many lessons to be learned when disruptions occur. These ideas are our starting point:

What Questions are You Asking?

Each of us has a belief, consciously or subconsciously, about our ability to control outcomes. Generally, people fall into one of two categories: An internal locus of control, or an external locus of control. According to Psychology Today, locus of control is a person’s belief system about what causes an experience and what factors to which a person attributes success or failure.

For people asking questions such as “Why me?” or “How much longer?” or “When will things be normal again?” their locus of control is external—they are looking at outside influences as having control over their circumstances.

Questions such as, “How do I want to remember myself during this season?” or “How can I make an impact on my team during this time?” are questions from someone with an internal locus of control, the belief that success can be attributed to their efforts and abilities.

While neither category of locus of control is “good” or “bad,” it’s a proven fact that people with an internal locus of control tend to handle conflict and change more effectively when compared with people who have an external locus of control.

Which category do you identify with? Even if you believe you have an external locus of control, you can learn to be introspective and reflective about how you’re handling this disruption in your life. Ask yourself:

  • How am I going to look back on how I handled myself during this time?
  • How do I want to remember myself during this time?
  • How did my personal character show up and hold up?
  • What was I personally proud of during this time?

Four Actions Elite Leaders Take in Times of Crisis

There are many more than four actions leaders take during a crisis, but we’ve chosen the following as they relate to our unique situation during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Keep a rhythm. Your day-to-day rhythms and routines look vastly different than they did months ago. Still, finding a new rhythm and keeping to it will provide stability and predictability to your day. A routine allows you to stay active and to make time for your priorities.

Define the win. Even in uncertain situations, you can define a few criteria for pulling out a win from the experience. Reset expectations of yourself as well as your team. What would you be happy with achieving during this time?

Connect with your support team. Your support team should be made up of the best people you know. People who make you better, people who encourage you, and who help you reach your goals. We all need support as we navigate these new challenges; lean on your support team before, during and after you need them.

Keep your perspective. Because of the current health pandemic due to the COVID-19 outbreak, all the rules have changed. As the disruptions in work and social life continue, keeping perspective may often keep you from feeling overwhelmed.

Two Things to Remember in Times Like This

As you begin to take action, there are two ideas that we want you to keep in mind: 1) People fall to the level of their training, and 2) People are capable of success and to build upon those successes.

Training ourselves—our minds, our bodies, our hearts—lays a foundation for the future you’re building. Often, when faced with difficult circumstances, people fall to the level of their training. This means that working on our characters, our motivations, our belief systems and our disciplines play a crucial role in our ability to lead ourselves and others well. How sturdy of a foundation have you built? In what areas of your life would you like training, or retraining?

In partnership with training is the belief in yourself that you are capable. People are capable of success and to build upon that success. Many times, in order to move forward, they first must believe that they can. They must tell themselves, “I can do this.” Taking even that small step of reshaping the thought process changes pathways in the brain and begins to open up a new way of thinking. How can you turn around some of the thoughts you have about your situation or your abilities? Try telling yourself, “I can . . .” or “I will . . .” and then believe it.

You’re Not Alone

On that beach, as I was being beaten down physically and psychologically, I had choices: I could succumb to despair and give up, or I could gut it out. I decided to take an extreme position and gut it out. I stood up and said: “You can’t hurt me. Bring it on!” Did my instructors suddenly realize I wouldn’t break and stop? No. They turned up the punishment, and the night wore on.

The next day, sitting in class, I heard the familiar “tink, tink, tink,” as my helmet skipped across the parking lot. Nothing had changed in the instructors’ eyes. After class, I retrieved my helmet, and as I bent down a classmate came over and handed me a helmet, perfectly painted stripe and all, an exact replica of my helmet. “Here ya go, sir,” he said as we exchanged helmets. With a thumbs-up, he walked away. My classmates had taken 19 helmets from a supply closet while I endured the punishment of our instructors out on the beach. They had me covered. That simple act showed me that I wasn’t alone.

And you’re not alone either. You have a support system – reach out to them. You have resources like TPI – reach out to us. You have experiences under your belt that prove you can do difficult things. You are not alone. You can take action. You can recognize the control you do have over your success and you can ask the right questions.

You lead well through crisis when you lead yourself by keeping a rhythm, defining the win, connecting with your support network, and keeping a healthy perspective. Remember your training, and most importantly, believe that you can succeed.

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