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How to Come out of the Crisis as a Stronger Leader

Lesedauer: 11 Minuten

How can leaders work with – rather than against – forces of change? A guest contribution by Californian author, businesswoman and educator Ellen Petry Leanse.

Crisis. It’s the word 2020. As leaders we’re challenging ourselves to navigate it and wondering what resources we can call on to find our way through.

And what a thing to get through. Read for yourself:


1. a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger. Similar: Catastrophe. Calamity. Cataclism. Emergency. Disaster. Plight. Mess. Dilemma. Quandary. Setback.
2. a time when a complex, important decision must be made, e.g. “a crisis point in history. Similar: Crossroads. Turning point. Crux. Zero hour. Point of no return. Moment of truth.

There’s also a third definition:

3. a turning point when important change takes place, indicating either demise or recovery. Similar: none.

High stakes. No wonder we’re all feeling what we’re feeling.

Crisis challenges leaders off of familiar and solid ground – not that leadership is known for solid ground. We must reassess familiar patterns, shed past habits and easy impulses, challenge prior plans, and work with – rather than against – forces of change.

Doing that is counterintuitive, especially as we navigate unforeseen (even unforeseeable!) change. Yet that’s the invitation we’re being offered right now. How we respond to it changes the course of our futures and our experience of self-mastery.

Nobody asked for this invitation, but here it is. And if our goal is elevate ourselves as leaders (in short: people worth following), we’ve received an unprecedented invitation to practice.

Surviving the survival manifesto

In my work as a teacher and coach to global leaders I “begin with the brain” – that ancient technology we use to navigate the modern world. Normally, exploring crisis, I’d start with the brain and its fast-trigger threat response, and how to practice taming that during this time. I’d explore about the brain’s “survival” manifesto and how ill-suited it can be to the challenges we face today.

I’d weave in ancient wisdom – time honored beliefs and traditions that helped long-standing cultures survive in conditions far harsher than those we face today, often for many thousands of years.

And I’d pull in Buddhism, that system of detachment and equanimity that guides life rightly lived. Again and again Buddhism reveals ways of thinking, living, and even working that align with psychology and neuroscience in actionable, progressive ways.

I’ll call on all three themes in the words ahead. But first...I’ll talk about quicksand.

Mired in crisis

I’ve never been stuck in quicksand, yet if I were I know what’d I’d do. And it would be exactly what I shouldn’t do if getting out was my goal.

Interestingly, it’s also what many of us have been inclined to do in this crisis.

In quicksand, I’d let my brain do its survival thing. Within an instant of feeling myself sink into sucking, gripping sludge, I’d follow the command of my firing amygdala and...panic.

With my brain blasting full-on fight or flight mode, I’d resist: pushing my hands against the quicksand’s surface or kicking my legs in hope of breaking free.

Those would be precisely the movements that would cause the quicksand to draw my body down. They’d also be the movements that would wear me out fastest. Yet in the moment, I’d ignore logic.

See, when the fight or flight response fires, thought changes. The moment the brain senses threat, it fires commands that divert the flow of blood in the body – and in the brain. A surge of chemical and electric signals constrict the blood vessels that fuel the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), where complex thought, solution planning, if-then thinking, and self-regulation (to name a few) take place.

Less blood means less oxygen. And with less oxygen in the PFC, more primitive cognitive modes kick in. Rational, solutions-oriented thought gives way to impulsivity, reactivity, and panic.

But panic won’t get you out of quicksand.

Or out of crisis.

Getting through, going beyond

What does get you out is exactly the mode the brain shuts down when it senses threat: intentional, operational thought. I watched this adventurer work his way out of quicksand and read accounts by successful escapees on what they did. They all took similar actions – things that are surprisingly instructive for the crisis we’re facing now.

They were calm.

They were deliberate. Actions became intentional rather than reactive and resistant. Their movements were slow.

Many said goodbye to whatever they could to reduce weight, resistance, and drag. Standing on solid ground suddenly seemed a lot more valuable than keeping whatever was in that backpack.

They worked with their reality, overcoming the urge to flail against it. Some leaned back on the quicksand, using its surface to pull their legs to horizontal and roll their way to solid ground. Some found branches or roots to use as strongholds during the slow, sticky process of getting out. These escapees made the quicksand an “ally,” converting the problem into the solution.

Oh, and one more thing: all of them committed to make it to the other side, clean off the residue, and get back on their adventure - perhaps grittier than they’d began, yet carrying a new prize: knowledge of their resilience and tools for the next time quicksand crossed their path.

I see a few ways that the quicksand analogy holds water (so to speak) in this crisis. Long-held business assumptions are giving way beneath our feet. We feel stuck and panicked. We may find that our old ways of moving forward aren’t working as they once did. And the more we try to resist it the more it seems to fight us back.

Practicing self-mastery

Taking a lesson from quicksand, consider these as you navigate your way forward, through this crisis and beyond.

Upgrade your mindset. This was step one for people who escaped quicksand. Nobody plans to fall in or get stuck. The path ahead, and the destination beyond, was their focus. And then...with no warning, everything changed.

Stuck in quicksand, options abound. Panic. Scream for help. Give up. Or respond. Those who do that breathe into the fear (read this or this for fascinating insights on how breath affects cognition) and guide the brain away from “surviving by resisting” to “surviving by design.”

Resilience, focus on the present moment, extreme (yet detached) awareness: these leadership tips come to us from sources as far-reaching as quicksand survivors, Zen masters, Hopi elders, and four-star generals.

Perspective shapes perception. Don’t take my word for it: let neuroscientist Anil Seth explain how we create our reality. What we foresee from this crisis informs everything that follows. Make a commitment to set your mind right.

Curb your reactive brain. Left to itself, your brain will run the show, calling upon conditioned and biological responses to direct your perceptions and actions.

Yet there’s something else that can take charge: intentional, responsive thought. That may originate from a higher-level brain modality or from something else: no one knows. Yet knowing that “survival” is your brain’s manifesto gives you some leverage as you watch it work.

Emotions can vacillate unpredictably during times of crisis. Uncertainty, confusion, despair, or fear: these feelings might make us retreat into inaction, hiding (virtually speaking) in a safe cave while we wait out the storm. We might feel anger or defiance, emotions that make us want to rebel against the crisis and prevail over it. We could feel a false positivity, one that increasingly taxes our energy to sustain. Play any of these scenarios out with “biological survival” in mind and you’ll see them as the brain games they are.

Shifting to more intentional thought – determination, resilience, vision, even creativity – can require effort. But for quicksand escapees and leaders seeking to differentiate themselves during this crisis, that effort changes everything that happens next.

Let it go. Remember a few months back when we were all saying things like “I can’t wait to get back to normal?”

We don’t hear that much anymore. It’s pretty obvious that “normal” as we knew it isn’t soon coming back.

Yet that “normal” was the environment we learned to master – the one that helped us get where we’ve gotten, the one we planned to build on as we reached for our next goal.

Here’s the great news: that past has gotten us here.

But it sure won’t get us there. The future favors those who adapt to it, and who better yet welcome it. Let the baggage go. It will drag you down as surely as a backpack in quicksand. The more you play your future out on the stage of what was the more you’ll miss the possibilities waiting on the stage of what might be.

What can you shed as we move toward whatever is next? What did you think was essential or simply part of life that we’ve now seen was...optional, habitual, or simply assumed? And what might you gain in return as you leave those things behind?

Be the plan. That’s different than “have a plan.” Having a plan focuses your attention and dependence on events in the outside world. To BE the plan means seeing how your internal compass, your resourcefulness, your vision lead you to the place you most want to be.

The Buddhist concept of non-attachment helps guide this. Being in the present moment, releasing dependence on external actions or measures for a sense of mastery, we actually begin to see possibilities beyond what we were limited to before. We stay curious. We feel agile. Resistance, often a function to that human desire to control, slips away. We can “be with” whatever life offers us and still see a way forward.

There’s something of a conundrum as we let go of our agendas and checklist and simply move toward our vision through each step. Yet when we do that we discover that we can rely on ourselves rather than the externals we once saw as our path – and our destination.

Learn from the master. If you’ve gotten this far, it won’t surprise you to hear who the master is. The master is the crisis, the very one we labeled an obstacle. It’s here to teach and test us: to help us decide what we want and how we’re willing to get there. In the same way that quicksand escapees found new intelligence, resourcefulness, determination, and faith as they conjured and enacted their path to terra firma, we can let this time teach us – and let it impart us with new strength for whatever the future holds.

Use this time to to meet yourself as you are today, even as you envision finding your balance at the edge of a pit of quicksand, looking back with awe at what you just emerged from. You may need to wash the grit off and say a final goodbye to some stuff you’ll leave behind, but you’re back on your feet and ready for the steps ahead.

There are things waiting for you on the path in front of you – people waiting for you, problems to be solved, possibilities to be explored, landscapes to be appreciated. All of them will be enriched by the knowledge you’ll carry: that you overcame an obstacle that might have daunted you if you hadn’t acted otherwise. That strength will serve you, and help you serve others, as you go forward. And the mastery gained at a time when you might have sunk down will stay with you, preparing you for whatever next crisis – or opportunity – awaits you next.

Questions to consider

Answer these for yourself and consider exploring them with the people you lead.

  • What can you learn or gain from the current crisis?

  • How can navigating it equip you for the journey ahead?

  • What habit or assumption from the past are you willing to leave behind

  • What vision will guide you as you work your way forward?

  • What personal strengths will you rely on as you progress toward whatever is next?

Ellen Petry Leanse is an author, businesswoman, educator, entrepreneur, and online community pioneer. She has spent 35 years as a Silicon Valley influencer, holding leadership roles at Apple and Google, as an entrepreneur, and as an executive coach at dozens of technology companies. A popular Stanford instructor, podcast guest, and author, her work explores the crossroads of neuroscience, creativity, and life purpose. She currently serves as Chief People Officer at Lucidworks, a leading search and AI innovator.


Ellen Petry Leanse
Chief People Officer