How to Keep Your Head When Others are Panicking

The future is always uncertain. On some days this reality is more present than others. You’re coasting along, thinking you’re in control. Then bam, outside events remind you, there are no guarantees when it comes to your money or even your health.

Like most people, I well remember the panic of the 2008 recession. Summoning up those feelings again is enough to cause my stomach to clutch. As a business owner during that time, there were days when I wondered if we would survive. But we did survive. We emerged with a stronger business and I hope, some wisdom about how to handle a crisis.

Here what I learned:

1. Stay calm and breathe 
It’s simple, but it’s not easy. Whenever you’re facing a challenging situation, take a minute to take a few deep breaths. This gets oxygen flowing to your brain and your extremities. It makes you stronger and more powerful to face your situation.

2. Behave like people are watching 
Your team (and your family) are taking their cues from you. If you’re feeling nervous, think about leaders who have been steadfast during tough times, Harriet Tubman, FDR, Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill, or maybe your parent. Draw from their strength. I read biographies of people like Lincoln or Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy to remind myself:  During periods of adversity uncertainty, the words of the leader matter. A lot.

3. Reset to your true purpose 
If you let your organization descend into a mad scramble for money, you’ll lose customer trust and employee loyalty. Two things that are hard to recapture when a crisis is over. Instead, remind yourself and your team of your true north.  If you’re in business, your true and noble purpose is to make a difference for customers. During the 08/09 recession, organizations that stayed true to a customer-focused purpose, like Sales Force and Zappos, emerged stronger. Ask your team – How can we help our customers?

4 Choose facts instead of blind optimism 
In his classic, Good to Great, Jim Collins described the Stockdale Paradox. Named after James Stockdale the highest-ranking officer in the Hanoi Hilton, credited with keeping the men alive, in body and spirit. The Stockdale Paradox is the ability to face the brutal facts while at the same time holding onto the unwavering faith that you will prevail. When asked which POWs didn’t make it out, Admiral Stockdale said bluntly:The optimists. The optimists, Stockdale says were the prisoners who kept thinking, we’re going to be out by Thanksgiving, then, Thanksgiving would come and go. Then they’d say, we’ll get out by Christmas, and Christmas would come and go. Eventually, they died of a broken heart.

Facing the brutal facts of your situation while holding onto the faith that you will prevail is crucial during times of uncertainty. Whatever business condition you’re facing, it’s certainly not harder than being in the Hanoi Hilton.

When angst is in the air that’s when leadership matters most. Take a breath, remind yourself of your true and noble purpose, and behave as if everyone on your team is watching you, because they are.

You got this.