Coronavirus: How To “Be The Calm In The Chaos”

As the Covid-19 virus spreads and the world succumbs to panic, what should be the executive’s role in leading through this crisis?

Maj. Gen. Frost in Tal Afar with US and Iraqi forces.

One month ago, most of us had never heard of the Coronavirus—an unforeseen, exogenous event—now a global news story that will impact nearly every CEO, executive team, and company over the next several months. The risk level in the United States remains low, but the 24/7 news cycle focused on the virus and the images of HAZMAT suits in the U.S. can be overwhelming; the market volatility only creates more uncertainty. Employees are nervous and scared; they are worried for their families, finances and health. We are living through another global Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment. What should be the executive’s role in leading through this crisis?

The Army created the term “VUCA” after the end of the Cold War and focused on creating leaders capable of operating in this new environment. The U.S. military is ranked as America’s most respected institution (Gallup) and develops leaders specifically trained to lead through crises and VUCA environments. These military lessons also translate directly to any executive leading their company through the Coronavirus crisis.

We interviewed Major General (Ret.) Malcolm Frost, a veteran with 31 years of service who has deployed to combat several times in a variety of leadership positions and also served as the Director (Chief) of Public Affairs and Deputy Director for Operations, in which he led planning and operations of the U.S. Dept. of Defense National Military Command Center that performs worldwide monitoring, crisis action, and strategic nuclear and current operational watch functions for our nation’s leaders. During one of his deployments to Iraq, MG Frost experienced a crucible leadership moment with lessons that translate to any executive thinking about what their own role is in leading through the Coronavirus crisis.

The Crucible: 10,000 pounds of explosives carried in a truck bomb went off at 4:32 pm local time, March 27, 2007 in Tal Afar, Iraq, in an outdoor market, killing 152 Iraqi civilians and wounding hundreds. Major General Malcolm Frost (then-Lieutenant Colonel) was first on the horrific scene. That event was the largest single loss of life of the Iraq War and was planted by Al Qaeda with the intent to cause a Sunni-Shiite rift, which could jeopardize not only Iraq peace, but the whole Middle East. The carnage of killed and wounded was horrific. The American and Iraqi soldiers who arrived on the scene were mortified. MG Frost and his soldiers found themselves in a severe environment they had never imagined. They instinctively turned to their training and each other; MG Frost relied on principles learned through Army leadership development and training and his own experience. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

What were the major leadership lessons from that terrorist attack in Tal Afar in 2007 and the aftermath that can apply to executives now? 

Well, first, it’s my opinion that leadership principles apply the same in the corporate world as they do in combat. Stories like this are memorable and serve as leadership case studies that can be applied in the corporate setting. There were several leadership lessons etched into my soul that day and in the weeks and months to come. Among these are the importance of: thinking tactically and strategically; trust and how it can’t be surged; taking tactical pauses; contingency planning; preparation through leadership development; exercises (rehearsals and dry runs); the role of senior mentors; and the necessity for calm, confident, and present leadership during crisis and adversity.

The scale of the catastrophe was so tremendous that my soldiers didn’t know where to start or what to do. This could be the case with some employees during this Coronavirus crisis. My soldiers were horrified and shaken to their core at the devastation. An entire city block was leveled, and the crater from the attack was 20 ft deep and 100 ft across. As their leader, they turned to me and needed calm, confident, and decisive leadership amid the chaos. It was my job to quickly assess the situation, think tactically and strategically, come up with a plan, and think about contingencies and what could happen next. They needed me to see the bigger picture and focus them on smaller tasks necessary to accomplish the mission. In any crisis, such as the Coronavirus, subordinates will look to their leaders for direction: Will you be an alarmist and increase their anxieties, or will you be the “calm in the chaos”?

How did you assess the situation, and how can executives learn from it?

The first step was giving the soldiers my leader’s intent [The Army’s protocol for concisely communicating the What and the Why in order to give team members the latitude to determine the How] for the immediate situation. We had to ensure the scene was secured; prevent follow-on attacks against first responders; assist with casualty care and evacuation; and focus Iraqi leaders to marshal resources, help with the devastation, and not focus on retribution. It was the classic pull of two competing priorities: mission first, people always. We had to balance taking care of the casualties with securing the scene from follow-on attacks. For senior leaders, what is your leader’s intent in this crisis, and does the whole organization understand it? Have you asked subordinates to back brief [the Army’s protocol for subordinates communicating their plan] you to ensure they are aligned?

Once the scene was secure and evacuation of casualties was in hand, I took the opportunity to take a tactical pause and assess what had to be done next. In retrospect, I was incredibly thankful for the leader training, repetitions dealing with crisis during our training exercises, and advice I had received from senior advisors during deployment preparation for Iraq. Each of these had prepared me for this crucible moment and taught me to take this deliberate tactical pause to assess next steps, evaluate, and think through various scenarios including the worst case. This is often difficult for executives to do during on-going operations–to take a moment to reflect.

During this tactical pause, I realized the decisive point (the most important place for me to be) in this crisis would be at the Tal Afar Hospital. Everything would collide there: casualties, medical personnel, government and tribal leaders, families of the wounded, Iraqi police and military, and possibly the enemy for its next attack. This is an example of how executives need to be able to see the strategic impact of the tactical environment. If your main supplier is in China and your supply chain might be interrupted for an extended period as a result of the Coronavirus, what strategically and proactively are you going to do to address this threat to your business?

Once you determined the decisive point, what did you do and learn as a leader that can help executives during a crisis?

I immediately reassessed my leader’s intent and issued new orders. As the leader, I knew I had to be at the decisive point. I ordered our Advanced Trauma Life Support element with additional security to deploy to the hospital from our forward operating base, and then I personally went to the hospital. There, the immensity of the devastation began to become clear. Hundreds of innocent wounded civilians were strewn throughout the field outside the hospital. They were surrounded by Iraqi officials and thousands of family members who rushed to be by their side. The hospital only had one surgeon and was overwhelmed. It was a security nightmare and a mass casualty event the likes of which you only see in the movies. During this Coronavirus crisis, where is the decisive point for you as a leader? At headquarters? Or your largest client? Where else can you exert your influence virtually?

I quickly learned that in a massive and unpredictable crisis, even the most battle-hardened soldiers and medical professionals can be shocked to the point of not knowing what to do, where to start, and who to help. It was my job to walk around to each of them, give them direction, see how they were doing, and focus them on specific tasks at hand. I directed an outer and inner security ring around the casualties and focused my physician’s assistant, medical platoon leader, and medics on triage activities. In coordination with my operations center, we executed evacuation contingencies. We called for U.S. air medevac for the most urgent casualties and coordinated with our Iraqi counterparts for ground evacuation of priority casualties to hospitals in Kurdistan. During the Coronavirus crisis, what is your operating rhythm to adjust actions as the crisis evolves?

The situation on the ground was so overwhelming that I found I had to take complexity out of the situation and give simple tasks to my subordinate leaders and soldiers. For my medical personnel, that meant assessing, triaging and treating the casualties and letting me make the decision on who would be evacuated – the life and death decisions. For the security personnel, that meant getting their mind off the casualties and focusing them on security contingencies – the outer and inner cordon and looking for enemy or signs of a suicide vest attacker. It also meant getting the Iraqis security forces to assist in getting families out of the way, so we could do our work. 

What about the role of communication and what executives should consider?

I constantly circulated between my medical and security personnel on the field, my Iraqi counterparts, and the hospital staff. Each time reassuring all would be ok, that they were doing great, and that we would get through this. They trusted me and I trusted them. Trust cannot be surged during crisis. This trust was built over months and years of relationship building, presence, being honest and transparent 24/7, and them knowing I wasn’t asking them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. During the Coronavirus crisis, I have no doubt employees will be worried about their family, friends, 401K, and other effects. This can cloud their mind and judgment. As an executive, you can provide clarity, purpose, and focus to what they must do as part of the corporate mission. To do so, you must be present – if not in person, then virtually. Travel where you can, conduct town halls, talk to leaders, be transparent, reinforce trust, and reassure your employees.

How can you more effectively communicate during a crisis?

The most important lessons to take away for communications during crisis are: repetition in communication; identifying and communicating to all internal and external stakeholders; actions are powerful messages unto themselves; asking “who else needs to know”; how to communicate magnitude and complexity to those not present; relationships and tone gains trust in communications; showing a unified front to the world; and it’s not enough to communicate such that you are understood, you must communicate such that you cannot be misunderstood. Reflect on how are you communicating? What tone are you setting?

What was the result of operations at the hospital and what happened next from which executives can learn?

Eventually we evacuated 18 urgent casualties by air medevac and 17 of them survived. Over 100 were evacuated to by ground to hospitals in Kurdistan and nearly all survived, though many had life-altering wounds. While we had reacted well to the truck bomb and immediate aftermath, I did not know what the future would hold but knew we had to start figuring it out. Taking another tactical pause, I gathered with my staff at our base to begin the planning process to anticipate the potential crises that would be born from the crisis of the truck bomb. Questions we had to answer and contingencies to address were many. How would we prevent retribution attacks and a return to full sectarian violence in Tal Afar? Where would the hundreds of displaced civilians live, and how would they get basic life necessities? What would be the political fallout of this attack in Baghdad? Would this be viewed as a turning point of the Iraq War Troop Surge of 2007 in the media, and how could we shape and influence global opinion? What would we learn from this attack, and how could we prevent a repeat? What resources and help did we need to ensure we didn’t spiral into another crisis? We know we had our work cut out for us; this was only day one. While it was a tragic day I will never forget, I soon found out that all my mental and physical stamina as a leader would be further tested and pushed to its limits in the weeks and months to come. How are you taking care of yourself so you can focus on the mission first and people always? How are you planning for the next steps in addressing the reaction to the Coronavirus crisis?

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Dan Rice is President, Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point. Dan is a West Point graduate and served as an Army Infantry officer in Iraq. He has been awarded the Airborne Badge, Ranger Tab, Purple Heart and Combat Action Badge. He holds an MBA from Kellogg/Northwestern University, Masters of Marketing from Northwestern University, and is a doctoral candidate in the University of Pennsylvania Chief Learning Officer program. He is the co-author of “West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage” and has published in the Wall Street Journal, Small Wars Journal, and Chief Executive magazine. Karen Kuhla McClone, Ph.D., is Executive Director, Thayer Leader Development Group. She holds an MS degree in Education from Virginia Tech and a PhD in Education from the University of Virginia. Karen worked at GE delivering their leadership development systems and Change Acceleration Process training to healthcare executives, and as Global Program Manager, Leadership Development at GE’s Corporate University in Crotonville.