Leaning Into Crisis

Hitting the brakes is an intuitive response, but times like these require CEOs employ counterintuitive thinking—and action.

Almost daily I read well-intended alerts from professional firms offering advice and guidance in navigating the COVID-19 crisis. Each is a little different from the next, usually due to the subject matter expertise of the author but, there is a common thread in all, and it reminds me of a seemingly unrelated lesson learned years ago.

In a casual Monday morning conversation, a colleague shared with me his weekend training at Watkins Glen race track. It wasn’t the high speeds he achieved that got my attention but his explanation of how to regain control of a vehicle that sharply swerves at a high speed and begins to shake. Who’d have thought…you don’t brake, you accelerate!

Not long after that, going 70+ MPH on the thruway, a truck ahead of me threw a tire and it came racing and bouncing straight at me. I swerved hard to get out of its path and my car began to shake uncontrollably. But, remembering the lesson from the racetrack, I didn’t brake; I accelerated and regained control.

COVID-19 is much like that tire. Some enterprises braked when they saw it coming and the shake has since gotten worse. Others accelerated and regained control. Hitting the brakes is intuitive, but times like these require counter intuitive thinking. Fortunately, there are many CEOs and their executive teams who did just that. Early on, they got ahead of it and haven’t looked back. They didn’t think twice about a paradigm shift; they prioritized employee wellbeing and customer commitments above all else and did so with no apologies.

Every day they reevaluate their action plans, altering course as conditions demand. They think logically, decide with compassion and implement with precision. They keep board members well informed of their enterprise’s challenges, and the actions taken to meet them and while they encourage input, they don’t delay decisions waiting for consensus. They are prescriptive in the moment; this is not a time for “what do you think we should do” but a time for “this is what we are doing.” They lead!

A shared characteristic, those who lead worry more about others than themselves. They are first in and last out, virtual in their responsibilities. They provide strength and reassurance to those around them and some think of their role in crisis as their destiny. They are not heroic, they are stoic, and they pay a heavy price.

Who do they turn to for strength? Some turn to peers, some to key advisors and some to board members. And, many stay centered by connecting to their spiritual roots, a connection worth making for all of us as well—in times like these.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.