What CEOs Will Learn In Summer School

The next few months will give chief executives ample opportunity to learn how to roll with life's punches.

T.S. Eliot wasn’t kidding. April really was—at least in 2020—the cruelest month. Tens of thousands of Americans—many of them the weakest and most vulnerable among us—died. Unemployment skyrocketed. The virus continued to grind away. Life in the U.S. took on the feel of old newsreel footage.

No surprise, there’s increasing—and understandable—impatience for all of this to be over, to get back to something like normal. When will that be? Who knows. The hard part lies ahead, so we may as well make productive use of the time. Not just leading digital transformation or increasing workforce flexibility—but growing ourselves as people, as leaders. “This very moment is the perfect teacher,” the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes in When Things Fall Apart, her classic manual for learning to roll with life’s punches. “And lucky for us, it is with us wherever we are.”

So what are we studying? A few things, for sure:

• How to be resilient (or not). I remember talking with Patrick Lencioni for the last issue of Chief Executive before all this happened, and something he said stuck out. He said that compared with the generation that went through the Depression and WWII, many Americans had grown soft. It made me grumpy, but it also rang true. We’ll get plenty of chances to work on taking a punch over the next year or more.

• How to be empathetic (or not). Weeks of bad news and constant worry will erode our patience and our ability to put ourselves in the place of our fellows. Whether they be family, neighbors, employees, co-workers, customers—we’re all spending a lot of time with the foibles of others. Can we continue to love them, or at least not strangle them? This coming election cycle will ramp up the degree of difficulty. What fun.

• How to be courageous (or not). At my summer camp in the 1970s (and yeah, it was a pretty old-school summer camp), they made us memorize “If” by Kipling. You remember: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” etc. We had no idea why we had to read a dead Victorian’s ode to stoicism instead of swimming. Now I get it. Thanks to coronavirus, we’ll get ample opportunity to face our fears and press on—or fold.

• How to accept reality (or not). Maybe we’ll find a vaccine for this by fall. Maybe not. Maybe it won’t spread as fast as predicted or kill as many people as we worry it could, or force the economy to close again. Maybe not. No matter what, we’ll get the chance to face what’s actually happening. First we’ll do it with undue optimism or overwrought pessimism or reflexive political partisanship or impatience or anger. And the virus won’t care. So we’ll arrive at some acceptance of reality, instead of our hopes for reality. Or not. We’ll change and grow stronger as a result. Or not.

What will we learn from coronavirus? That’s up to each of us. Class begins now.

Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net and Boardmember.com. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.