I took a digital sabbath yesterday. I ended up doing three things.
- Read The End of October by Lawrence Wright
- Took a nap
- Watched three episodes of Breaking Bad
I feel so much better than I did at the end of the day Friday. After I finish this blog post, I’m going to participate in the Emerge Family Virtual 5k.
The End of October was intense. It’s the story of a modern day pandemic. It’s fiction, but deeply researched. I have no idea how much was modified to suit the actual reality, but given the time frame for publishing most books, my guess is “not that much.”
I was shocked by how close the ramp-up was to what has actually happened during the Covid crisis. The pandemic movies have similar ramp-ups, but other than Contagion have happy Hollywood endings. In contrast, many books do not. There is no happy ending in The End of October.
Wright did an amazing job of showing the collision of politics and science, economics and health, and top-down control vs. distributed collaboration. Some authors spend too much time “telling.” Wright just used his story to show, and show, and show.
We are still early on in the Covid-19 pandemic – probably 25% of the way through Wright’s book. The darkness in the last 75% is a fundamental warning for us in one way this can go. While I’m ultimately optimistic, I’m not at all comfortable with or confident in much of anything right now.
The End of October is a dose of heavy medicine for anyone who thinks “this is no big deal” or “this is all over” or “this is heading on a good path that can’t be derailed.” I’m not suggesting any of these things are true or false, but rather recommending the book as perspective on the bad path that might be in front of us.
It’s a beautiful day in Colorado. The animals are everywhere, enjoying spring. Amy and I are in our pajamas, experiencing a typical Sunday morning. But, we are aware that the overall context we are living in is very different than what we are used to.
Over the past week, I’ve done a handful of podcasts to help entrepreneurs, leaders, and employees at startups to help think through how to respond in a crisis. I’ve requested that anything I do right now on this front is made public, so if anyone is interested, they can watch them.
The first, hosted by David Cohen, is with Scott Dorsey, Paul Berberian, and Berne Strom. Scott, Paul, Berne, and I are all “older entrepreneurs and investors” who have been through multiple crises dating back to 1987.
As a bonus, Fred Wilson also did a Panic with Friends with Howard which was excellent.
I’ve allocated a max one hour a day during the weekday for participating in creating content like this during the week as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds, but I’ll continue doing this as long as I feel like I have fresh things to contribute.
This cliche, which has uncertain attribution (Winston Churchill, Rahm Emmanuel, M. F. Weiner) is a priceless line that gets tossed out periodically, especially in the middle of a crisis.
Over the years I’ve been involved in many business crises. I qualify this, since my crises have never involved life and death or the survival of the human race. But they are still crises. Some have lasted moments while others have lasted months, and I can think of one that went on for three years – or at least took three years to dig out of.
I’ve only occasionally been in the CEO (or equivalent) role during a crisis. Most of the time I’m a board member or investor. As a result, I’ve participated in dealing with the crisis, but I’ve also been able to observe the behavior of the leader during the crisis. While I’ve had to go throw up in the bathroom after a particularly distressing conference call more than once, I’ve been fortunate to be able to be one level removed from the essence of the crisis.
A typical leader has a natural tendency is to be defensive in the face of a crisis. The first reaction is to blame someone – or something – else. Often the blame is aimed at something abstract or non-controllable, which often has nothing to do with the crisis, but is adjacent to whatever is going on so it’s an easy target. As soon as the blame is out there, the attack begins, which often causes others to be defensive, generating a vicious cycle of anger, hostility, frustration, and obfuscation at the beginning of the crisis.
Over time, I’ve learned that the best leaders take a completely different approach. When the crisis erupts, rather than immediately go into action, she pauses and takes a deep breath. She starts collecting data about what is happening. In parallel, she communicates the crisis to the key people who need to be involved – the board, the leadership team, and anyone specifically engaged in the crisis.
If the crisis lasts moments, rapid action is critical. But if it’s simply the beginning of a broader issue, especially one where the root cause isn’t known yet, the worst thing a leader can do is act immediately. As a teenager, my dad taught me about the idea of unintended consequences and I’ve had the experience, and how to deal with it, pounded into my soul over the years.
If you want to understand this better, I encourage you to read Charles Perrow’s classic book from 1984 – Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies. I often forget to mention it when asked which books have influenced me the most – Normal Accidents is in the top 10.
So, you are now in the crisis. As CEO, you feel an immense need to address whatever is causing the crisis and resolve it. But that’s only half of it. If all you do is focus on solving the crisis, you are missing the big opportunity, which is to learn from it and integrate it into the fabric of your company. It’s not that you won’t ever have a crisis again – you most certainly will. But if you can change the way your company functions in the context of a crisis in a positive way, you can actually get some value out of the crisis.
Don’t forget to breathe.