The novel coronavirus presents a challenge to leaders on various levels. First, is the virus itself. Second is the disruption to the economy, including our businesses. But based on more than 40 years of business leadership, I’ve learned that the greatest challenge leaders face is not the crisis itself but their reaction to it.
In 2003, I was named President of Thomas Nelson. It was an extremely busy time. I made some major changes to my executive team and had two vacant positions. As a result, I essentially had three jobs.
One morning on my way to work, I grabbed my computer case in my right hand, a fresh cup of coffee in my left, and headed downstairs to the garage to leave to work.
Four steps from the bottom, I slipped on the carpet. Without a free hand to grab the stair-rail, I tumbled forward. The next thing I knew, I was flat on my fanny on the landing.
I wasn’t immediately aware of any pain. However, my dress shirt and tie were soaked in coffee. I remember thinking, Shoot! I’m going to have to completely change my clothes. This was particularly frustrating, because I was already running late, and I had a very busy day ahead of me.
My wife Gail heard me fall and came running. “Are you okay?” she asked as she raced down the stairs to help me up.
“I’m fine,” I assured her. “However, I’m afraid I’ve made a mess.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she offered as she helped me up. “I can clean this up while you get changed.”
When I put my weight down on my right foot, I let out a yelp. “Oh my gosh! I think my ankle is sprained.” As it turned out, it was more than sprained. It was broken.
My day was, of course, scuttled. In fact, the next ten days were scuttled. I had to have surgery, including a plate and six screws to repair the damage. In addition, for three months I had to wear a therapeutic boot (in lieu of a cast). This couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
At this point, I could have asked myself several questions:
- Why am I so clumsy?
- Why did I have both hands full?
- Why does this have to happen now?
- Why did I have to be in such a hurry?
- What did I do to deserve this?
The problem with these questions is that they are completely unproductive and disempowering.
They are natural, of course, and probably even necessary. It’s all part of the process of grieving a loss. But ultimately there are better questions.
One of the best questions you can ask when something negative happens is this:
“What does this experience make possible?”
Do you see the subtle shift? Suddenly, your attention moves from the past—which you can’t do a thing about—to the future.
It is also an acknowledgment that nothing happens by chance. Everything has a purpose. Even the bad things can have a positive impact, when we open our hearts and accept them as “part of the plan.”
In my particular case, a broken ankle had several positive benefits:
- I couldn’t go to work for a week, so I got some much-needed rest.
- I had time to set up a new blog and start writing on a regular basis.
- I got to board first when flying and usually got to upgrade to first-class—for free.
- I learned first-hand about the challenges you face when you are in a wheel-chair or on crutches.
- I was forced to slow down and “smell the roses.”
- I saw my colleagues take more initiative and gained a new appreciation for them.
- I got to meet several people I would have otherwise never met, including an amazing surgeon who gave me a whole new perspective on what it means to integrate your faith with your profession.
- I had a ready-made conversation starter, when I met people I didn’t know.
The bottom line is this: you can’t always choose what happens to you. Accidents and tragedies happen. But you can choose how you respond to those situations. One of the best ways to begin is to ask yourself the right question.
If you’re leading an organization right now, ask yourself this question: “What does this crisis make possible for me and for my business?”