Lessons Learned and Re-Learned (and Still Learning)


A Lifetime of Crises

I have some vague memories of blizzards and heat waves from childhood, but my first memories of crises was in my early 20s.

In 1973 and 1979 we experienced “energy crises” where I remember waiting in line to get gasoline – along with a lot of other frustrated, angry people.  For a period of time, license plates that ended in odd numbers were allowed to go one day; even numbered the next.  Gas stations ran out of gas and people panicked.

In 1974, President Gerald Ford tried to encourage personal savings and disciplined spending habits with his “Whip Inflation Now (WIN)” campaign.  I remember round buttons with “WIN” on them that everyone was supposed to wear.  I think I wore mine upside down (NIM).

Three-Mile Island was the “worst nuclear energy accident in U.S. history” and it took place in 1979, less than 20 miles from my home.  I can remember my wife and I listening to the news and hearing Bryant Gumbel announce that there had a been a meltdown and we should evacuate immediately.  What followed was pandemonium as we thought about what we should take with us, where we would go, and how long (forever?) we’d have to be away.  Thankfully, Bryant was wrong, and we were able to stay at home.

WIN didn’t work too well because, by 1981, the prime interest rate reached 20%.  A friend of mine was starting a business and couldn’t get the banks to loan him money, so he offered “prime + 1%” to his friends who could loan him the money to keep his business going.  While we didn’t have much money to lend him, you couldn’t beat the return on investment.

October 19, 1987 I was working for an international business.  My mentor came in and had this look of shock on his face.  He was retired and had moved to Lancaster from Chicago.  He told me the stock market had crashed and that we were in for “big trouble.”  The Dow Jones fell 508 points that day, which was a 22.6% drop which led to the “Crash of 1987.”  I later realized it meant a whole lot more to him than to me at that point in my life.

In the early 1990s, another large recession hit, contributing to George H.W. Bush’s defeat in the presidential election.  Many economists believe this was caused by restrictive monetary policy enacted by central banks primarily in response to inflation concerns.

Ten years after that the “dot-com bubble” wiped out all the gains from the adoption of the internet and related companies that sprung up overnight.  Wild speculation took point at that time.  During the late 1990s, I remember a boss of mine saying, “For the first time, we don’t have to worry about getting money for our business. Anybody can get it.” Until they couldn’t.

During the late 2000s, a worldwide economic crisis shook the foundations of many of our businesses and changes were thrust upon many leaders were forced to adjust to the changing rules of their respective games.

People of my generation have experienced one kind of crisis or another at least nine times in our lifetimes.  Our parents could list even more (The Great Depression and World War II to name a few).  While what we’re going through now is unprecedented, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned that may have relevance and help you navigate this pandemic.

Five Lessons I’ve Learned

  1. Anxiety Rules

The predominant emotion that we see all around us is anxiety.  People everywhere are freaking out.  “What’s going to happen?”  “When will this be over?”  “Will I run out of groceries – or toilet paper?”  “What will happen to my job and the organization for which I work?”  “Will I get this disease and be severely impacted or die?”

Anxiety is the inability or unwillingness to accept uncertainty in life.  Because we’re constantly involved in predicting the way our lives “should” go, when we don’t see the future clearly (which is most always), we fall into anxiety.  No person on earth can predict the future accurately 100% of the time (the 10-day weather forecast is right only about half the time.  Why don’t we have anxiety over the weather?)

Alan Sieler writes, “We can live in a background of fear, sometime very subtle, that negative things will happen we will not be able to deal with.  It’s an assessment that the imagined effects of negative events will be devastating and overwhelming.”

Our “stories” (the internal narrative that we create) runs our emotional state.  Here’s one way to examine the story:

  • Fully explore the negative story about the future that is being held (we live the story we create as though it were a true fact).  Ask yourself:
    • What will happen?
    • What will it look like?
    • What will it sound like?
    • What will happen next?
    • What will be the effect on me?
    • What will that do to my life?
    • How do I know this is going to happen?

When we accept the uncertainty of our living, we generate the emotion of “curiosity.”  Another way to shift from anxiety is to begin using “I wonder…” language.  Simply by using that phrase, you shift from anxiety.

Leaders need to recognize when anxiety is beginning to take over, step back, take three deep breaths, center themselves, and move into “I wonder…”

  1. We Never “Go Back to Normal”

Every time we experience a crisis, I know that the first thing I’ll hear from many people is “I can’t wait until things go back to normal.”  While some of our daily routines might return, the social, business, and interpersonal environment never does.

During my career with the PA School Board Association, I traveled extensively throughout the state.  What saddened me the most were those communities where they were “waiting for steel or coal to come back.”  Their communities continue to decay as they wait for something that will never happen.

Many businesses refused to accommodate the changes required during the 2008 meltdown.  All the rules seemed to change, yet some leaders were unphased and continued to insist on “business as usual.”  For many of those businesses, they either dramatically downsized or, tragically, went out of business.

We do go forward to a “new normal” and we have the opportunity to “make things happen; watch things happen; or wonder what happened?”  Now is the time to begin to shape the future you want to experience.  What is this current pandemic teaching you about how you and your coworkers get things done?  What new opportunities are you beginning to see emerge?  What areas of your organization are lacking and need attention?  Which processes and systems have become painfully outdated and how do you plan to improve them?

According to Jim Collins, leaders “confront the brutal facts, but never lose hope.”

  1. “Abundant/Growth” Mindset Wins

Carol Dweck wrote, “Mindset,” a book that describes two kinds of ways we think about our situation.

  • Fixed – people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.  They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.  They also believe that talent alone create success – without effort.
  • Growth – “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point.  This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Carol Dweck, “Mindset”)

Stephen Covey describes two kinds of “mentalities”

Scarcity Mentality

  • Life only has so much. If someone else gets a piece of the pie, it means less for everybody else
  • Difficulty sharing recognition and credit, power or profit, even with those who help in the production
  • Have a very hard time being genuinely happy for the successes of other people; feel like something is taken from them when someone else receives special recognition or has achievement
  • Verbally express happiness for others, but inwardly eating their hearts out
  • Sense of worth comes from being compared to others (win-lose)
  • Harbor secret hopes that others might suffer misfortune that would “keep them in their place”
  • Always comparing; always competing
  • Want other people to be the way they want them to be; Surround themselves with “yes” people who won’t challenge them or are weaker than them
  • Difficult for them to be part of a complementary team
  • Look at differences as signs of disloyalty or insubordination

Abundance Mentality

  • Flows out of a deep inner sense of personal worth and security; there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody
  • Takes personal joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment and turns it outwards
  • Appreciate the uniqueness, inner direction, and proactive nature of others
  • Recognizes the unlimited possibilities for positive interactive growth and development, creating new Third Alternatives
  • Success in effective interaction that brings mutually beneficial results to everyone involved
  • Working together, communicating together, making things happen together that even the same people couldn’t make happen by working independently
  • Genuineness in human interaction

Abundance mentality/Growth mindset is important to maintain during and after a crisis.  It’s a leadership imperative during these times.

  1. Everything is Emptying and Filling

Curtis Watkins, my long-time personal coach, introduced me to the concept of “emptying and filling.”  In nature, everything empties and fills.  You can’t breathe in for three minutes; you have to exhale.  The trees have to lose their leaves so that they can replenish themselves in the spring.  The sun sets and light empties from the earth, only to be filled with light the next day.  The tide rises and the tide falls (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem by this name captures this concept well).

During a crisis, there’s an opportunity to empty from some of the habits, ways of working, and “priorities” that we habitually engage in.  Cleaning out my desk, examining what books I really need to have and which I can give away, reframing my physical well-being (diet, exercise, and sleep), and identifying what gets in the way of my spiritual practices are ways I’ve been practicing this gift of “emptying” and more consciously deciding what I want to fill it with.

What’s on your list for yourself – and your organization?

  1. New Opportunities Abound

Chuck Swindoll said, “We are constantly faced with incredible opportunities, cleverly disguised as impossible situations.”

What’s your new value proposition?  Now, more than ever, you have a chance to better articulate your value to your customers by investigating their

  • Needs
  • Gains they’re looking to make
  • Pains they’re experiencing

Conduct check-ins (especially with your “most valuable customers”)

  • What are they experiencing?
    • Personally
    • As a company
  • What are their greatest needs right now?
  • What help could you offer?
    • What could you do?
    • Who do you know who might be able to help them?

While this crisis may seem overwhelming at present, I’m confident that it will eventually pass and that, with leaders like you, we’ll be able to work at making our organizations better places to work, serving our clients and constituencies differently, and contributing to making our world a better place.

© Geoff Davis 3/27/20

5 thoughts on “Lessons Learned and Re-Learned (and Still Learning)

  1. eeckhp00

    Always a pleasure to read your thoughts and putting thing in perspective. Good reminder. Thank you. Hope all is well in Lancaster county. Take care of you and loved ones

    1. Thanks, Pierre. We’re finishing our second week of staying home and I’m working with clients via Zoom. Hope you’re all doing well and staying safe and virus-free. All the best, Geoff

  2. riv105

    I can even relate to this ….in a very small way …but it is a very uplifting lesson…thanks

    Love to you…Mom


  3. Paul Davis

    Thanks bro, when talking to a coworker about the current crisis I was trying to recall a time where a crisis endured as long as this one has. I told him the closest I could remember was waiting for hours in gas lines with my older brother before going to work.

  4. pbrjdavis

    I was talking with a coworker about the current crisis and tried to recall anything similar. The closest thing I could remember that endured as long as this has was waiting in gas lines for hours on odd numbered days with my older brother before we went to work. Thanks Bro!

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