I like watching how my kids with a few toys in their hands, and their imagination at play, can create elaborate battles with sophisticated plots. Sometimes I get invited into their imaginative arena to join their forces to fight the enemies. Today we are all invited to fight an enemy we can’t see, but we have given it a name: COVID-19 (or more accurately SARS-CoV-2).
We have portrayed the virus as an enemy that we ought to fight. We are drawn into, or perhaps we are being sucked into, the sophisticated narratives with elaborate explanations and justifications. Our politicians are becoming generals overnight. They are talking of wars and are calling us into the battle. Every household and office is now a battlefield. They make speeches; some even resemble battle cries.
Except there is no battle to be fought and there is no battlefield to move into. I am not convinced this is a war, or a battle, or even a fight in a schoolyard. The virus does not try to fight us. It does what it always does: it comes and goes. Every year viruses like cold and flu visit our homes in droves, and after a few days or weeks, they go. They intrude into our lives. They are rude. They never knock on the door. We have no idea where they come from or where they go. Admittedly, some people die, particularly those who may have relatively serious existing health problems (in the UK during the current season as of early March 2020, 100 people died from flu, ten years ago it was 600+). This happened in my family too. Yet for the majority of us, such visits resemble more of a nuisance guest than an enemy. We do not like them, but we can't get just get rid of them either. We learned to cope with them, not fight.
It seems from experience that the most sensible response to cold or flu is to accept it and try to live with it for a few days or weeks, rather than attempt to control it. We even came up with a saying: if you treat a flu it goes in seven days, and if you do not then it takes a week. Generally, we do not get agitated, because if we do then we are creating a problem in our heads. Instead, we just get on with it. Many of us even choose to go into work, even though the medical advice is to stay at home and rest. Perhaps we think of cold and flu as something familiar, and we treat them as such. We know how to cope and what to do: rest, drink and take painkillers. It helps to moan about it too (we even developed subtle ways of doing it). We also know what not to do: no antibiotics, no strenuous activities, no panic. We are poor at heeding the first two, but generally okay with the third. Indeed, there is never a sense of public panic. Why would we, right?
Yet somehow with COVID-19 we seem to be doing things differently. We've managed to lose that sense of having to cope and created a plot that does not make sense either. A few years ago, I bought a board game where reading and re-reading the rules did not make sense (they were poorly translated and poorly articulated). Poor instructions are common, but at some point, you think “screw it, let’s just do it, and work it out by playing the game”. We gain sense by doing it. But not with this game. The more I played it the more I realised that the moves just did not make sense and my attempt to modify the rules only made things worse. A poor plot combined with intentions that didn't make sense created more confusion and frustration. Our narrative becomes too dramatic and our actions too drastic.
In this time of confusion, we need to make sense of what is going on around us and figure out what the sensible actions are. Our common-sense ways of dealing with such viruses have been disrupted, just as the plots we created do not help us to move forward sensibly either. We are stuck... so we end up plunging ourselves into non-sense which breeds non-sensible actions. It seems that we need to reframe the problem. We’ve given the virus a name, but not defined its true identity or meaning. We can cope with cold and flu; yet we are led to believe that we can’t cope with COVID-19. We have constructed a narrative, which we no longer can absorb. We can blame the virus for this crisis, yet it is ourselves who are creating the plot. Continuing with the existing narrative that the virus is an enemy and calling people into arms is nothing more than an imagination. If we want to draw any parallels with the Second World War (as some politicians have done), then we could adopt a different aspect from that experience: keep calm and carry on. But as leaders, how do we facilitate a different sense of what’s going on to help our people through this crisis? What would help us to keep calm so that we can move on without plunging into a sense of despair or defeat?
As leaders, we have to act amidst ambiguity and disruption. Yet we may find ourselves reacting by succumbing to groupthink or adopting the dominant view. We can become trapped in those narratives like a fly in a fly-bottle. Once a fly finds itself in a fly-bottle it tries to get out by knocking against the glass. It reacts. It becomes agitated. It moves frantically. Then it exhausts itself and dies. One thing that the fly fails to do is to look up and see the opening that would allow it to escape. When confusion reigns, we can easily succumb to the views of those with vocal platforms, especially if their explanations are elaborate. The politicians, the media, some random guy on LinkedIn; they are all keen to provide us with a sense of what is going on and give us directions. The noise of questionable narratives is overpowering and makes it difficult to think clearly and find the signal. It makes it hard to find the opening in the fly-bottle.
Jonathan Sacks asks, “what would happen if we did the precise opposite of what is expected”? It can be easy to be defined by our circumstances, especially when they push us to our limits, making it hard to question our views of those circumstances or our frames. Viktor Frankl, a psychotherapist and a Holocaust survivor, speaks of how some of his fellow prisoners refused to be defined by the conditions of the camp or the behaviours of others. They maintained the “independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress”. As leaders, if we are to provide the support needed by our people, then we need that “independence of mind” in the midst of all the noise, the competing narratives and the pressures to react. We need to look up.
About the author: Ibrat Djabbarov
Prior to joining Cranfield School of Management, Ibrat's work focused on leading strategic change and innovation to improve healthcare in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. At Cranfield, Ibrat studies how organisations navigate through complex environments and accomplish systems change. Ibrat holds an MD, MSc in Global Health (Oxford) and MBA (Henley). His blog - www.metamanaging.org - explores how we live and lead in the complex world.