I had a family vacation planned for March break 2020 to Florida. It was a Christmas gift to my children from their grandparents and they were excited. A day at Disney World, a day at the Kennedy Space Center, and maybe even some fishing in the Gulf! And then the world changed… and we adapted. With the reality of our day-to-day life changing almost by the minute over the past week, I thought I’d share my thoughts on how my wife and I dealt with the emerging situation. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but it seems clear to me that the crisis leadership required in today’s environment is like something we have never seen before.

My Story

With our trip planned to depart on March 12 from Hamilton, Ontario to Orlando, Florida, we watched the news carefully with news of COVID-19 outbreaks starting in new corners of the world. Iran and Italy were the new hot spots and we were starting to see cases expand in Canada as well.

On the morning of March 12, my wife and I sat down together and decided that based on what we were seeing that we felt comfortable continuing with our trip. The spread in Canada was slow. Florida had very few cases and mostly around the cruise ships. We were staying in a house with family, not a resort or hotel with lots of people around. It seemed like the rational answer that morning.

On the airplane as we taxied to the runway the person seated behind me said, “Well the kids will be happy… the schools are closed for two weeks after March Break”. It was too late for me to get any more details because I’d already switched to airplane mode, but it was clear already that things were moving more quickly than we could imagine.

Arriving in Orlando I was able to check the news and confirm the steps that the Province of Ontario was taking, but things still seemed relatively calm so we continued on, picked up our rental car, and headed to the house.

Over the next several days things started moving even more quickly. Disney World was closing. The Kennedy Space Center was closing. Social distancing became common vocabulary. And then the borders started closing.

Every day we checked in together on what the right next step was. Get earlier flights? Plan to drive home? Stay put and wait? Every day we adjusted our approach based on the best available information. And ultimately we came home one day earlier than planned. The situation had just changed too much.

Our Decisions

In times of emerging crisis it may not be clear that a crisis is even happening. It’s the “calm before the storm” that we hear about. Everything seems normal and in control. Until it isn’t.

In retrospect with all the knowledge I have today I could have caused less stress on myself and my family by postponing our vacation completely and not leaving when we did. But I didn’t have the benefit of that knowledge then. And my original decision was rational at the time. I can beat myself up over it or I can focus on the next decision.

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When things start changing quickly, we need to move to crisis mode quickly. That means focusing on what’s next, and not what you might have done differently last. Focusing on the recent past clouds your judgement and takes away important energy. You need your wits about you to deal with the current information and the next decision.

And so that’s what we did. Every day and sometimes multiple times a day we checked in together. We sourced the most accurate information sources. We stayed away from emotion and speculation. We focused on the facts.

With the closure of Disney World and Kennedy Space Center we adjusted our schedules, eliminated one of the things we were going to do, and then prepared everyone to manage the risk. We were able to get to Disney before the closure, but we attended with individual bags of Lysol Wipes and hand sanitizer, made regular visits to the washrooms to wash hands, and reinforced to children to avoid touching as much as possible and keep their hands away from their faces. Much like the choice to leave, looking back this seems like a decision that had some risk with the knowledge we have now, but it was rational and reasonable at the time. I wouldn’t change it.

As more information emerged and the Canadian government issued instructions to those who were out of the country, we also had to make choices. The alarmist messaging was that the government told us all to come home now. The actual messaging from the government was to assess commercial options to come home and if they became more limited to consider coming home early. So that’s what we did.

Our flights were still scheduled. There were many options to get home. There was no reason to strain the system and rush things. So we didn’t. But we did choose to essentially isolate ourselves with our family in the rented house and minimize our public activities. And that was also the right choice. Based on the best information at the time.

When word came that the US and Canada were closing borders, we made a different decision. We moved our flights up to the next available flight even though it was only 24 hours before our planned departure date. Surely not a significant benefit to get out one day earlier, but in our minds it was time. So we did it.

Our Crisis Leadership Approach

At every stage of our “vacation” we had to make tough decisions, and we really followed the same approach for every one of them:

  • Understand the Facts
    You can’t get sucked into alarmist messages or opinions. You need to understand the facts. Don’t believe every meme you see on Facebook or every “opinion” you see on the news. Go to the best sources and read carefully. The words matter so you need to build a clear understanding first.
  • Understand the Decision Required
    With a firm understanding of facts, assess your own situation and the decision that needs to be made. What facts are most important for your own situation. What facts are just noise or perhaps aren’t relevant to your immediate decision? Simplify the decision so you don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis.
  • Make a Decision
    This seems like an obvious one, but you actually need to make a decision. It is important to recognize that action is critical in the face of crisis. Recognize that not making a decision is in itself a decision and take action.
  • Check in Regularly and Reflect/Repeat
    The path through a crisis won’t be linear. Keep checking in and reflecting on the decision you made and the situation that is evolving. As new information and facts emerge, you need to repeat this cycle. That doesn’t mean revisiting your last decision though. That means moving on to the next decision to be made.
  • Don’t be afraid to be WRONG
    If you work through each decision one by one you will make lots of decisions that viewed through retrospect will appear wrong. But remember you made every choice based on the information and facts of the time. You can’t change what went before. You can only make new decisions based on the new facts and situation.
  • Stay Calm
    Decisions in a crisis can’t be emotional. And if you don’t stay calm you will definitely make emotional decisions. Make sure you stay calm at every step. Don’t use emotional language. Stick to facts. Check in with how others are feeling about the facts of the moment. Check in with the people around you to understand what they need to feel comfortable.

What’s Next?

To be honest I don’t know. But I know I’ll continue to deal with the evolving situation both at home and at work in the same way because it is working.

My family is home, safe, and as calm as can be expected about spending the next 14 days in self-isolation in a small house that’s mid-renovation.

My team at work is focused on what matters, driving to results, and collaborating well to support our clients even though we are learning to work entirely remotely and having some issues with communication tools at times.

I’m surrounded by an amazing family and work team that are focused on getting us through this crisis together. We support each other. We check in. We focus on facts. We drive to decisions. And we are not afraid to change course.

These are unprecedented times to say the least. I think the pace of change is only going to increase. The demand for leadership is higher today than ever before. And I’m proud to be part of the family and team that I get to be who are providing that leadership.

Stay safe.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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