By Anne Harbison
"We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations." - Charles Swindoll
Naomi loved the thrill of a crisis. This is what I was made for, she thought every time she got the call to turn around a failing business, squash a public relations disaster, or revive a dysfunctional team.
A renowned fixer, Naomi lived up to her reputation of being calm under pressure, savvy, and decisive. Supremely confident in her well-honed abilities, Naomi felt that a crisis brought out the best of her—until she faced a crisis of her own.
On her forty-fifth birthday, in response to a yearly mammogram, she received devastating news. She had advanced breast cancer, the disease that had taken her mother at the same age.
After the diagnosis, Naomi went into crisis management mode, contacting experts, researching, rallying her friends and family, and adopting a strict organic nutrition plan. But six months into her...
In the depths of 2020, I joined many in a Netflix binge of “The Queen’s Gambit.” I'm not a chess player, but the mounting tension of the competitions and mind maneuvers was irresistible.
Along with being a welcome distraction from the rising toll of Covid-19, the show got me thinking about the metaphors we use when facing problems in our lives. When you face a problem or crisis, are you charging the hill? Taking the bull by the horns? Beating down the door? Running a marathon?
Playing a game of chess?
As humans, we tend to frame crises by searching for certainty, concentration, and closure.
For example, in chess, the rules are specific and consistent. Because of this certainty, players can practice, refine their skills, and even develop mastery within those unchanging parameters.
Then, there’s concentration: keeping the player grounded and free from distraction. A win depends on the sustained concentration of the player as...
In their book Strengths-Based Leadership, authors Tom Rath and Barry Conchie share Gallup's ground-breaking study about what we need most from leaders. Along with trust, compassion, and hope, we yearn for stability.
If we don't know who and what we can count on, how can we feel safe? If we don't know what is expected of us, how do we move forward?
It's especially important to find stability when the world seems to be cracking open beneath us. We may not always find comfort in our leaders but we have sources from within that can give us grounding and guidance when we need it most.
One of the first things I work through with leaders and companies in the midst of crisis or a challenging transition is the THRIVE model. We identify their Talents, Home Team, Relationships, Impact, Values, and Experiences.
By naming and claiming what’s still stable, life-giving, true, and reliable at the onset of a crisis, we know exactly what resources we...
Some crises erupt without warning. An explosive, defining event (a diagnosis, an accident, an unexpected death) sends debris from our "before" lives ricocheting around us. Overcome with disbelief and grief, we grapple with the reality that nothing will be the same.
Other crises emerge slowly. A marriage that has simmered with tension for years finally boils over. We find ourselves depleted after years of being in a job that never fit our passions or talents, now wondering if we’ve wasted years of our life. The demise happens gradually, but wreckage remains all the same.
Whether through eruption or erosion, a crisis leaves us wondering how we will pick up the pieces. It's easy to feel powerless in those moments, but we actually have many choices that make all the difference.
Crisis as a Choice Point
The Greek word for crisis, krisis, means “to distinguish, choose, or decide.” In truth, crisis is more about the choices we make in the aftermath of challenge than...
"To fashion an inner story of our pain carries us into the heart of it, which is where rebirth
inevitability occurs." - Sue Monk Kidd
You'd know that I grew up in Kentucky, I was a national speech competitor in college, and my first job was at Procter & Gamble. I received my doctorate researching leadership development. I've been married to my college sweetheart, Steve, for over twenty years. We love being parents.
Pretty basic stuff, which makes it a tame (and lame) icebreaker in the retreats I facilitate for leadership teams. But conversations like these get more interesting when we start telling the stories behind the stories. So...
Before joining P&G, I spent a year with a music group that traveled around the world. We were in Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall came down, performing in the shipyards of Gdańsk where Poland was invaded at the start of WW2.
After P&G, I joined an...
Back in 2000, I was a doctoral student researching how thriving professionals had recovered from a major career crisis. Their stories were not run-of-the-mill career speed bumps: they were about collapsed businesses, lost elections, medical errors leading to unnecessary death, ethical breaches, dishonorable military actions. Their failures were public, personal, and deeply humiliating. They suffered loss, not only of reputation and pride, but real collateral damage.
What fascinated me was that these calamities were not the end of their stories. They had not gone into hiding (at least for long). They had some how regrouped, honestly faced what had happened, and gained deeper insight into who they were and what was most important to them. They spoke openly, even eagerly, to me about the journey from barely surviving professionally to truly thriving with a renewed sense of purpose and integrity.
For two decades I've thought about sharing their stories and my research...
For many years I've advised my clients to routinely find 10% extra margin in their lives. During times of stress and crisis, this practice is vital. More than ever, we need emotional margin to process the turmoil we're experiencing. We need more psychological elbow room to respond to events that have thrown us off our game.
In times of crisis, we logistically and spiritually need extra room for space and grace. Carving out a 10% margin is the most practical way I've found to do that. One small decision, one small choice at a time.
10% less emails.
10% less social media.
10% more time getting ready for the day.
10% more time winding down for the evening.
10% more space between you and the car in front of you.
10% more time listening than talking.
10% more time being than doing.
10% changes everything. Maybe even your life.
Think about a typical 40-hour work week (remember those?). Can you imagine being handed a stress-free four hours each week - an...
Working harder, longer, faster may be the way to climb the first part of your career ladder. But is there an end in sight? Decades of drive can easily turn into a grueling treadmill of effort and exhaustion. That's a dangerous place to be in the middle of a crisis. Now is the time to purposely navigate, not mindlessly execute. Stepping back to allow others to step up has its benefits.
There is hardly a senior executive that I coach who isn't in some way caught in what I call the "Achiever's Dilemma." Their success is a testament to their stamina, but increasingly the "good soldier" drive feels more like a tyrannical trap.
Getting stuff done matters. Of course! Executing with excellence is important, sure. In times of crisis and complexity, however, what we need to "execute" changes as new data, insights, and needs emerge. Dexterity actually matters more than drive. If we're too busy racing down the highway to bother to stop for gas or ask for directions, where...
Is your work in the world your job? Your professional training? A deeper sense of values and mission that drive you? What if all of those were the same thing?
Our toddlers attend a fabulous Montessori school in our community. We were new to this approach and were surprised to learn that each activity (chosen freely by each child) is called "work." Art, blocks, puzzles, measuring cups, taking care of plants - whatever "work" they choose captures their full attention without adult instruction. The children "at work" are present, engaged, and delighted. And without bells, whistles, or wifi.
I was struck by the power of this basic idea - that our “work” in the world (whether we are seven or seventy) comes from giving our full attention to what most captivates and compels us. If we really believed and honored that can you imagine how engaging and creative our workplaces would be?
Unfortunately, as working adults, most of us have had a workplace...
I don't envy the public health and education professionals who are having to make difficult going-back-to-school decisions. It's tricky. There's no way to please everyone. Compromise, even sacrifice, will be involved. The statistical variables change daily. And the stakes are literally life and death. Godspeed.
Fortunately, not all the big decisions that COVID has introduced are as dramatic. Still, weighing personal options regarding schooling, childcare, finances, health care, etc. can be disorienting and draining. You're not alone if you look around and sometimes wonder "How the hell did we get here?" We're standing at a crossroad on a journey we didn't even mean to take.
As for me, I've been at a career crossroad (which has felt like a busy intersection at times) for almost a year. Last fall, I decided to take a break to get serious about my health. That turned into a sabbatical to finally write my Never Waste a Crisis book. Then, right as I was ready to dive back into consulting...
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