Leadership in crisis: How my personal health crisis prepared me to manage now

There are words you hope you never hear inside a doctor’s office, and if they come, they take your breath away and nothing is really ever quite the same. A doctor shared those words with me in July of 2013, a gut-punch straight to the solar plexus. I had been diagnosed with a disease that has no cure. My world, my self-concept, my life was altered that day. And I’m vividly aware that all of us, on some level, have been affected by the words we never wanted to hear: the first case of novel coronavirus has been confirmed in our city, or state, or home.

As the crisis has unfolded over the past weeks in Arkansas and across the globe, I’m witnessing the emotional swings, irrational ruminations and stressful decisions we are all having to make. I believe, based on my communications with others, that most of us feel deeply ill-prepared to navigate this unknown territory. 

Yet for me this is not an unfamiliar place. I’m using the skills I’ve learned from managing my personal health crisis and ultimately finding my way to a path that has me healthy–even thriving–despite my diagnosis. I’d like to share these skills in hopes they may be of benefit to you.

Don’t confuse reacting with responding

At the moment of learning my diagnosis, my brain was bathed in a hormonal slurry of adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones as my amygdala took the reins and made a valiant attempt to protect me via that ancient flight or fight response. I wanted to jump out of my chair, to do something–now! I would have said yes to any drug or treatment plan offered at that moment; I thought I would go crazy if I didn’t act. It was completely understandable, but not necessarily helpful. I had to learn that the best decisions can’t be determined under the influence of the amygdala hijack. Indeed, the opposite is true and we’ve seen that played out as folks attempted “crisis management” by flooding stores and hoarding toilet paper–but not actually sitting down and formulating a Covid plan for their businesses or families. And my guess is, those folks didn’t think to wash their hands in that moment either.

Leaders cannot afford to make reactive decisions in response to crisis. At the moment of my crisis, I made myself slow down and not make any decisions right away. I asked my doctor an important question: what are the consequences of waiting to decide? How long can I have to determine a plan and path for myself? This allowed me days, even weeks to research, contemplate, talk to my family and develop a plan that was right for me. Reacting can be very costly in crisis; responding is just what we need our leaders to do. 

Of course, the amygdala creates a fight or flight response. I’ve seen evidence of leaders who were more inclined to flee at the outset of the news of the outbreak. They seemed to hunker down into a protective stance, or dismiss the threat and in doing so failed to respond to the reality and develop plans to keep their employees and customers safe. This is also a reaction—not a response. 

So in the coming months, ask yourself, how long do I realistically have to create a plan for bringing my business back online, or my employees back to work? What research do I need to do in order to respond in an informed and sensible way? Take the time to respond to unfolding scenarios from a position of calm and control, not reactivity.

No leader is an island

Leadership can certainly be lonely–the buck stops with us; there is no one above us to make the final determination. Our organizations will thrive or fail based on our own performances. After 30 years as a business owner, I certainly understood this, but I had to actually step into a leadership role regarding my health, something so many people have trouble doing. And as I embodied leadership in response to my diagnosis, I became even more sharply aware that I literally couldn’t lead without a team. I had to put together a health and wellness team that was as invested in a great outcome as I was. I spent two years interviewing, researching and creating a circle of supportive healthcare professionals from every discipline: oncology, integrative medicine, primary care, acupuncture, psychology, mind/body medicine and spiritual advisors. I knew my outcomes were going to be only as good as my team, so I wanted a strong one and I wanted them to be aligned with my vision and my values.  

Now, right now, is the time to use the culture that you’ve built, the mission and shared values you’ve crafted, to empower and encourage your team, to bring them along with you as you move through this crisis. Communication will be the critical skill you’ll harness to keep your team fighting together through this challenge. This isn’t the time to isolate yourself as you make decisions or plans. This will require real collaboration and yes, there will be conflict and differing opinions. I certainly have found that to be true of the superb healthcare team I’ve used these past seven years. While ultimately, the decisions are mine, the team is what has given me the basis from which to lead myself toward health and healthy decisions. 

Eat that elephant!

I’ve heard from most every business leader I know that they are busier now than ever before. There are so many decisions, so much paperwork, a mountain of modeling and plan-building. Some are even having to do a complete retool in order to stay afloat in this economy. Overwhelm seems to take the helm. And too often we find ourselves as Stephen Covey put it, prioritizing the urgent over the important. Working on what is right in front of us instead of what is vitally important to our futures. I understand this so well. I determined that in light of my health situation, I would respond by generating the highest possible state of health for myself. This meant dietary and lifestyle changes, exercise and mindfulness practice. Supplements and testing. So much lab work! I was overwhelmed… until I learned that everything I wanted to achieve could be accomplished if I bit off a little bit every day. I grouped my goals into buckets: diet, exercise, mental health, physical health, spiritual health and monitoring/tracking. Then each day, I tweaked one little thing from each bucket. I made one appointment, I meditated for one minute, I got that walk in. Over time, I achieved my goals. 

As leaders, no doubt we will have a mountain to climb in response to this pandemic and I know just how to summit. Break it down, make it as clear and simple as you can, then work it every single day–even if just for fifteen minutes. You will get there. 

Use your intuition superpowers

I exercise using a technique developed by Miranda Esmonde White, a retired professional ballerina. White puts it simply…to be strong is not to be bound up and tight…but to be flexible. Strong leadership in this environment will demand flexibility, creativity and resilience. This means relaxing your tightly held beliefs about your product or service, how you deliver value, even who your customer is. On my health journey, I loosened up my tightly held beliefs about what health is and how treatment is delivered. I researched healing modalities from across the globe, learning just how little I knew about my body–and just how powerful my mind is in the healing process. Loosening up my mental paradigm opened the door to a powerful arsenal of tools that I use daily to maximize my health. And I’ve allowed my intuition to guide my journey, finding that it has unleashed my creativity and allowed me the flexibility to morph and adjust my protocol as I learn more and as my condition unfolds. 

Be open to options, and to others during this time to unleash your brilliance.

Finally: hope, believe and act. 

No one embodied this skill like Winston Churchill in World War II, who saw with clear eyes what his country was going to face, but never, never, never lost the hope and belief that Great Britain would ultimately come through victorious.

I remember my counselor telling me that denial was dangerous, that hope was requisite for healing. I look back at those fated moments in the doctor’s office and remember the intense wash of fear and despair, but underneath it all, a hopeful determination. I noted the belief under the fear that I would overcome my present situation and find a path forward. I’ve nurtured that belief and it has never, ever left me. Not in the grip of fear, the frustration and stress of the healthcare jungle, not in the lonely moments in the middle of the night. Hope has kept me acting on my own behalf, on behalf of the vision that I have for myself.

And I believe that of my business as I  prepare to lead Thoma through the next several months. I am not in denial about the risk this virus poses to my health and that of my family and co-workers. I understand that we will face challenges at work and at home. Yet I believe with all hope that together, we can walk through this time of crisis because I have a little experience with this, and I intend to put it to good use. 

Author Melissa Thoma

Melissa Thoma co-founded Thoma Thoma in 1988, following her experience as a graphic designer. While her focus has evolved to mostly high-level strategy for Thoma clients, she is still not afraid to get her hands dirty and her right brain engaged as the constant creative catalyst of the firm.

More posts by Melissa Thoma

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Hi Kelton!
    I do indeed remember our visit at Chipolte and am delighted to hear from you. Thank you so much for this warm response–I had hoped that by sharing these thoughts someone might take strength from them and some ideas for moving forward during these uncertain times. Your feedback means a lot. I am also delighted to hear of your new job at BCBS. I know you are an asset to them. Martin and I wish you all the best and look forward to hearing from you in the future.

  • Hi Melissa (your ex chipotle cashier lol)

    I said that because I met you at the chipotle cash register when I worked there. I remember seeing your last name and saying, hey you must be related to Martin (who I met at LA Fitness), and you telling me that was your husband. But I didn’t message for that purpose alone.

    Thanks for sharing your transparency. I don’t always make the time to read the blogs, but I’m glad I did this morning. Your journey over the past 7 years is inspiring as you have turned uncertainty into faith and hope. I agree that this translates into Leadership and not being reactive by the winds of different storms but by being responsive while yet having a sense of calmness through the storm.

    Now, working for Blue Cross Blue shield, I now see healthcare in a whole different light – even finding out things about my own personal healthcare and insurance that I didn’t know. Your personal health journey in my view has caused you to be even more sensitive and aware as a Leader, not only in the personal health arena, but even in the sensitivities of leading people through uncertainty by displaying your strength in hope that we have choices of how we respond.

    I believe that our experiences no matter how challenging sometimes hits the strongest of us because we can bear it. We are used for a higher calling, even though it doesn’t always feel good, it all works for a good.

    Thank you for sharing your story with me.

    P.S. tell Martin I said sup and positive vibes I send to both of you!

  • Brooke says:

    Thanks for sharing <3

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