• External Contributor

What Leaders Can Do to Fight the COVID Fog

600 CEOs tell Boris Groysberg what coronavirus worries keep them up at night. Now comes the hard part: preparing body and mind to meet the challenges.


What is keeping you awake at night during this global pandemic?


Over the past few weeks, we asked 600 CEOs that very question. Their responses were touching and instructive, but also daunting about the challenges leaders face at this moment of crisis.


What keeps CEOs up at night? One summed it up deftly: “How to most effectively communicate with all employees remotely and show empathy, while running around with [my] hair on fire trying to save the current business while at the same time trying to shape the future of the company in a 'new normal' environment.”


Other topics mentioned by CEOs included virtual onboarding, sales-pipeline restructuring, performance management, M&A acquisition, managing layoffs and furloughs, rethinking the customer experience, and creating financial projections with an unprecedented number of unknown factors.


In short, our respondents said, almost every aspect of doing business must be completely rethought for both short-term survival and long-term advantage—and CEOs are profoundly aware of that.


We want to share with you both high-level findings about the sleep-robbing concerns of corporate leaders, but also what science and research tells us about what the human body needs physically and mentally to respond to these challenges. Think of these as your new toolkit for high performance in a business world turned upside down.


Let’s start with some executives’ comments from the survey, as well as what they imply for new skills needed to lead in this environment.


What CEOs told us

“Priorities have changed, personally and professionally. There can be no thought paralysis. What will the new norm look like and how do we adapt? I ask myself that on a daily basis.”
“In order to survive, new business opportunities appear, and new talents are needed while some are not. How to change the organization and management teams to create new competencies without changing your essence and core values?”

Skills needed now: Continuous learning and integrating new information; developing new personal and work practices.


What CEOs told us

“As the quote goes, ‘Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its students.’ So, if time is of the essence, how to best think and frame the problems we need to solve with our teams to survive this crisis? What is sequence of those actions and decisions … to have a higher probability of survival?”
“Do we have the resources, ideas, and ability to quickly pivot the deployment our sales strategy in a new format? How are we going to differentiate when our new mode of communication is the same as everyone else?”

Skills needed now: Making complex decisions and plans; solving problems.


What CEOs told us

“Having empathy in day-to-day interaction with employees, customers, vendors, investors, etc. is always an important leadership skill, but this empathy is dramatically heightened during a crisis that is impacting everyone personally and professionally. Keeping in mind the person on the other end of a call may be having a dramatic experience during this crisis is an important subtext for how they are navigating the conversation with me.”
“[Pacing] ourselves as leaders to remain strong for all the people that depend on us, [managing] organizational stress and fatigue over a long period of time and with limited financial resources.”

Skills needed now: Empathy; maintaining self-control and focus.


Let’s build your new executive toolkit

The skills needed to conquer these challenges are not possible without good mental hygiene. You don’t download a big application when your computer is at 20 percent battery power. Your brain is your most vital asset; it is a physical organ that, like any other piece of equipment, requires maintenance and care.


Both physical and mental hygiene practices need to increase right now, because both physical and mental health are at risk. We are all under unprecedented mental strain of a kind people are not designed, evolutionarily, to deal with. We deal well with acute emergencies experienced in groups. The pandemic is a long-term, slow-rolling crisis of uncertain duration involving multiple unknown factors and experienced in physical isolation,l possibly in potential danger.


One of our interviewees noted, “As CEOs in this crisis, we have no option but to become the wartime CEO, however ill equipped or prepared we are.” You can equip yourself better immediately. Here’s what your brain and body need to maintain stamina and adaptability for the long challenge ahead. We’ve included direct responses from our 600 CEOs to reflect their current thinking and concerns.


Nutrition and hydration

This may seem obvious—but under stressful or traumatic conditions the body’s usual signals of hunger and thirst don’t always make it to the brain. And working from home removes the usual social signals about when to eat or drink. Don’t rely on feeling hungry or thirsty! Put meals and hydration times on your to-do list or set alarms if necessary. One of us recently witnessed a colleague pass out from dehydration during a Zoom meeting and can vouch that it is a terrifying and morale-destroying experience.


In addition to maintaining physical health, diet has a strong effect on intellectual and emotional functioning (as anyone who has seen a toddler melt down from too much sugar understands). The ability to pay attention, process information, make decisions, remember information, and control mood are all affected by diet.


What you need: Nearly all research on nutrition converges on one point: Eat as many vegetables and fruits as you can. Beyond that, avoid processed food (to whatever extent possible, given disruptions in the supply chain) and drink plenty of water. Omega fatty acids, B and D vitamins, and antioxidants promote mental functioning; sugars and saturated fats impair it.


Sleep

As one of our wise CEOs noted, “The primary task of leaders is to avoid as many sleepless nights … as they can.” Sleep helps you make sense of what you did and learned today and prepare for tomorrow. The Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep appears to be dedicated to the former function, shaping the day’s barrage of stimuli and events into memories and lessons, and connecting those memories and lessons to your larger set of concerns and motivations. This is why sleep so often incubates insight—that reference librarian in your brain has just put two volumes together. It is also why many people are having unusually vivid dreams right now.


The non-REM phase of sleep prepares the brain to learn and perform the next day. The effects of sleep deprivation are the same as drunkenness: Sleep-deprived people have a hard time controlling their emotions, learning new information, remembering known facts or performing already-mastered skills, decision-making, and planning. In other words, if you haven’t gotten enough sleep you can’t get the information (or skill or experience) in, and if you don't get sleep afterward you can’t make the information stay.


What you need: The ideal amount of sleep varies for individuals—“enough” is what allows you to feel rested. Sleep needs to cycle through all the phases in order for maximum mental benefits, which means deep, uninterrupted sleep. Naps are not necessarily bad, but aren’t an adequate substitute for full-cycle sleep. Good sleep hygiene includes avoiding display screens for 30 minutes before sleep, sleeping in a completely darkened room (or with a sleep mask), and having a dedicated sleep space—no working from bed. Caffeine, alcohol, and other drugs can degrade sleep quality.


Exercise

In addition to its physical benefits, aerobic exercise notably improves clarity of thought and helps regulate negative emotions in both the short- and long-term. Recent studies show that runners’ brains show more neural connections in areas associated with complex thought, such as attention, decision-making, and information processing.


What you need: A minimum daily total of 30 minutes of an enjoyable physical activity. The best are those that provide ancillary benefits: camaraderie, time with animals or nature, self-expression. If your normal fitness routine is no longer possible, switching to an online version of the exercise may be satisfying. If it is not, try something entirely different: Moving the body in new ways can encourage the mind to move in new directions as well (and no one is there to watch you).


Exercise is also an area where individuals have a great deal of control, which makes it a therapeutic activity in times of uncertainty. Short-term bursts of strenuous activity are not only physically beneficial but can improve mood remarkably in only a few minutes. Consider regular dance breaks during the day.


Meditation

An overriding theme in our CEOs’ responses was the necessity of responding, not reacting, to crises. They frequently mentioned the need to avoid the flight-or-fight response in everything from conversations with stressed employees to long-term strategic planning. Meditation is, quite simply, the best way to tamp down that response. Research shows meditation decreases stress while increasing focus and self-confidence, empathy, compassion, perspective-taking, and the ability to regulate emotion, learn, and remember.


What you need: “Meditation” as we define it—based on the work of Herbert Bensonperformed at Harvard Medical School—is a simple practice that neither requires spiritual belief nor supplants other beliefs or methods you may follow. For 10 to 20 minutes, twice a day, focus on a repeating a particular word, phrase, or movement. When other thoughts intrude, dismiss them and return to the repetition. That’s all there is to it. This can be combined with moderate exercise or done in any setting.


Downtime

Does your mind drift off sometimes? Of course it does. Research over the last two decades shows that, essentially, there is no such thing as “the brain at rest.” The “resting” brain—what is now referred to as the “default mode network”—is actually doing all the most important tasks: autobiographical memory and knowing who you are and what you stand for; understanding the mental states of other people; moral reasoning; thinking through social and interpersonal situations and problems; remembering the past and envisioning the future. Many of us experience putting a problem on a mental “back burner” when suddenly the solution comes to us in the shower or while walking the dog. This is the default mode network working its magic.


You cannot optimize the brain to focus during all waking hours. Mind-wandering is an important biological function; a feature, not a bug. Since it will happen whether you allow time for it or not, best it happens when you’re playing Two Dots and not behind the wheel. If you give your brain regular “free play” time, however, it will be a source of both stress-relief and insight.


What you need: Fortunately, mental downtime is best facilitated by simple chores or activities that have to be done anyway—tasks that require some thought, but allow the mind to drift, such as grooming, cooking, housework, walking, crafts, music, and simple games. Daydreaming without an associated task doesn’t accrue the same benefits, but rather leads to worry and repetitive negative thoughts. Note also that this is not the same thing as meditation, which involves directing one’s thoughts toward a single image, phrase, or movement for a period of time.


You can even optimize your daydreaming with a few psychological tricks, such as thinking about yourself in the third person, as if you were a character in a novel or business case. Experiments with post-traumatic stress sufferers has shown that they can significantly reduce negative emotions by simply changing their inner monologue from “I” to “he” or “she.”

Try daydreaming about how a favorite mentor, real life hero, or even fictional character would handle a given situation. Experiments with both children and adults show that simple, imaginative games can unlock reservoirs of both creativity and persistence.


Above all: Take care of yourself first

The upside of this list is that it is not five separate to-do items—they combine easily. Food prep is a wonderful time for the mind to wander; yoga is a good time to meditate. Exercise will improve sleep and increase your desire for nutritious food. In addition, with the exception of sleep, all of these activities can be done in short bursts of 10 to 15 minutes.


Flight attendants’ warning to “Put your own oxygen mask on first, before attempting to assist others” is a potent metaphor. In the blink of an eye, self-care for leaders of organizations has transformed from a feel-good nostrum to a strategic first priority.


Companies cannot afford to lose leadership right now: The blunt fact is that 40 percent of firms do not have a succession plan. Maintaining best practices around physical and mental health is not a luxury or a frill, but an essential aspect of risk management. CEOs and top management need to prioritize taking care of their own health. Boards need to persuade their leadership teams to make this a priority, nagging them like worried grandmothers and sending chicken soup to their home offices if that is what it takes.


Leaders also need to model self-care for their teams. Looking disheveled and exhausted in virtual meetings can rattle employees and weaken confidence. At the same time, strenuously projecting an image of pre-2020 normalcy and “business as usual” can be daunting and lead employees to hide their own struggles.


THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL BY BORIS GROYSBERG AND ROBIN ABRAHAMS ON MAY 14, 2020.