How to Lead With Truth in a Crisis:
At the time of writing this, the world is experiencing a health crisis unlike any seen since the Spanish Flu in 1918. This time, the virus is called COVID-19. Again, at the time of writing this, virtually everyone in the U.S. and most around the world have been affected by the virus. Just a few months ago, we were all more worried about virtual (computer) viruses more than physical viruses. Now we are all stuck living in a virtual world as the threat of a physical virus rips apart the world as we knew it. Businesses, churches, social events, and our lives have all been shut down and put on hold as leaders across the United States and the globe struggle to control the crisis and make sense of just what went wrong.
Meanwhile, the people (that’s us) are left with heads spinning as we try to figure out what to fear more: the virus, the government, or each other. The virus spreads fast, but the government seems to be spreading faster into our business, religious, and personal lives. Some say it comes from a heart to protect us. Others shout conspiracy theories. Still, others point at their neighbors and blame them for not “social distancing” or complying with government instructions and orders. The only thing that we can agree on is that the COVID-19 pandemic has given us a lot to fear. From a microscopic virus to a “big brother” government, to an economic disaster, to suspension of everything around us, fear is perhaps the most contagious, fastest-spreading and dangerous ailment of them all. Why? Because fear clouds judgment, overtakes truth, changes the way we act, and demands that it is alleviated at any and all cost.
What are we Really Afraid of?
Are we afraid for our elderly and sick who are most susceptible to COVID-19? Are we afraid of losing our freedoms? Are we afraid of financial ruin? Are we really afraid of running out of toilet paper? The answer to all of these questions is yes. But there is a deeper fear that is really spurring on all of these other fears. It is the fear of the unknown. That is what really scares us. It is what ignites all of our other fears. The unknown can’t be dealt with, planned for, or combated. We are at the mercy of the unknown. But it did not have to be this way and there is hope in the lesson that we can learn from it.
Leading with Unrealistic Expectations
As future leaders of government, businesses, churches, schools, colleges, communities, and our families, how can we respond differently when in charge of a crisis? Crisis management 101 tells us that we should try and plan for and be prepared for every eventuality. This is an unrealistic expectation and it puts our current leaders in a tough place. We expect them to have a plan, to know what to do, and to take quick action to resolve a crisis. When they don’t have all the answers for the unexpected, we call them weak, unprepared, and unfit to lead. So, what option do our leaders have but to show strength and to take action? Even if it means winging it. Of course, the next rule of crisis management is that “winging it” is never a good response.
Perhaps the first lesson we can learn is not for leaders but for us, as citizens. We have to become comfortable with the unexpected. Our knee-jerk reaction has to stop being panic and the demand for brash action. We have to stop thinking that we are entitled to all the answers to questions that have never been asked before. There are no truthful answers without the facts, and facts sometimes take time to surface. We have to change our mindset in a crisis from one that requires quick action to one that is only content with the right action. And we have to understand that the right action takes time to fully explore, especially when dealing with the unexpected.
Leading with Truth, not Answers
Perhaps one of the greatest lessons that we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic is that leading with truth is more important than leading with answers. Having an answer and having the truth are not the same thing. As a society, we spend too much time looking for answers and not enough time looking for truth. Dare I even say that the truth might be that we don’t have the answer yet. The truth is more comforting than the confusion of competing answers vying for attention.
The fear of the unknown can be alleviated by a truthful statement about how we are searching for the right answers. But the fear of the unknown will always be amplified by quick and contradictory answers that change as new facts come in. This is exactly the situation that COVID-19 put us in. We got lots of quick answers, but little truth. Even if the truth was told, it is now hidden as just one more competing answer. I am not saying that we were lied to. I am saying that answering questions before the facts are known does not tell the truth. Instead, it leads to confusion, distrust, incorrect conclusions, and wrong actions. In the best-case scenario, even if the right actions were taken, the doubt is there. The fear of the unknown is not alleviated. Leading with answers before the truth is always a lose-lose game.
This article is not about calling out bad decisions or spreading ideas that COVID-19 is not a serious threat. Nor am I defending or excusing the missteps or oversteps of our government (that’s for another article). Instead, I hope we can learn from this crisis both as a society and as leaders. The overarching lesson is that we should never let our demand and eagerness for action caused by fear (real or exaggerated) interfere with the reality that the truth is the only thing that will bring us actual and lasting relief to whatever crisis we are experiencing.