Martyn Drake: This crisis will pass, but we need to be realistic about the coming months

Move fast, be decisive, and make the most positive impact you can

I wasn’t much of a reader as a child. Outside of comic books, I hardly read at all if I could avoid it. 

The one book I actually remember enjoying was a battered old copy of The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. I found it at a jumble sale, its cover held together by Sellotape, and its trove of bizarre and bloody stories kept this peculiar boy amused for hours.

One of my favourite tales was of Sisyphus, the first King of Corinth – a legendary liar, swindler and cheat.

When he died, Sisyphus captured and chained up Death in order to escape. When he died again, he tricked Hades himself into letting him go. 

By now, the gods had seen enough. So, the third time Sisyphus died, Zeus intervened and imposed upon him an ingenious fate. 

Sisyphus would have to roll a giant rock up a hill, and he would be released only if the rock made it over the top. But every time, just as he was almost there, the enchanted rock would roll back down the slope to the bottom. 

The story of Sisyphus plays into our own experiences of how much more devastating failure feels when we were so close to success.

For many of us, these recent, fleeting weeks of getting back to the office, meeting up with friends and colleagues, chatting in person between calls and meetings, have been a long time coming and a huge relief. 

The way some of my clients spoke about it reminded me of that moment John Mills, having eventually made it back to civilisation in Ice Cold in Alex, finally gets his glass of Carlsberg.

But now it looks like our ice-cold pints have been snatched from our lips, and there’s another hill to climb; another push required; another Sisyphean stretch of remote-working semi-isolation in store for all of us, that will test our collective resilience and resolve at least as much as before.

The first thing to say is, we need to learn the lessons of recent months, particularly about the mental health and productivity of our people. 

We need to make far more time for informal conversations. Find new ways to walk the virtual shop floor; new channels sense the mood and circumstances of our people and those we serve.

More importantly, we need to find time for ourselves if we’re to be in any state to properly lead those around us. 

What we used to think of as “pointless” meetings without an agenda, and “idle” time in calendars between calls – they have never been so critically important as they are now, for our own sanity and productivity.

But above all else, we need to take off any rose-tinted glasses. We need to look, rationally and objectively, at the situation ahead and the decisions we now need to take.

Most good leaders tend to be optimistic by nature. But hope doesn’t help with resilience over the long run. 

Probably the best example of this was shared by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, when he described the “Stockdale Paradox”.

Admiral James Stockdale was a US naval officer who survived more than seven years of incarceration and torture in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, with no idea when, or even if, it would ever end. When Collins interviewed Stockdale, he asked him how he had endured, while so many alongside him hadn’t. 

“It was worst for the optimists,” replied Stockdale, “the ones who said: ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come and go – they suffered from a broken heart. 

“I never wavered in my faith,” Stockdale explained, “not only that I would get out, but I would turn it into the defining event of my life that in retrospect I would not trade.”

As Collins summarised: you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Right now, a lot of leaders will need to take a leaf out of Stockdale’s book: have faith in the long term – this too shall pass – but be brutally realistic about the coming months.

Forget hoping for the best and get back to the worst-case playbook. Move fast, be decisive, and make the most positive impact you can.

We will make mistakes, but we have been here before and we can do better this time with what we’ve learned from the last.

Or as Alf Ramsay told his England football team before 30 minutes of extra time in the 1966 World Cup final: “You’ve beaten them once, you just need to go out there and beat them again.”

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting


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