It’s better to continue to sail through a violent storm than to turn back. If you head back, you’ll lose any progress you made getting through the storm. Depending on the direction the storm is moving you’ll be racing to outrun it. The storm could easily catch you again.

The experienced skipper wants to get her crew to the other side of the storm as safely as possible even though what’s on the other side is still unknown; but she wants to prepare the crew for the voyage beyond the storm. In her calmness she believes that getting the crew ready for the future is the best course of action.

None of us have an option to turn back, anyway, in a global pandemic. But as leaders, it’s time to consider what might be on the other side.

Arthur Rackham's illustration of The Tempest
Above, detail of illustration of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, by Arthur Rackham. Click here to enlarge full illustration.

Ponder uncertainty

This current storm is especially uncertain, unknown, unseen and scary. Conservative columnist Bret Stephens, writing in the New York Times on April 3, presents a downright dystopian forecast. Written from the imaginary perspective of 2025, Stephens describes a world where coronavirus became a war of attrition and autocracy has emerged as the prevailing form of government.

Readers responded by the hundreds with crowd-sourced alternatives to Stephens’ outcome, leaning mostly toward pragmatic rationalizations or simply more optimistic predictions, with but a few saying, “Yes, we are doomed.”

How can we avoid that “other side” of the storm?

Yes. But don’t turn back.

Right now, our time scope is altered. Day to day, work life feels like a different dimension. One of my clients said, “Hours are days, days are weeks.” News updates are relentless and rapid. Time runs out. But days still feel LONG and draining in a way that they were not in the past.

Sitting in our home offices is a layer of uncertainty as to “what’s going on out there,” as if work is happening without us.

While we’ve lost a part of human connection, video meetings with a dozen or more participant bring a new intimacy to our business relationships. We see colleagues and clients in their homes wearing their school sweatshirts. We see their pets, children, spouses, partners and home repairs. We all become a little more vulnerable. And a little more empathetic. In many ways it’s more humanizing than meeting over a conference table.

This storm is exacerbating change of all kinds and peeling back conventions.

The workday is on the honor system!

We’re seeing cleaner air – just look at your city skyline from the highway or recent images of Earth from space.

Is anyone measuring productivity? Maybe this experiment in having a mostly remote workforce will prove to be a better option on the other side of the storm. Maybe we don’t need to build so many offices and widen so many highways.

Some businesses and functions will simply disappear as we learn to live without them, or question their value to begin with. Others will move to the forefront. Have you been dragging your feet about moving to more online learning? Maybe now is a good time to master it.

Do we even need a five-day workweek—maybe three days on, four days off and varying the days will be the norm? Will children benefit more from seeing their parents at work than they might in a strange daycare environment?

I don’t know, but we need to be open to the possibilities. And there’s nothing wrong with developing a sense of wonder, even in a maelstrom.

Constant learning is hard work

I politely inquired how another client was doing. His response was, “It’s all harder now.” Which takes us back to “hours are days, days are weeks.”

One reason it’s harder is because we’re learning all the time. In an unknown space, learning is most of what we do.

But keep sailing. Or walking…

My life partner and I spent a vacation trekking across part of Kenya, with some guides (it was only us)and several camels. At one point, our guide brought Vickie and I to a log that had fallen over a river. This log was to be our bridge. Vickie, fleet-of-foot, easily crossed upright. But I’m afraid of heights and halfway across, straddled the log and considered my options.

Our guide patiently explained, “You can go back, but you’ll undo the progress you’ve made and I’m not sure how far down river we’ll have to walk to find a better crossing.”

I crossed. And I learned I could trust our leader and the value of not undoing progress.

Later, we had to scramble up a dizzying sheer cliff to avoid a potentially dangerous animal. Our guide confidently said, “I need you to do this now.” The trust kicked in and beat out my acrophobia.

Back to our storm.

What leaders do we trust and why?

Dr. Anthony Fauci doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. He tells us what he knows, what he doesn’t and what seems most likely. He basically admits he’s learning.

Similarly, while not everyone likes Governor Andrew Cuomo, many appreciate his leadership through a crisis. He owns up to mistakes and accepts that the situation is mostly unpredictable. Another learning leader.

The commonality is the acceptance of uncertainty and the simultaneous pursuit of learning.

Farhad Manjoo wrote an excellent case study of leading through uncertainty in his New York Times op-ed “The Leaders Who Passed the Coronavirus Test.” He describes the actions of four governors – two Republicans, two Democrats – in California, Maryland, Ohio and Washington that are proving successful in their states’ battle against the pandemic. Summarizing Manjoo, the governors: “heeded clear warnings, trusted the experts and moved forcefully but incrementally.”

In our work, we continue to see that those who scan the future, are able to make decisions with incomplete information and are not afraid to say they “don’t know” and accept input, do better in all kinds of weather.

By Randall P. White. Image: Arthur Rackham illustration for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.