Be a Favorite Grown-Up: How to Lead During a Crisis

By Judy Ingalls

On Friday, March 27, the “US overtook Italy and China as the country with the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases,” reads my CNN newsfeed.  My sister, a labor and delivery nurse in Michigan, posts a photo of herself wearing a face mask during a time of unimaginable medical shortages: “My first mask!”  My oldest friend is heading into her second week with a granddaughter who has a temp of 103.

With extra time and anxiety on my hands, I stumbled on a sentimental, even mawkish quote attributed to Fred Rogers, when confronting a disaster:  “Look for your favorite grown-ups.”

In recent weeks, I have been looking for my own favorite grown-ups.  There are few to be found, given social distancing and the force majeure of a global pandemic.  The arbitrary reach and rapid spread of Covid-19 has made it clear; Mr. Rogers is not coming back, and I am no longer parked cross-legged, reassured and pig-tailed, in front of a black and white TV.  Time to be my own favorite grown-up.

In my work as an executive coach and organizational consultant, I interact (remotely, for now) with dozens of leaders across the globe.  As the reality of our ‘new normal’ has been unfolding over the past several weeks, I am struck by the remarkable behavioral differences across my virtual universe.

Some leaders are nonchalant and rather business-as-usual, while others are downright paralyzed.  One told me that he and his wife had been ‘preppers’ for years (I had to look it up; their basement is stocked for the “End of Days”), while others have been canceling meetings with their teams, unsure of how to navigate darker waters.

We are all stumbling towards new ways of leadership, and closer to becoming favorite grown-ups.  Here are four ways to help you get there:


As the reality of social distancing has set in for my clients and for the five teens in my blended family (yup), I have to admit that I spent a few days feeling, well, frozen. The uncertainty of what to do, how to feel, or what to believe acted as a suppressant on my usual just get-‘er-done approach to life.

Slowly, as the days progress and the facts of the virus unfold, I realize that even the smallest actions have meaning.  Stacking wood, writing a neglected report, or cooking a healthy meal.  Some action leads to more action, and that, in turn, brings momentum.

In my work, I often partner with leaders as they struggle with difficult decisions on the job.  Acknowledging that there can be value in letting the options ‘stew’ for a while, I occasionally will offer up the phrase; ‘If you don’t know yet know what to do, wait a while.’  During this pandemic, I would say it a bit differently: ‘If you don’t yet know everything to do, that’s fine, but at least do something.”  And that something should probably start with the go-to, listening.

And listen some more.

Like duct tape, you can just never have enough of the stuff.

Great leaders know how to listen.  To really listen.  They take it upon themselves to hang back a bit with their own needs and opinions and fears.  Not to discount their own humanity or reality, to be sure, but to let the ‘other’ go first, to create the space, to be present, to witness, to see.   And then, to say: “I hear you.  I am here.  I may not have all the answers, but I am here.”

Oh, and when asking how someone is doing, it means really caring about the answer.  “Are you all good?  Tell me about your family. Tell me about isolation or social distancing or…”.  Listening, not fixing or solving.  Their answers will fill all that anxious time that managers worry about filling, and then some.

Live with Ambiguity.

Leaders are used to having, and providing, answers.  None of us really knows where this whole thing is headed.  That said, leveraging the tried-and-true concepts of communicating what we do know is essential, and acknowledging what we don’t know can build trust and credibility at a time filled with shifting fun-house floors.  Using models like GRPI (What are our Goals/Roles/Process/Interpersonal connections) to clarify the purpose of meetings will only help to keep people feel moored in a time of shifting seas.

Be human.

Ugh, that yucky bit about being vulnerable or imperfect or, well, being authentically human.  Brenee Brown’s work on how vulnerability can bring us together and Amy Edmonson’s work on psychological safety have spoken volumes about the counter-intuitive skills of being vulnerable and keeping people safe in times that were relatively speaking, quite safe.  All true, and especially true, right now.  Knowing that we are all in this together and that we will persevere, together, is a good first step.

Times of crisis and tragedy can make or break leaders and teams.  At times like this, it brings me solace to think of the leaders, the favorite grown-ups, who strike a balance between showing concern and listening and being strong.  At times like this, don’t underestimate the power of your voice, your leadership, and the power of being a favorite grown-up.


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