KEEP A LEVEL HEAD

by Matt Thomas

Early in my career I absolutely loved sending fiery emails. I am not just comfortable in conflict, at my worst some part of me enjoys it. After a particularly reactive response to an angry email from a vendor my manager pulled me aside and suggested I make a habit of taking 24 hours before replying to any email that ruffled my feathers. I had a ton of respect for this individual so I took his advice to heart, deciding then and there that I would implement his counsel as a discipline in my personal and professional life. I hold to it, as best I can, to this day. 

After a particularly reactive response to an angry email from a vendor my manager pulled me aside and suggested I make a habit of taking 24 hours before replying to any email that ruffled my feathers.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise but neuroscience tells us that we make our best decisions with a level head. Emotion triggers the fight or flight response in our brains, and unless we have time to settle down we are going to react from a hyper-aggressive or fear-motivated posture. Believe me, I’ve been the initiator of the former more times than I care to remember. 

Emotion triggers the fight or flight response in our brains, and unless we have time to settle down we are going to react from a hyper-aggressive or fear-motivated posture.

In my lifetime, outside of 9/11, I can’t think of another time where it was more critical for leaders to keep a level head. Emotional responses on either side of the spectrum (optimistic or pessimistic) are only serving to make things worse, not better. Right now, business leaders all over the country are making decisions that will forever impact the future of their organizations. Leaders in government, God help them, are making decisions that will directly result in the life or death of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people. In a time when it is especially difficult to see clearly, it’s imperative that we think rightly. The stakes are too high. 

Here are a few practices that have helped me keep a (somewhat!) level head in the current crisis:

Limit news consumption to as few sources as possible.

I realize my conservative friends may feel they’ve already got this down (Fox!), but most are scrolling through social media feeds clicking on whatever their aunt or college roommate has posted. With so much uncertainty the last thing we need is mis-information. (I’m a big fan of Axios.)

Seek out wisdom from trusted mentors and friends.

Over the past month or so I’ve doubled down on leaning into the men and women I trust and respect the most. If I get stuck or am unsure about which path to take, I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and seek some wisdom. These conversations have brought an incredible amount of timely perspective and informed critical decisions in our organization. Don’t go at it alone. 

Play out the worst case scenario.

This is advice I usually give entrepreneurs weighing whether or not to jump off the cliff and go for it. Assuming physical health stays intact, what is the worst thing that could happen to you? When things started getting off the rails three weeks ago my wife and I sat down one day and dreamt out loud about what would happen if we lost everything. Would we miss a meal? Probably not. Would we not have a roof over our heads? We’ve got a great 1983 re-modeled camper! Would we still have all the things that mattered most? God willing. Usually it’s fear of not having life play out the way we want it to that keeps us from being able to stay level headed. 

Get outside.

When the shelter-in-place orders came out my family and I were halfway through a 9 day tour of the National Parks in the Southwest (Zion, Capitol Reef, Grand Canyon, etc.). We didn’t know what a gift it would be to skip out on the first week of quarantine by being in mostly vacant national parks. We live down the road from some great trails and even though our neighborhood is hilly (we live at 8k feet) family walks have been a gift. Getting outside for some exercise or family time has played a huge role in keeping us grounded and level headed. 

Tell yourself the truth.

Most business owners are running and re-running cash flow models to try and forecast best case and worst case scenarios. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that things are better than they are and make foolish decisions. Now isn’t the time for blind optimism. On the flip side, don’t assume that everything is going to break. You can only control what you can control. Keep tabs on the stories you’re telling yourself. 

Our thoughts and prayers are with all the leaders out there holding things together. We know you are carrying a lot these days and are rooting for you to keep a level head and make wise decisions for your organization.