Leading Beyond Fear

When crisis strikes, take a few deep breaths and set a course
April 10, 2020 Updated: April 10, 2020

The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is creating chaos. I’ve seen chaos before. As a Special Forces officer in Afghanistan, there was always one chaotic battlefield event after another. Some of these events were localized tactical engagements with the Taliban. Other chaos-inducing incidents were large scale events such as country-wide riots, or mass assassinations of Afghan elders by the Taliban. One event, I will never forget, in 2005, was the downing of one our transport helicopters in southern Afghanistan, at the very beginning of a combat mission led by my best friend.

When my friend’s chopper was shot down, all hell broke loose. In our command center, the cacophony of frantic radio transmissions shouting “chopper down” and “troops in contact,” turned my blood to ice. It was chaos.

The first thing I did was to close my eyes and take three deep breaths. I’d learned this from retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, before embarking on our first deployment to Afghanistan.

As the operations center director, I needed to gain situational awareness and then start mobilizing support to help my guys get out of this terrible situation. As the flurry of reports rolled in from the guys on the ground, getting clarity was difficult. They were under duress. They were getting shot at. There was complexity. There was ambiguity. There was confusion. There was emotion. There was…


Fear can be a good thing. It warns of us threats and elevates our response to those threats. All of the operators on the ground and all of us back in the operations center were facing our own brand of fear and fighting hard to overcome it. Eventually, we did. And we got everyone out of that kill zone alive. Fear did its job that day.

Fear is a primal reality. No one is beyond it. But if we allow fear to dominate us, it can have a prolific negative effect on us achieving our goals. Fear is what a lot of us are feeling right now as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds.

We are at a critical point in our history where a leadership mindset is more important than ever. Like the virus itself, fear can be contagious. Fear can spread through the ranks rapidly. If we allow fear to dominate our minds, it’s almost impossible to regain control.

How do we lead through fear? Here are a few things I learned from the battlefields of Afghanistan that might help inform your mindset as you lead here at home.

The first report is always wrong. So when we check the news for latest coronavirus updates, you should always assume that at least some degree of that report is probably wrong. The same ambiguity, complexity, and emotion that drove that chopper down scenario, creates inaccurate reports in our lives. Continue to accumulate the facts over time. Let the picture build. Don’t over-react. You will start to see common threads, trends, information that will remain constant and begin to accurately illuminate the situation. The real facts will reveal themselves.

Avoid headline saturation. Information is power. But, too much debilitates us. Stay away from 24-hour news cycle reporting. I made this mistake after 9/11. I was obsessed with the 24-hour news cycle. Understand that the media are masters of fear-based behavior, and they know how to draw you in. Getting drawn in is not going to help your ability to lead through this developing situation.

Find a rational thought partner. They can help you start thinking through things and bounce ideas around. Ask each other, “what can we control right now? What can we influence?” Identify what your issues and unknowns are.

Manage your time. Time is a valuable resource at this point. Developing a plan will put you in control of the situation and force you to focus on what you can actually get done. Build a timeline of the facts that you know. Then find out who the constituents are and how you need to communicate with them. It goes against our instincts in situations like this when chaos and confusion feel like they’re taking over.

Over-communicate. Stay connected over “social distancing” into your teams, families, and organizations. Keep everyone succinctly tied into each other and gain a sense of unity.

Embrace the chaos. Take the information you have and start to make a plan. You may not have the facts and you may not know what you need to do next, but you can start to tame the problem.

What’s your available time right now? What’s your overall goal? Who are the relevant stakeholders in the problem? How do you want to communicate with them? How do you bring them into the collaborative framing of this problem in spite of social distancing?  How do you communicate with each other?

These are the questions we can answer.

So answer them. Then step back and re-assess. Re-acclimate. Re-attune to your environment. Ask yourself open-ended questions such as, “how do we maintain client relationships through this social distancing imperative?” 

Finally, take care of yourself. Don’t get so caught up in caring for your people that you ignore your own well-being. If you do down, we’re in trouble. Remember the acronym HALT–I (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired–Ill). If you are feeling any of these, deal with them immediately. And don’t forget to breathe.

It may seem like you’re alone, but you’re not. There is a whole tribe of leaders, just like you, around the world, in the trenches, leading through this chaos.  What we cannot do is panic. What we cannot do in any situation is surrender to fear because then, we’re done. You’ve got this.

Fear is contagious, but so is leadership.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com