Recent events have made our decisions simpler but not easier

By Marcus Coetzee, 21 May 2020.

Over the past month, I’ve been helping organizations to adapt to the Coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown. I’ve helped them to reassess and refine their strategies and how they work. I’ve also helped organizations to downsize. This has been a painful process for everyone involved.

On the positive side, I’ve seen organizations use this opportunity to implement changes that have been overdue for some time. And some organizations that provide ‘essential services’ (such as FoodFoward SA) have even scaled their services to meet their growing demand.

But I’ve heard more sad stories than I’ve heard success stories.

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon during this time. It has seemed easier than usual to identify the constraints influencing our organizations and to make the required strategic decisions. In contrast, it has felt emotionally harder to make and implement these decisions. I’ve seen how leaders have suffered, and how they need time to grieve, reflect and heal.

This is the phenomenon that I’ll discuss in this article. Why have some strategic decisions seemed easier to identify, but so difficult to make and implement? Why have leaders been experiencing so much emotional strain? Understanding this will ultimately help leaders to feel a sense of closure and prepare themselves to lead their organizations into the next phase of their journey. 

Why have some decisions seemed easier?

It has been easier for leaders to identify the strategic decisions that they need to make. This is because the constraints surrounding organizations have become more evident.

For example, I work with a research company that can no longer conduct face-to-face interviews in respondents’ homes. With regards to my own business, I can no longer visit organizations or facilitate strategy workshops or coach people in person. These have been cornerstones of our business models. On top of this, several of my clients have had their customers and/or donors cancel or postpone their contracts.

These types of constraints are obvious and no longer an issue of debate or speculation. To clarify their impact on our organizations, I’ve recommend that we ask the following three questions:

  • What is the likely demand for our current products over the next 12 months?
  • What future income and expenses are likely? How much income is our organization likely to fundraise or earn during this period? What is the least we can spend if we streamline and focus operations?
  • How much of our financial reserves (if they exist) are we prepared to consume?

The answer to these questions reveal a fourth question:

  • How must we operate going forward? What people and resources do we need, how must we use technology, how must our business model change etc?

While the first three questions determine our constraints, the last question determines the strategic decisions we must make. 

For example, the research company I mentioned earlier has shifted all its resources towards conducting online and telephonic interviews. It has also made some breakthroughs in its sampling methodology. And all of my work has shifted online. We’ve even figured out how to do remote site visits in other countries.

But if we procrastinate in making these decisions, then as leaders we have been negligent in our duties. It is better to react now, rather than to regret not doing so at a later stage.

But why have decisions been so hard emotionally?

Regardless of what state your organization is in, leaders have needed to make some ‘necessary endings’ over the past couple of months. For many leaders, this has involved letting go of loyal and capable staff, downscaling infrastructure and suspending certain services. It has also involved giving up ‘old’ hope that the future you once wanted will emerge.

I’ve also noticed how many leaders are grieving, though they may not always acknowledge this. Let’s consider Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial; anger; bargaining; depression and acceptance.

Many of us have tried to deny the effect of the pandemic on our organizations. We’ve been angry with its effects. We’ve tried to bargain with thoughts like “if I do this and the pandemic does that then we’ll be ok?” Then follows the depression where our energy slumps and we wonder whether it’s worth going on. Finally, some leaders have moved into the acceptance phase. They have accepted what the future most probably looks like and what their organizations must do to survive (and hopefully thrive) within it.

All the leaders I’ve spoken to seem to be paying an invisible emotional tax. They’re dealing with the stress of this situation. They’re working at home with other pressures. They’re trying to lead in a compassionate way. They’re struggling to keep up hope and compose their emotions. This makes a 6-hour workday feel like a 12-hour workday.

These three factors have been making simple decisions emotionally exhausting. The decisions themselves are not complicated, but everything that goes with them is.

What is around the corner?

Once leaders have made the strategic decisions their organizations require, and then set these decisions into motion, there should be a period of ‘letting go’ and rest. They will have earned a sense of closure.  

Dr Henry Cloud, the author of the book “Necessary Endings” (a term I used earlier), says the following:

“Endings are woven into the fabric of life itself, both when it goes well and also when it doesn’t. On the good side of life, for us to ever get to a new level, a new tomorrow, or the next step, something needs to give.”

Making these endings enables us to unlock a new future for ourselves and our organizations. We can move on with enthusiasm and creativity to the next chapter.

I’ve also read that the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross foundation has given permission for a sixth stage of grief to be introduced. And this is moving beyond suffering into finding more meaning with our life and work.

Finally, I’ve seen how some leaders have been coping with the ‘invisible tax’ on their emotions. They’ve been taking the time to properly rest and recuperate and are being kind to themselves. I’ve heard one leader say that this is the first time in many years that they’ve had time to slow down. This is much better than working themselves into the ground and making increasingly poor decisions.


All of our organizations are facing constraints brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic. This has meant that leaders have needed to make several strategic decisions. While these decisions may have been intellectually easy to identify and make, they have been emotionally difficult to implement.

While several of the leaders that I work with are emotionally exhausted, some have recently achieved a sense of closure.

Now is the time for leaders to get some overdue rest – some time for them to grieve and be kind to themselves.

Soon they will be required to cultivate an inspiring vision for their organizations and lead them on the next phase of their journey.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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