The future is always uncertain. On some days this reality is more present than others. You’re coasting along, thinking you’re in control. Then, bam, outside events remind you there are no guarantees when it comes to your money or even your health.

Like most people, I well remember the panic of the 2008 recession. Summoning up those feelings again is enough to cause my stomach to clutch. As a business owner during that time, there were days when I wondered if we would survive. But we did survive. We emerged with a stronger business and some wisdom about how to handle a crisis.

Here’s what I learned:

• Stay calm and breathe. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. When you are facing a challenging situation, take a minute to take a few deep breaths. This gets oxygen flowing to your brain and your extremities. It makes you stronger and more powerful to face your situation.

• Behave like people are watching. Your team (and your family) are taking their cues from you. If you’re feeling nervous, think about leaders who have been steadfast during tough times – Harriet Tubman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill or maybe your parents. Draw from their strength. I read biographies of people like Abraham Lincoln or Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy to remind myself that during periods of adversity and uncertainty, the words of the leader matter. A lot.

• Reset to your true purpose. If you let your organization descend into a mad scramble for money, you’ll lose customers’ trust and employees’ loyalty. Those two things are hard to recapture when a crisis is over. Instead, remind yourself and your team of your true north. If you’re in business, your true and noble purpose is to make a difference for customers. During the 2008-09 recession, organizations that stayed true to a customer-focused purpose emerged stronger. Ask your team: How can we help our customers?

• Choose facts instead of blind optimism. In his classic “Good to Great,” Jim Collins described the Stockdale Paradox. Named after James Stockdale, the highest-ranking officer in the Vietnam POW camp in the Hanoi Hilton, it was credited with keeping many of the men alive in body and spirit. The Stockdale Paradox is the ability to face brutal facts while at the same time holding on to the unwavering faith that you will prevail. When asked which POWs didn’t make it out, Stockdale said bluntly: The optimists. The optimists, Stockdale said, were the prisoners who kept thinking, “We’re going to be out by Thanksgiving.” Then, Thanksgiving would come and go. They would then say, “We’ll get out by Christmas.” Christmas would come and go. Eventually, they died of a broken heart.

Facing the brutal facts of your situation while holding on to the faith that you will prevail is crucial during times of uncertainty. Whatever business condition you’re facing, it’s certainly not harder than being in the Hanoi Hilton.

When angst is in the air, that’s when leadership matters most. Take a breath, remind yourself of your true and noble purpose and behave as if everyone on your team is watching you, because they are.

You got this.

– Lisa Earle McLeod is a leadership consultant and the author of several books. For more information on her company, visit


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