Startup life is synonymous with crisis. Until a startup finds a working business model and a way to impose itself on the market, there is crisis after crisis. Clients leave, employees resign, competitors attack, investors betray, etc.

Ben Horowitz, who is a thought leader on startup-related matters, distinguishes peacetime and wartime in the lifecycle of a startup. He defines peacetime as follows: Peacetime in business means those times when a company has a large advantage vs. the competition in its core market, and its market is growing. In times of peace, the company can focus on expanding the market and reinforcing the company’s strengths.

When your company qualifies as a startup it is definitely not in peacetime. And the wartime requires a special type of leadership skills. Horowitz explains it with the concept of Wartime CEO vs. Peacetime CEO. It is a long and decisive list of differences that everybody should know about.

I definitely identify my leadership style with the qualities of a Wartime CEO, and I want to share with you what I learned over the past ten years of managing crisis.

When you are facing a crisis, there is no way you’ll ever do something about it as long as you are in denial, trying to cover it up or turn a blind eye to it. Every crisis response effort begins with acceptance.

You must accept that there is some loss, usually the loss of normality, and that there is a new reality you need to respond to.

Speaking of loss, I find it important to put the loss of normality that a crisis creates in the perspective of 5 stages of grief as defined by the famous grief researcher ‎Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Acceptance is the first step in responding to a crisis, and it is the 5th stage of grief. In other words, you can’t be managing a crisis as long as you are in one of the other four stages: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. And processing your loss of normality, you’ll inevitably find yourself in all four of them.

Managing a crisis seems to almost compel us to deny our humanity or grow out of it in order to step up to this demanding mission. That is why I often say that crisis is an opportunity for greatness.

What I’ve learned over the past decade is that greatness does not mean becoming a superhuman or a person who doesn’t need to grieve and who can move through life without grieving losses. On the contrary it means becoming a person who is aware of the psychological need to grieve the loss of normality, and who is able to adopt the attitude of acceptance without sacrificing the other four stages of grief.

This often means trusting yourself that you can create space for grief even after you’ve adopted the acceptance attitutde and responded to the crisis. It means knowing that you can, even later, play yourself a Whitney Houston song and cry it out.

It most definitely means knowing that it is OK to have the emotion and process it. And it doesn’t have to be a collossal loss, it can be little things, little griefs. Loss of trust, loss of a good working relationship, loss of opportunity of winning a client,…

I was surprised to learn that Anna Wintour who famously inspired the caracter of Miranda Priestly, the “Devil” in The Devil Wears Prada, actually cries. I first saw it in September Issue, a great documentary about her work as Cheif Editor of Vogue. If you look it up online, you’ll find interviews with Anna where she speaks quite openly about being in tears in this or that situation. What, growing up, we learned to be a weakness, we must now embrace as strenght.

The cost of acceptance is having to deal with the pain. The cost of non-acceptance if the life not lived.

Grief is the first victim of crisis management. It is what we often sacrifice. Yet, as all feelings, grief has a purpose. I think this purpose is to  allows us to let go of a lost vision of the world (and of the self), free us from it and allow us to lean into living in our  new reality. It is like a switch from being stuck to being in movement. There is no way around it.

Movement is enabled by grief. We can move forward only as much as we are able to grieve and let go of the images of the world and of the self that we leave behind.

Grief is now my favourite emotion.

Normalizing crisis

Until you accept crisis as a normal part of startup life you’ll dramatize, get stuck and stagnate. The questions I find useful to ask myself in order to lead the way out of crisis are:

  • How can I start looking forward instead of looking backward?
  • What are the futures I can take myself and my startup to?
  • What does the path to those futures look like?

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