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Who are you in crisis?

Before I make an attempt to answer this question, I would like to take a closer look at the etymological definition of the word “crisis”, so that we can all find a common point of reference.

It turns out, it originally comes from the Greek word κρίσις (krisis) which means discrimination, decision. The noun is derived from the verb κρίνω (krinō), meaning distinguish, choose, decide.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the English language “the word crisis was first used in a medical context, for the time in the development of a disease when a change indicates either recovery or death, that is, a turning-pointBy the mid-seventeenth century, it took on the figurative meaning of a vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything, especially a period of uncertainty or difficulty, without necessarily having the implication of a decision-point.”

In other words, if the Greeks defined crisis as a major “choice, decision” with crucial consequences, we currently define it as the triggering unexpected and threatening event with an uncertain impact which happens right before that decision.

The reason why I love etymology and the history of our languages, is because it is often right at the core of a word, that we find the essential wisdom that has evolved and been transmitted from generation to generation, beyond cultures, countries, languages and time. And once again, I find that after all, the Greeks were right: if there is a key to be found at the core of what it means to experience a crisis, and come out of it stronger, wiser, and reinforced, it lies in how we choose to respond to it.

Coming back to the original question “Who am I in crisis”, I find that the unique power that the context of crisis brings to the question “who am I”, is key.  Crisis have the power to silence everyday noise, magically making the superfluous disappear. If we are to survive, our brains must focus on using our energy efficiently to face whatever is threatening our purpose, our fundamental goals or even our existence, at individual and collective levels. And therefore, in such circumstances, clarity arises and our ability to focus increases.

In many years working as a Leadership Coach, I have found out that, as the Greeks put it, it is how we choose to respond in those critical moments, what will give us the straight answer to the question. I have had the enormous privilege to work very closely with leaders from all over the world, facing all types of complex personal and collective crisis. They found themselves in situations in which they did not only risk losing a job, a project, a company, but also potentially losing human lives, even their own. The list is long and diverse, encompassing different genders, backgrounds, sectors, countries, situations. From female business leaders in Afghanistan or Tajikistan, to humanitarians leading emergency responses following epidemics, earthquakes, food crises, or armed conflicts, to world-class Himalayist mountaineers leading teams through extreme life-threatening circumstances, or high-level politicians responsible for closing sensitive peace accords following armed conflicts in different parts of the world.

They all faced very different crisis. And still, they all taught me one extremely valuable lesson. Those who are able to find an answer to the question “who am I in crisis”, do not spend their time asking life to be in a certain way or asking themselves “why me”. Quite the opposite! They are those who can embrace their human curiosity, vulnerability and humbleness to be able to respond to what life is actually asking from them. We cannot choose our circumstances of which crisis are going to be coming our way. But as Edith Egger tells us in her book “The Choice”, it is “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.

As a crisis unfolds with all its unpredictability and speed, our natural response can be counterproductive.  Emotions are high, resilience is tested and our decision-making may be distorted.  As leaders and managers your people will look to you for the answers and that’s a challenging place to be.  And yet from this can come good things.  A recent PWC study found that people used the words resilient, determined, prepared and hopeful to describe their emotions as they had gone through a major crisis.  Here lies the magnificence of the human ability to reflect and choose how we respond. 

So who are you in a crisis? It is only you who has the power to answer this question. When the moment is right, the immediate challenge is averted take some time to reflect. The answer is within you.   

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