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Grey Zone Change & Calm Leadership: Leading self and others through #COVID-19

May 14, 2020
By Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson


When I am asked what characteristics define what I call Grey Zone Change (a space between the current state and an emerging future that is undefined and unknowable), I usually provide these seven characteristics…and that was before #COVID-19.

  1. Changes are required that will lead to a transformation in the way people think, work and behave (fundamentally shifts in ‘how we think,’ ‘how we do our work,’ and ‘who we are’)
  2. There are plenty of questions
  3. There are no clear answers
  4. There are new things to consider regularly
  5. Solutions and progress are emergent
  6. Many people are involved
  7. Everything seems chaotic

The current circumstances are providing all of us with a global lived experience of this reality of the 21st century changes we are facing and can continue to anticipate for a while yet. In this zone between the world as we knew it and the world to come, the dynamics of the Grey Zone are in full effect for individuals, groups and entire systems at every scale. Those dynamics are overlaid by anxiety, a normal human response to crisis, encoded in our fight or flight brains. Anxious individuals working together can lead to group dysfunctions and reinforce the system confusions already in place by the circumstances around us. You are likely already experiencing this to various degrees in everything from heightened emotions and stress levels, uncertainty, individuals and groups around you feeling stuck and so on. That’s why, more than ever, Calm Leadership is essential to these times. As Brené Brown wrote in Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

I define calm as creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity. Calm is a superpower because it is the balm that heals one of the most prevalent workplace stressors: anxiety…The bad news is that anxiety is one of the most contagious emotions that we experience. This explains why anxiety can so easily become a function of groups, not individuals. It’s too contagious to stay contained in one person. We’ve all had the experience of one person sending a group into a tailspin. The good news? Calm is equally contagious. (p.256-257)

So how can leaders be contagious with calm in the current Grey Zone Change of #COVID-19? Calm Leadership means being both clear and generative. This is a seeming polarity, but a core criterion for navigating Grey Zone Change is the ability to be ambidextrous and transform either/or thinking to both/and.


Be Clear. A calm leader in the Grey Zone Change is clear. This is the clarity required in crisis and emergency management to prevent chaos. It is the ability of leaders in these times to make clear decisions and constantly communicate to share available information and support their people to organize in ways that will bring as much calm and certainty to the immediate crisis as possible. In the current state, this includes clear decisions to help people transition to working from home, putting the infrastructure in place to help people learn and make sense of ‘the new ways of working,’ and making decisions on work (what is continuing, what is on hold) that will help groups maintain their focus and get clear on their organizational roles in these times. As neuroscience confirms, helping people get a clear FOCUS is essential to leading through these times (see this webinar by David Rock which I highly recommend you listen to).

Be Generative. This is the ability to foster the conditions for people to sense and respond to what is emerging by anticipating and designing for the future. It is the leadership art of helping people uncover possibilities from disruptions. In the current context, this could entail engaging your people now to start brainstorming and creating scenarios for the future based on the anticipated impacts of COVID-19.

As you can see from this piece from Gallup, the best organizations are already attending to both of these aspects of leading through COVID-19.

The challenge for leaders as always, is that you are also in the Grey Zone, leading and learning as things unfold.

So where do you start? Here are some simple rules I am trying.

  1. Take care of yourself – You cannot give what you do not have. Remaining calm at this time requires all the self-care that will help you stay grounded and metaphorically put on your own mask before you attempt to help others do so. I am attending to my spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health intentionally at this time. If you have cold/flu symptoms and are concerned, take any of the available COVID-19 self-assessments (here is the Canadian one for example) and follow self-isolation protocols. Find self-care routines that work for you and maintain your practices, but be self-compassionate when you need to take breaks too. It’s going to be a long ride.

  2. Get good information – there is so much happening and so much information out there. Identify the sources that are most useful to you and your organization, create a digest regularly and share with your teams often.

    P.S. I know there is tons out there right now but for those who are less familiar with leading online meetings, see this downloadable resource specifically for this moment that I like: Leading Groups Online: a down-and-dirty guide to leading online courses, meetings, trainings, and events during the coronavirus pandemic

  3. Support Others – Stay tuned to all the ways you can support others. There will be the standard way applicable broadly, however the psychosocial needs of your teams will also be varied and unique. Caring for others at this time will require staying tuned, asking often and being creative in how to meet the needs of those you lead.

  4. Embrace the Emergence – Leading ahead of the #COVID-19 curve will require actively seeking the possibilities in the present disruptions and starting to experiment early. Look for and share stories of positive possibilities out of disruptions, offer and solicit key possibility-oriented questions for your teams to explore and give them the support and permissions they need to explore possible solutions. For an overview of how to engage emergence from disruption, see the summary and text of Peggy Holman’s Engaging Emergence.

  5. And, Breathe… because when all else falls, breathing always works to slow me down, restore my thinking and try again…

Keep Calm, Keep Breathing and Keep Leading.

Calm Leadership Example from Angela Merkel COVID-19 Address

This article is republished with permission from Dr. Gilpin-Jackson. Read the original article on her blog at SLD Consulting.

About the authour


Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson is an award-winning scholar, Organization Development Consultant, and writer. She has 15 years’ experience across the private, public, and nonprofit sectors; Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in her areas of expertise. Yabome was named an Institute for Social Innovation Scholar at Fielding Graduate University, CA for her published research into the growth and development needs of war-affected people in Africa and is a contributor to the ground-breaking book:  Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change (Berrett-Koehler, 2015). She has also been awarded International African Woman of the Year by UK-based Women4Africa and was the first ever recipient of the US-based Organization Development Network’s Emerging Organization Development Practitioner award. She received the prestigious 2018 Harry Jerome Professional Excellence Award in Canada. In addition to peer-reviewed publications, she is author of Identities, a short story collection about global African experiences and Lead Editor of the We Will Lead Africa book series.

Twitter: @supportdevelop

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