There’s nothing like a crisis to focus our attention. We saw that recently here in Victoria on Black Saturday where all the emergency agencies, the government and a great proportion of the community could think of nothing else.

On a wider scale, the global financial crisis has focused the attention of world governments, financial regulators, economists and business leaders. For many of us, our attention is resolutely focused on surviving this dramatic downturn.

For many of us we have been happy in the past for our financial controllers to give us a summary of the balance sheet and point out anything that needs particular scrutiny. Now we go through it with a fine tooth comb. In the past we have been relaxed about some sections of our business that weren’t performing – allowing them time to develop. Now we need to justify everything we do to ourselves and our owners.

Many of us had forgotten what it was like to be so focused.

[Indeed one of the good things to come out of a downturn is that it shakes us out of our complacency and, like a bushfire, while it destroys it also prepares the ground for new growth to emerge.]

Perhaps, in the midst of all this activity we should stop and find a few microseconds to reflect on the balance of our priorities. There is no doubt that when times are tough our first priority must be survival. But I wonder if focusing all our attention on survival is the best way to increase our chances of doing so.

What subtle signals might we be missing by looking so closely at ourselves? Is this just another cyclic (albeit much larger than normal) downturn or are we observing the emergence of a new world economic order? Of course we cannot know the answer to this question in the traditional sense of the word and there is no shortage of analysts prepared to give us (often conflicting) opinions. But what do our on senses tell us and to what are our senses atuned?

One of the most courageous things we can do in the midst of a crisis is to not act. I love the title of a book I was introduced to recently:

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

That is, even though everything is urgent, take time to stop and pay attention to what you may be missing.

During the Second World War, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin was engaged in a disagreement with Churchill and Roosevelt about the fate of Australia’s AIF 7th Division.
The foreign leaders had gone both over Curtin’s head and behind his
back in ordering the troop ships to sail from India to Burma when he
had ordered them back to Australia. This was probably the biggest
decision of Curtin’s life. He knew the fate of these 7000 men, and
indeed that of Australia itself depended on him. What did he do? He
went for a walk. He walked for six hours. No-one knew where he was.
When he got back he had decided. The troops would come to Australia
without naval protection (which his allies refused to supply.) He
hardly slept more than an hour or two during the fortnight it took for
them to arrive safely in Fremantle — fearing all the while that he had sent these men to a watery grave at the hands of a Japanese submarine attack. The decision was vindicated when Burma fell to the Japanese shortlty after the Australian troops would have arrived.

Curtin was undoubtedly a man troubled by his own demons. I don’t
think any leader who broke contact with their team without notice for
six hours would survive very long in these times.

However, how did Curtin know this was the right decision. Quite
obviously at a cognitive level he didn’t. But during those six hours —
perhaps the most perilous six hours in Australia’s (western dominated)
history — Curtin found something in himself that was convinced of the
course of action he would take. It was not as if he had tossed a coin
and then blindly followed the result. When he returned he had a
conviction and followed that conviction through in the face of his own
doubts and those of his detractors. He was unshakable.

During those six hours he became aware of and connected to a broader
sense of understanding than just his own. Some may call it a ‘collective consciousness’.
Some would say he was guided by God (even though he himself was an
avowed atheist.) Whatever happened, he became aware at some level of
something he had not previously been aware of.

His awareness only became possible because he changed the focus of
his attention. He had previously been focused on the detail. The cables
from Roosevelt and Churchill. [Minister for Foreign Affairs] Dr. Evatt’s
constant and often contradictory injunctions for action. The
intelligence briefings from Defence. The situation in New Guinea.
Australia’s production capacity (or the lack of it.) Negotiations for
defence materiel  with both Britain and the US. Cables to both
Churchill and Roosevelt for greater priority for the war in the Pacific
against their “Fight Hitler First” policy.

In the midst of all this he stopped and went for a walk!

As a leader in this current crisis do you have the courage to stop? To just stand there?

I don’t suggest you stop for six hours, but maybe five minutes every
hour. Maybe half an hour or an hour a day. You may say I am hopelessly
out of touch for even suggesting this was a remote possibility. Don’t I
know how busy you are? Yes I do. I have spoken with many of you and
have seen your level of stress. So it would be very courageous for you
to step off the treadmill for a short time. But courage and vision are
what you are paid for.

Most importantly, connecting to something broader and more powerful
than yourself and your own organization is the very thing you need to
do not only to survive during this crisis but to step into
opportunities that others either vacate or do not see.