The below is based on an essay I shared with my graduate students in a Master’s degree course on “Leading Change” that I teach at Johns Hopkins. I thought it might serve you, dear readers, too.
Being a Leader in These Times
The most critical skill for surviving any crisis, particularly one like the Covid-19 pandemic, which threatens all dimensions of our lives, is how we use our mind to think about it to make decisions and take action. As discussed in Enduring Edge, we each tend to think in three basic states of mind—1D, 2D, and 3D. Although we inhabit only one state at a time, we constantly switch between states from moment to moment.
By becoming aware of how we use our mind, we can observe its default tendencies, consciously release thoughts that hold us back, and train our mind to generate ones that serve us in the moment. As we reflect on our default reactions and actions, we gain the power to transform how we lead ourselves, each other, and the world.
The 1D Mind: “What Will Happen to Me?”
The 1D mind focuses on our survival, guided by primal emotions such as fear. In a crisis, it instinctively goes into overdrive, terrified of the unknown, which it perceives as a threat. When we are in the 1D mind, worry, panic, and anxiety easily hijack our thoughts.
In the face of a pandemic, the 1D mind may think, “I will die,” and frantically hoard food (and toilet paper). It may be overwhelmed by the pandemic’s uncertainty and feel perpetually on edge or paralyzed. It may go into denial, impatiently assert it can’t “see” the problem, doubt if it is real, or even delude itself into believing “it won’t affect me”.
In a crisis such as this pandemic, which threatens not just our physical but also our emotional and financial well-being, the 1D mind’s myriad reactions are natural, expected responses, driven by primal survival instincts. Yet, over time, being in the 1D mind is exhausting and unsustainable. It reduces our ability to make good decisions and plans and may even endanger us through rash, impulsive, irrational actions.
Furthermore, being in the 1D mind evokes the stress response, which lowers our immunity, increases our vulnerability to infections, and weakens our body’s innate capacity to fight them off. Thus, beyond short-term, urgent, critical action, the 1D mind is not one to lead us through a crisis, especially one that requires holistic, long-term thinking guided by personal resilience and collective action.
We can recognize leaders led by their 1D mind from their focus on short-sighted, impulsive actions grounded in their own fears and needs. Such leaders tend to mistake their instincts for their intuition, which leads them to neglect guiding data (2D) and deeper wisdom (3D) and to foster chaos that endangers lives. Thus, one powerful way to be a leader in these times is to both not consciously follow such leaders and to actively stand up to them to reduce the harm they cause.
To avoid getting trapped in our own 1D mind, we learn to become aware of when we are in it by recognizing how its thoughts and feelings show up in our body, mind, and being. Since we cannot simultaneously inhabit and observe the 1D mind, awareness helps us consciously shift out of it into a state that may serve us better, based on what we face.
The 2D Mind: “How Can We Plan to Save Lives?”
The 2D mind is the seat of our logic-based rational faculties, also known as our intellect. It considers greater and longer-term contexts than the 1D mind. In it, we can use reason to calm down, take a deep breath, put fear on hold, and focus on how we can best prepare and plan ahead. We study the science, listen to experts, and learn the facts. We ask: What is most essential? What is practical? What should I prioritize? We tackle our new reality one thing at a time, take it day-by-day, and avoid fast-forwarding to worst-case scenarios, as the 1D mind tends to do. In the 2D mind, we think through options and weigh tradeoffs to decide what makes most sense in the moment.
The 2D mind is vital to leading in these times, both in our lives and in the world. It helps us evaluate data to make informed decisions, such as on how lockdowns protect and save lives. It can study exponential growth without descending into paralyzing panic, focusing instead on taking mitigating action. It understands how social distancing “flattens the curve” to support the healthcare system’s ability to save lives, even when we cannot directly see this impact in our own day-to-day routine.
Yet, while the 2D mind is critical to good leadership, it alone is not enough. The 2D mind can easily descend into analysis paralysis and play through endless scenarios on how the future will unfold. It may become lodged in its own point of view, which it may stubbornly defend with rational arguments devoid of a holistic perspective.
Thus, just as fear cannot sustainably drive long-term action, reason harbors its own limitations. While the former exhausts us, the latter often fails to sustainably inspire us. In the face of these limits, we can harness the 3D mind to serve us better.
The 3D Mind: “We Are All in This Together”
The 3D mind is the seat of our inner wisdom and intuition, and the source of our deeper sense of meaning, purpose, and values. It guides us to focus on what matters most and helps us gain insights on why it does. In the 3D mind, we are fully present in the present moment. We transcend 1D’s ever-fickle emotions and 2D’s never-ending analyses to attain an inner serenity that helps us feel calm, connected, and whole.
In this inner space, we sense our shared humanity, which evokes kindness, compassion and caring for all fellow beings. We act selflessly, in service to a higher calling that transcends us. Today, this is exemplified by the frontline heroes—such as healthcare workers, caregivers, grocers, drivers, first responders, and soldiers—who are risking their lives to protect all of ours. It is also reflected in our deep gratitude to them.
The 3D mind is at the heart of what sustains us as individuals and societies. It guides our sense of meaning, purpose, and values, which keep us going when all else fails. It inspires us to persevere in the face of a challenge, to answer the call to a higher calling, and to unite behind a future vision for our collective well-being. We can see the holistic, long-term, big picture. We bring humility and courage to focus on what matters most with positivity, resilience, and hope. We tap into the 1D and 2D minds as needed, but no more.
The 3D mind is not only at the heart of all great leadership but also the secret of its true power. We can recognize 3D leaders by their authentic way of being. They walk their talk with humility and grace, earning deep loyalty, trust, and respect. In these times, we can each harness the 3D mind’s power by supporting 3D leaders around us and embodying it in our own ways of being.
As many experts have said, there is much we still don’t know about how this pandemic will unfold. Hence, understandably, the 1D and 2D minds can easily go into overdrive as we try to avoid danger and make sense of it. During those moments, by harnessing the 3D mind, we gain immense inner strength. Being in the 3D mind invokes the relaxation response, which is the opposite of the 1D mind’s stress response. This restores our energy and helps us stay centered and calm. We gain clarity on how to change what we can and how to make peace with and release what we cannot.
How we best access the 3D mind is unique for each of us. It may be as simple as taking a few deep breaths to re-center, being in Nature, serving others, engaging in a creative pursuit, or meditating or reflecting in solitude. Like training a muscle, each time we are in the 3D mind, we strengthen our ability to access it, until it becomes our way of being, no matter what we are doing.
In the 3D mind, we transcend tradeoffs as we realize that the decision between saving the economy and saving lives is not a binary choice. We see that a healthy economy is not possible without a healthy society. We understand that short-term stimuli can move markets but will not move most humans to risk their own (and their family’s) lives.
In this way, as we lead with the 3D mind, we are empowered to lead with a sense of meaning and purpose and to inspire others with wisdom and hope. We see how, by washing hands and staying home, we serve and save all fellow beings and, by being courageous, we spread resilience and sustain hope. Thus, being a leader in these times is not about attaining titles or perches of power or fame but about how we each lead the way in leading ourselves, together.