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How to lead in a crisis when you get knocked down

Progressive Dairy Editor Walt Cooley Published on 06 May 2020

Leading during the COVID-19 pandemic for me has been hard. Leading during any crisis is hard.

As an essential worker, your day-to-day tasks haven’t changed throughout all this. However, the pressure to perform has been higher. To me, it seems like you’re pulling through. But it probably always looks like that from the outside looking in. Everyone’s calling you a hero. You’ve got to act like a hero all the time, right? Don’t forget: Even heroes have bad days.



Have you gotten stuck at times throughout all this? I have. When I’ve had a bad day (or string of days), here’s what I’ve discovered has helped me get unstuck. I share it in the hopes that when you might have a bad day in the future, you can quickly re-center yourself on what makes you a great leader and get right back to it. Many are counting on you, but please know they don’t expect you to be somebody you’re not. They need you to be you at your natural best.

Can you influence whether consumer demand or your co-op dictates if you have to cut back milk production? Probably not. But you can control how you react to it. In this issue, we’ve included an article that discusses the pros and cons to strategies to comply with a mandate to cut back (see 5 strategies to decrease milk production).

You still get to control what decisions you make on your farm, even if the ultimate outcome is fixed. I’ve found my worst days during the pandemic have been when I’ve been focused on things I can’t directly control. I feel better when I pause and ask myself, “Is this in my circle of control?” When it’s not, I quickly consider if there is anything I can do about it. If so, do it and move on. Don’t dwell on things you have little influence over, even if you are concerned about them.

Check in – talk to someone

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I’m most grateful to my younger sister Erin during this time. She’s very aware of mental health needs. Early on in the pandemic, she sent a text to me and my siblings suggesting we check in periodically about how we were feeling that day using emoticons. (If you’re interested in this method, text or email me and I will share it for your own use.).


When one of us reports in, it’s understood that the rest of us will reciprocate how they are feeling and reply back. For you, maybe you’re just checking in regularly with your spouse or business partner. Your support circle doesn’t have to be big. But you need one. Start one with someone you care about if someone hasn’t already included you in theirs.

I’ve also asked each of my direct reports to check in with me daily. Some write a detailed text or email, and others just send a thumbs-up emoji, but it helps me know how they are doing. If nothing more comes from this pandemic than the daily “how ya doing check-ins,” it will be a habit worth having struggled for.

Re-center with your goals

During crunch time, it’s easy to be hyper-focused on the now. What’s failing in the present? What didn’t get done today? What still needs to be done tomorrow? Even when all the things on your to-do list are within your control, the length of that list can add a crushing weight to your soul. I had one of these days recently, and what pulled me out of it was to get re-centered with my goals. What did I want in the future? How could the present still be a bridge to the future?

In this issue, we’ve included a great article that will help you navigate from the now to six months from now (see COVID-19: A hard conversation about the risk). The key question the author asks is: Are you in the dairy business for the long run, guarding the business and its equity just a bit longer for the next generation, or on-the-fence? Re-evaluating your own personal goals and recommitting to them (or even getting them out of your head and writing them down for the first time) can help you get unstuck. If you’re not sure where you’re going, it will make the daily decisions more difficult to make.

From me and my family, thank you for the work you do to feed us. On my grumpiest of days, I’m most grateful that the lights are still on and we have food on our table. Things would be a lot worse without either of those two. end mark

Walt Cooley
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