Crisis vs. Challenge: Learning from a non-near-death experience


Harry Greenspun, M.D.

Chief Medical Officer, Managing Director, Health Solutions

Korn Ferry

April 10, 2018

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Not long ago I woke up in the middle of the night with excruciating pain in the upper right quadrant of my abdomen. As a physician, I immediately knew I had cancer. I could see my future unfolding. There would be countless tests and scans, and multiple operations. There would be considerable pain. With his uncanny intuition, my dog Tarot came over to comfort me as I sat on the edge of the bed.  


I thought through the challenges that lay ahead of us and woke my wife Kerry to give her the grim news. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” she said as she turned away to go back to sleep.  Tarot slowly wandered back to his corner of the bedroom.


A few appointments, blood tests, and a minor procedure later, it was confirmed – there was, indeed, nothing wrong with me beyond some minor stomach irritation caused by ibuprofen. All that remained was to remit my co-pays and to respect the slight “I told you so” expression on my wife’s face.


New managers (and new teams) tend to overreact when faced with an uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation, treating it more as a crisis than a challenge. When it happens, it’s easy to recognize. The issue becomes all-consuming, punctuated by crisis calls, “urgent” tags on emails, along with the all-hands message to stop whatever else is going on and focus on this new issue. What is often harder to recognize is the subtle lack of buy-in among many team members, ripped away from yesterday’s priorities by today’s fire drill. In the short term, attention is shifted away from more pressing responsibilities. Although recovering from what may not be so difficult, the longer-term undermining of a leader’s credibility is much harder to repair. 


Of course, such reactions are not limited to new managers. With the rapid pace of change in healthcare, these uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations arise with increasing frequency.  Mergers and acquisitions, new competitors, shifting regulations, and other factors can seemingly arise out of nowhere. Caught off-guard, the c-suite can be thrown into chaos. At the operational level, sudden changes in strategy, organizational structure, and job responsibilities can feel like seismic shifts.


When coaching new leaders, I try to get them to focus on recognizing these sorts of situations.  Having read Samuel Shem’s “The House of God” as a medical student, I have never forgotten Rule #3 – “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.” Before putting a whole series of actions into motion, make sure you are thinking clearly and have gathered some perspective on the situation.


Handling these situations requires a systematic approach. 

  • Recognize the situation for what it is – before launching into action, appreciate that this is the sort of novel situation that can quickly consume you and your team.

  • Seek guidance – Given that this is unfamiliar territory, it’s always constructive to get help understanding just how significant it might be. This is yet another example of the virtue of having a strong and diverse network, allowing you to get perspective from those who may have managed similar situations.


  • Methodically gather information – having good data is particularly important, especially when managing a new challenge.

  • Don’t overreact – Rushing ahead, reassigning resources, and putting everything else on the back-burner can quickly turn a non-crisis into a real one. Problems don’t arise from the attention given to the new event, but instead from failing to properly address existing challenges.

  • Don’t underreact – While it’s easy to wave the “Keep Calm and Carry on” flag, often these situations, while not urgent, are still important and need to be addressed effectively.  

Perhaps most importantly, one needs to learn from the experience. In doing so, you can create more flexible and agile teams, able to handle a wide array of challenges. More importantly, while the moment at hand may not be as dramatic or seismic as you may have first thought, such situations are often signals that other important shifts are happening in the market.


Having survived my non-near-death experience, I do my best to recognize when I’m overreacting. The other day, stepping off a flight from DC to San Francisco, my legs were sore, and I had a brief bout of coughing. I could hear Kerry’s voice saying, “You do not have a pulmonary embolism.”