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The Corporate Flu Season

By Patrick Lencioni - December 2009

This has been a big year for the flu, and my family was certainly not spared from it. It was a long and painful Fall in our house, though we seem to be largely recovered, thank God.

Now, if you’re anything like me, when you get sick you find yourself yearning desperately to be healthy again. You pledge that when you get better you’re really going to appreciate your health, not take it for granted. And if you’re anything like me, when you do get better, you too easily forget how you felt when you were ill and eventually start doing the same things – eating poorly, working too hard, staying up too late at night, forgetting to take vitamins &ndash that make you susceptible to catching the next flu bug that comes around.

I think the same thing happens in our companies: whether our sickness is an extended decrease in demand for our products or we’re struggling to fight off a serious competitive threat. As leaders, we understandably get desperate to get our business healthy again, and just when we start to worry that maybe it will never improve, the ’flu’ runs its course, things finally start to get better, and we feel a sense of relief.

But rather than appreciate our new situation, we are often all too happy to put the problem behind us, causing us to lose a sense of gratitude for having lived through it. Perhaps, in a state of minor delusion, we congratulate ourselves for solving the problem, and even develop a measure of arrogance about the whole thing. Not only does this make us more susceptible to having those problems again in the future, it prevents us from seeing the valuable lessons we can learn during the process of being not well.

Well, I’d say that our economy is currently in the middle of a very long and very painful flu season, and virtually every organization is in some way infected. Our symptoms can be found in our financial performance, our strategic uncertainty, our sagging morale. As painful as this is and as much as we want it to be over, it is actually a good time to take a long look at the situation we’re in and ask ourselves a few important questions. What did we do to make us susceptible to this? How could we have diminished our symptoms had we known the flu was coming? What will we do differently once this passes?

The key to doing this is two-fold. First, we have to resist the temptation to lament the problem. Wasting time cursing the situation only keeps us from seeing the underlying lessons. Second, we have to avoid the tendency to simply work more, spin faster and grind harder, because that is just a recipe for getting sicker. Instead, we have to slow down, come to gentle terms with the reality of our situation, and look for opportunities to change the way we approach our work. That might mean new products and services, a different strategy, better use of partners, or some other change that we wouldn’t have considered if we had never caught the flu in the first place. Whatever it is, by changing our perspective from self-pity to self-improvement, we’ll actually hasten our recovery.

Now I realize that this sounds somewhat clichéd and that it is a lot easier said than done. When revenue is down and the sales pipeline is looking a little dry, it’s not easy to look on the bright side. But that’s what makes great companies great: they do the things that are hard and simple.

So, as we prepare for the New Year, let’s make a special effort to stop and count our blessings, even during this time of relative difficulty. And let’s not forget that when all is said and done, this flu we’re living through, as painful as it is, may make us more resilient to sickness in the future, and actually prove to be a blessing in disguise.