Photo by Claire Mueller on Unsplash

When my neighbor texted me yesterday to say our local grocery store had just brought in a toilet paper shipment, angels sang.

“Do you want me to grab you some? It’s crazy here; I don’t think any will be left by this afternoon.”

“Yes. Double yes. I don’t care what kind. Bring on 1-ply. I survived outhouses and septic systems. Whatever they have, please.”

Later that day, we traded cash for goods. It felt a little weird. Like I had just snagged some black market VHS tapes. I tucked the spools of golden glory into my coat, lest I be mugged by little girls on bicycles on my way home (even though one of the girls was my daughter…maybe especially because she was my daughter). It’s weird how collective angst can make us paranoid, which is probably the first leadership lesson of this story.

Regardless, when I got home and shared with my daughter why I was carrying a large stick and an even larger package of toilet paper, she stared at me confused.

“Why toilet paper?” she asked.

I could have responded with what we’re seeing online. “Because people have no common sense. Because people are dumb. Because the media is evil. Because Idiocracy is real.”

But as easy as such responses are, and as exhausted as I am — as we all are — those responses just aren’t how I want to human. And, they definitely aren’t aligned with how I want to parent. Parenting to me includes a sacred responsibility of cultivating another’s humanness — of seeing their emotional, mental, and spiritual potential and tending to it. It’s not so different from how I look at leading outside of my home.

In light of how I want to human and how I view my sacred responsibility as a parent and leader, it’s important that my children understand how things that seem bizarre are actually 100% normal human. Because if they can understand this, then they have renewable fuel for growing their empathy, compassion, and ability to connect with others and themselves. And, it gives them seeds for self awareness. Seeds that allow them to understand their humanness and use this understanding powerfully. Too many of us walk around feeling broken, weird, abnormal, and flawed because we don’t know our human. Too many of us walk around constantly shaming and judging ourselves and others because of false beliefs and norms that have nothing to do with real humanness. As much as I want my children close to me, I don’t want them joining us.

So, I did my best to thoughtfully walk her through the, “Why toilet paper?” question. And as I did so, I realized that our coronavirus-evoked toilet paper shortages have a lot of wisdom when it comes to courageous leadership. Leadership of ourselves and others. At work, home, and in our communities.

The Humanness of Toilet Paper Runs and Leadership Nuggets (no puns intended, but how brilliant)

So, why toilet paper? Well, many different aspects of humanness contribute to our empty shelves and doomsday hoarding. Here are a few that may shed some light on what we’re experiencing. Because it isn’t a lack of common sense or stupidity. It’s neurobiology.

1.) Emotional Contagion. Within the word “emotion” is a root of “to move.” Emotions move. Through us. Ever have rage or truth tears? Movement, baby. (Perhaps an oversimplification of the science of tears, but you get the picture.)

Given that we’re wired to be social beings living in interdependent collective networks, emotions also move among us. Like rage and fear, panic is highly contagious emotion. When among people who are afraid or in panic, we will begin to feel these emotions, too, often outside of our conscious awareness. And once these emotions catch us, our thoughts and actions shift in kind. We like to believe that we’re steering the ship, but humans are driven by many auto-pilot maneuvers, particularly when we’re not mindful and present with ourselves.

So as leaders, we have to be aware of our emotions and name and address the emotions around us. One of the most important things we can remember is that calm is also contagious. Box breathing and slowing your movement and speech in moments of panic can cultivate calm.

2.) Vulnerability. Vulnerability is perceived risk, uncertainty, or emotional exposure. When we’re in vulnerability, our threat systems activate. We feel discomfort and dis-ease, and our neurobiology tries to find anything to make the pain stop. We will look for certainty and control. We will armor up with fear/threat behaviors: fight, flight, freeze, or appease.

Right now, we all feel uncertainty and risk: we feel vulnerable. As a result, you will observe behaviors like fighting to be right, searching for a villain and attacking them, “doing and busy-ness,” and numbing. In our culture, doomsday prepping and shopping are two learned behaviors for responding to vulnerable situations for which we have little control or certainty. I don’t know the history of when toilet paper became a #1 vulnerability purchase, but if you want a rabbit hole of fun, start researching it. Regardless, it is a top vulnerability purchase (likely because using leaves is OK, but not the greatest) and a societal habit. Groups of people have habits just like individuals.

You may not be buying toilet paper. But this doesn’t mean you aren’t hooked by the vulnerability. You may just have different #1 vulnerability habits. Have you noticed increased scrolling, Netflix binging, drinking, baking, “doing,” planning, “researching,” shutting down, retreating…? If yes, you may have found your toilet paper.

As leaders, we have to be aware of vulnerability and how we are responding in it. Are we leaning on curiosity, empathy, and our values? Or are we armoring up and displaying threat behaviors? And that’s just for leading ourselves. In leading our people, we have to ask ourselves whether we are leading our people in the vulnerability or contributing to it. The data show that if we can name the fears and feelings without diminishing them or over exaggerating them and if we can be transparent and share what we know and don’t know with consistency and clarity, we can support the people we lead.

3.) Scarcity. Many of us are aware of time and money scarcity mindsets and beliefs. But we aren’t all clear on what scarcity does to our behavior. Real and perceived scarcity really do a number on our neurobiology, and most of us don’t even know what is happening. Scarcity increases our stress and fear. We fixate on the thing that is scarce, often in ways that get in the way. When we find that thing, we tend to hoard. And when we get a lot of it, we actually often squander it. Yep, you heard me. When we get a boat load of something we feel is scarce, we tend to blow it. Doesn’t make sense, but 100% normal human.

So, a person who isn’t worried about toilet paper will go into a store and see that it is almost all gone. They know they have 55 roles at home. But they will find themselves putting the last 12 pack available into their cart while a desperate looking mom whose child smells of poo stares at the resulting empty shelf. Humanness. Gotta love it.

The leadership lesson here is that when we create scarcity or use it as a way to control, we’re wielding a dangerous weapon. It’s not for me to judge, but just know it’s a choice. And when we see scarcity rearing its head, it’s our job to address it. This starts with checking in with ourselves to notice where we are creating real or perceive scarcity or where we are perceiving scarcity. And when we see scarcity, it means getting mindful of what we’re doing in response, starting with how we’re leading ourselves.

I’ll end with gratitude, given that we know gratitude can help our well-being in times of stress. I’m grateful for an amazing neighbor. I’m grateful for the knowledge to support my children in humaning. And I’m grateful for toilet paper.

Aren’t sure what to be grateful for? Here are a few gifts from me to you…

If you don’t have toilet paper, please don’t use paper towels. Or real towels. Or anything thicker than elephant leaves. They’ll destroy your plumbing.

And if you decide to go natural, remember: Leaves of three? Let it be.

Sam Crowe, PhD is a “neuro enthusiast” and humanness expert who believes in loving and laughing our way through the oddities of being human. She serves this world as a leadership and life transformation coach, Certified Dare to Lead(TM) Facilitator, and recovering neuroscientist who advocates for brave, wholehearted living and leading. Read more by Sam on Medium and sign up for her monthly newsletter “Heart-Centered Humaning In a Noisy World” here.

Dr. Sam Crowe is a coach, recovering neuroscientist, and Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator who advocates for courageous, human-centered living and leading.

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