A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Recovering Agency in Coronavirus Times¹*

Steven F. Freeman
Knowledge + Leadership
6 min readApr 20, 2020

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“Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” ~Rahm Emanuel²

Footnotes and references

One disheartening aspect of the current crisis is a widespread lost sense of agency both for individuals and organizations – a loss accepted as an unfortunate, but unavoidable cost of controlling a pandemic, and one barely worth noticing or commenting on. We’re at the mercy of events that are difficult to understand. In light of risk to life and health, we must all make sacrifices. We’re told there’s little to do but wait it out. And there seems no reasonable counter to that.

And so we’ve largely ceded control of our lives and livelihoods almost without awareness of what we’ve conceded. Some people have been working 24/7, usually less from choice than obligation, in some cases literally working themselves to death. Yet more are unemployed, prisoners of lockdowns, whose gainful labor now consists of filling out state and federal forms.

Organizations likewise: Some stressed to the breaking point; others closed for business; the rest struggling to carry on despite massive disruptions in supply chains, customer flows, and most ways of working.³ And also filing for newly minted bailout money without which, they will fail in numbers no economy can withstand.

To an unprecedented degree, businesses and citizens alike have placed their fate in the hands of government agencies we have little reason to trust⁴, and in fact do not trust⁵ …. Because, well, what choice do we have?

Actually, much more than most realize. Most of what’s happening now is beyond your control, but it’s beyond others’ control as well.

Under non-crisis conditions, “change” is narrowly circumscribed. Living systems from single cells to international governing bodies survive by maintaining stasis. In an organism, we call this homeostasis; your body is always at work maintaining body temperature, fluid balance, etc.…⁶ Healthy social systems require equivalent order⁷; institutions, economic relationships, laws and mores all work to maintain it. As such “change” consists not of overhaul, but rather its opposite, a delicate balancing act of continual small adjustments to keep things as they are.⁸

Functioning organizations have a place in the system along with goals and a playbook of options prescribed to attain them. Likewise for each division and department down to each individual. If, however, these options are no longer available, if the playbook itself is thrown out, then we had better be exploring alternative options, developing a new playbook, and perhaps even reconsidering the goals themselves.

If it’s not too macabre, envision each tiny coronavirus as a snowflake. Yes, millions of cases, like millions of snowflakes makes for a helluva storm — the storm of the century (so far) — bringing hardship and death and stopping the world in its tracks. But death makes new life possible and hardship is often what’s required to motivate fundamental change.

A fierce storm can destroy roads and bridges that had made for easier passage. But those pathways also had restricted us to particular routes, routes which at some point become ruts. The freshly fallen snow, in contrast, presents a beautifully clean slate; an opportunity to create new pathways, to head towards new destinations.

Artwork by Clarissa Libertelli

It may seem vague, impractical, even insensitive to speak of “agency” when systems are collapsing and organizations can’t make payroll … of coronavirus as snowflakes for those locked up in small apartments, kids bouncing off the walls, uncertain of being able to pay bills or even secure meals beyond the weekend … in the midst of a crisis where actual survival is at stake. But agency is important for survival, and critical for everything beyond mere survival.

The primary challenge in successful social or behavioral transformation is neither conception nor initiation, but rather to undo the stasis that holds an order in place. That stasis explains the failure of countless attempts over more than half-a-century to reform an insanely inefficient U.S. health-care system.⁹ It also explains why so many people fail to reform their own health care regimen until a coronary attack or diabetes diagnosis (and even then).

The current pandemic and its response, however, is the most thorough disruption of stasis and normal functioning of our lifetimes. With everything changing, all is up for grabs. In theory that makes possible an equality of opportunity; in practice, quite the contrary. That freshly fallen snow? Some have already positioned the plows to create new exclusive superhighways. If you’re simply waiting, ceding agency to institutions you know better than to trust, you’ll likely find yourself plowed under.

It’s easy to slide into dependency. The alternative … to lead towards a desired future … is not. This is always the case, but in a crisis, the stakes are raised, and time is short. To mitigate losses and to realize gains, you must be aware and circumspect of these other agendas. More important yet, you have to have an agenda, which requires a sense of purpose, and a plan. Realistic, realizable agendas and plans in turn require faith not in extant institutions, but in yourself and a network of people you can trust. That is to say your own capacity for personal control and accountability, or agency.

In subsequent articles, I’ll explore some of requisite qualities of effective agency, resiliency and crisis leadership; as well as other insights and processes that can help us through crisis. For now, I’ll summarize the key points that motivated me to write this piece:

1. Don’t just wait it out till things get back to normal. They won’t.

2. Be alert and active. In a crisis, everything is up for grabs. Others are vigorously pursuing their agendas. You need to pursue yours. Some wisdom from biblical times: “If I am not for myself, who is?”

  • Pursue it with and for others: “But if I am for my own self only, what am I?”
  • Don’t delay: “And if not now, when?”¹⁰

3. Be flexible and proactive. Change brings both loss and opportunity.

  • Mitigate the loss: You cannot preserve everything, but reflect on what’s most important. Design a plan. Implement it.
  • Seize opportunity: What you would most like to change. Now’s the time. Think big; the big boys do.¹¹ Practically, you need some wins just to hold your ground because you’re not going to avoid losses. Make a list. Choose an item. Design a plan. Implement.¹²

Bottom Line: You can’t control the future, but you can influence and shape it. No one is all powerful. No one is powerless. Unless you cede that power. Don’t.

Footnotes and references

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Steven F. Freeman
Knowledge + Leadership

Expertise: crisis preparedness, resiliency, innovation, research methods & applications. Faculty Jefferson, UPenn+. PhD MIT. Advising industry, govnt, orgs, YOU