City and county managers who have been through major disasters have a common refrain: “We had never seen anything like this!” Fires, floods, winds, terrorist attacks, and mass shootings have challenged managers over the years at scales never imagined.  Now, in 2020, COVID-19 is a biological crisis on a scale not experienced in this generation, challenging not just a single community but challenging all communities across the nation.

On several occasions, both managers and mayors have told me regarding their local crisis “There is no playbook for this.” Actually, there is, they just didn’t read it.  No two crises are the same and no two communities are the same, but lessons from the past can help inform a novel situation.

1. Take care of yourself. 

In a crisis, managers and their senior staffs have a tendency to overwork and set a bad example, and risk making bad decisions from fatigue. COVID-19 will be the longest marathon that any manager has ever run.  Those who have had their communities devastated by natural disasters have run very long recovery marathons.  COVID-19 is a response marathon that will be followed by a recovery marathon.  Now is the time to establish a personal care plan and set the example for the organization:

  • Limit work hours. In non-crisis times, managers work 24 hours, seven days a week.  Manager years are like dog years. 24/7 is the equivalent of 4.2 normal work years of 40 hours, 52 weeks.  This is not sustainable at a crisis level.  Managers need to have a conversation with their councils and staffs about what is reasonable off-hour access to the manager for nonemergency business.
  • Eat nutritious food. People who work in emergency operations centers frequently find that they gain weight.  Well-meaning people bring all kinds of treats and the snacks to EOCs, and most are high-carb, high-sugar, and high-calorie. Take the time to make a meal plan so that the body and mind can maintain peak performance during the marathon.
  • Sleep. Science teaches us that sleep is essential. It improves health in multiple ways, just as lack of sleep undermines health.  Get a smartwatch and track your sleep. Set the phone for limited calls.
  • Find a distraction. There is no way not to be obsessive about the COVID-19 crisis.  We learn something new every day.  And, at the same time, managers have to maintain preparation for any of the other crises that can occur.  It will wear you out.  The daily federal and state briefings have already become exhausting.  Take a break: walk, play a game with the family, Facebook with old friends. Find something that will get your mind off of COVID-19 for at least a few hours.
  • Exercise.  Some managers are outstanding in maintaining a daily regimen of exercise. This will serve them well in this crisis.  For others who do not regularly exercise, it will seem even more undoable now.  Try.  Limit the amount of time that you sit in one place, get up and walk.  Check on other staff, see how people are doing. Do something that gets you up and moving.
  • Breathe. It is an amazing thing.  When you are feeling really stressed, when someone has done something really stupid, or when the whole event seems overwhelming, stop and breath.  Try it right now and feel the relief.

2. Take care of your family. 

During the 24/7 nature of normal manager work, many ignore their families.  It is troubling to hear older managers express regret for not being engaged with the children in their youth or becoming disconnected from their partners. Managers frequently fail to realize that their family members vicariously experience the pressure and stress that they see in the manager.  When managers get home, they are tired and want to rest and get some distraction (as encouraged above).  Spouses, however, want to know how the day went and how they can help. It is a communication paradox.  A conversation about how you communicate can help de-conflict the paradox.  Talk about what each other needs and how you can work to stay a team.

3. Take care of your staff. 

Most managers are pretty good about this.  The dedication of local government staff provides the motivation and inspiration for managers to continue.  You cannot tell them enough how much you appreciate them. Help them also understand that COVID-19 is a marathon for everyone.  It is also a crisis that puts all responders at risk, including the manager and council.  Policies for personal protective equipment must be rethought to cover many more workers. Some staff will get sick and will have sick family members.  Some may die.  Be prepared.  Have a solid plan that is communicated to staff about how they will be cared for.

4. Take care of the community – communicate. 

Some communities are going to be traumatized and most are already living in fear.  We have not experienced confinement and shortages and unemployment at these levels since the Great Depression and World War II.  Only a few in the community experienced those events and were young at the time.  Local leadership, especially the elected officials, need to be equipped with sound, fact-based messaging that can be mutually reinforced across the community.  Connect with the business, charity, and faith communities in developing the messaging that can let people know that the local government is doing all that it can, that there is hope, and that together we can get through this.  Managers rarely face such a communication challenge on such a scale for such a long timeframe.  Reach out to communication experts in your community and get assistance in developing the messaging and identifying the channels and voices to give the message.  Have an aggressive social media plan.  Attack rumors quickly. Be honest.

5. Take care of each other. 

The only people who truly know what the life of a manager is like are other managers.  ICMA and state associations provide networking opportunities for managers to get to know each other.  Take advantage of the network. Do not be arrogant or ashamed to connect with another manager when you are having a hard time.  Ask for help.  Offer help.  Those managers with whom you feel close need to know that you are there for them even though they may not even be conscious of that need.  An email or voicemail of support lifts one’s spirit and helps the manager not feel so alone.

Many years ago, my wife and I heard a sermon on Moses and how on the 40-year journey to the Promised Land, the people he led whined and complained and acted out in outrageous ways.  The minister suggested that when we are feeling overwhelmed, angry, or annoyed, we should remember Moses and what he had to put up with. Over my years as manager, when things would get tough, my wife would put a note in my satchel and sometimes would even text me during a council meeting, saying simply, “remember Moses.”

COVID-19 will not likely be a 40-year march through the desert, but it will feel like it.  It already does.  Society has endured worse and we will endure this. Doing so will require the leadership and examples set by professional city and county managers.  Take a moment to reflect and establish your plan for personal resilience.  Your family, your organization, and your community need you at your best for this long, grueling marathon. And, remember Moses.

For additional information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.

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