From Naked Panic to Appreciated Risk [Future of Leadership Monthly – March 2020]

Robert Neville is getting agitated.

It’s a reaction to Anna’s optimism about their dire situation.

“Six billion people on earth when the infection hit.”

He goes on to describe KV, the genetically-engineered measles virus designed to cure cancer that somehow went rogue. He references its lethality. He explains how this virus turned ordinary people into zombies. 

By the end of the scene in the movie I Am Legend, Dr. Robert Neville, played by Will Smith, is shouting at Anna.

“Every single person that you or I has ever known is DEAD!”

Underneath the anger and the frustration, Neville is afraid.

[Cut to]

A well-lit cave (?) in the animated film The Croods.

Grug Crood, a neanderthal dad voiced by Nicolas Cage is energetically describing to his family what happened to Crispy, a stuffed bear. 

His allegory:

”A long time ago, this little bear was alive because she listened to her father. She was happy.”

Though most of his family is intrigued, Grug’s real audience is his daughter who is not not sitting with the family and who is pretending not to care.

Grug waves the well-worn stuffed bear around and continues.

“But Crispy had one terrible problem. She was filled with curiosity.”

Grug points to a caveman-esque image of a stuffed bear drawn on a wall.

“Then one day she saw something new and DIED!”

Grug is afraid.

[Cut to]

This week.

Fallout from the emerging Coronavirus literally took the Dow Jones Industrial Average from record highs into “correction” territory (10%+ loss) in only a week.

Some people have stopped eating Chinese food because they believe that will protect them from the virus (*facepalm*).

Surgical masks are in short supply.

Companies are cancelling conferences.

There is talk of restaurants soon being empty but food delivery demand spiking.

We are afraid.

But the thing is we are Grug afraid, not Neville afraid. 

Both are fear but different kinds of fear. 

If you watch the movie I am Legend you will see something curious. Neville manages to have some kind of life within the context of being alone in New York City with literal zombies as neighbors.

He “rents” movies from the store. He goes out to hunt and gather food. He continues his work on finding a cure for the disease. 

Grug wouldn’t make it in Neville’s world.

In fact we learn in The Croods that Grug’s only rule is “never leave the cave.” That’s how you stay alive!

These movies are about ourselves. They illustrate our fear. 

The thing is our fears aren’t static, they’re dynamic. Meaning, our experience of the same fear changes over time.

We see early in I Am Legend the Grug like fear and panic in the people of New York. We see it in Neville. Later in the movie we see a different Neville. 

We also see it early in The Croods with Grug Crood. Later in the movie we see a different Grug.

What happens to these fictional characters happens to us.

Depending on the severity of the trigger we start with what I call “naked panic.”

The Coronavirus for many has triggered naked panic. Today, checkout lines at our local Costco extended to the back of the store.

Naked panic is fear without constraint. It’s a pure Amygdala response. Fight or flight. The worst kind. 

We don’t have enough information, we don’t know what to expect, and we don’t understand it well enough so we fill in the blanks with our own narratives. (BTW – these narratives seldom depict us living happily ever after.) 

We Grug it. 

Then at some point our naked panic distills down to what I call “appreciated risk.”

We get more information. We see how it plays out. We take reasonable precautions. We adapt. We reclassify panic into risk. 

Like Neville did. 

We appreciate the risk but we don’t stop driving because we might get hit by a drunk driver even though drunk drivers killed more than 10,000 people in 2018.

We appreciate the risk but we don’t stop hugging each other even though influenza kills thousands to tens of thousands of people every year. 

We appreciate the risk but we don’t stop swimming in the ocean because we might get bit by a shark even though there were 140 incidents in 2019

So, why should you care?

Answer: Our emotional state drives decision-making.

Surely you could tell me the answer if I asked, “in which of these fear states does a person make better decisions?” 

Yet how many times have we overreacted to panic in lieu of responding to risk?

Fear is seductive and, from my own experience, its spell can be magical.

If it’s possible, though, to just breathe through the fear trigger (please do still run away from lions), then we have a better chance at making a better decision.

And better decisions, unlike reactions to most modern fight or flight triggers, actually lead to a better quality of life.


by Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan is the Head Coach at Sandcastle Company, a Seattle-based leadership training organization. His first book, Future Leader: Rebooting Leadership to Win the Millennial and Tech Future [link], is now available. Jonathan regularly writes and speaks about The New Leader Way, leadership resilience, and the future of work. He has years of leadership experience in both the public and private sectors, a master's degree from Seattle University, and professional coach training from the University of Miami.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Published on March 16, 2020

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