Fight or Flight

better-angry-bear-pictureEveryone is talking about the bad times that are here, how difficult things are and how difficult things are going to get. It’s ugly out there – no doubt about it. As an entrepreneur I have to listen, read, and watch all the headlines, reports, and opinions. It’s also my job to pick and choose which sides of the arguments I want to take. Just as a smart consumer would take in all the facts about prices of goods, and investors will take in all the facts about the stock market, entrepreneurs need to take in all the facts about their markets and the rest of the climate. The tricky part, though, is not just taking in the facts, its forming an opinion and then a plan based on the facts and your perspective. This is when leadership is tested the most – in the face of adversity. And this is when choices are made – choices that are the difference between life and death. Look around people – those decisions are happening right now, everywhere you turn. Companies, homeowners, consumers, investors – those decisions are being made for better or for worse.

Our primal fight-or-flight response – something that’s deeply ingrained in our primal instinct – is tested during times like these, among others. Fight-or-flight theory suggests that

“animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, priming the animal for fighting or fleeing. This response was later recognized as the first stage of a general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms.” – Wikipedia

Basically it means this – when faced with a challenge that threatens your survival, what do you do? Do you fight? Or do you flee? Either answer could be right. For example: If you are in the forest and face-to-face with a mother-bear in the woods, you’re natural instinct may be to flee – run for your freaking life! And you may be right, but do you take that risk? Or do you just stand still and don’t make a single movement. That’s also the right answer. Or, do you stand tall, wave your hands like a maniac and create the illusion of size, height, strength, fierceness? Either way, what you’ve decided not to do is to fight the bear. Yet if you’re face-to-face with someone who’s invaded your house in the middle of the night, you’re natural instinct is to fight the attacker off with a weapon. That might be the wrong answer. Either way, we’re talking about instinct here – our primal reaction to what challenges our survival.

There are fine lines here too, subtleties. For example, some people face very tough challenges in their lives. Maybe a child lost her parents when she was very young – does that child now stand up on her own and claw her way through life, taking care of her baby brother? Or does she give up, and rock back and forth in a fetal position? Hard to answer, hard to say. How about an adult who loses everything to a gambling habit instead of safely learn from these slides, or to drugs? Do they claw their way back or do they slide into the downward spiral? And when do they decide to start fighting? Hopefully before it’s too late.

OK, you get the point – sorry to be so depressing but these are examples that shape who we are, these are decisions we all face at one time or another, in our respective ways. They define people for the rest of their lives.

This now begs the question – what does a company do when faced with hard times? When an economy is slowing down, when the chips seem to be on the other side of the table, what decisions does the company take? How does it respond? How does its personnel respond? How about its sales people? Management? What about the Board of Directors, or the shareholders? How do all these stakeholders respond? And do they all agree?

I was on a flight the other day thinking about this very subject while flipping through the recent issue of Inc. magazine when at page 28 I came across a little quote from famed management guru Tom Peters. To quote Inc.:

Tom Peters is most associated with managing during bad economic times. His In Search of Excellence was published amid the sharp recession of 1982, and Thriving on Chaos debuted on Black Monday in 1987. On he recently wrote about running a business in a time of “significant and sustained economic disarray.”

I liken Tom’s quote to this very subject – fight-or-flight. My favorite line, and the same line quoted in Inc., is in bold text below:

While many businesses will fail amidst the current economic crisis through no fault of their own, some will survive in spite of the odds—and a few will surprise by turning a messy situation into economic-competitive advantage. The requisite winner’s attitude is expressed by former Ritz-Carlton chief Horst Schulze, commenting on his decision to launch his new high-end hotel business, Capella, despite the market madness: “I do not accept the explanation of a recession negatively affecting the [new] business. There are still people traveling. We just have to get them to stay in our hotel.” And, indeed, getting an “unfair share” of “what’s left” is near the heart of the matter. Schulze’s remarks also remind us that instant, mindless cutting of R&D or training or salesforce travel in the face of a downturn is often counterproductive—or, rather, downright stupid. Tough times are in fact golden opportunities to get the drop, and the longterm drop at that, on those who respond to bad news by panicky across-the-board slash and burn tactics and moves that de-motivate and alienate the workforce at exactly the wrong moment.

Tough times indeed require tough and unpleasant decisions—but thriving, not just surviving, is an option for those who mix wisdom and boldness of leadership with transparency and maximized employee involvement and engagement. Without suggesting that there is anything humorous about the pain that bad times cause, one can say that “this is when it gets fun” for truly talented and imaginative leaders at all levels and in businesses of every sort and size!

I frequently hear words of doomsday and panic from those I’d expect to hear it from – backseat drivers and people who’ve never really done anything, or who’ve never really  been there and done that. From people who’s claims-to-fame are an MBA, or who rode a wave at a time of great opportunity and when everyone else was riding the same wave. I hear words of fear, reactionary language, strong opinions from those who don’t see beyond their own horizons, from those who lack vision. Yet I hear words of encouragement, of calmness, an almost harmonious philosophy, more proactive and forward thinking language, and open-mindedness from those who have been there, who have done that, who are glass-half-full, those who have vision.

The hard times in life test people – test our instincts, like our will to survive. Hard times test our humanity, shape us into who we are. Hard times make us stronger, but only if we choose to fight.

Companies are no different. We must choose our battles wisely, but we must forge ahead. We assess the battlefield, have a battle plan, fortify our properties, and attack the weak spots of enemy lines. We put the sun to our backs to blind our competition, and we fight! We do not run! We do not hide! We attack in waves, one powerful wave of attacks after another.

Entrepreneurs, you’ve arrived at this destination by your own choosing! You cannot control the climate, or the environment, you can only control your reaction to it. Smarten up, stiffen up your spines, and get to work! When the going get tough, the tough get going. Fight! These are opportunities!

    Ben Simonton
    November 30, 2008 at 11:51


    Good subject and a very important one. Some comments.

    Fight or flight is not the issue with humans. Unlike the bear, we don’t have instincts that tell us what to do, only habits we have built over time. If your habit is to quickly analyze the situation based on knowledge acquired, your chances of making the right decision are pretty good, but only if you have a strong character.

    You wrote – “The hard times in life test people – test our instincts, like our will to survive. Hard times test our humanity, shape us into who we are.”

    Yes, they do test us. But it is not a test of our instincts or our humanity. It is a test of our character and it can build character.

    In the case of a business owner, hard times test the character of the business and that character is actually the culture of the company. If the culture has been led by the traditional top-down command and control approach to managing people, it will have very weak character because it will have demotivated and demoralized its people to a greater or lesser extent. This culture won’t survive well. If, however, its culture reflects the opposite approach, that of bottom-up wherein each employee’s full potential of creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation, and commitment has been unleashed, it has a very strong character, one that will survive and actually come out stronger.

    The choice of character is always up to the management. I fear that most bosses don’t even understand that there is a choice to be made much less make the right one.

    Best regards, Ben

    Ben Saren
    November 30, 2008 at 14:16


    Awesome comment! I love it, great stuff. I especially like the top-down command comments. It reminded me of one of the very reasons I took the entrepreneurial road – to build a company that I’d like to work for, a company that attracts hard working people who actually want to wake up and come to work every day, and truly enjoy it.

    I also appreciate the comments on fight-or-flight and character vs humanity – keep commenting, please!


    Ben Simonton
    December 1, 2008 at 12:50

    Thanks for being so kind to me, Ben. I appreciate your taking the time. I will continue to post when my google alerts show me a relevant blog subject.

    If you would like to know more about how not to be top-down, take a look at an interview of me at

    and my articles at

    Thanks again, Ben

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