Bulletin #3

COVID-19 cannot take away our freedom to choose

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COVID-19 cannot take away our freedom to choose

Johny Van Aerde, MD, PhD, FRCPC


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In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl1 explains that, although Nazi captors could control his entire environment, only he could decide how it was going to affect him. Despite the external situation (stimulus), he had the freedom and power to choose his response (Fig. 1). He had response-ability, the ability to choose, the human freedom that no one can take away. This short bulletin explains how we can apply this concept during the COVID-19 crisis.


As leaders, we can be proactive or reactive. Proactive leaders consciously choose their response-ability. Reactive people do not recognize that ability and are often affected by their physical environment, including what others might think about them. External conditions or stimuli control them, their thinking, feelings, and behaviour.


The behaviour of proactive people is the result of their own conscious choice, based on their values and purpose. Proactive people are still influenced by external stimuli (physical, social, or psychological), but their self-awareness and self-management create a space between stimulus and response in which a choice can be made. In crisis situations, such as a pandemic, particularly a long-lasting one, we risk losing that freedom of choice and become reactive in our thinking, feelings, and actions. That in turn inhibits our creativity as the executive part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is short circuited.


Reactivity and proactivity are often reflected in our language (Table 1). Reactive people seem to talk as if they are absolved from any response-ability, while proactive leaders use language that encourages self and others to look at other possibilities.


Reactive language can become self-fulfilling when people believe they are trapped in a particular paradigm or situation and then produce the evidence (in their mind) to support that belief. This increases a sense of inadequacy and helplessness and a feeling of being victimized, without control over one’s life and destiny. As a result of reactive language and behaviour, people blame themselves or others for the situation and adopt accusing attitudes.


In contrast, proactive people subordinate those feelings to values and purpose, creating possibilities for action. It is important that we use proactive language, not only for ourselves, but also for those we work and interact with during this COVID-19 crisis. Only then will we continue to see creatively what else is possible.


How to discover what you can control, what you can influence, and what you should let go of is the content of bulletin 4.


If CSPL can help you in any way, please contact us.









1.Frankl VE. Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press; 2006.

2.Van Aerde J. Influence: leadership starts with “self” language (editorial). Can J Physician Leadersh 2019;6(1):4.


Johny Van Aerde, MD, PhD, FRCPC, is editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership and executive medical director of the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders.


This article has been peer reviewed.