Covid positives - leadership lessons from the pandemic
Despite everyone knowing a storm was gathering, the pandemic hit my organisation with the impact and ferocity of a tropical typhoon. In the first few days, it felt like the leadership team were a string of palm trees on the shoreline, lashed by the elements, branches flailing.
Shouldn’t we be more stereotypically stoic, our jaws set squarely against adversity, like the workers in a Soviet propaganda poster?
Everyone was talking about resilience and I realised I needed to dig deep and find mine. I dug elsewhere too, and discovered the Latin root 'resilire', 'to recoil or rebound'. How liberating to be reminded that resilience was the ability to bounce back! Of course we didn’t need to be superhuman, just people with some experience, skills and judgement, making tough decisions and sometimes finding it hard.
I took a quick look at the expert advice out there, for example a McKinsey report on leadership in a crisis. It gave practical tips about having a network of teams, making decisions amid uncertainty, demonstrating empathy, effective communications and self-care. But one concept really stood out - ‘deliberate calm and bounded optimism’. I was already working out what I needed to do, but this seemed to perfectly sum up who I needed to be.
I confess I tend to be a bit sniffy about Facebook truisms (the ones accompanied by an image of a stack of smooth pebbles in a tranquil pool). And yet, I’ve found myself leaning on a few simple philosophies in the past few months and gaining strength from them. They are familiar and obvious, but maybe that’s the way with great truths – they rise to the surface to illuminate our path when we need them.
So, I’ll start with an old Chinese proverb: 'A tree that is unbending is easily broken'. I’ve felt like a human shock absorber at times, starting every Zoom call with a smile on my face and a store of Appreciative Inquiry type questions up my hoodie sleeve. But I’ve also been more open with colleagues, vulnerable even, occasionally (something I’m generally much happier to endorse than demonstrate!). We have got to know each other as whole people - our homes, families, pets and the personal, usually private, minutiae of each other’s lives. And despite all the pressures, and operating in a virtual world, we have felt more connected and stronger as a team than ever before.
I have found myself unconsciously trying to implement the advice of the Serenity Prayer – accepting what I can’t control and recognising that my main sphere of influence is how I respond to what is happening. When I was a troubled adolescent, a family friend once consoled me with ‘nothing lasts for ever’; her version of the adage ‘all things must pass’ found in many world religions. In my philosophical sense-making, I’ve linked that to Buddhist teachings about the inevitability of suffering and impermanence in life, and the need to liberate oneself from attachments. So, I’ve tried to let go of how things should be, but keep up with the yoga, running and whatever else keeps me feeling calm and balanced. And I’ve held onto the belief that while the challenges can seem never-ending, my own experience of life is that while the darkest hour sometimes really is just before dawn, the sun always rises.
I climbed Kilimanjaro in February, just before the virus became a global pandemic. I was struck by how the older members of the group were generally more resilient than the youngsters. Perhaps this is the superpower those of us with grey hairs have – the simple knowledge that if you’ve got through a few challenges in life, you just know - one way or another - you’ll come out the other side of the current one.
Which brings me to Nietzsche. He’s kept me going since I was a teenager too, although I know not everyone is a fan. During the pandemic, I have truly felt the loneliness of leadership, of trying to hold everyone safe and secure, while feeling isolated and abandoned myself. But if we want to learn and stretch ourselves, we can’t really complain if this comes with growing pains. ‘What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger’ has always seemed to me a fair trade, if we can take our life experiences, learn from them, and move on.
So instead of visualising the palm tree in a tempest, I’m thinking more these days of the skyscrapers in Japan, built to withstand earthquakes. The secret of their resilience lies in their ‘capacity to dance’ as the ground moves beneath them. Happy dancing!