In early February, I was invited to lead a conversation for a group of leaders regarding how to stay resilient over the long haul – especially with regard to surviving the Covid-19 pandemic. The spark for the conversation was generated by an article that encouraged leaders to use this pandemic time to act boldly, to plan and to take new initiatives. In and of itself, the advice in the article was not bad. It just didn’t match the energy of several leaders in the current moment. So many people with whom I meet are bone tired. While this is not true for every organization, it is true of enough that the word of wisdom we seem to need is not about how to do more but about how to be in this time. Or, said differently, what we need it wisdom on how to be present to this current moment without being swallowed by it.
Perhaps it is the gloomy months of January and February that are doing us in. Perhaps it is political upheaval and environmental fear. Perhaps it is a sense of discouragement regarding the long history of injustice related to racism. Indeed, our exhaustion can be related to all of these things – and it is also related to the long haul of the pandemic. With new Covid variants on the horizon and questions about when a vaccine will arrive (or whether about how well it will work against the new variants), we do not know how long various degrees of lockdown will be in effect. Will we be able to sit side-by-side or shake hands in the summer? Will we be able to attend in-person meetings? Will we be able to go to a concert, take a holiday, invite friends over? We are told to seize the moment, retool, reimagine how to structure our organizations for a post-Covid world but the adrenaline for that kind of energy has passed. Now it appears that all we have is sheer grit that is getting us through. Can we deepen the strength of our grit? Can we ground it in a fashion that it does more than get us through?
As I prepared for the February event, I was reminded of the Stockdale paradox, a story that is retold in the book From Good to Great by Jim Collins. James Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 7.5 years. He observed that the optimists tended not to survive their time in the prison camps. They kept hoping – no, expecting – that they would be released by Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving. Eventually, they died of a broken heart. Stockdale took a different approach. While he “never lost faith in the end of the story” feeling sure that at some point he would not only make it out of the camps but that he would prevail, he also committed to living day-by-day. He was rooted in the “now” of his life rather than seeing the “now” as a barrier to overcome in order to get to the “then.”
Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, offers similar guidance in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning – taking the idea of the living in the now one step further. In his own experience, he observed that – after accounting for the random nature of the Nazi’s selection of prisoners for the death chambers – whether a prisoner survived or not was deeply impacted by their ability to find meaning in their very trying circumstances. For some this meaning was very tangible, such as keeping a parent or friend alive; for others, this meaning was more philosophical – seeking to understand the experience they were living. Frankl writes: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
I would like to put Frankl’s “why” together with Stockdale’s advice to live “day-to-day.” What does it mean to live day-to-day and what type of why helps us to do that well? There is a difference, it seems, between existential hope and outcome hope. Outcome hope is based on the expectation that something must occur for us to be satisfied. Instead, existential hope grounds itself in finding a sense of wonder – and meaning – in the glorious and the mundane, in the beauty and the broken, in the isolation and the struggle. Existential hope does not ignore that which is hard. It is able to sit with bad news and even grieve over all that is lost. Existential hope is not optimism. It is the ability to uphold one’s core values, meaning and purpose even in the midst of hard realities. And, like Stockdale suggests, existential hope keeps its eyes on the far horizon, never “losing faith in the end of the story.”
How do we support existential hope – in ourselves and in our colleagues? The following are just a few of the multiple options available to us: (1) Practice gratitude. It is said that it isn’t happiness that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us happy. Look for small and large things to be grateful for every day. While gratitude can be personal, it is also a significant leadership act. Let your colleagues know that you are grateful for them and their contributions at work. Remind them of their value to you and the organization you serve. Gratitude breeds gratitude – hope.
(2) Take time for check-ins. It is hard to have hope when we feel isolated. Loneliness also makes it hard to maintain our focus and sense of connection to our work. In the absence of water cooler conversations, we need to build in time to build community with one another. Whether you build your check-ins into staff meetings or through one-on-one calls, connecting with one another is time well spent. A team that thinks together thrives together.
(3) Breathe. While the pandemic has brought our social lives to a screeching halt, for those whose jobs have not been cut, work is as busy as ever – but mostly on screen. Zoom-fatigue is real. Take time to look away from the screen; take some meetings by phone and if possible, walk while doing so. Breathe. Deeply. When we take ourselves off display and reconnect to our bodies, we remember that there is more to our lives than this current moment. We are more than what we look like on Zoom. And we are more than our work. Taking time to look away is energizing – most of our great ideas, after all, happen in the pauses between those moments when we are “on.” Of course, being on is important and in some cases, it is even exhilarating. Nonetheless, it is in the in-between spaces that we find ourselves again. We remember that we are not what we do. Nor are we defined by the stress or fog produced by the pandemic. We are more than what we do. There is meaning in just the being of our lives. This alone is cause for hope.
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