Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Ponderings During the Pandemic

Illustration by iStock/smartboy10

On leadership:
There are many definitions of leadership. One that I particularly like is from a short article by Susan Ward:
A simple definition is that leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal. 
I have been thinking a lot lately about how this pandemic has, perhaps out of necessity, turned so many people into leaders, and I think this definition of moving towards some common goal is at least a partial explanation. 

Ms. Ward goes on to say:
This leadership definition captures the essentials of being able and prepared to inspire others. Effective leadership is based upon ideas (whether original or borrowed), but won't happen unless those ideas can be communicated to others in a way that engages them enough to act as the leader wants them to act. 
As we engage in the currently mandated (and smart) practices of physical distancing and sheltering at home, all of us have had to find new ways to communicate. Almost all dialog is now being done through virtual modes. Whether one is a “digital native” or not, this is difficult. Even as a self-professed introvert, I have always preferred in-person conversations. I hate making phone calls. I hate photos of myself. And now with hour after hour on Zoom, I have to not only make multiple “calls” per day, but I am also constantly confronted with an image of myself "staring back" while I do so!

On exhaustion and compassion:
A colleague pointed me to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Beckie Supiano entitled “Why is Zoom So Exhausting?” A few lines in particular caught my attention:
  • What is it, exactly, that’s so depleting about interacting with a grid of faces on video chat? Heavy users and experts in psychology and communication point to a number of factors: The body language and other cues that we expect but can’t access; the way we monitor our own appearance; the stimulation of staring into faces at close range; the inability to take a break, move, or change our surroundings.
  • Zoom .... feels like a hollow impersonation of a face-to-face classroom.
  • Another factor in the exhaustion .... is that so many people want to project to others that they’re doing business as usual, even while the news is full of images of death, of illness, of economic downturn and collapse.
  • I think the exhaustion is not technological fatigue... It’s compassion fatigue. 
Exhaustion, yes. Compassion, even more so. I have witnessed so much of it over the past several weeks. There are heartwarming stories on the news (although usually relegated to the final moments of the evening national news). I have heard about students who are spending countless hours volunteering at food banks or at centers distributing lunches to families since they cannot currently rely on school lunches. Perhaps more scary, are the ones working as trained aids at nursing homes, serving as surrogate family to so many elderly citizens right now. Both are thankful for still being able to continue their studies through asynchronous online courses and/or the flexibility of their professors. Faculty and students at Moravian are working round the clock to do 3-D printing of face shields and stethoscopes. Other employees sew masks or scour the shelves on campus to find personal protection equipment to donate to local healthcare workers. Faculty are holding one-on-one virtual counseling/listening sessions with students at all hours of the day to help them through much more than a tough assignment or anxiety about an upcoming exam. These students are facing an uncertain future and for many, facing death of loved ones for the first time. The list goes on.  Let's hope fatigue doesn't end these good and important deeds and acts of compassion.

On societas:

Which brings me back to my original thought this morning about leadership. So many people – some unexpected – have stepped into a leadership role since COVID struck. They are focused on that common goal that is about so much more than simply “getting through this” but also about helping others who are truly in need, about being a good neighbor or friend, about reconnecting (albeit in unusual ways). They are striving to hold together the social fabric even while “social distancing.” Google and Wikipedia tell me that the term “society” derives from the Latin word societas which itself was derived from socius (companion, friend, ally). We may be experiencing Zoom and compassion fatigue from an abundant supply of and demand for both. But given how politically and ideologically fractured our country seemed to be over the past few years, I find hope in this renewed focus on connections, on society.

Gifts from a Pandemic:

Earlier this month, Mary Hinton, President of the College of Saint Benedict penned a blog post in which she identified “Five Leadership Lessons Hidden in the Coronavirus Crisis:
  1. The Gift of a Renewed Focus on Community
  2. The Gift of Clarity on What Matters
  3. The Gift of Strategic Surrender
  4. The Gift of Listening
  5. The Gift of Imperfection 
Read that list again and reflect on the concept of gifts -- from a pandemic no less. Despite President Hinton's (and our) "existing in a space of chaos," we find the ability to see the gifts in this difficult moment of history, lessons for us all to be leaders. I couldn’t have described what I have been witnessing more perfectly than President Hinton does, so I recommend that you read her piece.

On resilience:

This past week, Moravian College hosted its annual InFocus Symposium (virtually, via Zoom, of course). The keynote speaker was Eric Klinenberg and the theme of his talk was “Spaces of Equality: Facing a Pandemic.” Dr. Klinenberg studies the sociology of disasters, but more importantly (at least to me), he tries to understand resilience. (As someone who works in the areas of climate change and ecological restoration, I too focus on resilience as humans, societies and ecosystems strive to adapt to a new normal.) There were many interesting ideas to ponder from his comments, but one that particularly stood out to me was in response to a question relating to how different countries are responding to COVID-19 in comparison to the U.S. Dr. Klinenberg noted that it is difficult to have an effective public health policy.... when there are deep levels of social fragmentation. Countries that are reducing the number of cases of coronavirus are characterized by “social cohesion, high support for governance by experts, are driven by science, and promotion of public good.” Further, he added, “countries that seem more successful draw on a deeper well of solidarity.”

During a panel for the InFocus symposium that I facilitated last week about climate change action, the U.N. process, and civil society, the participants (current and former students) began imagining the concept of "building back better" after this pandemic. Their youthful vision of the possibilities that lie ahead were both optimistic and inspiring. As Dr. Klinenberg noted in his address, we (our society, the collective global "we") are at a turning point. As we reflect on leadership, compassion, and the gifts that this pandemic has yielded, as well as what might come next, there is indeed much to ponder about. Given the actions of students and colleagues that I have witnessed during this pandemic, there is also much to be hopeful about.

p.s. One more random pondering (yes, I changed a verb to a noun) on this rainy Sunday. When Brad Pitt (OMG) can do a humorous impersonation of Dr. Anthony Fauci (a scientist and most definitely a leader) on Saturday Night Live, followed by a heartfelt tribute to him, you know that we are living in unusual times.

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