by Hélène Lesterlin
Photo credit: M. Horath
“This is not normal!”
I needed that. It released something. We were in an all-hands meeting, and the relatively benign topic on the table was how we wanted to use time tracking efforts towards understanding how our individual goals matched up with the time we allocated ourselves for those goals, week by week.
But what is really on the table for me is this helpless sense of quicksand, sucking away my time and life energy, as I battle, like all of us, to stay upright and move forward in the swirling reality of living through a pandemic. Lately, I’ve been feeling more and more discouraged, as the months drag, as my two children are in and out of school, in and out of quarantine because of potential direct contacts, and in and out of a rhythm of family life that allows for enough focused time to get work done. I know all my coworkers are dealing with similar issues, intermittent chaos. As I hear my colleague say sharply, kindly, “This is not normal!”, and pointedly look at me through our little Zoom screens, as I glimpse all five faces of my fellow coworkers, nodding with comprehension, as I struggle through a haze of migraine, it occurs to me that I have been, in fact, trying to make all of this normal.
Isn’t that what humans do? We are gifted with the ability to look for patterns and make meaning out of them. We are able to adapt with remarkable speed to new circumstances. We are equipped to take on disaster, and rebuild or remake our lives. We do it over and over again, in big and small ways. I just read “American Dirt” where a middle-class Mexican woman who owns a bookstore in Mexico City has to adapt, in a few hours, to being a migrant on the run with her child, escaping violence, fleeing, wary, strategic in her impossible choices. My own situation is not comparable, obviously: I have stability, privilege, health, safety. I am hyper-aware of this, and discredit any sign of self-indulgence or maudlin self-pity. I carry on. In this moment though, where I have to confront the basics of how I am meant to be spending eight hours a day while thrashing through what feels like a blinding storm, I am incredibly grateful to have a workplace that is REAL, where we can stop and say it like it is. THIS IS NOT NORMAL. You are not in this alone.
There are a lot of hackneyed posts out there on how the pandemic has tested leaders across the spectrum. I say, shared leadership is made to be tested. Even in “normal” circumstances, it is considered an extra challenge to take up shared leadership as a structural, committed form of democratic governance. I think this stance comes from just not knowing much about it. In fact, I also would go further and say that when faced with disaster or rapid change, shared leadership is more effective, more resilient, wiser, and more grounded. How many solitary leaders have burned out from stress, pressure, and the impossibility of having all the skills and life experiences to lead through true turbulence, on their own? Hero worship just sets us all up for failure and disappointment.
Sharing the burdens and exhilarations of leadership means we as individuals have the possibility of resting, or even stumbling, because others can take the weight sometimes. You don’t always have to bear the brunt of the headwind – remember? That is how those high-flying geese sail across thousands of miles!
At GWI, we have spent the better part of two years on a journey towards adopting, practicing, and feeling authentic in our shared leadership structure. About halfway into that journey, we were hit with the global catastrophe of this pandemic. I remember so clearly the dawning realization of what this virus meant, as facts emerged, as it took hold, as the economy crashed, as the ripple effects grew, and we were figuring it out together. In that shaky environment, when so many organizations and businesses had to adapt, pivot or close, we also had to take a hard look at our work. But we did more than that. We looked at the whole picture of our team – who had young children at home, who was dealing with illness, who was having to live apart from family members, who needed extra time – and we came together in solidarity, clear that the purpose of the journey was to share in this work and also stay connected with the reality that we are traversing deeply abnormal times.
Yes, we run an organization together, and yes, we manage to keep it going and pivot our programs to serve our mission despite the difficulties. How do we do it? I feel that our lived principles of shared responsibility, of radical trust and transparency allow us to genuinely support each other as real people, facing the fact that yes, we feel depleted at times. We don’t need to reference or adopt the stoic veneer of the solitary, professional leader. It is safe to stumble. We are therefore a highly resilient group of people, sharing leadership. As we continue to navigate these trying times together, we live with the true, full measure of this experience, week by week. I was so grateful to be able to drop back today, and let my co-leaders take the wind for a while.