Accepting the Unacceptable in Leadership
No leader, if she or he had been given the choice of whether to face a global pandemic and massive loss of lives and treasure, would have chosen it. We would have all seen the coronavirus pandemic as unacceptable. But now that we find ourselves in the middle of it, accept it we must. In a short series of blogs here, I have tried to offer a guide to leaders in dealing with the pandemic as a loss, grieving it, and negotiating the stages of the model offered by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross back in the 1970s. The final stage of grieving in that model is acceptance.
No matter how unacceptable a loss may feel, we have no ultimate choice but to accept it, since it is only in the acceptance stage that we can finally establish a “new normal.” Only after we have fully accepted the reality of our loss, thoroughly grieving it and overcoming the inadequate thinking of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, can we truly chart a productive new course for our lives and for the organizations we lead. The fact that these stages involve periods of deep emotion and inadequate thinking does not mean they are bad—indeed they seem to be necessary for us to properly process grief and loss. Our goal as leaders should not be to skip any of the phases, whether personally or organizationally, but rather to go through them wisely, calling them out by name, not making foolish decisions based on feelings, but rather leaning on rationality and faith and a genuine relationship with God to get us through the time of grief and into the season of work and struggle and victory that lies ahead.
It would appear that American society will soon decide to accept the coronavirus as a hard fact of life. That does not mean that we will cease striving for a vaccine or a cure, nor does it mean we will stop observing measures to protect ourselves and the most vulnerable members of our communities. But it does mean we will stop cowering in a corner hoping for a miracle (whether divine or scientific) that will make it all go away. Economic life and the world of work can no more be turned off than breathing. Humans can hold their breath for five minutes (the world record underwater is 22 minutes and on land, 10 minutes). We can go three or maybe four days without water. We can go possibly 40 days without eating (with some organ damage). But like these basic needs, work is a necessity for human beings. It cannot be shut off forever without significant psychological damage leading to physical damage. Human beings have to find a way to stay productive. Work also provides the means for other basic needs such as eating. By this time, every well-adjusted person has begun to realize that they have to get back to work soon.
So, as we move into the acceptance stage of our mourning, we rethink our reality to create the new normal. What does the persistence of the virus mean for our enterprise? How can we take advantage of the necessity of change to improve our mission fulfillment? What new opportunities now exist? Can we establish a break from the time of grieving and a clear starting line for normalcy? One thing we should be thinking of organizationally involves marking a clear starting time for the new normal. Announcing a date for when it will officially begin will help everyone get ready for it. Starting off with a “rite of passage,” such as a special prayer service, or a ceremony or even a party seems like a good idea to me. Ultimately, it helps to find a way to celebrate successful negotiation of the hard times.
The citizens of Enterprise, Alabama are famous around the world for having erected a monument to the boll weevil—the world’s only monument to an agricultural pest. The boll weevil destroyed the cotton farming industry in their area back in the 1910s and reduced them to penury. But it also forced them to do new things that wound up greatly improving the economy of their city. In 1919, just as they were coming out of the Spanish Flu disaster, the Enterprisians set up their monument to celebrate their victory over the boll weevil and memorialize its unexpected contribution to their wellbeing.
I doubt that anyone will ever set up a monument to the 2019 novel coronavirus, and I’m certainly not going to do so. But at some time in the months ahead, I will probably place a plaque on the Northwest University campus to remember this time when we faced down this threat and carried on in victory. Until then, I fully accept the challenge of completing this campaign.