Lessons in Leadership from the Pandemic and Civil Unrest

“We’re not going to talk about work today, because this week my heart has been shattered into too many pieces to count,” I said, opening our daily meeting, “My comments are not political, they are not red or blue; instead, I want to talk about life, death, and humanity.”

Until I said those words out loud, I wasn’t sure I would go through with it. I’m “just” an interim enrollment leader. Before we all became every day “Zoombies,” I traveled 1,350miles every other week from my Iowa home  to my client’s Massachusetts campus. During the off week I worked from home, using Zoom before it was cool. My job isn’t to make massive change; it is to guide, mentor, and prepare the staff for new permanent leadership. I’m not supposed to rock the boat; instead, I keep a steady hand on the tiller. I’m charged with being a cheerleader, an ardent advocate for the office, not a pot stirrer. 

When the pandemic ushered us to our homes, I began meeting daily with my group of ten direct reports. I told them not to ask admitted applicants for the traditional enrollment deposit; instead, let the students and parents talk, and listen. Be the ear they need during these uncertain times. Sometimes, during our meetings, I had news to share, as did they. Often, I’d come up with some silly round robin question to engage them like, “What restaurant will you visit when it’s safe again?” After a couple weeks of these meetings, they had less and less to say.  So I asked if we should stop meeting daily or altogether. “No,” they said in near unison, “I look forward to this.” So, we keep meeting each afternoon.

On Friday, my voice trembled with overwhelming sadness regarding our broken country. I’d stayed up until 2AM watching Minneapolis burn, wondering if my friends there were safe, wondering if my black son in a different city would face a fate similar to George Floyd. Was it my place as a privileged white male in an interim role to invoke discussions of equity and justice? Would it be professional to share my pain?

But I forged ahead, 

“Many of you know that I have an African son, not of blood but of heart. He’s spent half of his 30 years in America, earning high school, baccalaureate, and Master’s degrees, then completing his OPT training and obtaining his H1B work visa. This week his employer told him he wouldn’t be sponsored for a renewal visa because the political climate isn’t “right.” My son will likely be deported in September. He’s being told that immigrants are not wanted here, as the Statue of Liberty silently weeps.”

“My own governor would not proactively release critical information revealing that my town had the highest per capita rate of the virus in the entire state. Why? Because those who work in our local pork plant are primarily poor and persons of color. They are deemed expendable.

“Silence is the co-conspirator of racism and injustice. I’m here to say that kindness, justice for all, and equality under the law of our land are the cures.

Would anyone like to say something?” 

I held my breath, worried about their reaction. That’s some heavy stuff.

One by one they shared their observations and concerns. Some said a lot, some said a little, one stayed silent. I didn’t comment but listened to them as they had to me. 

There’d been a protest that afternoon in a nearby town, and some wondered if they should have attended. I guess I hadn’t created an atmosphere where it was okay to ask for permission to go during the workday. I hope that’s changed now. Some said a lot, some said a little, one stayed silent. I didn’t comment but listened to them as they had to me.

I concluded, “Thank you for sharing. We won’t do this every day, though we’ll continue to meet daily. Please know that if you want to talk about this subject or others, just let me know. Be safe and go in peace.”

What have I learned about leadership during these trying times? Say your piece. Be willing to set aside rules. Facilitate conversations and build relationships. Be patient. Do the right thing. Create space for others.  Always and above all, listen. 

What conversations are you having?