"Always a moment came when we had to face the fact that no trains were coming in. And then we realized that the separation was destined to continue, we had no choice but to come to terms with the days ahead."

–-- Albert Camus, The Plague

The Hole and the Portal

Peo­ple nat­u­ral­ly turn to those they con­sid­er lead­ers in times of cri­sis — for answers, deci­sions, emo­tion­al sup­port, for a clear path through tense real­i­ties that risk immense and painful change. If you want evi­dence of this turn toward lead­er­ship, note the wide-spread cri­tique of the Pres­i­den­t’s inac­tions, cor­rup­tions and lies well rep­re­sent­ed by this Boston Globe edi­to­r­i­al.


It’s impor­tant to bring the mes­sage down to you and me, this notion that a cri­sis defines the point when pres­sure for effec­tive lead­er­ship is at its high­est, when oth­ers expect the most of us. While for some that pres­sure inex­plic­a­bly feels good — “I was born for this,” a client said to me recent­ly — the pres­sure also con­tains big risks for both effec­tive­ness and the well-being of the leader. Per­haps the great­est of these risks is the age-old one of self-delusion:

  • I can work just fine on three hours of sleep
  • I know exact­ly what I’m doing — I don’t need oth­ers to tell me what to do
  • I’m not affect­ed by fear the way oth­ers are
  • I need to pro­tect oth­ers from the truth
  • My sac­ri­fices and humil­i­ty are heroic
  • I need to be an opti­mist at all times
  • Noth­ing is real­ly changing
  • Every­thing is changing
  • I was born for this
  • Can you see how in its way each of these state­ments poten­tial­ly rep­re­sents a per­son­al myth or for­mu­la that might dri­ve dys­func­tion­al behav­ior? Such for­mu­las are com­fort­ing to the leader. They seem to offer tem­plates for action and rules for self-eval­u­a­tion under try­ing cir­cum­stances. But they also can release “the beast,” mean­ing unex­am­ined behav­ior, blame, defen­sive­ness, hid­ing and self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Unex­am­ined behav­ior by def­i­n­i­tion is uncon­scious­ly con­di­tioned, dri­ven less by an actu­al sit­u­a­tion and what to do about it than ingrained per­son­al assump­tions and beliefs that ful­fill a fan­ta­sy — in this case of leading.

    Now, the goal isn’t to over­think every­thing in a cri­sis, but it makes sense to notice — prefer­ably in advance — how our most hide-bound pri­vate rules and suc­cess for­mu­las show up all too eas­i­ly in high-stakes sit­u­a­tions. Adver­si­ty can bring out not so much our best or worst selves but sim­ply anoth­er side of our per­sona, a side that we are like­ly less famil­iar with — and that’s the dan­ger. If Socrates’ dic­tum, “the unex­am­ined life is not worth liv­ing,” rep­re­sents a val­ued form of self-lead­er­ship, then sure­ly reflect­ing how we lead in crises can tell us an awful lot. It can also pre­pare us to rec­og­nize when we are falling into those old pat­terns and to release them in favor of more prac­ti­cal, time­ly, sit­u­a­tion­al and sen­si­tive approaches.

    Max DePree, Chair­man of Her­man Miller, Inc. in the 1980’s wrote a best-sell­ing clas­sic called, Lead­er­ship Is an Art. He begins an ear­ly chap­ter with the notion that “The first respon­si­bil­i­ty of a leader is to define real­i­ty.” Think of that idea from the stand­point of address­ing a cri­sis and how impor­tant call­ing out the truth is as both a chal­lenge and as a reas­sur­ance of our capa­bil­i­ties to deal with it. But DePree also goes on in the same para­graph to report a friend’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of lead­ers: “They don’t inflict pain; they bear pain.” They define real­i­ty, they bear pain. This, it seems to me, is a good place to begin think­ing about what lead­er­ship looks like gen­er­al­ly, but espe­cial­ly in a crisis. 

    I would add one oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic. Yes­ter­day, I hap­pened to read a (very like­ly) bogus state­ment cir­cu­lat­ing on Face­book writ­ten by “White Eagle, Hopi indige­nous” about how to behave in the pan­dem­ic cri­sis. It begins: “This moment human­i­ty is going through can now be seen as a por­tal and as a hole. The deci­sion to fall into the hole or go through the por­tal is up to you.” While the rest of the state­ment may well be an offen­sive appro­pri­a­tion of Native Amer­i­can motifs tinged with occultism, I do like this ini­tial thought. A cri­sis can be thought of as either a hole or a por­tal. I would say that the Boston Globe edi­to­r­i­al linked above is crit­i­cal of the Pres­i­dent pre­cise­ly because as a leader he has not only denied real­i­ty and inflict­ed pain, but also because he seems to have fall­en into a hole rather than tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for guid­ing our com­mu­ni­ties through a por­tal — a por­tal being the entry point to a bet­ter world. 

    You may well have oth­er thoughts and ideas. Right now I think these three char­ac­ter­is­tics serve well as coun­ter­points to oth­er beliefs and assump­tions. It’s a strange and dan­ger­ous spring, all too fre­quent­ly and euphemisti­cal­ly called, “these chal­leng­ing times.” The real­i­ty is so much tougher, the pain so very much greater. 

    And sure­ly that por­tal is still wait­ing to be opened in this defin­ing moment.


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