Facing this Overwhelming Moment

It’s hard to know where to begin, it feels so overwhelming:

A global pandemic has infected 6.5 million people across the world and shows no signs of abating as it now attacks some of the poorest countries on Earth. COVID-19 has killed nearly 400,000 people including an unfathomable 108,000 in the US, the wealthiest nation on earth, all in less than six months;

Hundreds of millions across the world are sinking deeper into poverty as unemployment escalates, even in the strongest economies on the planet, with frightening growth of food insecurity and wealth disparities, both in the developing world and in wealthy nations;

Wars, political oppression, and the dangers facing refugees were already at ominous levels even before the COVID-19 reality deepened their despair. But situations across the world threaten to escalate these challenges (look at Bangladesh, Syria, and Hong Kong, for example) and exacerbate political instability;

The brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked civil unrest across the US and protests around the world. His death has served as a tipping point for the expression of pent up anger and despair, both by black Americans and by tens of thousands of others seeking significant reforms in police behavior and criminal justice, as well as addressing other core issues of racial and ethnic inequality.

The President of the US responds to all of these crises with self-absorbed delusions of his skills, autocratic escalation of the conflicts, and inept, incompetent leadership enabled by meek sycophants; this combination worsens so many of these challenges and threatens those institutions available to address them. Trump’s inability and unwillingness to express empathy or to summon any effort to bring people together has now once again laid bare — as if it still needed to be demonstrated — the bankruptcy of his pledge to serve the people of the United States and, by its role, the leadership of the free world.

The world is in an unprecedented place

What do we do with such a moment? What is possible as a leader in the face of such an overwhelming constellation of factors? What might any of us do, beyond deciding whether to protest in the streets to show our outrage or otherwise demonstrate support to those who do so in peace? “I am just one person,” I say to myself. But, as one connected to so many others, I have an opportunity and responsibility to offer what I am able to share. We already know so much of the answer, if we look inside our hearts and use our intelligence in service to our values:

George Floyd called with his final words, “I Can’t Breathe!” We who are still fortunate to breathe must do so — deeply — and listen fully and patiently to one another. We must wade into the difficult conversations, uncomfortable though they may be, and try to understand the larger stories here. We must engage in a range of spaces, both familiar and new, including a range of voices that can inform our prior assumptions about what is Truth and what are important ways to improve the world.

“Get your knee off our necks,” is a description of the black experience in America (with much justifiable concern here in Canada and elsewhere). It is much more than a phrase: It is a deep expression of daily experience, one that may only mildly intersect with my own. I need to understand the stories that are constant in the lives of those who live in constant danger, whether as people of color, or those facing discrimination as LGBTQ, as persons with disabilities, as those facing ethnic and religious discrimination. Those with power and privilege have an obligation to hear these stories and to act responsibly based upon what is learned. This is not a new lesson. It is merely a lesson amplified in this overwhelming moment.

What is most meaningful in this phrase to those facing such racism? How might those of more privileged backgrounds understand it in a valuable and valued way? The racial injustices awakened in this moment are deep-seeded and complex, and our complicity in their perpetuation invites us all to examine choices in our lives we may prefer not to explore. But they are at the heart of so much polarization that separates us from one another and which reflects the vast differences in our experiences, and cannot be ignored.

This is a political moment, to be sure, but it is also a moment to engage in each sphere of our society: These conversations must happen in our workplaces, making space for staff to examine policies and practices that systematically exclude and harm people of color, as well as other marginalized groups — whether by intention or not — and understand one another’s experiences in a fragmented and polarized society. These conversations must happen in our communities, examining the ways long-standing disparities are causing disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color, as well as to understand the real costs and impacts of the economic upheaval that cuts across society. And these conversations must happen in our families, so we may understand one another’s experiences, fears, hopes, and priorities. To reinforce the key point: This is a time to deeply listen to one another, using the breath we are fortunate to possess in service to that conversation

But there must also be concrete actions that truly make a difference in our organizations, with serious and sustained follow-through. We must reexamine our Values and Intentions, a reaffirmation of What Matters, and a commitment to practices that align with what we learn as a result. In our workplaces, this may well mean discomfort and upheaval: Well, that upheaval is already occurring — What better opportunity is there for us to reinvent our ways of working together? The greater context of our work is forever changed. Many of our customers and clients now have vastly changed their needs and priorities these past few months, haven’t they? The opportunity for innovation and experimentation is greater in such times, if we dare to grasp it

Organizations have an opportunity to review the entire terrain of communication, decision-making, conflict resolution, and other processes and work to promote authentic collaboration, genuine inclusion, and sustained day-to-day respect. New project teams can be created (or existing ones can be repurposed) to engage in such work, and they need to pull together disparate threads to build coherent, integrated policies and programs. This is far greater than considering, “Do we continue to work remotely?” This is an opportunity to thoroughly examination of who we are, how we work, and how we serve a greater purpose. 

While going through this reinvention, we must never lose sight of the distress of the present moment: Many have lost jobs and are living at the edge of their resources. Many have lost family members to the pandemic or its related fallout, often isolated from loved ones and unable to grieve properly. Many of us face daily dangers going to work, whether at health care settings, serving first responder roles, or working in warehouses and grocery stores. Many of us have lost a life we took for granted only a few months ago, connecting with friends, family, colleagues, and clients in ways that are now unsafe to do. All of us face continuous stress factors that have come from separation from families and friends, protection of our health, and uncertainties around when this health crisis may end. 

We must seek ways to connect and reflect, then to develop new ways of working together, and integrating loose threads into the whole cloth of innovation. As discussed in last week’s post, Communities of Practice can serve as critical spaces for such experimentation, as they are safe spaces that facilitate sharing across organizations and perspectives. CoP’s are uniquely positioned to serve such a learning purpose during this pandemic. When we are able to process our sense of loss, uncertainty, and anger, we can then open ourselves to embrace the fragility of this moment and make critical connections. We are not alone

There are other strategies to be sure. As leaders, we must listen to those we serve and understand how best to lead them as a result. If we approach this overwhelming situation with compassion, generosity, humility, and integrity, we can get through this and emerge better as a result. Facing this overwhelming moment can be frightening, but if we may transform it into a chance to breathe fully in this present moment together, this crisis may become a gift. 

Let us pray we have the wisdom to do so.

~Harry

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

Harry Webne-Behrman is a consultant, facilitator, mediator, educator living in Ottawa, Ontario. Bringing vast experience to organizational challenges, specializing in complex conflicts, Harry offers coaching and consulting to people seeking to provide leadership to their organizations and communities on a wide range of issues.

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