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Warm Take: You Do Not Need to be Shakespeare. March 16, 2020

Achieving an organization’s imperative is a leader’s calling, but sometimes we confront moments when we must do otherwise.  Such moments must be relatively unique, otherwise the inconsistency in our organizational leadership will be evident for all to see; but if they are unthinkingly bypassed, our value as a leader may be doubted by everyone, including ourselves.

The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All by Mike Useem (library) (Bookshop.org)

So, early last week I was on schedule to send out a nearly complete, full-on newsletter this past weekend.  No apology, it’s not done yet.  After a strong start, last week went sideways.

No, I wasn’t panic-shopping.  Nor was I thinking about every piece of dystopian/apocalyptic fiction I’ve known and loved.

(OK, maybe a little bit about Station Eleven.  And Severance.  And The Last Policeman trilogy.)

Around midweek I saw that things had actually been grinding to a stop.  For a while.  My agreement with this was meaningless.

One Sunday in January 1996, an epic snowstorm hit the northeast.   Come Monday morning, there was 20 inches of snow in Central Park.  The city was at a standstill.

At the time, I worked in a 1,000 person division of a bank.  Our divisional president was new, and hadn’t earned our trust.  The Fed was open, so banks had to open.  Many suburbanites had 90+ minute commutes, on a good day.  Driving to the train would not have been smart, safe, or possible.

The internet was new!  There was no WFH.

Commuting time came and went:  no word from the new president.  We were left to make our own decisions.

I lived close to the office, and told my team to stay home, and went in to cover the phones.  The office was a ghost town.  One team member made it in from Brooklyn, covered in snow.

At some point, the markets came to an early close; we got word that all “non-essential” people should go home.

We stalwart few were left to decide whether we’d survive the impact of labeling ourselves “non-essential,” and picked our moments to slink out of the office.

For the business, the storm’s aftermath was a big nothing.  Nobody had been hurt, nothing had broken that couldn’t be fixed.

Except trust.  I had never been in such close proximity to someone in authority whose inaction put people at risk.

Back then, all I could see was my small and personal reaction to a leadership failure.  I hadn’t yet experienced the dot-com crash, 9/11, the 2004 blackout, the 2008 financial crisis, Hurricane Sandy.

Until much later, I missed the real lesson:  sometimes, in a crisis, you just have to stop.

The effects and outcomes of our current crisis will move, unevenly, across our interconnected worlds.

What we’re all doing now is not “Business As Usual, but Work From Home.”  We’re not yet at the New Normal.

This forced stop is a liminal moment.

What if we stopped fighting the stop?  And, instead, let go of “productivity,” and the logistics of Remote/WFH.

Stop, and look out for loved ones, neighbors, team members.

And instead, consider where we might have influence and impact, now.  Today.

How can we act to help team members and co-workers relocate the ground beneath them, and navigate this very uncertain time?

Can we do anything for people who are vulnerable?

When the other side of this comes — and it will — there will be ample time to assess how leaders stepped up, or failed to enact their responsibilities.

Shout out to retail and food service workers, sanitation workers, postal/delivery folks, teachers, media pros, and everyone who is working even harder in this moment.  Other people who can’t WFH.  Medical professionals, first responders, poll workers.  Today, they need kindness and care.  Later, they’ll need a different kind of support.

These Warm Takes are kind of conversational, informal posts — usually to share my reaction to something I read recently.

I aspire to send them out a couple of times a month, usually to supporting members.  And usually while drinking my Sunday morning coffee.  So please forgive imprecise thoughts, typos and imperfections.  NB:  it’s Monday; I am still drinking my coffee.

And as always, I love to hear from you.  Send me a note with your thoughts, suggestions, reactions or non sequiturs.


Anne Libby

Image:  Folger Shakespeare Library under CC BY-SA 4.0