I’m home, like many people, and checking in frequently with family and friends. Some of us are telecommuting, some of us have been laid off. Most of us are getting over the shock of COVID-19 and having life turned upside down in a matter of hours and days, and making sense of our temporary new norm. We’re hoping that “being in this together” will yield the support and aid that so many desperately need.
We share anxiety and uncertainty, and we also share another attribute: judgment. We judge the big decision-makers and it’s easy to be critical. We’ve criticized some leaders for over-reacting, others for under-reacting. For not telling us enough, or for telling us too little. For being too rash, or for being too timid. For not having prepared for disaster, and for pulling resources away from some businesses to meet the need elsewhere. The list goes on.
Until we’ve worn the shoes of leadership, we don’t know how hard it really is. Yet, we’ve all been there, one way or another. Think of a time when you were in charge of something. It could have been work-related or personal. Maybe you had to lead a difficult meeting, or voice the one outlying opinion. Maybe you had to make a difficult decision, like cutting a budget, a program, or staff. Or maybe you had to decide whether to put an older parent into assisted living, or move your family to a new city. Maybe it was just creating a weekly dinner menu that chafed against each family member’s distinct ideas about what to eat (“Pizza!” “Mac and cheese!” “Mcdonald’s…”).
Taking yourself back to that moment, you see that there’s no clear answer about what to do. What’s the decision going to be? People are watching. Waiting. All eyes look to you. Whatever you do, some will love it, and others will hate it.
Every adult has been through this, parents and caretakers especially. No decision-maker knows what to do when faced with a brand new experience. Most of us freeze in crisis; shock and paralysis eventually give way to action. Now, imagine the extra pressure thrust upon our mayors, governors, state and federal politicians. The urgency of COVID-19 forces quick decision-making without adequate information, and the world is watching, waiting and judging. Sounds like a recipe for insomnia and ulcers to me.
I’m no angel here. I complain – especially about those I believe to be really obtuse – but it doesn’t make me feel better beyond the initial venting. What helps is to remember my own failings and mistakes. It’s calming and humbling at the same time. Tom Petty’s words ring true – “You don’t know how it feels…No, you don’t know how it feels to be me…” Pick a villain if you must, but cut the rest some slack.
Good decisions – the right decisions – become clear only in hindsight. In the newness of the moment, we have nothing to draw upon. It’s impossible to know the right course of action the first time we go through something. We only have our immediate feelings and instincts. Looking back, how often do we say, “I wish I did things differently.” We have to take comfort knowing we did the best we could at the time.
The next time I start complaining, I’ll try to put myself into the shoes of the people I’m criticizing. Being a leader means putting oneself at risk. Parents, teachers, managers, CEOs – whatever the role – are at risk of criticism, ridicule, and failure. No matter what they do, somebody will blame and ridicule. It takes strength and courage to be in these roles.
It takes compassion to be a follower. I will remind myself to give people the benefit of the doubt. I will not expect leaders to be right; I will expect them to learn, to listen, and to use that learning going forward. I will forgive blunders, but ask that they apply the lessons learned. Most of all, in this moment, I will follow with compassion.