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Leading and Caring Under Pressure

[This reading is from Jessica von Borck, Director of Land Use Planning at Stanford University.  She is a recent MOR program alum.  Jessica may be reached at [email protected].]

“’Cause love’s such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love (people on streets) dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves under pressure
Under pressure
Pressure” – Freddie Mercury, Queen (and David Bowie)

Under pressure. When I sat down to draft this reflection I felt immense pressure to say something profound and meaningful.  The Queen song, Under Pressure popped in my head and made me smile. As I was humming away, I looked up the lyrics and found the above passage from the song.  Doesn’t this ring true, especially at this moment in time?

And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night… To me, this is empathy. Being an empathetic leader at this moment has immense merit.  Empathetic leaders have genuine curiosity about the lives of those who work for them, and they show their interest by asking questions about people’s lives, their challenges, their families, their aspirations. It’s not professional interest but personal, and for me it has been the strongest way to build relationships and strengthen the ones I have. I find now more than ever, this leadership trait has been critical to keeping my team engaged, feeling valued, and positive in these uncertain times. As we peer into the living rooms of our coworkers on Zoom meetings we catch glimpses of family members passing through the frame from time to time and manage interruptions of barking dogs, clanking dishes, or in my case, the random outbreak of a teenager frustrated with her lousy wifi connection. I find this to be very humanizing. I have a deeper connection to who my colleagues are as people and I find that has changed how I work with them. I take time to listen deeper. I see the person and not the coworker.  As a result I feel I’m able to lead more effectively and able to recognize what will inspire my team to not only follow, but walk alongside me.

And love (people on streets) dares you to change our way of Caring about ourselves… one of my coworkers talked about how he had to re-imagine getting his workout routine in without the use of his gym (thanks for the inspiration Cory!).  There is an importance of incorporating self-care into our leadership practices.  I get that now. As a busy parent, I often put myself last.  But, sheltering in place with my two teenage daughters made me realize that I have a captive audience (those with teenagers will understand) and had an opportunity to model good self-care behavior.  It is easy for teenagers to just hang out in their rooms and stay ‘connected’ all day to their screens.  I am happy to report out that my daughters join me often for my lunch-time walks during the week and have even created a daily interval workout for me. They do join me, but I actually think they get more enjoyment watching me suffer. Happy I can give them a good laugh….Using this as an effective coping and leadership tool,  I have challenged my team to do the same, and share photos of their self-care activities on our Slack channel for encouragement and support and we share links to videos and articles on self-care related items.

Lastly, … This is our last dance. This is ourselves under pressure…. I am saddened that we are not able to convene in person to share our stories and exchange ideas.  Pressure brings out the best and worst in people. I have seen the university act with grace, empathy, and courage, making difficult decisions while ultimately caring for its mission and its community. Listening to your experiences and how you all have responded (are responding) has been inspiring. I must admit, that an emotion that has risen to the top for me has been self-doubt. My team is not engaged with the day to day efforts to address the impacts of COVID-19.  Therefore, I am often wondering if the work that I do daily from home is of value.  A friend of mine recently shared this TED Talk that I think nicely illustrates how work that might seem small and insignificant compared to others in times of crisis, all fits into a larger puzzle and contributes to its ‘wholeness’ and success. I shared this with my team and from that was able to have a very honest conversation and discovered many were feeling much the same self-doubt that I was. Together as a team we pulled each other up and found strength in each other. I think that is what the world is doing now.

So, what have I discovered about myself as a leader under pressure? I lean into empathy, jump quickly to self-doubt but am able to seek out others for shared-strength, the importance of sharing the truth about how all pieces of the puzzle play an important part, and I still, to this day, seek solace and inspiration in great music from the ‘80’s 🙂