Leadership, Languishing, and Turning the Corner (again?)

Back in early 2021 I wrote an article about the impacts of languishing on leadership in the nonprofit and human services sector. At the time we were looking ahead to a lighter and easier year to come. Vaccines were approved. Tests were easier to come by. Case numbers were dropping. We had hope! All we had to do was have some compassion for ourselves and we could ease out of the Critical Covid Times together. But twelve more months of rollercoastering case numbers, deadly variants, and zigzagging safety restrictions have left us… where? Has our languishing become even more intractable? Has it evolved into detachment and apathy? Or are we ready to take the risk of allowing ourselves to feel nauseous optimism?

I decided to work with my op-ed editor and review that 2021 article to see how it holds up to our current sensibilities and tender mental states. 

2021 Recommendation #1: Don’t Let the Crisis of Today Overshadow the Success of Tomorrow

Engage your staff, board and community. Ask people what their dream of the future looks like. Celebrate the dream! Maybe with a pizza party!”

Let’s be honest, we all thought 2021 was the light at the end of the tunnel, the corner that needed to be turned to get back to hope. The ‘new normal’ was still just a placeholder for the return to the ‘old normal’. We thought, “okay, we made it through one year of restrictions but now we can start to emerge and return to normal!” I suggested planning for the future and finding ways to bring teams together to celebrate. 

But after another year of living with Covid, we may not be ready to party just yet. We are weary of hope and wary of the future that seems always just a bit out of reach. We have had to learn to anticipate a million individual levels of risk assessment and the complex social courtesies required to navigate each in-person event. It’s exhausting. 

One thing we know is that staff are struggling to cope with the stresses of returning to the office, and we need to follow their lead on re-engagement and follow their lead with compassion. A pizza party that once brought joy is now fraught with emotion. We should provide the space and opportunity for greater in-person connections, but make it clear that it is not mandatory and that you are not missing out if you are not ready or able. 

If you have been holding key meetings remotely, check in with your staff and give them lots of notice before shifting back to in-person. Many people are still feeling anxious about covid exposure. Many people have young children and  aren’t able to get adequate child care quickly—adding even one extra layer of planning to a day can be a huge burden. Making dramatic policy changes too quickly can impact morale. Go slow. 

2021 Recommendation #2: You Don’t Have to Fix It All Today…. Or Even Tomorrow

“Set a less ambitious agenda for 2021. Returning to Pre-Covid Time behavior is not the indicator of success. Let this year be a year of healing: professionally, organizationally, and personally. Plan for the year AFTER next.”

If the constant shifts and responses to the changing environment of 2021 sucked the wind out of your strategic sails, incremental change is still the name of your game. Many of us are not feeling abundant and the pressure to move forward can just add to that burden. Many of us are working hard just to hold our ground, and that is ok. Be kind to yourself. Focus on the step in front of you, and then take the next. Celebrate the days you even manage to stay in one place. Don’t feel like you have to have it all figured out. This advice applies equally to the personal and the professional. 

2021 Recommendation #3: Learn Who You Are and Who You Want to Be

“Take time to slow down and re-meet your organization, your staff, and yourself. Look at your brand. Look at your culture. Refine your systems and guidelines.”

This is still a great idea but with a new twist. As you come back together as a team, in whatever form that takes, take a close look at your work culture and how it has changed over the last two years. What good has come from new ways of working? And what have you missed the most about the old ways? Now is the time to evaluate your processes, workflow, and job requirements. Invite input from your team and together you can find new ways to build a workplace that is not only more resilient to change, but nurtures greater happiness and productivity. 

2021 Recommendation #4: You Are Not Alone

“Take the hands that offer you help and (when you are ready) reach your hand out to those who need yours. We are not in the same boat, but we are in the same ocean! When your oxygen mask is on securly,  go ahead and throw out a life-line or two!”

Just as true as before. None of us are alone–even if it feels that way sometimes. From empty houses when we work from home, to empty hallways as we slowly work back into offices, sometimes the silences can be deafening. Continue to accept help and offer it only when you feel you truly can. Make sure you don’t overcommit yourself, your staff, or your organization. You cannot be everything to everyone. Always make sure you put your own oxygen mask on first. 

And finally, a new recommendation for 2022: Realize That Hope Can be Scary

Our resilience has been tested by the rapid changes that have been thrust upon us over and over again, and so it is not surprising that feelings of optimism come with a slightly nauseous twinge. Just remember, that nausea you feel is a sign you aren’t completely done with hope, and that is something to celebrate.

—From the cautiously optimistic hand of Becca Coolong
Executive Director
, The Human Service Forum.

Becca holds a BA in Classical Civilizations from Oberlin College.  She began her professional career in the entertainment industry and transferred those skills to the human service sector in 2006.  She has a strong passion for community building creating creative partnerships and collaborations.  She is an advisory board member for John J. Duggan Academy in Springfield, MA.