Julie Thorson

Writing a leadership blog in this time of uncertainty seems daunting, I humbly offer this perspective during this time when no one really has the answers.

 Who am I to give advice on leadership during this time where there is no guidebook? The best emergency preparedness plan can’t actually prepare you for the leadership roller coaster we have been on for the last three weeks, and will be on for weeks to come.

I’m not offering an opinion here so don’t start a negative social media posting claiming I don’t know what I’m talking about. (Seems to be a thing right now for some people, eh?) I don’t claim to know, but what I do know is life will never be the same — for any of us. 

How could anybody be prepared for the myriad of emotions we have experienced? Where in our job descriptions does it say “carry the burden”? Where does it say make decisions that literally impact people’s lives? 

In our field, it’s all assumed. We are the field where the right thing isn’t a choice; it’s what we do every day, and this crisis has made that crystal clear. We weren’t necessarily prepared; however, we were and we are ready. We are always ready, we always step up, we don’t wait for others to tell us what to do. We do what we need to because it’s the right thing to do. 

These last three weeks our culture has been tested. Culture in times of crisis reveals itself. As a leader in our community, I have found strength in drawing from the strength of the other leaders in our organization. We have also been an organization who encourages others to lean into their strengths. The magical thing that has happened is that our leaders have not only leaned into but embraced their strengths now more than ever. Notice I didn’t say they have done their job or boasted about what tasks we have done. What has happened is the leadership strengths each individual team member has, shines. 

During this time, I choose to feel truly thankful for our team, our culture and for the emerging strengths that have always been there. But this crisis has given us the opportunity to shine even brighter.

The next few weeks, or months, are sure to be a further test. The road will get long and patience will wear thin. Today, though, I choose to celebrate.

A time to celebrate

I celebrate who we are and our mission. Regardless of title or position, our team is showing up. They are making good decisions outside of work so they can be here for the ones that need us the most. 

I know ours is not the only organization that feels this way about their teams. In the field of long-term care, building learning, leadership cultures prepares us … readies us for unprecedented times. As this vocabulary of essential or non-essential workers continues, there was never a question of who we are.

 Our doors never close. We may restrict visitors and turn away people these days, but our employees don’t ask, “Do I have to come to work?” Not only do they know the answer, but they want to be here because they are needed, they are loved and our residents are depending on them to show up.

We are looking closely at the words we use, and considering the impact they have and will have for the foreseeable future. We haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m confident we will. My guess is you are doing the same. 

Fixate on foresight

Self-awareness is absolutely necessary for leaders, but understanding that individual reactions during times of crisis can vary. Day-to-day reactions can be extreme. This isn’t based on any scientific research, but rather, I offer it based on watching people closely the last 23 days. There are needs we all have at this time — to offer an opinion, help, be recognized, laugh, worry, reach out, isolate, cry. 

The emotional needs are all over the board. Allowing people that space and freedom right now and not criticize is so important. If we try to tell people how they should feel, how they should react, bad things will happen. If we allow our teams to ask questions, feel what they feel and do what they can when they can, good things will happen.

Another question I’ve been wrestling with, and I’m sure you are as well, is: When do we do our work? When do we do the things we are supposed to be doing, the work that needs to get done? How do we concentrate again on anything other than COVID-19? What is this new normal world, and how do we fit into it? How do we focus on work again?

My answer: Do it when you can, where you can. I normally write my blog in the office with the door closed, and it becomes a journal of sorts with a deadline. Today’s is different though. I’m at home with my family, including my daughter, who is a junior in college home for her extended break, and my son who is a senior in high school. We haven’t ordered his graduation announcements because we don’t know when the party will be. I didn’t say “if” the party will be, but when. We are on a pause. We are all on a pause. I’ve heard people much more eloquent than me call it the reset we as a society needed. 

In this moment, I agree. Tomorrow things might change and I’ll be angry again. The next day I may be sad. The next, a calmness may come to me. There is no easy, consistent path during hard, inconsistent times, and allowing emotions to change is just fine. 

Peers across the country are in the midst of this medical onslaught, much closer than we are here in Iowa. Days will change; we all are experiencing this at the same times in our own ways. I feel blessed. I feel ready. I feel scared. I feel grateful. I feel the need to protect. I feel selfish. I feel needed.

Opinions are easy to come by. Everyone has one. What everyone doesn’t have is grace, patience, optimism and strength. As leaders, I would encourage you to focus less on your opinions of what could be, and more on today and what today is.  

Julie Thorson was the 2018 recipient of the LeadingAge Dr. Herbert Shore Outstanding Mentor of the Year award. Thorson is currently a coach for the Leading Age’s Larry Minnix Leadership Academy.  Her “Living Leadership” blog was named the 2016 “Best New Department” Bronze Award winner by the American Society of Health Publication Editors. The president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a life plan community in Fort Dodge, IA, Thorson is a coach’s daughter at heart. A former part-time nursing home social worker, she is a licensed nursing home administrator and recently completed Leading Age’s Leadership Educator Program.