Julie Thorson

During a leadership discussion today, an awesome question was asked and it made me pause and appreciate simply being part of the conversation.

“During the pandemic, what has been revealed to you about your leadership journey?” A simple question with many layers. At the risk of being too vulnerable, I thought my personal answer may be helpful to some as there is power in knowing you’re not alone. As a leader, especially a leader in our field during this time, feeling connected to others and not alone on an island is more than valuable — it is a lifeline. 

So back to the question, what has been revealed to me? When I am on, I am on, and when I’m struggling, I struggle, and living through that right now is enough. Let me explain. Living my authentic leadership journey has become my focus during this time, not only for myself but for others as well. I’ve discovered there is fuel found in helping others embrace their potential. That motivates me. That also takes emotional energy in the midst of a pandemic. I would challenge us, however, that leadership is more important now than ever before. 

Some might argue that in the midst of this pandemic we don’t have the time to focus on ourselves or leadership. I would argue the exact opposite because all roads lead back to leadership. 

There is no easy recipe or toolkit to follow; authentic leaders need to figure it out for themselves. As Bill North’s “True North” teaches us, embracing our experiences and influences truly shapes who we are as leaders, and every one of us has a unique story.  

Recently, I’ve practiced an exercise with two sets of leaders. With the first group, all of the leaders worked at different organizations. With the second group, I have the pleasure of working with all of the team members every day. 

The exercise both times was by Zoom. The exercise involves three questions. Everyone writes their answers down on a sheet of paper with a dark marker so everyone can see. Enough time was given for people to write down their answers and then at the count of three all revealed their responses. Time was given to appreciate everyone’s answers and time was given to notice the differences and similarities.

Here were the questions. 

  1. What is the greatest strength or attribute a good leader must have?
  2. What is the greatest strength or attribute of a leader you’ve admired?
  3. What is your personal greatest strength as a leader?

What do you notice? What are the similarities? Differences? Is there a prescription for being an effective leader? Why or why not? An interesting thing happened with both groups. The answers were much more varied with the first group. With the second there were more themes, with trust being the most obvious. 

This to me was a celebration because while there were still many different answers, our culture was revealed by the answers leaders offered. Today as a leader, I felt on. 

Other days through the pandemic I’ve struggled big time. The overwhelming frustration has made it difficult for an optimist to stay optimistic and giving in to the emotion of it all was unavoidable. What we’ve done here is we’ve allowed it with each other. When a private message about my son who graduated this year on a Zoom meeting provoked tears, I explained what I was going through. We all are personally going through something right now, sharing that with our team brings us closer together. Developing meaningful relationships and allowing each other to be vulnerable has made our team stronger. 

Also, we all recognize when we “are having a day” and rather than shame or blame, we understand and offer grace. 

What are your COVID confessions? What have you learned about yourself? The more we acknowledge as leaders, the more we are traveling down the path of discovering our authentic selves. 

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.