Julie Thorson

As we close out 2022, I find myself reflecting on what progress I have made, if any, with strengthening my curiosity in leadership. I started the year with a focus on curiosity. I end the year with more questions than answers. 

In the past, that would have bothered me. Now it excites me. Throughout 2022, I have paid special attention to better understanding curiosity in leadership. To start the year, I bought Brené Brown’s beautiful book, “Atlas of the Heart.” I haven’t read it cover to cover but rather use it as a reference guide for deeper understanding of the words we use. 

Some of the explanations caused me to pause, certainly. Others I held onto as the book offers a greater definition of words and explanation on how to use them; words we often take for granted and don’t fully understand. Communication, like curiosity, continues to be a leadership muscle to strengthen. I regularly practice slowing down and searching for the word I really want to use. 

Brené teaches us repeatedly the power that words hold. I’ve made notes and even journaled throughout my copy of Atlas. I believe it’s something I will keep on my desk and reference frequently. Especially Chapter 4, “Places We Go When It’s Beyond Us.” It’s highly unlikely she specifically had long-term care in mind when she wrote this chapter, but it’s one I’ve found to be particularly helpful, especially during this time in our long-term care history. If I’m totally honest, it’s where I personally find myself on my leadership journey.

The question I’m most curious about and wonder how you feel about is this: “What will the long-term impact of the pandemic be for our field and, more specifically, leadership in our field?” 

I don’t know the answer, but I think about it often. 

The priority, of course, is the impact on the seniors we serve. The institutionalization we inflicted on them when we have worked for years to break that down is enormous.  There will also be an entire generation of leaders entering our field who do not know life before the pandemic. There are people still today leaving our field because of the enormity of the pandemic. 

It has changed us all in so many ways. I’m sure people much smarter than me are studying this and have theories. I simply know we must acknowledge the impact publicly and start a serious conversation about it. 

Brené teaches us:

“… confusion ‘Atlas of the Heart,’ like many uncomfortable things in life, is vital for learning.” 

What have we actually learned? More importantly, do we have the courage to take what we have learned to truly influence change? 

Brené also teaches us:

“Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. We have to ask questions, admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn’t be asking, and sometimes make discoveries that lead to discomfort.”

If there is anything we did learn through the pandemic, it is that leaning into not knowing is a skill. Leading through a time of great uncertainty takes patience and deep understanding. My hope is that we all continue to embrace this and remember its importance. We also have a responsibility to share that trait with new leaders and remind them, “You won’t always have the answer, and that’s OK.”

For me, the pandemic has highlighted vulnerability in leadership. Leaders who flexed that muscle and didn’t let it break us have come out much stronger for it. For others, understandably so, it was simply too much.

What else has the pandemic given us?

As we close the year together, what are you most curious about? Yourself? Your journey? Are you interested in how your team feels about their personal leadership journeys? Have you asked? Are you talking about it? Do you have the patience, energy and curiosity to ask? 

As we navigate our way through this prolonged uncertainty, one thing is crystal clear. We need strong, courageous leaders to find their way. I believe leading with a genuine sense of curiosity is paramount. We no longer have time for leaders who believe they always know, always have the answers and are never wrong. This is counterintuitive to what we have all been led to believe leaders are; the ones who know, the ones who tell us what direction to go, and the ones who have all the answers. I believe we have a duty to remain curious. 

I wish you all strength in leadership and the desire to learn more every day about yourself, your team, and the seniors we get the privilege to serve.  

Julie Thorson was the 2018 recipient of the LeadingAge Dr. Herbert Shore Outstanding Mentor of the Year award. She currently co-facilitates LeadingAge Iowa’s Leadership Academy. She is a Leading Age Academy fellow and former coach. The Head Coach (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 completed Leading Age’s Leadership Educator Program in 2019.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.