This week, I joined millions of people around the world when I had my one-year anniversary of living in Covid-19 lockdown syndrome. My beginning of the end started on Saturday, March 7th at the Denver, Colorado International Airport when I boarded a fully packed flight home to Seattle. At that moment I had only a vague idea of the coming pandemic.
My flight had been delayed for nearly four hours due to an equipment malfunction, not Covid. I’m not sure at the time we were using the term “Covid-19.” I waited in an upstairs area, not for social distance, but because it was quiet with both power outlets and strong wifi. The airport was swarming with people who mingled in restaurants, shops and waiting areas and not a mask to be seen. It was a normal day at an airport full of people, waiting and late flights.
Two days later it all slid sideways into lockdown.
This is not a celebration type of anniversary. There has been massively too much death and suffering for any of that. It is a moment for reflection. Specifically, what have I learned about life, about myself and the world from inside this pandemic? The short answer is: a hell of a lot. But I’ll keep it to a few themes that have formed a songline for my last 12 months.
Relationships are primary and all the rest is just staging for semi-relevant actions.
Life is weird in normal times. It gets stranger and stranger in a pandemic. Case in point: As I mentioned above, I flew on a crowded plane on March 7th and was not really thinking too much about Covid all the way home. Yet two days earlier, on March 5th, in a hotel room in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I was part of a process to cancel a conference scheduled for mid-April due to…. Covid-19. Clearly, I can use the same set of facts to choose two different and inconsistent ways of acting. I blame it on the pandemic.
There were consequences to cancelling this conference and I didn’t like them. I am a board member for theChangeLeaders and we had to make a hard decision for the good of the commons. The conference was one of two big events the Change Leaders have organized each year for the last 12 years. The Change Leaders are the alumni clan that graduates of Consulting and Coaching for Change can join after completion of the programme. These conferences combine new learning with reconnecting with friends. But really it is about sustaining friendships. No conference, no connecting. It was a loss for us all.
In response, we held a Zoom gathering for the community. We called it “Thrive Working Remote”, though in that moment most of us were no longer working. The real purpose was to create a space where our community could gather and connect. The dire predictions of the pandemic fallout were everywhere and our community was feeling the effects. After the first TWR session, we decided to meet again the next Wednesday. We met and decided to keep meeting every Wednesday.
We are a year into the pandemic and the Change Leaders have held about 42 Thrive Working Remote sessions on most Wednesdays. On the surface, our meetings seem like most Zoom meetings. We are together for 90 minutes. We have speakers, we use breakout rooms, jamboard, murals, and slides. We do goofy introductions and play music. But something else has been growing during the sessions.
Many people in the clan will tell you they know other people in the community better today than before the pandemic. The TWR have become a constant presence in our communities life. Each of us knows the session begins at 17:00 CET and finishes at 18:30. Consistently being present to the community, TWR has become sacred for many people even if they don’t make it every week.
The TWR sessions continue to prove that relationships are primary and that everything else is derivative. That all work of meaning gets done with and through the quality of relationships. The fact that TWR is as vibrant a year into the pandemic is a testament to the people of this community and their unwillingness to let relationships and the human network be depleted because of Covid. The Change Leaders are damn stubborn for all the right reasons.
As for me, after 12 months of pandemic shock, lockdowns, lost conferences, E-Experience conferences and many Wednesday gatherings, I know that I am a better person because I am able to be in this community and do this work than if I was not. The Change Leaders have sustained me more times than I care to admit. I thank this community for keeping me mentally healthy.
I have alway been a skimmer but to have an impact, I learned to go deep.
Sometime in summer 2020, I discovered Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. I read many books, but I start and never finish about twice as many. Only a few of those books have sustained impact on me. Deep Work is one of those sticky books that has changed my life. Newport’s pitch is that most of us spend large amounts of our time operating inside a distracted world. A world that does not support the deep work required to produce meaningful “works of art.” When I read the book, I started to think Newport had been collecting all his research from watching me live my life.
I was like a water bug; I skimmed across the surface but never went deep. I wanted to write more but didn’t. I understood building a more robust network would be useful in a pandemic but I never looked at LinkedIn or any other networks for connecting. Newport made a strong case that to skim was to waste life. He also offered some specific strategies like working in 90-minute blocks with a focus on the “wildly important” work. That meant writing and client development work for me. Other recommendations include keep to a cadence, plan the whole week in advance and use time blocking to schedule the deep essential work. Of course life doesn’t care much about my time blocked schedule, so I have had to be willing to adapt, but the exercise of planning and time blocking has focused my thinking, increased my writing and expanded my network. Eight months on, I’m still spending daily time doing the deep, wildly important work that is essential to my purpose.
There is nothing but a white line and dead animals in the middle of the road. At some point, ya gotta choose a side of the road and move.
I was exposed to the work of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, not through any of the three books they wrote. I came to learn of their ideas on leadership and their provocative approach to teaching from reading Leadership Can Be Learned by Sharon Daloz Parks. This is another book that altered my professional direction and focus of my work. After reading Parks’ book, I read the three books by Heifetz. Then I took Consulting and Coaching for Change where I wrote a dissertation titled “Adapting Adaptive Leadership.”
While I wanted to claim I was all in on adaptive leadership, I was not really sure I wanted to commit to the work of helping people build adaptive capacity. For a while, I lacked the confidence to believe I was up to that work. Afterall, I had not taken Heifetz’ course at Harvard. But I did keep chasing the work. I did five Case-in-Point learning sessions while only having a second hand understanding of the edgy methodology. I had never seen Heiftz or Linsky conduct a CIP session. I was drawn to it because it engaged all learning senses, challenged unchallenged assumptions, and gave the work of learning back to the students. CIP is disruptive to conventional learning processes, can cause discomfort and put the facilitator/teacher at risk.
For me, it has been a 15 year romance with adaptive leadership. In summer 2020, I got married to adaptive leadership. I am much closer to the end of my professional career than I am the beginning. I needed to get off the white line. I finally followed Goethe’s suggestion “that whatever you can do…, begin it because boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Turns out he was correct. Two months ago, I began an adaptive leadership program for an international client. One of my teaching partners in the client work is Ron Heifetz.
My wife,Theresa, and I sold our house of 20 years in September 2020. Our plan was to move to Europe, so I could work with some seriously good friends at Basis and ImpactBasis. Covid had other ideas. We are now living in a very, very small rental house while we wait for the all-clear sign from Europe. We may be here for a while.
But thanks to my year of pandemic training, I know there is really no waiting, that I am better prepared for what lies ahead and, most importantly, it always works out.