I will always be a student of leadership. If there was ever a time to be in a learning mode, it is now. Like many of you, I am hyper vigilant about practicing the prescribed hygiene habits for the protection of myself and others. As I listen to the daily toll of COVID-19 infections and deaths the impact of this health crisis deepens, and I find myself grieving for so much. As I see the pictures and hear the stories of those lost, the magnitude of our loss is realized with painful bluntness. I seek things I can do as a sense of powerlessness periodically shrouds self-efficacy.
As I hear the cacophony of media and political voices describing the impact of the current pandemic, there are competing and conflicting versions of information, the impact of the virus and the level of risk we can take-it can be head spinning. What to believe has become a multiple-choice test in which choosing the wrong answer can be lethal. Who do we listen to? Who can be trusted to tell us the truth? To make this worse we have two competing realities about the existence and severity of the impact. The situation jogged my memory of working in a private psychiatric hospital on the east coast.
I worked with psychiatrists whose careers included previous research at the National Institute of Health before they started a treatment center based on the therapeutic community model. Their research on schizophrenia and family systems discovered that family systems in which parents sent “mixed messages” severely tested the coping mechanisms of the members, especially children. Deciding whom and what to listen to and how to respond heightened the systems anxiety and precipitated confusion. The state of system distress was absorbed by and expressed in the member who would be hospitalized for treatment- we called this person “the identified patient.”
Family systems research, theory and practice has continued to evolve and has led to more effective treatment of mental illness. We learned that focusing primarily on the symptom bearer was a diversion that did not bring about enduring changes in the patient or the family system. Family therapy with the entire system was essential in treatment.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a worldwide test- a test of the capacity of leaders to understand the degree of systemic complexity in which sociological, psychological, economic, political, racial, and religious sectors and factors intersect. Leadership with this understanding know that they must manage the inevitable anxiety and confusion in these systems. Their ability to see the whole and interconnectivity is vital; equal to this is the skill of integration - a skill that leads to the most effective and morally responsible responses and systems in which communication is open, direct, clear and honest.
The most competent and trustworthy leaders realize the responsibility for conveying reality and truth in all of their complexity, and work to create healthy systems able to meet the need for both in individuals, families, organizations, communities, states and yes, even entire nations.
Without these capabilities in any system dysfunction is inevitable.
As we sort through the current environment of “mixed messages” it is imperative that we hold ourselves – whether leaders or not- accountable to these standards. If we are left feeling confused by conflicting messages and/or stuck in the dissonance between the words and actions of those from who we seek answers, these should be “red flags” about their veracity and trustworthiness. It should also give us considerable pause before depending on the source.
Confusion is a result of the normal processes of change; but if it comes from the ineptitude of leadership or used as a strategy to maintain power and control, we must exercise our power to challenge what we hear and to expand our sources of information. At no time do we have the luxury of acting as if mixed messages are acceptable – we have an obligation to seek the facts and discern truth. Our responses will determine if this period of confusion is a trap or an opportunity for true transformation.