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  • Dr. Laura McHale

Covid as a crucible of leadership

About 15 years ago, when I was still living in New York, I went on a long, extended business trip to Europe and Asia. The trip lasted a little over six weeks and included some of the most incredible travel I had ever done. At that stage in my life, I had already been bitten by the travel bug, and I had been blessed with many profound and transformative travel experiences, including working as a Peace Corps volunteer in central Africa. But this trip was different. I was working on a high-stress assignment in a new role, managing an external film and production crew shooting in the organization’s offices all over the world. We went to Zurich and Luxembourg, Paris and Frankfurt, Seoul and Singapore, Mumbai and Bangalore. It was arduous and exhausting, fascinating and thrilling. It was a big and hairy project, and even as I had fun, I was chronically jet-lagged and sleep-deprived. I also experienced sensory overload, taking in so many new places, people, cuisines, and modes of travel.


But the trip was even more remarkable for how it changed me, which I noticed particularly in the first days and weeks of re-entry. In my previous travel experiences, I had sometimes experienced “return culture shock,” but I had usually been well-prepared for this, thanks to numerous resources such as Peace Corps’ excellent close-of-service program. In this case, I hadn’t been away long enough, and the trip, while extended, was in the realm of normal business activity. I returned to New York, back to my apartment in Queens, back to my regular job on Wall Street. But somehow, even as everything should have been familiar, for some reason everything was utterly different. I was dogged by a persistent feeling of unease and that something was not quite right, and even more strangely, that I was somehow impersonating myself and my previous life.


The feeling eventually abated. I settled into a new routine, my new normal recalibrated, and homeostasis was restored. But I will never forget that feeling of disorientation that I experienced, and how strange it felt going through the motions of normalcy when at times I felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone.


Many years later, after studying psychology, I realize that I had probably experienced a phenomenon known as depersonalization.[1] When depersonalization occurs, sometimes in response to a period of high stress, it can cause the feeling of not being oneself, a dreamlike sensation, or even a loss of identity. Some people experience similar sensations in the aftermath of a sudden death, being diagnosed with illness, or experiencing trauma. Depersonalization can become severe and manifest as a clinical dissociative disorder (outside my area of expertise). The type of depersonalization I am speaking of here is mild and more transient, and although it is relatively common, it can be enormously disorienting.[2]


I’ve been thinking about depersonalization a lot lately, particularly after listening to fellow executive coaches talk about the current coaching landscape, as well as new reporting in the media on post-lockdown “re-entry anxiety.” As global vaccinations accelerate and the dust begins to settle, there is no doubt that many people are holding anxiety related to the return to work and what it will involve. And it’s also clear that the nature of work itself has changed, particularly for knowledge workers, for whom working from home (WFH), at least occasionally, has become a norm rather than an exception.


But while the landscape is changed, it hasn’t changed in the same way for everyone. There are huge disparities in how people have been impacted by the virus.[3],[4] Some have benefitted from the change of pace, new routines, commitments to wellness, and time with family. But many of us are returning to work profoundly altered, grieving the enormous human toll of the pandemic, and many have experienced family and relationship strain. Our minds and bodies may be sore from sedentary lifestyles and/or Zoom fatigue. Alcohol use disorders have seen a worrying uptick, particularly among women.[5] Many workplaces have had lay-offs, and some have disappeared entirely. There have also been huge geographical disparities, with Europe, Brazil, and the US experiencing dramatically more illness and death than Asia, but the massive economic disruption as a result of the pandemic has been universal and devastating.


While we are not out of the woods yet, we can all start imagining what the post-Covid reality will be and what it will mean for work. And it’s helpful to understand that we might each experience a certain degree of depersonalization. We may not feel like ourselves, our old lives and work habits may no longer feel familiar. But this unease, this uncertainty in who we are in the post-pandemic world, might not be a bad thing - even if it feels a little weird. The unease may actually be a signal of what the great Warren Bennis referred to as a “crucible of leadership.” [6]


Crucibles of leadership are trials and transitions, times of intense self-reflection, unlearning, relearning, assumption questioning, and often painful change. Equipped with the right tools and support, many can emerge from these crucibles with more resilience and with a deeper sense of identity and purpose. Understanding the transition from Covid as a crucible of leadership might be a very useful frame, because we can better understand how loss, uncertainty, and transformation work, particularly when it comes to creating a new sense of self.


Our identities are not just the sum who we are and what our experiences have been: they are also projections into the future. A big part of how we develop and grow is how we imagine our future possible selves – envisioning who we might become or would like to be. These imaginings, far from being just daydreams, serve a critically important function: they provide structure, and they also spark the motivation to make the possible identities a reality.[7]


I now regard that long business trip as a seminal experience in my career. It marked the genesis of my interest in and eventual move to Asia, where I have made my home the last decade - a period of profound development, both personally and professionally. But the disorientation that I experienced on my return home, and my sense of not belonging anymore, was disconcerting and strange.


I wonder if Covid will be the same for many of us. Whether as a crucible or not, the pandemic has, for many, catalyzed and accelerated powerful identity transformations, bringing many things into relief as we recalibrate priorities, and think about changing the way we want to live and work, and even geographically where we want to be. Whether Covid has lit a little flame, or a raging inferno depends on each person’s circumstances, but within all the disruption and loss, there are glimmers of change and hope.


Executive coaching can be a game changer for managers facing crucibles of leadership, navigating career transitions, and experiencing professional identity changes. In addition to my own practice, I am honored to work with two phenomenal enterprise coaching platforms, which may be a great fit for your organization: Boldly and Coaching on Demand – please feel free to contact them.


For tips on managing re-entry anxiety after Covid, please check out Richa Bhatia, MD’s article on the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA) blog.[8]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depersonalization [2] Bezzubova, E. (2011, July 21). Do You Feel Like a Stranger to Yourself? APA Blog. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-search-self/201107/do-you-feel-stranger-yourself. [3] Kuper, S. (2021, March 18). The truth is that many of us have had a good pandemic. The Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/1dfc84b4-0508-4272-8cc2-6a4af4311b66 [4] Wessely, S. (2021, March 19). When lockdown ends, euphoria for some, fear for others The Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/bab21b0b-bd3a-4334-8630-3a135b0a7580 [5] Pollard, M.S., Tucker, J.S., Green Jr., H.D., 2020. Changes in adult alcohol use and consequences during the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. JAMA Network Open 3 (9), e2022942. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.22942. [6] Bennis, W. (2004). The crucibles of authentic leadership. In J. Antonakis, A. T. Cianciolo, & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), The nature of leadership (p. 331–342). Sage Publications, Inc. [7] Ibarra, H., Snook, S., & Ramo, L.G. (2010). Identity-based leader development. In N. Nohria & R. Khurana (Eds.), Handbook of leadership theory and practice: An HBS centennial colloquium on advancing leadership (pp. 657-678). Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press. [8] Bhatia, R. (2020, July 24). Ten Tips to Manage Re-Entry Anxiety Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic. ADAA Blog. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/10-tips-manage-re-entry-anxiety-related-covid-19

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