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Leadership in the unknown

When our daughter was born nearly 25 years ago, I felt incompetent for the first time.  I had carefully avoided all things I did not do well and basked in my competence.  Within two days of her birth she nearly died of a sudden illness and spent ten days in ICU.  Driving home with her, two weeks later, I was overwhelmed by my inability to keep her from harm, my incompetence to protect her at all times.  Throughout the first few years of motherhood, anxiety about my lack of control of the unknown was, at times, debilitating.  When we would put our daughter to bed, I would follow a compulsive regime of routine, fearing that if I did not do these things—and in order—something awful would happen to her overnight.  If she didn’t wake in the middle of the night for a feed, I would feel panic and wake her up anyway to make sure she was still alive.  I realise now, all these years later, that for the first time in my life, I was beginning to understand that I could not control the universe. This realisation filled me with a great sense of dread and fear.

Over the last month, I have started to feel the same about the coronavirus, COVID-19.  I spend time with my beloved students and talk to their worried parents.  I listen to my colleagues and friends who fear their businesses will be decimated and loved ones wiped out by what seems an insidious and uncontrollable snowball of destruction.  I carefully watch online where the illness has last appeared, religiously washing my hands every 15 minutes and wiping down door handles as if I can keep it away. 

Each night over the last week, I have been awake by 2am, fearing that the deep sense of dread and anxiety in my belly will never leave.  

What does leadership look like in the face of the unknown, especially when that unknown is potentially deadly but invisible?  When the unknown can both wipe out livelihoods and change the face of our society?  When the unknown causes otherwise good and reasonable people to hoard hand sanitiser and toilet paper?  When the unknown creates divisions and pain in close partners and friends because of different ways of coping?

You may wonder why I am asking questions that I can’t answer!  However, I believe that we only learn to be leaders when we decide to be brave, and therefore, I am happy to share some of the things I am learning at the moment about leadership, even though I am in no way an expert leader.

Leading in the unknown requires honesty and transparency.  ‘This illness does not have a playbook,’ I said to our parents.  ‘I wish I could be more precise, but the truth is, I don’t know when the virus will no longer be a threat,’ I said to our students.  When will the borders close?  Will our country be locked down as others have been?  When can we go back to our normal lives?  What will we do if we have a virus outbreak at the College and I get sick, too?  This unknown period has brought up so many legitimate, deeply felt questions. Stepping into the space as the leader, I am saying, ‘I am not sure of the answer right now, but I am here to talk.  I am here to listen.  I am here to be with you and share the fear of our unknown.’  I have also reminded parents that I am a parent, too.  I also live with the fear of this virus changing our lives forever.  I remind my students that I am also a daughter—I can’t get to my parents now, even if they need me, because of travel restrictions.  Showing up and being a real human, in my opinion, is the most important trait in a leader, even when you don’t have the answers that everyone needs.

Leading in the unknown needs a team.  I am very blessed to have a strong leadership team.  We have a wide range of gifts and personalities.  We have all taken turns being confident we will be ok, catastrophising by imagining the worst possible outcome, and feeling overwhelmed by the detail.  We are in daily contact, listen to each other, and most importantly, keep each other positive.  I so appreciate each of them, because I know that we will make good decisions together.

I also have fabulous colleagues in the other Melbourne Heads of College, all who understand exactly what I am facing.  We had a virtual meeting on Thursday where we communicated openly our uncertainties, our commitment to our students and colleges and our desire to help each other through our uncertain future.  

Leading in the unknown requires perspective.  One of the great benefits of age is perspective.  I have lived a long time now, and can vouch that there is good evidence to hope beyond the coronavirus crisis.  While I have never felt such dread because of the unknowns associated with the virus, I also know that it will be history at some point.  Life as we know it will pick back up and we will find a new normal.  We will marvel at the intricacy of a rose, tear up at the sweet smell of an infant’s head, and belly laugh at the expense of a loved one again.  How do I know this?  Because no matter how awful a present moment, life will find a way again.  Love wins.  It really does.  

Leading in uncertain times is not for the faint-hearted, no more than parenting is.  Or fire-fighting.  Or working with the sick.  Or life itself.  Fortune favours the brave, and brave leadership is exactly what we need right now.  Brave enough to say that you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but you are sure that we will be able to work through it together.  Brave enough to say that this moment in time is indeed harrowing, but you know that there is a hopeful future we will make together.  Brave enough to say that you are very scared and right now even a little overwhelmed, but you know that tomorrow you will feel stronger or at least lean on someone who is feeling strong.

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St Hilda's College
19-25 College Crescent Parkville VIC 3052 Australia.

St Hilda's College is a living community and residential college on campus at the University of Melbourne.

We acknowledge and pay respect to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, the Traditional Owners of the land upon which our college is situated.  We pay our respect to all the Elders of Indigenous students who call St Hilda’s home.  We also acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of our community, the University of Melbourne, and the wider world.

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