‘This too shall pass.’ These four words form a regular saying of my beloved 89 year-old father-in-law. Over the last month of disruption brought about by COVID-19, I have found myself repeating Dad’s words numerous times. The more I have, the more I’ve understood their relevance for today. Leadership in the midst of uncertainty is hard work. By necessity, we shoulder the fear and dread of those within our communities, not to mention holding our own. We absorb the anxiety of those we lead. It’s part of our job. Therefore, the concurrent work of embodying hope in leadership has never been more important. Before sharing some insights about this work of hope in leadership, I would like to digress a little to place my father-in-law with his favourite saying.
Dad was born in 1931 in Quambatook, a small town in the Mallee of northern Victoria. Life was hard on the farm and resources scarce. Dad was the youngest of five children. His family suffered through the Great Depression along with the rest of Australia and much of the world. In 1937, Dad’s mother died. Years of struggle followed. In those times, struggle was common place. The return of soldiers from the war, often damaged, coincided with high levels of unemployment and poverty. To be ‘a man’ at this time, a boy had to suppress any emotion or live with ridicule. Dad was just 6 years old when he lost his mum. I often wonder at how difficult life was for my dreamy, music-loving, soft-hearted dad. However, to hear him reminisce about his childhood (spoiler-alert: he only remembers the good stuff), I am inspired by his saying, ‘this too shall pass.’
Perspective matters. Indeed, in our interpretation of the present it enables our ability to hope. One of the greatest gifts of aging is perspective. It is only in looking back over years of difficulty, struggle and loss that we can name our survival and our growth. It is this gift of perspective that helps us trust the future, to believe again in possibility. Perspective provides helpful milestones that I use to remind myself that I am resilient, that I will get through a time of darkness, that ‘this too will pass.’ Perspective eases the panic of the present and helps us see beyond it.
This returns me to the main point of this piece: hope. The work of effective leadership requires a good deal of it — hope in the future, hope in the young people who will build that future, hope that humanity will work together more effectively for the common good. Desmond Tutu describes hope as ‘being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.’ Someday the coronavirus will be behind us. We will come through this dark time. There is good reason to hope. What’s more, hope is contagious, perhaps not as contagious as this virus but contagious all the same. The hope of good leadership is infectious in the best possible way
For many years now, it has been my privilege to work with young people. At times I have walked with them through experiences of pain, depression and loneliness. I have often said to them when they feel nothing but darkness, my role is to hold light and hope for them when they cannot hold it for themselves. As a leader, I hold hope and I can see that there is light ahead even when those I care for cannot. Part of my role, over time, is to help these young people narrate themselves into more hopeful and light-filled places. Most of what they are reading now is about how devastating their future job prospects are, how long they will be debt-ridden as citizens in Australia, how nothing will ever be the same again. It is imperative for us all to hold onto hope, to speak again of life filled with good things, to remind them that we will get through this darkness together.
This too will pass. I am grateful to Dad for this saying. It is more than a good mantra for our times. It is good leadership.
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.