COVID 19: Growing through Change and Vulnerability

COVID 19: Growing through Change and Vulnerability

By Roger O’Halloran

Last month in this reflection I asked the question:  Will COVID-19 cause a change in the way we operate, or pass with little impact? On our website you will see a new tab titled COVID-19.  Reading Palms Response to COVID-19 reveals that most of our participants, but not all, have decided to return to Australia and our staff are all working from home. 

It has changed the way Palms and all enterprises operate in many other ways as well.  The questions now become: For how long? To what effect?  I think the answer to the first question is, forever.  In fact in some ways I hope it is.  The answer to the second is less certain and while some will find living with uncertainty more difficult, we also might see the positives in that. 

Sr. Maata, Principal at our partner school, Immaculate Heart College, in Taborio, Kiribati, puts it like many of our partners might:  “God’s ways are not ours.”   Those who have such faith more easily accept not being in control and the vulnerability that may bring.  Many without religious belief also accept being vulnerable as a more humble way to live.  For those who might confuse the two, relinquishing control does not need to mean abrogating responsibility.

COVID-19 has exposed us all on so many fronts.  I don’t for a moment welcome the sickness and grief it will cause many before we get a vaccine.  It clearly changes the confidence countries may have had in their health systems.  It exposes our economic dependency in our much lauded era of free trade.  Cultural practices that provide the behaviours that enable us to respond to our physical, ideational and social environments lack tools and processes for our current crisis.

Leadership Laid Bare

One’s ideology, personality and maturity as a socially responsible citizen, are all exposed.  These all contribute to various models of leadership that also are laid bare.  However this is not all bad. I am seeing positive signs from some leaders that appear prepared to let go of structures and beliefs they might have previously employed to meet their need to maintain control.

I say positive signs because the disintegration of people’s faith in Western institutions: political, big business and church can largely be attributed to hierarchical approaches retained by leaders unable to let go; uncomfortable with the vulnerability of sharing power.  It is not surprising that the many of the rest of us have turned our backs on them.  Unredeemed leaders have responded to this by attempting to create and impose what sanctions they can to force compliance with whatever they imagine is good for us, and allows them to continue feeding their need for power and control.

A hierarchal leadership model can and has been seen to work in societies where the politicians, organisational leaders, or priests are among the few with education and knowledge, but in the West and some in other cultures this has been changing exponentially.  Universal education and the information revolution have broken the efficacy of the hierarchical leadership model.  For at least 20 years Fr Cyril Hally in his session on Culture at Palms Orientation Courses referred to this as influencing a simultaneous crisis of cultures.

In this crisis the hierarchical leader, the one who can’t reconcile his/her inability to control the ramifications of COVID 19 from the top, is failing society.  Think Donald Trump.  In Australia I believe we are witnessing a refreshing approach by our political leaders turning to two principles of leadership, which while not perfect, are providing a way forward.

Principles to assist us to remain calm in a crisis

The two principles are “Network Leadership” and “Subsidiarity”.  Network leadership delivers informed management by allowing those with relevant information to take the lead.  Subsidiarity, which is not yet fully employed, allows decisions to be made at a level where knowledge of local circumstances is recognised as providing the best decision making at that level.

It is a significant change to see the Prime Minister consult the scientists (medical in this case); stand beside them and let them call the shots on what we need for good health.  He also has adopted a national cabinet approach, which clearly has helped him let go of his ideological bias on what is good for the economy.  Could faith in political decision making return if such approaches were to be engaged on other significant issues?  Think climate change.

Subsidiarity avoids taking over decision making, as might a more hierarchical leader who panics in a crisis, as much in fear of losing control, as in fear of not finding a solution.  A leader’s need for power can dangerously demand keeping subordinates busy pursuing old and inappropriate approaches to new circumstances, rather than respecting their knowledge of the issue and leaving them free to act appropriately.  In recent weeks I have heard of bosses in panic becoming condescending, clinical and officious. 

What we need in a crisis are leaders who exhibit a capacity to remain and encourage calm, considered and considerate approaches that hearten cooperation between us all.  This encourages what our Prime Minister and Premiers and leaders across the world are seeking, and we all certainly require: SolidarityClicking here and going to the bottom of the page will take you to Palms understanding of solidarity and how we get there.

Let’s hope that is one of the values we learn more about as we experience the crisis.  And if we also learn to better apply subsidiarity as the core approach to organizational development as well as Palms international mission, we might see many more positives than we can imagine on the way through this dark tunnel.