Two years ago, my family and I had the opportunity to visit Arches National Park in Utah. We enjoyed hikes through surreal, twisting landscapes sculpted by millennia of wind, sand, and rain. We were awed by the iconic Delicate Arch and the park’s other formations, but for me, nothing compared with Landscape Arch, one of the longest natural arches in the world. The breathtaking beauty of the arch’s tremendous span was only amplified by the impossibly thin thread of stone of which it is made.
Alas, its beauty is fleeting, at least on a geological time scale. On the afternoon of September 1, 1991, a stone slab measuring 60 feet long and weighing 180 tons, separated from the bottom of Landscape Arch and fell to the floor below. The park’s numerous other fallen arches give the lie to the belief that these massive, towering stone structures are eternal.
As I looked up at Landscape Arch almost 30 years later, I found myself thinking about the people who had visited and seen it before 1991. I imagined that they felt a sense of loss when they heard the news of the rockfall, that the arch was somehow diminished for them, or maybe a sense of relief that they had seen the arch when it was still “whole.” And yet, for me, it was stunningly beautiful. It is hard to imagine it being any more perfect than it was at that moment.
My point? Business and society have been upended in 2020. Everything that was, has changed. The pandemic has taken friends and loved ones, devastated businesses, jobs, and savings, and delayed educational and professional advancement. Social unrest has dramatically exposed socio-economic fault lines and the continuing racial inequity that plagues the U.S. And then there was the ideological toxicity of this year’s U.S. politics. The overall impact on our individual and collective mental health has been significant - according to McKinsey, 75% of employees in the U.S. are on the path to burning out – and the full scope of this year’s emotional and mental impact will not be understood for many years. We all would like things to just “get back to normal.” But we can’t go back, any more than we could reassemble an arch from the shattered stones below. There are aspects of our worlds that are forever changed.
So, what is the path forward? Based on my experience with guiding people through times of traumatic disruption as both a pastoral counselor and a business executive, we need to address two emotional needs right now – grief and hope.
We need to acknowledge and grieve what we have lost. People will not be able to successfully move forward until they name their losses and come to peace with them. This is a necessary process and cannot be hurried, but we also must be careful not to get stuck there. We must push forward, even when the source of our grief is still with us. We need to balance the grief with hope and seek to find the beauty in our present and future.
Our overall mindset and narrative throughout much of 2020 has been largely negative. Many have opined that the only good thing about 2020 will be its end. But we cannot give in to that cynicism, because for all the loss and general gloom, there has been much goodness this year as well. Marc Cenedella, the founder and CEO of the Ladders career site, wrote a wonderfully positive reflection on 2020 last month in which he proclaimed that humanity “had its greatest year ever.” He pointed out the many ways in which, “in the face of a deadly once-in-a-century plague, we have saved more lives, with less conflict, without famine, and with more cooperation … than at any time before in our history.” Powerful stuff.
And the future looks pretty good, too. With coronavirus vaccines rolling out, we can finally begin to see an end to the pandemic. Some of the business adaptations we made in response to the year’s events – including accelerating the digitalization of products, services, and operations, enabling work from home and schedule flexibility, and increasing our focus on issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity as well as the impacts of climate change – will almost certainly continue at some level after 2020 and the pandemic is over, providing numerous productivity, social, environmental, and lifestyle benefits. Life will get better again, and we will all settle into a new normal, even if that new normal and the path to getting there may be hard to see right now.
So, leaders, help your people see that future and the path to getting there. Right now, your people are grieving, they’re frustrated, and they’re exhausted. You probably are, too. Take the time to speak and be with your people, naming and acknowledging their and your own losses and challenges. At the same time, help your people find the possibility and potential in today and tomorrow. This is not a call for Pollyannaish “happy talk,” but a call to eschew the usual corporate speak for authentic communication and connection that helps people recalibrate and find the beauty after the disaster. Ground your conversations in the real, in your own context, in your people’s experience, and lead your people forward.
We may not be able to rebuild the fallen arches in our lives, but we can embrace the new landscape and find joy and success within it. We just have to look for and pursue it.