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Grinding or sprinting, there’s nothing in between.

For so many leaders, and the people we serve, right now there is deep fatigue. It shows up in many ways that make leading more difficult now than it was in the early days of the pandemic. The end may be coming into sight, but there is still a significant distance to travel and many challenges along the way.

Many people have found a way to keep moving forward despite all the difficulties. Like soldiers on a long march or cyclists in the midst of a several hour ride we have found a manageable pace and we seem to be able to just keep grinding along accomplishing the bare essentials but with little capacity for anything more. It’s not much fun, but we can get through it.

In the fascinating (at least to me) 2018 book Endure, Alex Hutchinson explores the science of human performance. Following studies and stories to every extreme of the planet and into the laboratories and elite athletic competitions he builds our understanding of the limits of endurance that may not be what we expect.

One intriguing reality is that even at the end of the hardest marathon race many athletes find some strength to sprint to the finish line, even if they collapse immediately afterward. It might be assumed that this burst of energy would be better spent running a little faster over the entire 42.2 kilometres rather than a burst in the final 100 metres, but the elite runners would almost all swear they could not have done it. They didn’t have a faster gear to use until the very end.

We are seeing in ourselves, and in many of the people we lead something a little bit similar. 

In typical years we can manage our energy with varying amounts of effort. We can seamlessly shift from a comfortable, sustainable pace to something just a little more intense for a limited time to accomplish a particular goal and then ease off a little. We usually have all kinds of range between just getting by and going full out. But that’s not the case right now.

Many, maybe even a majority of our people have lost all the middle gears.

We still have a desperate crisis response we can access if needed, but other than those bursts the only other option is just grinding. Every change, request, or new initiative has to either fit into our fatigued but enduring base level or it becomes a crisis.
If we’re not getting the response we want from people; whether they are overreacting or being disappointingly passive; it may very well be that they simply don’t have any other gears right now.

So what can we do? There’s still so much to do and in the interest of “never wasting a crisis” we want to work on some key opportunities that are hard to prioritize in normal times. How can we make progress when there’s so little capacity available?

1. Compassion First: Actually caring for our people beyond their productivity counts for a lot. That doesn’t mean ignoring problems, but it does mean carefully considering what additional expectations to put on people who are already under great stress. I’ve advised a number of charity leaders who were requesting training sessions for their teams to start with something like our Stress and Self-Care webinar as a demonstration of care for people before bringing on more results focussed sessions.

2. Avoid Announcements: Consider the likelihood that your people don’t really want to hear from you right now. Throughout the pandemic we’ve been inundated, and stressed out, with large scale announcements from politicians, health leaders, school officials, and other types of talking heads giving us updates on ever shifting realities and restrictions. We’ve watched, read, and listened to so many new initiatives and programs that have all been delivered with attempts at gravitas and authority. My guess is that your team are tuning out your all hands Zoom sessions and barely skimming your update emails. If you want to connect with people you need to work on a smaller scale. Deliver information and opportunities through line managers and working groups. Focus on humanity rather than authority.

3. Train ’em and Treat ’em: This is true in all times, but particularly now. Team members don’t all need, or respond to, the same things in the same ways. So wise leaders will provide both celebratory/supportive leadership and tools/training. Discerning what is best for your particular people at any particular time is absolutely more art than science, but over reliance on either approach will not be effective in the long run.

4. Opt-In Opportunities: We can’t confidently know which of our people have capacity or interest to engage in strategic opportunities all the time. Some are eager to help figure out what emerging from COVID will mean for our people, programs, properties, and planning. Others may be eager to hear that leadership has a handle on the situation but have nothing to offer in support of the process. Offering a range of possibilities, of various duration and intensity, that those who are interested and able can choose to participate in may be more timely than ever. It’s one way to find out who is able to engage and make use of what is available to the cause. Start with a couple simple invitations to brief, highly focussed working sessions and see what happens. It might unlock a couple gears that have been missing for a while.

None of this is easy. Leaders are just as vulnerable to missing gears as everyone else. If you feel like you just don’t have anything more to give it is understandable. Maybe we can help.

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