Facing Forward

By Robert Sundelius, FACHE

Healthcare Transformer | CEO / COO | Growth Catalyst | Board Advisor | Disruption Champion | Systems Thinker | Team Motivator

During the first wave of COVID-19 in the United States, I spent forty days quarantined in a small studio apartment on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan.  As part of my role with a national health system, I was designated Deputy Incident Commander for our statewide market response.  There was no path.  No one had gone before.  I remember the FaceTime calls with my wife and children, the tears, and the prayers covering it all.  Our teams were brave, vulnerable, innovative, and relentless in their commitment to serve.  Though our healthcare presence spanned almost the entire state, Detroit was seemingly a city at the epicenter of the initial virus impact.  The poor and underserved, those at the heart of our ministry mission, have suffered greatly.  As of this writing, Michigan has 753,000 cases of COVID and has experienced 17,165 deaths.  17,165 first names.  Names that reflect two elderly aunts of a co-worker, a young physician resident with a wife and two small children, a nurse with decades of service to those most in need; the list goes on.

We find ourselves in unprecedented times.  On the cover of a not so long-ago Time Magazine are faces bruised, eyes filled with fatigue, offering windows into souls holding to hope and asking, “how long?”.  Our national psyche is also bruised.  Our national soul is asking, “how long?”.  How long must we bear this pandemic?  How long must we be divided?  How long must we hold the weight of strife, injustice, false narrative, and blame?  It seems much has fallen apart around us.  Civility, honest discourse, justice, and dare we say promise.

We stand in the aftermath of what one year ago told us today would be.  In our personal worlds, there are weddings and honeymoons canceled.  Funerals are held without family.  Jobs are lost and bank accounts emptied.  In our professional worlds, there are strategic plans shredded, businesses gone, and unplanned transitions.  And then beyond us, the political foundation of national unity fractured.  Our way forward is now clouded and muted by the dust of everything that has fallen around us.  And yet, facing forward, we still stand.  A quote of contested origin, often attributed to one of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, reads:

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Finding a way forward, writing toward a better ending, is what we must do.  In our personal lives, in our communities, in our teams and organizations, we must find a way forward.  We must write new chapters and a better ending.  

As a vaccine becomes increasingly available and the dust of this pandemic settles, as spring winds begin to open our view to clearer skies, we can improve way-finding by coming back to ground.  To remain rooted in bedrock, getting our footing firm before we step out toward new horizons.  If we look closely, perhaps listen more intently and dig beneath the surface of daily headlines and current circumstances, we find a valued perspective.  Views worth saving hidden just beneath the surface.  They bring with them remnants of those who have come before, lessons of hope, and more profound truths.  At first glance, they may seem trivial, unconnected, or even a bit – weak.  They are not.  They have been tested, are unchanging, and when uncovered, will reveal solid footing on which to build and shape new chapters in the journey ahead.  In this spirit, here are a few foundation stones that remain unbroken.  Foundation stones, or principles, if you will, that must be preserved as we step forward with hope.

The endurance of beauty

We define beauty as a combination of qualities, such as sound, shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, the intellect, or moral sense.  Simply, it refreshes the soul.    

Sarah Fine, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Kings College in London, writes of beauty and art in the most difficult of situations (you can find it here).  She highlights poignantly that Beethoven’s music features in Elie Wiesel’s Night(1958).  At 15 years old, Wiesel was transported to Auschwitz.  In a series of events described in his book, he was moved to the Gleiwitz camp.  Upon arrival, Wiesel recognized the voice of Juliek, a Jewish violinist from Warsaw.  Sarah writes, “that night, in a dark barrack…Wiesel heard Juliek playing part of a Beethoven concerto on his violin.  “Never before,” Wiesel explains, “had I heard such a beautiful sound.”  Sarah Fine continues to emphasize the critical value of choosing these gifts to the soul.

“As we have seen, they matter to people, as sources of meaning and beauty, of hope and solace, escape and liberation.  They matter to people as expressions of their humanity, tenacity, love, and defiance.  What’s more, they’re valued in crisis, and they’re valued by people who have so much to teach us about what matters.”

Tested by the suffering of 2020, we are reminded of the value and power of beauty.  We have seen it lived out at the bedside, in our neighborhoods, churches, synagogues, and businesses. As leaders, we must prioritize the telling and display of beauty in our organizations, systems, structures, and facilities.  As individuals, we must give ourselves to finding and sharing beauty in our everyday lives: beautiful sound, beautiful art, beautiful action, and beautiful experience matter.  They matter, especially in crisis and in healing from a crisis.  Prioritizing this principle will bring value, offer gifts to our teams’ souls, and help us find firm footing for a way forward.  Beauty is not a luxury; it is our truest identity.

The strength of vulnerability

Our executive team recently started reading and discussing Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts (Brene’ Brown, 2018).  Lest you think this a topic not worth investment, Brene’ Brown’s Ted Talk on vulnerability has garnered 51ML+ views (you can find it here), and her book has become a best seller.  In her work on leadership, Brene’ writes:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

In addition, if we want clarity in our organizational purpose, creativity and innovation in our teams, and high-performing leaders, vulnerability is also the path.   Leaving the crucible of 2020, and in our wayfinding as we begin a new year, the strength of vulnerability is a critical principle to put into action.  As leaders, we can role model this essential principle and allow the power of genuine vulnerability to shape our way forward.  Offering curiosity, questions without answers, true strength, and courage is a precursor to resilience.  There are other ways to show up.  Micro-manage, control, protect position, pretend we’ve got it all figured out.  These approaches may bring short-term progress and a sense of expediency, but they will not bring what we are really seeking.  If we seek life-giving cultures, individuals engaged with hearts and minds, and the best we each have to bring to solve challenges we’ve never faced, then wayfinding with the strength of vulnerability is critical.

The resilience in releasing

The May 2020 wedding of an immediate family member was conducted in a park outside Chicago.  One officiant at a distance with a mask, no wedding party present, no rehearsal dinner, no reception, no honeymoon.  Parents, extended family members, and friends participated via Zoom.  A small wedding cake and take-out pizza at their apartment was their wedding night celebration.  We laughed, we cried, and it was beautiful.  And yet, it was not what they had planned, not what we thought it should be, not what we imagined.  We were thankful, and we grieved.

My Father-in-Law died in June 2020 after a brief and fierce battle with cancer.  There were no extended family or friends gathered at the funeral.  Again, there was Zoom.  The camera somewhat too distant, the sound muffled, the battery that died too quickly, and the pain of family and friends not present.  It was not what should have been, not what we imagined it should be to celebrate such an honored and loving father and husband.  We were thankful, and we grieved.

2020 is not what it should have been – yet it is.  Releasing what isn’t begins to allow space for what can be.  Hands and hearts now open can be filled.  Seeds of hope and a new perspective can be planted, cultivated, and grown to realization.  Releasing what should have been but is not, releasing what we wished for but did not receive, offers us a chance to see something new.  This reality is true in our personal lives as well as our organizations.  It is not what it should have been.  The resilience of releasing what was not will give us the freedom to create what will be.  We stand firm with open hands and step forward.

The wisdom of belonging

This past year we have realized, potentially more than ever before in the history of humanity, that we are connected.  Whether we like it or not, we are connected.  Not just our little neighborhood or our little town.  Not just our large city or state.  Not just via television or social media channels.  Regardless of political or social views, all of us, everywhere, are connected: literally connected.  We attempted to close borders to nations and states.  We tried to create isolation and distance.  We attempted to keep ourselves safe and secure.  We acted the best we knew how with the information available.  And yet, we have learned in ways no one could have ever imagined that we-are-all-connected.

The pebbles we throw in the pond make ripples and the ripples matter.  The words we speak, the actions we take, the decisions we make impact others.  They impact more than we know.  The question is not if we will be dependent; the vital question is with whom we should be dependent.  Whom should we trust?  With whom should we partner as we find our way?  From whom can we learn, find strength, gain new perspective, and discover mutual benefit?  No isolation will help us understand the most important lessons of 2020.  In our wayfinding, we must stand with others and go with others.

Beginning Thoughts

As leaders, we have a unique privilege and responsibility in wayfinding.  As we look up and scan the horizon, our vision settles: this seems a good way forward.  

·      During a crisis and in the aftermath of crisis, as rebuilding begins, may we always ensure beauty is on display.  May beauty be central: to have the most prominent word, last word, and most enduring word.  

·      May the strength of vulnerability draw us closer.  Closer to our true potential, to our team members, and to those we serve. 

·      May releasing what could have been put a fresh wind in the sails of what can be and will be.  May releasing bring resilience, the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and to adapt well in the face of adversity not yet known.

·      And may the reality we are connected to and dependent on others bring hope, true progress, and the gift of realized potential.  May we find joy and peace in the truth that we belong to each other.

We have changed: all of us.  As we face forward toward new beginnings and new opportunities, we have freedom to hold fast to these gifts: beauty, vulnerability, resilience, belonging.

We will find our way.  We will write a better ending. Of this, I am certain.