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Is Leadership Too Much to Ask When I Am Overwhelmed?

April 20, 2020
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“I have made progress in unexpected ways, while being open-minded to opportunities that present themselves. I have been able to shift marketing efforts, connect with new audiences online, and expand my business …”

“Esther,” MBA Student, mother, and businesswoman

Most of the students in my MBA classes are experiencing one of two extremes in the face of COVID-19: Either they are overwhelmed, or they suddenly have very little to do. In my next entry I will write about those who suddenly have very little to do. In this entry I will write about those—and one in particular—who have been overwhelmed by the consequences of COVID-19.

Some of my students – especially those who are employees of health systems – are overwhelmed purely because of increases in work demands. Others are overwhelmed because of the secondary and tertiary effects of COVID-19. For example, during the first week of my class, one of my students, who I will call Esther, wrote this to me in a heartbreaking email:

I am doing the best I can. 

On the verge of losing my mind at home. 

I have kids with ADHD and Asperger’s. 

I have to literally keep them from killing each other (they have been hospitalized for this before). 

While trying to work my internship and restructure my business from a 10 by 10 room. 

I am spending many days in tears and just really struggling, I can’t get anything done. 

I might see if I can stop the [MBA] program right now and pick back up later.

I was devastated when I read this email, and tried to think of different ways to offer to help. I will return to her story in a moment. However, I first want to highlight a question that her story raises.

In my second blog entry, “What is Leadership,” I argued that leadership begins with an act of virtue that exhibits more excellence than people typically exhibit in similar situations. One question that I believe is fair to ask in a situation like the one that my student faced is, “If leadership begins with acts of excellence, is it fair to ask leadership of people who are legitimately overwhelmed?”

Sometimes, the answer to this question is no. I recognized that this might be the case for this student, and so I offered help and alternative ways for her to approach the class, but I also offered to support her if stopping the MBA program was the right thing for her to do. I also want to offer two additional perspectives, however.

The first perspective I want to offer is that excellence depends on context. For example, if a person is spending their days sitting on a couch watching Netflix, then there is nothing excellent about surviving. On the other hand, when Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance survived their failed Antarctic expedition, we rightfully praise their survival as exhibiting virtues such as perseverance, determination, hope, and ingenuity. It is very likely that my MBA student, Esther, is very much like Shackleton in her management of COVID-19 with her life, children, and work situation. Although she probably felt like her life was anything but excellent as she “spent many days in tears,” I believe that her very perseverance, hope, and ingenuity were already examples of excellence, without any additional effort.

Sometimes when we are overwhelmed and it seems like we can do no more—perhaps to our utter surprise and disbelief—the challenge to rise to excellence is exactly what we need. This may seem inhumane until you have experienced this yourself. However, one reason why this is sometimes the case is that in feeling overwhelmed, we often fall into the trap of believing that we are powerless and that there is nothing we can do. This is an understandable feeling, but most of us are so much more capable than we give ourselves credit for. This appears to have also been the case with Esther. Consider the story she shared a week or two later, here focusing on the company she runs:

My company came to a halt within two days. One by one locations called, texted and emailed “that due to the virus” they would need to suspend services until further notice. I suspected that this would only last for a month, possibly two, so I politely agreed and went about my weekend. The panic began to set in when I realized this is changing my market and that this was the time to shift, pivot and change my entire business structure. At first my thoughts were optimistic as I had been looking into this already, and was trying to make small shifts. However, the goal I had been working on was to be online by September. This meant I would have to accelerate this project by 5-6 months when there was no time planned for it. I could have panicked about this, but this was something I was hopeful and passionate about. Instead my panic shifted to all the unknowns outside of my business: school, homework, homeschooling, family, and not being able to leave home. I realized that there were not enough hours in the day to make all of this happen.

After a week of my current way of doing things not working, I realized it wasn’t the external that I could change, it was only my use of time and my perception of the projects and tasks that I could change. I needed to find all the moments of time waste and eliminate or restructure. I needed to optimize and time block my schedule for the times of day that I was in the best mindset to work on the intended task. Much like a well-balanced exercise routine I needed a routine that allowed my focus to shift and not be exhausted.

I first created a sample schedule and allowed myself to be flexible with it, having every other day be a bigger push day and have a more creative day in between. In the evenings I counter-balanced my work. Bigger days at work meant lighter and easier homework at night. I also shifted to teach my kids topics that they enjoyed rather than making them do things they were going to fight me on. It wasn’t worth the energy, drain, and stress.

I have made progress in unexpected ways, while being open-minded to opportunities that present themselves. I have been able to shift marketing efforts, connect with new audiences online, and expand my business to offer consulting to other businesses in my field. I was even contacted unexpectedly by another business who would like help building online learning and support for their business. This presented a new opportunity to build my online planforms while assisting others in order to create a revenue stream during this downtime and could potentially create a new department within my business.

To me, this is stunning. I feel awe and inspiration in response to Esther’s story. Of course, what Esther did here is not going to work in every case. Even so, it raises the question of when and how much each of us might sell ourselves short of our potential. When we are overwhelmed, it is important to not let that experience change what we believe about ourselves and our potential. Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—the call to excellence when excellence seems like a ridiculous standard, is what we need to discover the true potential within us.

About the Blog

The entries in this blog examine stories of leadership performed by my Masters of Business Administration students at the University of Louisville College of Business. Our classes on leadership began shortly after social distancing began in the United States. I was asked to produce content for the College that would be helpful to individuals and organizations struggling to manage the new, jarring, and complex problems we all face in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but at first, I worried that I would have little to offer beyond the wonderful content I have seen so many others produce. Then, my students began to report on the leadership efforts they exhibited in my class. The challenges they face are diverse and wide-ranging, but their efforts are inspiring. Therefore, I am now sharing some of their experiences, as well as some of my analyses of their experiences. My hope is that this will both inspire readers and also give readers concrete ideas about how they too can exhibit exceptional leadership during these difficult times.

About the Project on Positive Leadership

The Project on Positive Leadership is an initiative within the University of Louisville’s College of Business with a mission to make lives more significant and successful by increasing positive leadership in the world. We do this by creating and disseminating tools for teaching and learning positive leadership, by supporting research on positive leadership, and by connecting with others who embrace the same or similar missions, in order to enhance each other’s impact. We also work in conjunction with Executive Education to deliver these tools to managers wishing to enhance their leadership capability.

About the Author

Dr. Ryan Quinn

Ryan W. Quinn is an Associate Professor of Management and the Academic Director of the Project on Positive Leadership at the University of Louisville College of Business. He has written books and academic articles on leadership and related topics, with an interest in understanding how to help individuals and organizations unleash their potential. He also teaches executives, MBA students, and consults for organizations around the world.