Self-Leadership during Public Crisis

By Deepak Kashyap

In 2019, Deepak Kashyap presented a workshop on mindfulness at an international Pride conference in Athens, Greece. Credit: mazzimage.com.

Who do I blame? The employer who fired me because of COVID-19, the Chinese government that allegedly hid this from all of us long enough, my country who was too slow to respond to the situation, the unemployment insurance that wouldn’t kick in soon enough, the unpleasant individuals I am cooped up with, health budgets that are always smaller than the military expansion programs, the gods and spirits that appear to be as helpless and clueless as my neighbors, or the scientists who can’t seem to conjure up a miracle cure. 

Who do I worry about? My septuagenarian parents who are diabetic, my grandmother, my HIV+ friends, my trans friends who won’t be getting the surgeries and hormones in time, that are so fundamental to their health, my pre-existing (even unknown) mental health conditions, people trapped in cycles of domestic violence, my friends and lovers who are essential frontline workers, my own financial situation and bills, the new immigrants who don’t even know the ropes and rules to access resources, or just everything about the precarious present and uncertain future of my life and our world. 

How do I wrap my head around this? How do I cope with this? How do I control this situation? How do I lead myself out of this hole that I haven’t dug?

What if I say, you do not have to cope with or understand it? At least, not to the point you think it is necessary to lead yourself through a crisis like this. Regardless of the office and importance we hold in our jobs, we all have to process this crisis at a personal level. Self-leadership in times of public crisis requires different perspectives and maneuvers.

Our first instinct when faced with danger or uncertainty, public or private, is to fight in order to gain some level of control over the situation and obtain power to predict our collective and individual futures. “How could this happen?” “This shouldn’t have happened!!!” “Who is responsible for this?” “What can I do to prevent it from happening in the future?” These are very human thoughts to have. However, just because fighting is a human thing to do, doesn’t make it the most functional of solutions in every context. Blame and worry are the first seductive stops in our strategy to deal with most crises. They are erroneously optimistic ways to “solve” the problem and avoid the desperately needed wisdom of pessimism: that things generally and regularly go wrong in life. To demand otherwise is a misguided sense of optimistic psychological entitlement. The entitlement demands happiness and joy to be constants in our lives while we observe destruction only in the lives of others on the news or a movie screen, so as to keep it at a safe emotional distance.  

When the veil is lifted, lights turned on, and our fragile clay feet are revealed to us, two things become clear and certain. First, that we have never been, and never will be, in complete control of our lives and circumstances we find ourselves in. Second, life seems incapable of honoring entitlements.  

Our first instinct then is to deny our fragility. We are not prepared to embrace and accept ourselves at our most vulnerable, we were taught to only celebrate ourselves at our best. This denial and derision of the human “weakness” in us makes our desire to control our environment burn brighter. These efforts backfire and bring us back to become more familiar with what we have been trying to avoid like the plague, our glorious, raw, and textured weakness. 

Living in the age where you can Google almost anything, we forget that we have never had a crystal ball powerful enough to give us adequate and accurate information about our futures to be precisely prophetic, let alone to control it. Most models of leadership that we see around us in action (not in the ideals of self-help leadership books) are the ones that are based on control and information, and control of information, which increases our abilities to predict and remove ambiguities, thereby granting us more control over the situations and people we work with. We also call it professionalism, as a blanket antidote to insecurity and anxiety. Sadly, but fortunately, this approach has success to the limited degree that it does, in affairs that have minimal and largely stable variables. So, not many spheres of humanity! A sword can’t serve the purpose of a needle.

The ambiguity and unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our very idea of security and safety: both existential and psychological. Our sense of security, guided by public leadership models and human nature itself, is nestled in our ability to control our circumstances. 

There are definitely better and worse ways of dealing with the “worst” and the unavoidable. There are perspectives and maneuvers that could make the unintended tyranny of this crisis a great deal more bearable. I can say with certainty that our best hope of self-leadership lies in acceptance and management. 

Management that accepts the unprecedented and uncertain nature of this shit show. Acceptance that holds the complexities while tackling contradictions. Management that doesn’t predicate respect and inclusion on understanding the “other.” Acceptance that life can suck sometimes, and for a longtime. These are the kinds of management and acceptance that we need to lead our individual selves out of the emotional minefield that we are in today. 

Self-leadership draws a distinction between not inviting or encouraging ambiguity and uncertainties, and accepting them as part and parcel of being alive. Self-leadership that understands the futility of stretching the utility of blames and worries. Self-leadership is inviting yourself to love and hold the scared and confused parts of your inner child and to not be anxious about being anxious or angry about being sad. Pain seems unbearable only when happiness has been turned into a burden.

At the risk of giving you hope that life gives a frock of flowers about what you want, I would like to say, when life gives us opportunities to laugh at our misfortune and regrets, don’t waste it by being angry at life. Laugh at yourself, if only to descend back into the terror of day-to-day existence. Hopefully, you’ll be able to whisper to yourself: it’s unwanted, but life can suck, and I can adapt and deal with the catastrophe without catastrophizing.