This post is derived from a talk I gave a week ago to the Royster Society of Fellows. The conference theme was “Tenacity in Turbulent Times. Learn more about the Royster Society and the conference here. https://roysterglobal.unc.edu.
When the conference chair asked me to open a conference for doctoral students with some words about “Tenacity in Turbulent Times,” I immediately said yes even as I felt completely inadequate to the task. This group of students is an international one and indeed I cannot think of a place in the world that is not currently turbulent. Cultural flux, climate shifts, political upheaval. Here in the U.S. we are feeling some ease as COVID rates begin to decline, but in other parts of the world without vaccines the desperation remains stark. I feel like I am waiting, for the other shoe to drop, and then another and another. These days, turbulence is a constant companion.
On a plane or a boat, we are often warned of turbulence, though the warning does little to mitigate the discomfort of air and water becoming unpredictably and inescapably choppy. As a passenger, I have limited power and tools. Each jolt feels unexpected. My first task is to recognize what I can control and what I can’t. Then I decide what choices I have. The first one is to strap in and prepare to move with the turbulence until it subsides.
Those in charge in turbulent times face greater challenges. The leadership spaces I occupy–not the top, not the rear, a mix of formal and informal–require particular skills to help steady me through turbulence. Most of them, I learned in the emergency room.
Once, a parent “brandished an umbrella” (according to the medical chart) because of a conflict over their infant’s need for a blood transfusion. There were threats of taking the child into custody if the parents did not agree. The parents in turn were threatening to leave against medical advice. The situation was too hot – we needed time to adjust the thermostat, lower the temperature, back the conversation up, and try to find a compromise.
A young man in for a few stitches, high from huffing roach spray, held me and other members of the staff hostage with an oxygen tank and a lighter. Once finally stitched, the hospital wanted to discharge him quickly. Very hot turned to very cold. His mother, afraid for him and for herself, begged me not to let that happen. It was time to recalibrate, turn the heat up a little by asking a question, maybe not the right question from a purely moral standpoint, but the one that would get results: does the hospital really want to be liable for what he might do to his mother if we send him home in this condition? Probably not. Let’s get him hospitalized, assessed, detoxed, in treatment before sending him home.
Last summer, I read this quote: “When crisis comes, you will not rise to the occasion. You will default to your training.” I believe that. Daily I ask and act on essentially the same questions I was asking in the emergency room: Is this a situation that is too hot or too cold? What’s the best way to adjust the temperature? Embedded in that question is a series of others: Whose voices are allowed to influence decisions? Does the captain decide? Are the passengers expected to go with whatever instructions they are given?
In the examples I’ve used here, the more powerful players knew certain parts of the problem–the child would likely need a transfusion for which the parents would have to consent. But they missed the mother’s religious objection and assumed her resistance was child neglect or disdain for the medical system. In the second, the hospital believed its obligation to the patient was complete – stiches in, ER not blown up, patient out. But his mother knew that the gash over her son’s eye only scratched the surface of what was ailing him and saw this as a rare chance to get him some help. What neither mother had was a voice that could be accurately heard or interpreted by those in charge. And that is where my role in that turbulent emergency room became important. I was not going to decide the treatment plans in either case. I was not in a position to guarantee the health or well-being of either the infant or the young man. But what I was in position to do was to listen, give voice, influence, and adjust the temperature. I was in between mothers who had been deemed powerless and the medical team with power to make decisions.
As I told the conference attendees, many of us as current or emerging leaders also occupy places in-between, part passenger and part captain. We encounter others–research participants, students we teach or supervise, peers–whose lives, along with ours, are made turbulent by powerful forces around them. Rarely, if ever, can I single-handedly change policy, secure enough resources, or change the course of the ship to avoid the turbulence. Currently, UNC is facing a crisis around the tenure of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a crisis that has imperiled recruiting and made current faculty feel unheard and question whether this institution is embodying its purported commitment to equity and inclusion. I am not the captain—I cannot negotiate with the Board. But I can be a mouthpiece, a translator, a mediator between strong faculty voices, torn administrators, and powerful outside influences who often create the turbulence to which others must respond. Indeed, this in-between place has its own power and its own imperative: listen to all voices and amplify their experiences, needs, and expertise. Stay strapped in and keep moving. Eventually, the turbulence will subside and our tenacity will have paid off.