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How do you exercise leadership through social media during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Brittany Crabtree thought she would probably delete the Facebook post. But then she didn’t. 

What followed was an outpouring of support from friends and colleagues. A few shared about how they’ve experienced loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lost jobs. Fears about family members staying safe and healthy. The challenges of working from home with children. All of which unspooled over the course of hundreds of comments and reactions.

In just a handful of paragraphs on Facebook last week, Crabtree, a Kansas Leadership Center coach who lives in Topeka, provided a window into a less visible aspect of the human experience during the pandemic by letting loss speak. And she did it by letting her guard down and telling her friends about the losses her own family has experienced. 

When she posted about her experiences on Facebook, Brittany Crabtree wanted to make sure that it didn’t make those having different experiences uncomfortable.

“There’s a lot on here about home projects, productivity, and political statements. Yes, that’s all part of the COVID-19 conversation, too,” Crabtree wrote. “But COVID-19 took away my husband’s job and 300+ of his colleagues. My grandma also died from it. And I’m at the stage of grief where I’m frustrated by pretending we’ll return to normal quickly and the invincibility that we can feel when it’s an enemy we can’t see.”

Crabtree’s post is public, but so deeply personal, that I contacted her to ask her permission to write about it here. When I did (and she said yes), she shared that her biggest insecurity with posting it was that she hoped it was balanced enough. She didn’t want to make others who were having different experiences – perhaps those individuals for whom home projects are their way of coping – feel uncomfortable, something she tried to address in her brief comments. 

“But I understand we all are handling this differently,” she went on to write, “and I am constantly being careful not to judge. I just felt it was important to share this personal, honest perspective this morning. It’s very real to me now.”

I wanted to write about Crabtree’s post because of the way it seemed to energize others around her. This is a tough time for many of us to find the capacity to engage in acts of leadership when just getting through each day can be a struggle. Figuring out how to exercise leadership on digital platforms presents challenges of its own. How do you mobilize others to make progress through an email, Slack message or a Zoom meeting? And yet here was an example of it happening.

The result was an exchange that brought out the best in people, not the worst. The people who responded to Crabtree thanked her and sent out reassurances and expressions of love. They mentioned losses they’re experiencing in their own lives. While I am familiar with some of those who were commenting, many were strangers to me. But I have little doubt that while there’s plenty of common ground, each one of those individuals is having a distinct set of experiences related to the pandemic and dealing with its consequences in their daily lives.

That’s the thing about this pandemic. It delivers crushing losses in absurdly varied degrees. Some people are losing loved ones to the disease. Others live in fear of catching it because of underlying health conditions. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Our work and social lives take place on an endless series of Zoom calls. Our homes have become daycares and schools. I’ve cancelled family Easter gatherings and a vacation with my wife to New York City for her 40th birthday. It touches everyone, but almost no one feels it in the exact same way. 

In the grand scheme of things, I know how fortunate I and my family have been compared to what so many others have experienced. My losses seem trifling when I hear about what others are facing. Are they even worth sharing at all?

But that’s not, as I’ve learned over the years, a terrible useful way to think about loss. In a recent episode of Brené Brown’s podcast, “Unlocking Us,” she talked to grief expert David Kessler on the importance of finding meaning in grief.

“Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. But what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed,” Kessler says. “That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.”

In recent days we’ve seen examples of the country’s divisions over the response to the coronavirus on full display. There have been protests and expressions of frustration by elected officials about the impact of stay-at-home orders on the economy. Critics have derided demonstrations for being “selfish” and say that giving into such demands would endanger public health. It’s an important debate, and several polls indicates that most Americans have been coming down on the side of keeping restrictions in place, at least for the moment.

At a time when people’s lives and livelihoods hinge on the shared decisions we make across the country, it can be easy to be lulled into thinking that the stakes are far too high to take the time to hold and test multiple interpretations and points of view. This is a time for anger and shaming of those who actions would cause harm. But Crabtree’s action suggests the opposite. 

Few of us are winning much of anything right now. What if the leadership the country needs right now is a willingness to witness loss? Allowing our own losses to be seen and witnesses those of our friends and even our political enemies won’t cure the virus. But it might make it that much easier to get through it all just a little bit easier, together. 

Chris Green is the managing editor of The Journal. 

The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive updates, subscribe here:

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