Bishop Roger Morris' EPB Message
On March 23rd, our Prime minister announced that we would be under lockdown conditions.
That is about 6 weeks ago.
And now the whole way that we work – and to some extent what we are working on – has completely changed.
Some significant things that we have invested in – and that ages ago we had diarised and planned for – have now been postponed or cancelled.
Significant people have left our organisations with little more than a hastily arranged virtual ceremony.
Others have been furloughed – a word I had not used 6 weeks ago!
And as we look at our finances, we get a horrible sinking feeling – things are going to get pretty rocky.
Some of us are being asked to make big decisions pretty quickly – knowing that lesser decisions have been subject to prolonged periods of scrutiny, research, debate, impact statements and so on – but we need to act quickly – and so we do.
The danger is that we stay in ‘crisis response’ mode; adrenalin pumping, fire-fighting, reacting, focused on the present and perhaps even enjoying some of the buzz that comes with sorting stuff.
Or the accompanying danger is that we atrophy – like AA Milne’s old sailor:
There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew
Who had so many things which he wanted to do
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
He couldn’t because of the state he was in.
We might be left wondering what to do next, but without a lot of energy to do anything. So we end up feeling a little bit redundant, losing something of who we are and what we’re meant to be doing.
Both these responses keep us focussed on the present – to the neglect of the medium and long term considerations that are necessary. Leadership is always about being immersed in the present – but also about stepping back, taking the longer view, planning and potential outcomes and scenarios, being prepared for all that lies ahead.
And emotionally – this is an odd time. Sometimes we can feel as if we are dis-integrating. The story is told of a South American tribe that would go on a long march day after day after day, when all of a sudden they would stop walking, sit down to rest for a while and then make camp for a couple of days before going any further. They explained that they needed the time in order for their souls to catch up with the rest of them.
This period feels like the opposite. Not stopping, not resting – means I feel as if I have left something behind – something is not being attended to.
And I might call that something my soul – which is why art and music and literature have such a vital part to play at the moment.
But even emotionally – we may not have it all together – or there may be a delay in our emotional processing of the things that we are mentally having to encounter.
Last month I officiated at the funeral of my grandmother – there were just 8 of us at the crematorium – even my mother (whose mother had died) was absent because she is self-shielding. The rest of the family watched a streamed version of the service on the internet. When the service ended, we stood poles apart from each other and – beyond a sympathetic glance and some soothing words – could offer each other no comfort – no embrace – not even a handshake. We got in our cars and drove off. Have I processed all that emotionally? No.
How do we process all this stuff? Over 20,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the UK.
That’s like the whole population of somewhere like Harwich or Maldon.
Gone in a matter of weeks.
And some of those will have been young – and some will have been working on the frontline of the NHS – there is talk of something called potentially morally injurious experiences – we will have to one day work through the injuries that we have sustained. How do we do that?
We are talking about things like ‘excess deaths’ – we are planning for temporary mortuary facilities and we are expecting people to transport corpses – who have never transported corpses before. And we talk about statistics – numbers. As Sir Austin Bradford Hill (the Pioneer of the randomized clinical trial) once said, ‘Health statistics represent people with the tears wiped off.’ We are dealing with some difficult stuff.
Yet – with all this emotional stuff flying around – and the accumulated sense of fear that comes from living through a time of National Emergency – we also know that we need a clear head – because the emails asking us to make snap judgements and quick decisions are coming even thicker and faster than they ever did.
But – as Leaders – we also need to take a step back
and look at how we are meeting – how we are operating as a system – how we are effectively and efficiently making decisions – because IT IS NOT ALL BAD
There are some good things going on.
Things that we might want to hold onto when this tsunami has finally passed over us.
We are in crisis mode and one of the results of operating in crisis mode is that that we have an enhanced momentum and clarity and sense of shared purpose that may have eluded us under normal conditions.
Those of us involved in the ERF – in the Resilience Forum – are part of a clear decision making process – there is a command chain – we know who decides what, and that speeds up normal decision making process. We are perhaps clearer as to what freedoms people have at different levels to make their own decisions (whether they are strategic, operational, or tactical).
It is interesting that one of the discussions that we have had as Essex Partners is whether the partnership existed as an entity in itself. Is Essex Partners a thing – or is it simply the meeting point other things – other organisations? Is it like the United Nations – and so we are still locked inside our own organisational identity – or is it more like a national football team (where all club loyalties are put to one side)? Maybe being part of the ERF has given us a fresh insight into what partnership working can look like (because the stakes are too high for us to work in any other way).
Decisions are communicated quickly in this present scenario, and there is a degree of clarity about whether something is a command decision (i.e. just do it!) or whether discussion and feedback would be helpful. I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard the phrase ‘I shall take silence to indicate consent’
Communications have been crucial in all this. The Diocese of Chelmsford appointed a new Head of Comms not long before all this blew up. He had previously headed up the Comms Team for a National Political Party. He is used to crises. We would do well to spend some time thinking through the lessons learnt about communications in all this.
And of course – there is something about how we are meeting.
Good things – my carbon footprint has shrunk massively over the last 6 weeks – I am probably in touch with more people than I was over the same time period – I’d not really heard of Zoom 6 weeks ago – now it’s entirely natural.
I must confess that I miss playing my music far too loud as I drive off to my next meeting. I miss the headspace that those interstices provide. That chance to rehearse your pitch, to reflect on what approach you’re going to take, and the opportunity afterwards to evaluate. Instead, we have become meeting junkies – jumping from one hit to the next and the next – rarely pausing to make a coffee – although I am drinking more coffee during the day – and probably more alcohol during the evenings.
And one thing I am still getting to grips with – is the way that meeting people on-line can diminish a sense of shared humanity. When I host a meeting at my house, we might talk about the journey people have had, I might offer them some refreshments – there is generally a bit of banter before the agenda kicks in. You get that a bit on Zoom – but it tends to be between a small group of people who know themselves well. How do we curate a space on line for people to bring their humanity to the meeting? I’m still working on that one.
That is all a bit of a ramble – but I hope it sparks something that we can take into our discussions and reflect on further.
Bishop Roger Morris
Bishop Roger Morris' full address can be viewed here