Coaches play a critical role in supporting leaders during a pandemic, helping secure the emotional infrastructure that invites individuals be more intentional, connected and well-resourced in moments of crisis. For some of my clients, this has looked like helping them break down a weekly schedule, set boundaries for work and home life and figure out how to turn difficult moments into opportunities.
For others, coaching during the pandemic has continued to help them explore something deep and powerful that was already being revealed in their lives. What the pandemic has done is expedite this revelation, exposing the default mental habits of many and, in some cases, accelerating the growth that might have taken months or years otherwise.
Here are the stories of four real women leaders who have used this pandemic to shift their perspectives, cope with unforeseen circumstances, and turn them into opportunities to become braver and more intentional in their lives. While their names have been changed to protect their anonymity, I hope that their stories will inspire you, as they inspire me daily, to help make meaning and grow yourself during this challenging time.
Story 1: The medical resident at a major hospital battling exhaustion.
When I first connected with Melanie, she was desperate for tools and techniques to combat a mounting sense of exhaustion. As a second year resident at a hospital suddenly overrun with COVID cases, her days are now filled with learning systems for triage, working three long days in a row before she gets home to collapse in a heap of paranoia, panic and psychical fatigue. From her days in medical school and residency, she’s used to sleepless nights and a steep learning curve, but the pandemic caught her off guard, busy executing personal goals she had set for 2020 including reading the Economist each week and learning Arabic. When we reviewed her list she admitted to being “too exhausted to take any kind of step”, and she wanted to know “is now the moment to throw out this list or push through on the goals she’d set for this year?” As we sat with her feelings, she realized that part of her exhaustion was actually grief over having to let go of a plan for this year that finally, after years of grueling work sacrifices, that would promise to give her back the work-life balance she’d been postponing for years.
The opportunity: Melanie realized that by giving herself permission to rewrite her expectations for herself for the next six months, she could feel more relaxed and gentle in how she talked to herself, and even take one or two tiny, bite-sized steps forward on the vision for the year.
Story 2: The high-powered scientist battling impostor syndrome.
Carol landed her dream job late last summer. The job asks that she work long hours, shepherd a team, balance the demands of her family, and truly step up and lead in a way that is bigger, bolder and braver than she ever had before. For a few months, we have been working on helping her overcome the impostor syndrome that makes her feel like she needs to deliver the perfect work to an imagined crowd of critics analyzing her every move. And now, while all eyes are on the scientific community to deliver, the feeling threatens to paralyze her. For Carol, the pandemic has laid bare what we had already been dancing around for months, namely a sense of inadequacy that comes from her inner critic and manifests in a fear of saying no or stepping away from work that follows her in most work meetings.
The opportunity: Carol realized that now was truly the moment to face her fears and get really brave, tackling this fear of inadequacy head on and leaning into exercises that help her be messy, imperfect and leaderly, just as she is today.
Story 3: The Hollywood writer battling control issues.
I started working with Michelle three years ago when her writing work was steady but unglamorous, and she was aware of a persistent scarcity mindset that kept her from enjoying her early success in a competitive industry. In the last three years she has made enormous strides, both professionally and personally, implementing a daily writing and mediation routine that allows her to gracefully balance the ups and downs of freelancer life alongside her family’s needs and her creative practice.
Which is why when the pandemic hit, she felt blindsided by a whole new set of fears – at once familiar and entirely surprising – that showed up around her body. Instead of stressing about her job or her future, Michelle found herself counting calories and constantly critiquing her looks, behavior that she thought she had left behind years before when she read a book called “Intuitive Eating.” As we worked to examine this new behavior, she discovered that her default patterning to police her body and impose a strict diet and workout regime were really a way for her to exercise control in an environment that feels entirely out of control.
The opportunity: Michelle’s doubled down on her practice of surrender and acceptance, moving deeper into new, healthy habits that support joy, letting go, trust (and re-reading “Intuitive Eating”).
Story 4: The working Mom at a major tech company striving for balance.
And finally, Talia. Talia leads a huge team at a major tech company and, on a normal day, she struggles to make any kind of time for herself. When we started working together, Talia’s version of self-care was to squeeze one 30-minute exercise break a month. Between balancing the needs of her two kids, her aging parents, her growing team, demanding boss and a job where she continues to get volunteered for special task forces, Talia was already spread beyond thin when the pandemic hit, and now she’s coming loose at the seams. When I ask Talia about starting to practice more self-care, she says “it’s no longer a matter of choice: If I don’t put on the oxygen mask, no one else will get it later.”
The opportunity: Finally confronted with a problem that was simmering under the surface for years, Talia is starting to brainstorm real ways to take things off her plate. She is getting serious about delegating and asking for help, giving away a massive slice of work to her team – seeing it as an opportunity to empower them, not hold them back – and getting creative about other solutions for work/life balance, spending days with her parents who will now double as par-time babysitters.
These women were able to seek help and find ways to turn their situations into opportunities for learning and growth. Of course they had support – the kind of understanding bosses, partners, teams, coaches, and financial resources that give them a privileged place from which to create and observe learning and change.
But the core message here is one that I hope can be applied any of us currently facing a difficulty: Find the lesson that has been trying to emerge in your life, and use this moment as the quick path to implement lasting learning and growth that will serve you and your world for a long time to come.