Letter: An Epic Journey in the Time of Epidemic

Submitted by Janet Stone McGuigan, Old Greenwich

Many of us whose work is not essential in this pandemic have nevertheless labored to remain productive at home. 

Before the corona virus crisis hit, I had a list of home-organization projects that would have made Marie Kondo weep with joy, and once Governor Lamont made isolating at home a civic responsibility, I took on these projects with a sense of welcome diversion, starting with my own precariously-piled papers and photos.

Topping a tower of postcards and restaurant guides, I found a photo of Balto, whose statue in Central Park was a favorite destination when my boys were small. 

Balto was the lead sled dog on the last relay leg to deliver critical drugs to Nome, Alaska, during a 1920s diphtheria epidemic.  Today’s Iditarod memorializes that race to save the children of Nome.  The spirit of Balto is needed today as we face an epidemic of global scale.

Balto’s human humbly gave credit to this canine hero and in so doing created a story worthy of a Disney movie.  As much as I love dogs, though, I have to say what Balto did was extraordinary but not heroic.  Balto knew he could trust his human and followed his lead to perform the extreme but essential task he was called to do.  The real heroism of this narrative was the judgement that went into the decision to start this perilous race, and the reserve of care the mushers could draw upon to command the loyalty needed in such a test.

My heart was full of Balto when my attention turned to another pile, this one of papers from graduate school. I was fortunate to be among the first students to take a course created by Professor Ronald Heifetz of Harvard Kennedy School on “Adaptive Leadership.”  His work was thought-provoking then, and no less so now, not just for aspiring leaders, but for students like me who wanted to understand what good leadership looks like.

The crux of the course’s teaching is that a good leader identifies the adaptive work that a group needs to do, and helps the group carry out that work.  It is incumbent on every member of the group to consider not just the words they say — or leave unsaid — to foster that work, but how what others say is received. Critical to this approach is managing the amount of work a group can take on without overburdening the group.  There is a tendency for group members to turn against leaders and each other when they find the work too hard.  Most importantly, then, groups need to protect their leaders and members from threats coming from within and outside the group by those who wish to stop the adaptive work.

Extreme circumstances have brought out the best, and worst, of us, and our leaders. And just like I used this time to task myself with deciding what in my piles was worth saving or tossing, postcards and class notes included, this time is a good time to consider what behaviors in our leaders we want to support or renounce.  In this time of crisis, we need heroes. Who do you think would command Balto’s loyalty?

Janet Stone McGuigan, Old Greenwich