Optimistic Leaders Stay Steady Amidst Uncertainty

It was 2004, the fifth hurricane of the season was about to arrive in Florida, and my mom declared that she wouldn’t evacuate her home ever again. “I’m too old for this,” she insisted. Knowing that I was not going to change her mind, but unwilling to let her go through this alone, I decided I needed to be with her to ride out the storm. Full of worry and feeling criticized by my loved ones (who wished I would not fly towards a hurricane), I boarded the last flight from Newark to West Palm Beach. As the plane took off, I thought to myself, how do I want to show up for Mom?

I realized that if I was going to support my Mom’s decision and spend the hurricane with her, I had to be steady. Crossing the bridge into the evacuation zone, I heard a megaphone blasting from a patrolling police car, “EVERYONE EVACUATE NOW. NO ONE CAN STAY IN THEIR HOMES.” I arrived at her door, took a deep breath, and remembered my commitment to stay steady. As I walked through her door, I could hear the Weather Channel describing the impending hurricane and imminent disaster.

After dinner, Mom returned to the television. I watched as she became increasingly agitated by the alarming predictions of the newscaster. I said, “Mom, let’s turn off the TV and play Scrabble.” Soon into the game, she got sleepy and went to bed. Throughout the night, I listened to the wind and rain whipping outside as water sloshed against the windows. I reminded myself to stay calm. In the morning, hurricane over and power out, Mom woke up from a restful sleep. We stayed together for 14 days until the power was restored and I could fly home.

Worrying wasn’t going to help either of us navigate the hurricane. Sure, there was uncertainty. What if she fell or had a heart attack? Would I be able to get food and water? How would I address the water damage? How would I get broken windows repaired? When would power be restored?

I actively practiced calm to help Mom stay calm. Together, we figured out how to navigate each day. I had to remind myself daily to hold on to the idea of staying steady, and when I felt myself faltering, I took a walk, venting to my husband or a friend on the phone and reminding them to help me get back on track. By controlling my thoughts, I managed my emotions and Mom’s.

To stay steady, I called upon the commitment cultivate self-awareness to understand the power of emotional regulation and emotional contagion.

  • Emotional regulation means noticing your emotions and actively deciding to control them. In my story above, I realized that worry was overtaking me, and I chose to manage the worry by actively practicing calm. We help children develop self-regulation — the ability to manage big feelings like anger, excitement, frustration, and anxiety — over time with practice.
  • Emotional contagion means “catching” the emotions of others. Our brains are wired to pick up on the emotions and behaviors in other people and unconsciously mirror them. I could have joined my Mom’s worried and pessimistic view of the hurricane and her situation. Instead, I set a tone and allowed her to “catch” mine. Emotional contagion can go both ways — you can catch or influence both negative and more optimistic emotions.

I made a decision to take some big risks to be with my mom and to respect her wish to stay in her home. It was a personal decision — to decide what was best for me and my mother. Right now, we find ourselves in a very challenging time. Adults in early learning across the country are being asked to make big decisions. Many adults feel they are caught between a rock and a hard place — being asked to choose between equally unappealing options.

When faced with this dilemma, we have a choice to sink into worry and anxiety or to stay steady. As Optimistic Leaders, whether as the adult child of a parent, the parent of young children, an educator, or a friend, I encourage you to think impact, cultivate self-awareness, and show up steady. Staying steady can help us navigate these really hard decisions — and then help us weather the storm no matter which choice we decide to make.

Here are three reasons why steadiness matters in this time of uncertainty:

  1. When we regulate our emotions, we can make careful decisions for ourselves, our children, and each other.
  2. Steadiness supports a calm environment, and that helps children and adults feel safe.
  3. Steadiness calms the static — the noise in your head that is hard to quiet — and allows you to make effective decisions.

I invite you to use the Five Commitments of Optimistic Leadership to support you during challenging times. As an Optimistic Leader, practice self-awareness and:

  • model how the skill of emotional regulation can be learned and improved.
  • recognize how negative emotional contagion and positive emotional contagion affect you, others, and the group.

Join Judy and members of the Optimistic Leadership Council for a webinar about staying steady:

Staying Steady: Using the 5 Commitments in the new school year

August 26th from 11:00am-12:00pm eastern time

Click here to register today

© Leading for Children, 2020.

Judy is the Executive Director of Leading for Children, a national nonprofit that empowers early childhood professionals to be leaders and learners.

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