Pushups in Prison

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

Pushups in Prison

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Albert Camus wrote in “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

Since mid-March, leaders of organizations in Arkansas and the rest of the world have been scrambling to respond to the business challenges of COVID-19. We have seen leaders wrestle with the impact on people, profits, facilities and even their organizations’ very survival.

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Then came 10 days of trying to understand the various programs, loans and opportunities to shore up resilience and even keep the doors open. Not only were the rules and conditions arcane, but they seemed to change by the hour. Those who submitted applications often learned that yesterday’s application was no longer valid — or that further understanding had altered the program.

Four weeks in, things have calmed a bit, but like Sisyphus, we all still have a very big rock to push up a very big hill. It is a daily slog that requires all the energy and focus we can muster. And there is no option: If the organizations we lead are going to survive, they need our focus and attention. And for now, like Sisyphus, our reward is not to move to the next opportunity or challenge, but instead to do it all over again tomorrow. Show up and push that rock uphill as hard as we can to not lose ground.

So, in an environment this challenging, how do leaders find the energy and focus to sustain themselves? There is no option to leave the rock at the bottom of the hill. And while survival is a compelling motivator, it is fear-based. Fear provides none of the sustainable energy that comes with a compelling future. Fear is great for a short-term reactive dash to safety or fight for survival. But we are not suited as a species for that as a daily diet. (For more on this, read “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.)

At a time like this, inspiration is called for — and not just for the employees or shareholders, but to support a leadership mindset prepared to respond rather than react. But we don’t need something soaring and optimistic; when we are surrounded by risk and challenge, platitudes get dismissed by cynicism and impatience. Instead, I have created a small collection of thoughts and ideas that recognize what it is like to be a leader pushing the rock every day without yet seeing a way to find a new hill or reduce the rock to gravel.

► First up is Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” the perfect choice for the times in which we live. The internet will immediately deliver to you the entirety of the poem, and I strongly suggest taking a few moments to read beyond the familiar opening stanza:

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you …”

The poem needs no explanation from me. It reads to me as if Kipling were writing about leaders in the world today.

► Another common quote that relates to how we will come out of the experience as leaders is sometimes attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Smooth seas do not make skilled sailors.”

We are engaged in storms that are battering organizations based on enormous and powerful changes in the way we will have to lead — probably for much longer than we want. So, as leaders, the very personal question we need to ask is, “Am I being attacked, or forged into something stronger?” Taking time during the day to consider what we are learning and how we want to see both our organizations and ourselves come out the other end is far from wasteful.

► Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

In my Vistage CEO group meeting in March, on the day that the first case of COVID-19 in Arkansas was reported, one of the members compared their situation to prisoners, another group of people who have no choices. If I am sent to prison, I can sulk, do nothing and play the victim. Or I can read, learn a trade or another language, write a book or get in shape. The concept of “pushups in prison” — using this period to get stronger or better in some way — brings us back to the ultimate prisoner we started with: Sisyphus.

As Camus reminds us in the quote above, if we cannot change the situation, our power resides in changing our relationship to it. The only redemption for the executive who is in rough times, who cannot put the burden down and who must continue to push, is to find a different way to relate to the work. It is a formidable act of leadership, and humanity, in itself.

I. Barry Goldberg of Little Rock is a Vistage Peer Advisory Group Chair, executive coach, facilitator and leadership development consultant.