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The Lessons of 2020

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: Mon Nov 23 2020 14:27:01 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)

“Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver, and our world could stand to be a little kinder and braver.”

-Brene Brown

As we head into the holiday season and the home stretch of this highly unusual year, how are you doing?

A recent report by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, cited by CUNA Mutual’ s Risk and Compliance Solutions Group, suggests that 78% of the workforce has been negatively affected by tension, fear, and anxiety. According to the report, “7 out of 10 people are saying this has been the most stressful year of their working lives.”

As leaders, how well-equipped are we to acknowledge and assist with this change in the workplace dynamic? And what about personally? How are we handling our own stress and anxiety?

Among the first things we can do is acknowledge that this is a year like no other and it is normal to feel unsure and uncomfortable. It is okay not to have the answers. While it may be part of a leader’s job to see around corners, this sharp curve caught us by surprise and we were soon scrambling for hand sanitizer, online meeting platforms, and Covid-19 policy updates.

Our responsibilities are to listen to concerns, practice empathy, allow for flexibility, and make good decisions while being aware of what is and what is not within our control. Things can change rapidly, as evidenced by the additional 1 million cases of Covid-19 in the United States over the past week, and we must adapt. 

What is needed and expected from leaders? I would wager that we are all looking for a sense of calm, consistency, and strength, especially as virus rates increase. Taking care of business means taking care of people. It is our most important job.

Do you remember how you started 2020?

Like most people, this year likely began for you with a sense of optimism and excitement for what the new year would bring. We knew about the presidential election, the divisive political climate, and wondered how it would all play out. As I write this, we have a new president-elect, but we also have a current administration that is not acknowledging certified election results.

There was some vague talk about a virus in Asia around the first of the year, but most of us went about our business, unconcerned and unaware of the wave of COVID-19 danger that would hit in March. It is still shaping our new reality. We are now mask-wearing, remotely working, technologically connecting, and doing our best to adjust to the world as it is. Changes are coming at us with the volume and force of trying to drink from a fire hose. These are unprecedented times, indeed, and they have an impact on all of us. As humans, are we built to handle the level of stress and change? Is our basic need for safety and security at risk and how do we regain our sense of control, let alone help our people do the same? 

Looking back and looking ahead

My own experience has been additionally impacted by an unexpected event that happened last year just before Christmas. I headed off to work early one morning in the darkness, on an icy stretch of road, and never made it to work. My car crossed the center line, proceeded over a driveway and lawn, through a ditch, and hit a tree head on. I have no memory of it. 

Have you ever felt your heart sink and soar at the same time? I remember getting ready for the day, leaving around 6:30am, and my next memory is a gentle but insistent voice, unfamiliar to me, asking, “Deb, can you stay with us? Can you tell us what happened?”

Somewhere in my subconscious I absorbed the questions and fought to regain consciousness. One of the benefits of being a history enthusiast and movie afficionado is that I am well aware that the words “stay with us” are not generally a good sign. The blood on my face and hands probably didn’t help my frightening movie scene flashback. This brought me to my senses, at least temporarily. While I was thrilled to be alive, I also felt an acute sense of panic. Something had happened. I had no idea what, or where I was, or how I got there. 

The attending medical team was fantastic. They explained that I had been in an auto accident, was at the trauma unit at Maine Medical Center, and had some injuries that they were assessing. Not only did I not remember anything, but I also didn’t feel any pain. It dawned on me that I had a meeting to attend and was supposed to pick up a friend and colleague on the way. This was on my mind as I regained consciousness and attempted to remove the neck immobilizer and monitoring devices. Apparently, I was a lot more cooperative while unconscious.

Thank goodness for medical professionals. I think about them and their brave dedication as this virus disrupts our lives and endangers theirs. As I insisted that I was fine, my slightly amused orthopedic specialist smiled and said, “You have some broken bones that will require surgical repair. Let’s take a look.”

Wait, what? Some broken bones? As in, more than one? And yes, armed with absolutely no medical expertise, I really did ask, “Are you sure?” While he explained the damage, another doctor arrived with a suture kit and politely asked if he could take care of the cut on my forehead that was the source of most of the blood. I quickly realized that I was in many good hands. Once I found out that no one else had been hurt and it seemed likely that everything could be fixed but the car, I started to breathe calmly. Of course, that also could have been the drugs.

My recovery took longer than I thought and has been more challenging than I anticipated. As I think about it, it is not unlike much of what 2020 has brought as it has shaken our comfortable existence.

As winter draws closer and uncertainty reigns, what are some of the lessons of 2020 that we can carry forward?

  • Life is unfair and uncertain. It is still our greatest gift.
  • Appreciate your friends and those who see the magic in you. They are not wrong. 
  • Kindness and hope go hand in hand.   
  • Do not give in to fear, judgment, or anxiety. Acknowledge the moments of vulnerability and despair and keep moving. 
  • Rest when you need to but do not give up.   
  • Change is constant. Reinvention is a hidden opportunity. 
  • Balance work and play. Be disciplined with your obligations and make time for what and who you love.
  • Focus outward and forward. Proceed at your own pace. 
  • Invest in yourself and in others. Help make another’s burden lighter and yours will feel lighter, too.
  • Stay connected, grateful, and curious.

Wishing you a healthy and safe close to this unforgettable year, and many opportunities ahead. Thank you for reading. Your feedback is welcome and appreciated!

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at

Well done and so heart-felt, MD...LT