Deep listening during times of social panic
By Bruce Piasecki
It is hard to imagine it. It was once common. Staging an Olympics. A big deal. You attract thousands of the world’s elite athletes, their entourages, 40 to 60 corporate sponsors, hundreds of suppliers. It is a grand show, where millions of people watch what you’ve done on TV, with hundreds of thousands in attendance, enthralled.
The life of Linda Coady gave me an insider account of what it was like, during the days I was writing my book Doing More with Teams. Linda served as vice-president of sustainability for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and is currently executive director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank in Alberta. What matters now is how to “become like Linda” during these times of panic over the COVID-19 pandemic, racial protests, and severe disruptive weather. And then for us to reassemble in our communities with dignity and a peaceful productivity.
Each modern Olympics involves building a moderate size city within an old city. “You buy and need practically everything,” a Canadian health official told me “even enough Clorox disinfecting wipes to go around the world several times.” How did Linda learn these social skills in our times of relentless social mischief and seriously inflamed divide?
What does the skills of creating an Olympics have to do with today’s unrest? Now we all know that the world has become more volatile, because of shifting interests and human rights across the globe; that it appears more uncertain, both because of mass inequality and the impacts of climate change; and it has become more complex, because of the growing interdependence of business and society. Chris Coulter, the CEO of GlobeScan, calls these related features VUCA, as he suggests that the world has also grown more ambiguous “because our traditional governance and power structures are now unfit for this new more transparent age.”
Yet I still know from experience that the skills found in Linda Coady are more timely than ever.
The Origins of Social Intelligence
The first time I asked Linda about the development of her skills, she said she came from two worlds: one of science and social leadership, and one of faith and virtues.
I asked Linda about her origins, she said one can learn a great deal by “listening through the differences between a father, a mother, and your siblings, let alone the range of people within your neighborhood — if you look long and hard at it each day.”
Over dinner conversations, she absorbed from her father a sense of respect, social inclusion, and professionalism in debates. How doctors treat their particular spectrum of humanity with attention to detail is what Linda Coady has come to embody; a direct lineage, I trust, from father to daughter:
*Solve Real Problems
Sure, all doctors have tons of data, reams of materials that show how your blood does not lie. But how a patient presents themselves, exactly like the protesters now in our cities, is the matter at hand. How a doctor hears what the patient presents is often the difference between life and death.
Linda Coady’s mother kept order in a house of four children; and “was intelligent on how to navigate the world.” Such social wisdom survives the chaos of more data, more political positioning, more media surveillance, more techno-think about invading foreigners.
From the start, Linda said the second major influence in her life were the nuns at the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis. This teaching order of nuns ran the Catholic girl’s school that first helped form Linda. It was in the range of 48 to 78 girls where Linda studied form eight grade (when it first opened) to 12th grade.
“Here,” she told me, “is where I realized things are not black and white, that fundamental human traits are discernible. The nuns emphasized the virtues over the vices. Here at school we were trained in humility, inclusion, and what excellence might be.”
She added: “But I also learned from the Sisters something about the vices—the vice of intolerance, the dangers of arrogance, the powerful distractions in adhering to the preoccupations with the self.” This active synthesis of Mom and Dad’s worlds made her ready for a world of disinformation, lying, and basic self-interest.
“But,” she reflected, “the greatest virtue the overall experience of growing up gave me is that to do my best requires focus. There is a fundamental human virtue in focus, the cultivated ability to bear down.” The ability to bear down becomes a honed skill we need in times of social panic.
Our world at times seems to have lost these skills. We seem replete with one-sided stories, with needs taken out of context and magnified by social media. The world remains full of idle and selfish wheel-spinning. I cannot make too much of what I’ve learned from Linda Coady in the last decade. I think it fits the Capital Region, our national needs, as well as this spinning world where both the fears of George Orwell and the certainties of Donald Trump need to be reconciled daily. We need more Linda in our lives, not more Clorox, I fear.
Bruce Piasecki is the author of a dozen books, including the best seller Doing More with Less, out this year in Spanish. He has lived in New York's Capital Region for over a quarter century with his wife and daughter.