The woods are lovely dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.
We had a snow storm way down here in the deep south. We were expecting just a dusting, so we put on our heavy coats and went to work. But it just kept snowing. As the roads got more treacherous than expected, I closed the office early and sent about 500 staff home.
But I stayed. And one of my ADs stayed, and a manager stayed. Two supervisors and 2 workers stayed. Why? Because despite the continuous snow, we had to work on a situation that was emergent. I learned a long time ago that crisis doesn’t care about weather. And no one complained.
Because it was a child.
Because it was our job.
Because it’s what we do.
And because my staff rock!
By the end of the day, while others were warming their hands by the fire, drinking hot cocoa, the situation resolved and we all returned safely to our homes. I returned to 3 to 4 inches of snow in my yard.
The situation reminded me of the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. As social workers, we also have promises to keep. Promises to ensure safety, permanency and well being of children and vulnerable adults. And more often than not, it involves going above and beyond the 8 to 5 job.
While I wanted to acknowledge the dedication of all those who stayed behind to help a child, this week’s blog is for the leaders, whose responsibility sits heavily on their shoulders. I want to acknowledge you.
You carry, not only the burden of the children and adults who look to you for safety, permanency and well-being, but also the responsibility for the outcomes derived from the decisions and actions of your staff. The big picture is often daunting and a burden.
In my blog, I use the metaphor of camels for the social workers or other caregiver professions. Camels carry other people’s burdens and baggage through unforgiven terrain, without much “water” to refresh themselves. In this same vein, the social work leaders are the ones who walk beside the camels: sometimes gently leading them, sometimes pulling them when they are stuck in the mire.
In our profession, the county director bears the responsibility and untimately the accountability for the performance of the county office. When things run well, they are not applauded or praised. But, all the better, they are given space to run the county along with great latitude. But when troublesome issues arise, it is another story. Unlike in the running of a widget factory, when a mistake occurs in a county office, the results could literally be one of life and death.
Directors carry around in their hearts an understanding of the tenuousness of Human nature and the inevitability of such a mistake happening at some point. Like walking on the newly iced pond, waiting to hear a crack, this knowledge and understanding can be a crushing weight. Especially true for those leaders who truly stay connected to the practice, study monthly data, and can see when unhealthy trends are approaching. I call it the groaning. When I see the overburdened staff, the longer hours worked, the small mistakes being made…I feel a fearful shudder in my Spirit that a blizzard is coming.
Fortunately, as directors, we often see the storm approaching before it hits. Actively meeting with the program Ads and managers to present and discuss the emerging trend, we strategize on the causes and more importantly the solutions. We are most often able to achieve a course change to delay, stop and on joyous ocassions to reverse the undesirable outcomes.
But it takes time to turn a corner.
Sometimes the blizzard is upon us before we have completed our plan of change. The action is the same, but the timeframes might be shorter and the action more directed. What we have learned is Not to Panic and become reactionary. Like slamming your breaks on an iced-over road, the whole program will go into a tailspin and crash.
Unfortunately, we always have someone looking over our shoulder. Not close enough to see our challenges, or our triumphs. But close enough to see the storm as it hits. In those times, it is especially hard for a director, who not only has to keep the pace of progress to right the course, but also to receive the criticism, scrutiny and reactionary outcries from the over the shoulder gang.
It has happened to me. It has happened to others. It will happen to you one day.
I have gotten calls from a few trusted peers this week venting about their exhaustion, self sacrifice and frustration. They had faced their own ice storm. They had already identified measures needed to address the crises, but now was facing the demoralizing criticism and scrutiny from those who weren’t close enough to see them coming back into the light. They needed support from those who had walked this path before.
I always take those calls from my peers. Because, I,too, have called the self-same folk when it was my turn to vent. And they listened.
I found that reaching out to my peers really helps when I am angry, demoralized or made to feel shame. Because we share the experiences, we understand each other. We understand how it feels. We can offer advice (if asked) based on our own experiences.
Or, we can just listen.
I used to think reaching out to like-minded others when at my rope’s end was a sign that I wasn’t strong…not a good leader. But as I have grown as a leader, I realize it is strength to reach out when I need help. I have been able to keep going many times when I wanted to give up. Just by talking to peers that I trust I felt heard and validated. I was able to work through my anger and pain so that I could remember the reason I loved my job.
Blizzards will come. As long as your agency is staffed with humans, there will come the ocassions storm. As leader, you cannot be everywhere..see everything..predict everything. But you are likely, in some time during your career, to be criticized for not knowing everything. And it will hurt. And you will feel betrayal and perhaps anger.
Call me. I have been there a few times. Or call a trusted peer. Create a lifeline to help you keep walking your path. And when we call you. All we ask is that you