A stressful day of decisions

Mar 15, 2020

I haven't yet talked about Toastmasters here. It is a public speaking community of which I am a part of, and which I love.

A few days ago, among the club board members, we had to decide how to respond to a little thing called COVID-19 (which was not yet classified as a pandemic). What happened was we suspended in person meetings and delayed a public speaking contest. We were the first club in the country to take any action here. Whether it was a correct decision is still up for debate.

This bit of writing, is not about the virus, for I am not qualified to talk about it in detail. My opinion of the whole thing is simple: official numbers and recommendations given by authorities appear to indicate the situation is still getting worse overall. This post is all about how it felt to be human on that day.

The choice

Chasing causation is usually a fool's errand. For most things in life it is in fact hard to determine why they happened. Yet here, the following events were certainly more impactful: several emails from Toastmasters International and the regional district which permitted and recommended online meetings and contests, as well as one official government announcement which suspended all large gatherings (>1000 people), and required written authorization for smaller ones. These pieces of information found their footing within club board conversations late Sunday, on the 8th of March, while we had barely a dozen confirmed cases of the virus in the country.

The arguments flew in. My overall feeling quickly became was one of burden. It was soon obvious I was not participating in a decision involving myself, but rather one made for many other people. I was willing to risk things for my own skin, but making that same call for others was a murky affair. The ongoing discussion was civil, and productive. I am most grateful that we didn't rush to action on that late Sunday evening, and instead took our time and slept on it until the following day.

We announced it at around 11:30 AM the next morning. We cancelled the Facebook event for the contest taking place the next day. At that precise moment, I felt more responsible of an act than ever before in my life. Even though multiple people were involved, I was acting as part of this group on behalf of a larger ensemble. I also felt whatever slightly different nuance of the position I had during the debates had vanished. I cannot remember another time in life when I had adjusted my views so quickly to those of a group I belonged to.

To my dear Toastmasters board officers, and colleagues: thank you for giving me the opportunity of experiencing this difficult choice.

The aftermath

For the few members who privately thanked us for the course we embarked on, there were those few bothered by what had transpired. And they, rightfully, complained in our online chat rooms.

What should I do? What's the most appropriate reaction I can have? Am I going to change their mind or am I going to fuel an unstoppable fire? Should I be disappointed by our decision or should I uphold it? Should I, or someone else engage? – On that day, when faced with intense criticism, that was my internal monologue. I remember a time in life where I would have exploded and made a complete fool of myself. I waited, and delayed most impulses (good or bad, for I know not which is which), but most importantly I stood by the choice. This would be the road we now traveled on and doubt would not help. I felt that wherever the road would lead should be a lesson on its own. I did participate in the first few discussions, mostly by explaining our actions, and the fire died out eventually. As I read the chat now, several days later, I still see emotions leaking through, when more calmness was probably required.

What I don't think we had expected, was becoming famous. At a national level, the division director picked up on our cancelled event and congratulated us on Facebook for putting the safety of our members first, with a post in the district group. I'll admit, we had considered that our action would be a model for our members. A sign that respecting official recommendations in an eventual national crisis is the right thing to do. Not for one moment had I considered it would become a model for other clubs. Having followed the recommendations put forth by our regional leadership (or, what we at least perceived as recommendations), we had not realized we were the first club to make a move.

Later that day, several members from other clubs from the country reached out with questions (or reactions) to our move. They reached out to me, presumably because I had interacted with the previously mentioned post. I'm still impressed by how far a local action could reach, of how easy it was for a single decision to impact someone I had not imagined would be watching.

To my dear Toastmasters colleagues, both in the club and the country: thank you for the feedback, both good and bad, and the way you help reveal and unfold the consequences of our actions.

The crisis overall

The virus has has caused much bigger problems in other parts of the world, and there's no telling when or if it will run rampant in our local neighborhood. Despite all the theory I understand about mitigating its impact, there's always some nasty bit of real world complexity I could not anticipate. Even for small scale decisions.

This was definitely the hardest challenge I've met form a leadership point of view. It has taught me perspective and forced me to see how a problem can be parsed very differently when solved for others, or for myself. And it has forced me to see how I react to negative feedback, as well as unexpected outcomes.

Toastmasters is a playground for me to experience leadership, and I'm glad a wrench was thrown in our training wheels, for challenging experiences are sometimes the best to study and learn from.

To my dear friends, all over the world: thank you for reading, and I hope you go though similar experiences in low risk environments, to prepare you for whenever high risk problems actually start to roll in.