In a chaotic world filled with uncertainty, shared histories help us move boldly forward.
In recent years, we have become all too familiar with a sense of frustration and helplessness resulting from a lack of control over the situations we encounter, from pandemics to political polarization. Every new situation feels like unprecedented territory. How do we move from frustration to forward motion? How can we develop our resilience and minimize the negative emotions that can accompany challenging situations? As leaders, how can we guide our teams?
One powerful tool is tapping into what I term touchstone memories. These are past examples of our resilience during an unexpected event. We can look back on them as evidence of our capability to face new challenges and move through them.
As I reflect on a period of uncertainty in my own life, I remember an experience that my son Oliver and I shared, which continues to bring me hope during frustrating times. In September 2020, there was no end in sight for the pandemic. Through those anxious months of quarantine, a little pottery bowl that my family made on our last pre-pandemic trip to Asheville had served as a happy reminder that we may be able to visit again someday. But one day, my then seven-year-old son accidentally broke it.
I was devastated. Oliver felt terrible. We both had a moment of frustration and tears. However, we navigated our way out of those emotions and discovered a more hopeful message. As we researched how to repair broken pottery, we learned about the Japanese art of kintsugi – mending pottery with gold, making something new and beautiful. We did just that. Oliver and I pieced the bowl back together.
The breaking of the bowl symbolized that no matter how careful we are, some things in life will fall to pieces. The repaired bowl became a visual reminder that we have had practice overcoming obstacles and we can do it again. We also made a video, intentionally creating a touchstone memory.
We can look back on it in difficult moments to prove that we’ve dealt with challenges before and remind us of the ‘A-ha!’ moment that followed.
Touchstone memories for teams
We can also use touchstone memories while leading our teams. Every organization has stories that remind us we have experienced change before, and not only did we survive, we thrived. We can identify and use these touchstones to help ferry people through new times of change.
It starts with learning our people’s stories. When I’m working with a team, I learn about the ups and downs of the marketplace that they’ve weathered. It helps inject a sense of belief if I can remind them of where they’ve been and what they’ve accomplished. As a leader, this knowledge will likewise allow you to share in the process of identifying touchstone memories. It is essential to be emotionally present with your team. Take time to intentionally pause and reflect on the experiences you share with each other. Whether it is a global corporate crisis or a team-specific matter, think of an obstacle you have overcome. How were you able to keep hope and conquer the impossible?
Like my video with Oliver, these touchstone memories remind us that, as we mourn and make peace with the loss of something that once was, we can also do our best to mend it and make room in our hearts for what can be. You may discover that what at first feels like frightening and uncharted territory is actually far more familiar – and is something you have conquered before.
Sanyin Siang is a Pratt School of Engineering professor and leads the Fuqua/ Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University.