Recovering from disaster — whether a pandemic or a major climate event — can take years to heal and recover. Through his experience weathering a devastating tornado, former Superintendent Dr. C.J. Huff shares the importance of career-sustaining behaviors and modeling healthy habits in times of crisis recovery.
The Strong Wind of Adversity
On Sunday, May 22, 2011, Joplin High School graduation ceremonies began promptly at 3 p.m. The school band played, our seniors gave great speeches, diplomas were granted, and family photos were taken amid lots of laughter and tears of joy. The last diploma was handed out just a few minutes before 5 p.m. Right on time. It was a perfect day.
At 5:17 p.m., I walked out of the gymnasium at Missouri Southern State University to the sound of tornado sirens. By 6:13, our community had lost the lives of 161 friends and neighbors. This included one of my most promising seniors who had just graduated, six other students, and a school staff member. In just 32 minutes, 10 of my 19 schools had been damaged or destroyed by a devastating Category EF5 tornado. What had started as a day of celebration had ended in panic, fear, uncertainty, and mourning.
It has been 10 years since the costliest tornado in U.S. history ripped through the heart of Joplin, MO. Although much of what was physically destroyed has been rebuilt, the emotional scars cut deep. Construction may be complete, but the healing continues.
In 2015, at 45 years old, I reluctantly “retired” as Joplin’s superintendent. The time had come. I was physically and emotionally exhausted after four years of a complicated recovery effort and the politics that came with it. Throughout the process of overcoming many challenges, I saw the best and the worst of people. I also saw the best and the worst of myself. As novelist Arthur Golden said in one of the most personally meaningful quotes I have ever read: “Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn so that we see ourselves as we really are.” I do not think there are truer words that have ever been written.
Over the years I have had the privilege of counseling school leaders across the country following the myriad of manmade and natural disasters that have occurred since my retirement from Joplin Schools. During those counseling sessions, there are three important areas of focus I recommend — behaviors necessary to ensure that when the recovery journey is over, you are still in a healthy place to continue doing the work you love.
The three areas I would like to bring to your attention include career-sustaining behaviors that fall in the categories of 1) physical care, 2) family care, and 3) spiritual care.
Physical care includes the important leadership behaviors of taking care of your nutritional, exercise, and sleep needs. Easily neglected, but essential, it is easy to start eating poorly (fast food, quick meals, comfort foods, candy/snacks, etc.), pausing exercise regimens, and working ungodly hours that result in reducing the sleep needed to stay sharp and focused.
Family care is equally as important and an easily neglected area of need. During times of crisis, a leader’s immediate family stands alongside them providing love and support. However, it is important for leaders to remember that it is those you love who will suffer the most from your time and commitment to the response and recovery effort.
All too often, time with family takes a back seat to the immediate demands of crisis leadership. Although this may be unavoidable at first, it is important to remember that although your family may be proud of you and the work you are doing, you need them, and they need you. Scheduling sacred time off, scheduling or rescheduling that family vacation, taking time to attend ball games, committing to eating dinner together every evening are important behaviors to ensure you and your family are getting the ongoing support needed.
Spiritual care is simply about connectedness. Connectedness to yourself, connectedness to others, and connectedness to a higher power. In short, if getting up early every morning and having that cup of coffee, reading a book, or doing yoga on your back porch is what you do to “fill your cup,” get back to that routine as soon as possible. If playing cards with friends on a Thursday evening, singing in the church choir, teaching a Sunday school class, or volunteering at a local homeless shelter brings you joy, get back to that. Filling your spiritual cup is going to help you find the balance you need to continue that recovery journey.
The lesson I would like to leave you with is to develop those healthy habits now and prepare to maintain those habits through the course of a crisis. The people who follow you need to see that behavior modeled for them. It gives them permission to take care of themselves as well. That takes self-discipline and the strongest kind of leadership. You and your people will be better for it.
C.J. Huff, a former superintendent, is a consultant and public speaker on leadership issues based in Joplin, Mo. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @cjhuffjoplin