Meaningful Leadership: Finding Coherence and Purpose in a Pandemic

Memes and social media posts jest that time and days of the week have no meaning during the pandemic. The structure that comes from commutes, bus rides, classes, and offices has practically vanished. On our calendars we mark the passing of events that would have been. We lack the usual rhythm of finals, graduations, and ramping up for our in-person HOBY seminars.

We find ourselves asking, “what does this crisis mean for my future, my goals, those things that I find most important? What does it mean when what I expected and hoped for cannot happen in the same way?” Simply existing right now is tough; figuring out how to lead during a crisis is even harder. 

The Role of Positive Psychology in Coping

To help us cope, many are searching for wisdom about well-being, and some of the most effective resources come from the field of positive psychology. Positive psychology is the science of human flourishing. The field seeks to understand, research, and cultivate that what makes life worth living – such as positive emotional states, supportive and authentic relationships, and experiencing engagement in our activities and goals.

Far from being the science of rainbows and unicorns, positive psychology studies how humans can draw on their strengths and resilience in difficult and traumatic times. The term eudaemonia is often used in the field to encompass this larger idea of a life well lived that goes beyond simply having pleasant experiences. This is where meaning comes in.

What is Meaning In Life?

Instead of seeking to understand the meaning OF life, this field of positive psychology asks how humans define, experience, and cultivate meaning IN life. The experience of meaning in life has been linked to a number of positive outcomes, such as satisfaction with life, authentic living, personal growth, and other measures of healthy psychological functioning (Ryff & Singer, 1998; Steger, Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler, 2006).

Dr. Michael Steger (2009), one of the leading researchers of meaning in life, defined meaning as “the extent to which people comprehend, make sense of, or see significance in their lives, accompanied by the degree to which they perceive themselves to have a purpose, mission, or overarching aim in life.” Meaning is how we understand the world, ourselves, and the interaction between the two (Steger, 2009). 

Coherence and Purpose

HOBY ambassadors and alums are no strangers to purpose. We are passionate, we throw our energy wholeheartedly into our goals and focus on how we can have a positive impact along the way. But how often do we think about the coherence part of meaning?

We take for granted that most things makes sense… until they don’t. We see connections between our actions and their predictable outcomes, until the actions we used to take don’t take place anymore. We expect things to happen in a particular way, and when they don’t our sense of coherence can start to decay. When our communities, organizations, and volunteer groups are looking to us as leaders to make sense of a situation, the fact that we are struggling with making sense of the circumstances may become even more salient. 

King and Hicks (2009) suggest that one path to finding meaning is facing negative events that challenge our understanding of the world. When we experience a life-altering event, we want to make sense of the event and weave it into the rest of our life experiences. While we may not make these connections as the event is happening, here are some suggestions of what we can do now to demonstrate leadership and find some coherence in the future.   

What can we do as leaders to help ourselves and others find meaning in this crisis? 

Return to our why, rather than the what.

Again, at this point we are likely to be struggling with the fact that certain activities or events can’t happen. Instead of fixating on the what of the event, think about its why. Why do we mark graduations with ceremonies? Why do we engage young people in the development of leadership? Considering those “why’s” can help us take a step back, understand the meaning behind our rituals, and find creative ways to serve the “why” while worrying less about the “what”. 

Reflect on how we can grow through this situation.

Our leadership has certainly needed to adapt during this crisis. Perfection isn’t the goal in this moment, but this type of situation tests our leadership and provides important feedback for us to grow. The pandemic stretches our leadership capabilities in more ways than a normal, non-crisis situation could. How have our reactions changed? How have we supported others differently during this time? How have we developed a deeper connection with our emotions? This self-awareness is essential to leadership.

Help others process the crisis.

One of our roles as leaders is to help people interpret events. We provide vision and help people see the connections between actions and outcomes. Spend time with loved ones and other HOBY alums and volunteers talking through the crisis together. You may find it easier to derive meaning if you can work through the crisis together. Use what you have learned during HOBY to support, facilitate discussion, and demonstrate compassion for those who are struggling. Our development through HOBY affords us skills and tools that are particularly valuable right now. 

As leaders, we may choose our roles and our organizations, but we ultimately do not choose our circumstances. We certainly did not choose this pandemic. What we do have control over is how we respond. This is what HOBY means – we can reflect, grow, and support others.


References and further reading on meaning: 

George, L. S., & Park, C. L. (2016). Meaning in life as comprehension, purpose, and mattering: Toward integration and new research questions. Review of General Psychology, 20(3), 205-220.

King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2009). Detecting and constructing meaning in life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 317–330.

Ryff, C., & Singer, B. (1998). The contours of positive human health. Psychological Inquiry9(1), 1–28. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli0901_1 

Smith, E. E. (2017). The power of meaning: Finding fulfillment in a world obsessed with happiness. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Steger, M. F. (2009). Meaning in life. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 679-687). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology53(1), 80–93. 


About the author: Liz Sutton is Assistant to the Chair for HOBY WLC 2020 and will serve as the Chair for HOBY WLC 2021. She is a 1999 New York East and WLC alum and has volunteered at various state seminars and WLC for twenty years. Liz is the Director of Advising in the Wharton Undergraduate Division at the University of Pennsylvania and recently graduated with her Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from UPenn. Currently living in South Philadelphia, Liz is enjoying a lot of quarantine quality time (QQT) with her fiancé, also a HOBY alum. 

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