Last Saturday, Neeti and I went to a local breakfast place because I wanted to eat pancakes and eggs. It was one of those mornings when I woke up and considered what I’d miss about here when I leave for Mumbai in August. Somehow, thinking about food, pancakes and eggs came to mind. Nothing about India is homogeneous and pancakes and eggs are easily available at many breakfast and brunch places in Mumbai. Yet, that morning, it’s what I associated with the United States.
Since we made the decision in late fall and shared it with close family and friends, a few have asked what I’m most excited about the move. So far, I have had no substantive answers to their question. It’s not because I’m not excited; I am excited and terrified about it, actually. For several weeks at first, I’d wake up and pinch myself, anxiously, and wonder, “What have I done?” Moving back to India was never my plan or goal. I am – as accompanies any change or transition – grieving the loss of so much else right now.
Every article, book, or consultant on change management talks about acknowledging the loss, creating a space for it and allowing one to mourn what will no longer be. Change initiatives fail when leaders gloss over this grief. So what am I grieving? For almost 19 years, I have worked in independent schools and built a reputation and achieved a certain status and expertise. I know what I’m (mostly) doing, how to do it well and I’ve been rewarded for it. By giving up my position, I am giving up, effectively, some of the trappings that came with it or I achieved. I will step off the NAIS, NBOA, CSEE and Asheville School boards. I will lose regular contact, just by virtue of being in the other hemisphere and among different people doing different work, with many I currently see at conferences and workshops, and mentor frequently. Some relationships will continue, while others will fade away. My daily routines, as well as the seasons and cycle of the school year that I’m used to, will be vastly different. Independent schools are all I’ve known professionally, and many personal relationships I have today started when working with, or in one of them.
I know I’m being a bit dramatic here. My change isn’t permanent. I’m only committed, currently, to Enabling Leadership (EL) for ten months. I can easily return to independent schools, or work with them, in July 2021. I’m already talking to schools, school heads, and other South Asian teachers and administrators working in the US about making connections between EL and independent schools. But grief isn’t rational; it’s about the heart. Loss, I’m beginning to realize and accept, is concrete, while any opportunity I try and foresee is still abstract. I can give you the highlights of what I’ll be doing next fall and where I’ll live, but I can’t give you my daily schedule, the people I’ll meet, or the details of the work I’ll do. Loss, however, I can point to easily. When the school year begins at The Children’s School in early August, I won’t be there to welcome back our families or faculty. I won’t lead the staff retreat this summer. I’ll sell my car before leaving the country. Not everything that is mine currently will remain mine after June. These are small things when considered individually, but collectively, they – and so much more – add up to what I count on right now to still exist from one day to the next. My life is about to dramatically change for at least a year, and just because it’s my decision to do any of it doesn’t diminish my sense of loss.
Leaders generally tend to speak or write of the success or failure of change initiatives in regards to their outcomes. The initiative was successful if we achieved our goal, and failed if we didn’t. But, in those narratives, we ignore the process and its impact on our people and institutions. All change is a mixed bag; there is loss and gain. Regardless of how much data we gather and committees we initiate, there will also be consequences we didn’t intend and impact we didn’t predict. There’s no escaping some degree of collateral consequences, positive or negative, when initiating change.
In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, Steve Jobs said that we can only connect life’s dots looking backwards. I’ve put forth an initial timeline with my next move, but only looking backwards will I be able to tell you how it ends. Right now, I’m trying to not dismiss my grief too quickly.