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Commentary: Grateful for grassroots leadership being shown every day

My story is not uncommon. People who have been working for too many years at too high a gear often become ill, sometimes with life-threatening consequences, when they stop working in an over-busy workplace.

I am so grateful for grassroots leadership that is showing up across the country.

Leadership is demonstrated when someone sees something that needs changing – and they find a way to take action. Leadership in community is innovative, creative and fundamentally demonstrated by those who are willing to serve and share.

I can relate three recent examples.

A woman from the Bow Valley Philanthropy Project reached out, advising that she wanted to deliver some care hampers, and "Did I have any suggestions for who might need a lift?"

I recognized leadership at the grocery store as the greeter offered me hand sanitizer, while smiling behind his blue face mask.

A kind note and pot of pansies appeared on my doorstep, unexpectedly delivered by my next door neighbour and leader.

In his book, Why Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek talks about leadership and organizational culture. He devotes a chapter to "The Big C" where C stands for cortisol.

Cortisol, also called the stress hormone, is produced by our bodies in times of stress and fear. Cortisol can serve us positively in times of danger by putting the body into a ready state of fight or flight. 

"Like a high-security alarm system that automatically calls the police, cortisol is designed to alert us to possible danger and take extra measures to protect ourselves, raising our chances of survival," writes Sinek. 

However, a constant flow of cortisol is unhealthy. Too much cortisol turns off non-essential bodily functions such as digestion and growth and also inhibits the production of oxytocin.

Oxytocin, Sinek explains is the chemical that is responsible for empathy.

When I left my job almost three years ago, I publicly declared that I was not retiring, but that I was joyfully embarking on a new phase of life, called my "rewirement." 

I thought I would fill my days with reading, writing, hiking, skiing, traveling and maybe even learning to play the banjo. I assumed that my next chapter would be carefree and fun filled, as my brain played to its neuroplasticity strengths.

I would recommit to new habits of health and wellness by flushing my cortisol levels out and filling up on oxytocin and sunshine.

As it happened, I had apparently been ignoring some important physical cues. Over two years of my "rewirement" have been consumed with self-care, rehabilitation and pain management.

My story is not uncommon. People who have been working for too many years at too high a gear often become ill, sometimes with life-threatening consequences, when they stop working in an over-busy workplace.

I wonder if COVID-19 is a version of this same message. After running our engines at too high a gear, for too long, with too little time for rest and recovery, our systems are more than a little burnt out. Personal. Organizational. Social. Environmental. Economic.

Of course, the tales of desperation, chaos and sadness during this pandemic are disturbing and life altering. Chronic and persistent injustices related to power imbalances, environmental degradation, income inequality and accessibility to services are screams for change that are not to be taken lightly.

Still, amidst the sadness and loss, there are stories of inspiration. Leaders of every rank are digging deep into their reserves of mental tenacity, learned optimism, dogged resilience, and positivity to ask simple, kind-hearted questions such as, "What needs to happen?" or  "How can I help?"

If cortisol is the chemical that sends us fleeing, oxytocin is the welcome bath after exertion.

Gratitude? It is the thoughtful sigh that celebrates goodness in the world. Phasing ourselves out of quarantine provides a chance to phase ourselves into reframed, recalibrated and rewired habits of mind.

Over the years, Lorraine Widmer-Carson has worked for Parks Canada, The Whyte Museum, The Friends of BNP, The Banff Centre, and left her leadership position at the Banff Canmore Community Foundation in 2017. She and her family (including two remarkable granddaughters) celebrated 40 years of owning and operating Ticino Restaurant in 2019. She has now started "The Gratitude Project,” an initiative that weaves gratitude into daily living. Follow her at