Leadership and Safety Part 2: "Edna Mode" Mode

Published in on May 9, 2021

Like many other small businesses, my clinic(s), Working Class Acupuncture, has gone through a lot of changes during the pandemic. One of the biggest is that we’re working on becoming more of a collective (more about that here). For me this means putting a lot of attention on leadership development, particularly identifying opportunities for other people to pick up leadership skills the same way I did -- by doing them when the organization needs you to, even though you feel like you have no clue. (Feeling like you have no clue is a necessary step in getting a clue!)

Another thing it means for me is tracking the leadership tasks I’m still responsible for, even as I’m handing more and more tasks off to other people. Whenever I notice that I’ve done something that makes me think, “hmm, that one’s going to be hard to hand off” or even, “oh God, if I weren’t here, would anybody actually do that thing? What if nobody is willing to do that thing -- or worse, what if nobody even realizes that it needs to be done?” I try to take good notes about it. That’s what this post is for, specifically:

A leadership task I worry that nobody is going to want to do is what I think of as going into “Edna Mode” mode. If you’ve had kids in your life over the last 16 years or so, you may be familiar with Edna from the Incredibles movies; she’s the engineering/fashion genius who designs costumes for superheroes. There’s a scene in the first movie where tiny, fierce Edna confronts a tearful, panicky superhero -- it only lasts 42 seconds but it’s memorable. Please take a minute and watch it (I promise the rest of this post will make more sense, and be more fun, if you watch it).

Distraught superhero: Oh, what’ll I do, what’ll I do?
Edna Mode: What are you talking ABOUT? Pull! Yourself! Together! What will you do -- is this a QUESTION???

In an earlier post I wrote about the importance of making and sticking to foundational decisions as a crucial aspect of creating safety. The problem is, when people get upset and scared (particularly in relationship to safety issues) sometimes they don’t want to stick to foundational decisions. They want to throw them out the window and do whatever they think will make them feel better in the moment. (See also: “I know we decided to follow the CDC guidelines for COVID in the workplace, but now that we have something we need to follow them ABOUT, what if they’re WRONG?”) And at that moment, the leader needs to be able to go into Edna Mode mode, minus the actual slapping of course.

Panicking people: A safety issue has come up -- oh what’ll we do, what’ll we do?
Leader: What are you talking about? We decided what we were going to do as part of our safety planning process and that’s what we’re going to do! What will we do -- is this a QUESTION??? Pull! Yourself! Together!

You can’t let people revise safety procedures and decisions when they’re freaking out. (And you shouldn’t let them revise any other foundational decision about an organization when they’re freaking out, either.) This is easier said than done. It takes a lot of energy to go into Edna Mode mode with somebody (at least for me it does), and even more with a group of people. That part in the clip where Edna leaps onto the table? There’s an internal shift of gears that feels to me exactly like that leap looks -- it's not a normal gear to be in, you can't stay in it very long, and so you'd better be effective while you're there.

Part of what’s intimidating about Edna Mode mode is that it requires not being nice, not being accommodating, and actually being sort of cold and unfeeling when what the person who is freaking out wants, is sympathy. It involves risk to your relationships and to your self-image. I’m not saying it’s bad to want sympathy when you’re scared and upset -- not at all; sympathy and support are good things and everyone needs them. But organizations need other things, too -- including, at times, confrontation -- and leaders have to be willing to do what the organization as a whole needs.

I feel lucky that in every situation where I’ve had to be in Edna Mode mode with someone at WCA during COVID, I’ve had a lot of trust, and I mean a LOT, built up over years of working together. So I knew that my relationships were probably going to be okay and my comrades would not only forgive me but also -- once they stopped freaking out -- understand why it was necessary. For newer people learning how to lead, particularly in the context of safety issues, they don’t necessarily have that reservoir of trust and so turning into Edna is going to feel, and be, more risky.

Which is where clear conversations and explicit consent come in.

I think WCA’s emerging collective is going to have to have a conversation in which people give explicit consent in regards to Edna Mode mode, including the messy aspects of learning how to do it. People who are newer to leadership might not get it right the first time they try (it’s not like there are lots of opportunities to practice!). The collective is going to have to tolerate confrontations, including those that don’t go perfectly.

Because everyone is capable of freaking out under the right circumstances -- everyone -- if nobody is willing to check their comrades’ freak outs, all of the time and energy that goes into creating safety policies and procedures could end up wasted. It’s not enough to have the safety meetings; you also have to talk about what to do if/when people want to ignore them because they’re too emotional. Who’s willing to be Edna? And how do we create social safety for those people? Because organizations need their Ednas.

I’ve been in a few different organizations that didn’t have any Ednas, and maybe the kindest description of them is that they spend a lot of time spinning their wheels. If every decision is up for discussion when somebody gets upset about it, you can’t get much done. And in terms of safety policies, that’s a recipe for disaster.

I was surprised about how many times I had to get into Edna Mode mode during COVID, and also surprised about who I had to do it with. For newer leaders, I think it’s helpful to have a heads-up that being Edna sometimes is an unavoidable part of leadership, organization, and safety. At least she’s stylish.

Edna Mode shouting 'Pull it together!'