When you are up to your neck in muck and bullets, from where do you draw inspiration?
This question seems more important than ever as we all prepare for a third year of running charity services during the pandemic.
I was recently asked this by a friend who, as it turned out, had some words that I will remember long after the smoke finally clears and we hear birdsong again.
Searching for an answer, I first thought of a wise old business leader – the late Sir John Harvey-Jones, who I once interviewed.
In one of his books he wrote that young people who are embarking on a career in management imagine it will chiefly involve "taking decisions" – clean, simple alternatives that other people would somehow present to them.
The reality, he noted, was that managing and leading involved the much more opaque business of “making things happen”.
This means making our way through the unknown, adapting to setbacks, making best guesses and compromises, all the while organising the finances and galvanising the people that are needed and in short supply.
It neatly sums up coping during the pandemic.
Similarly, I took early inspiration from a play I studied at school. In Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, the realist King Creon, responding to Antigone’s idealist who wants nothing to do with the sullied world, says: “Somebody has to take the helm.”
In other words: it isn’t perfect and you’ll get dirty, but roll up your sleeves and take the lead.
This ancient Greek morality tale fits the murky reality of leading a charity today.
It consists variously (tick any that apply to you) of fluctuating finances, flaky partnerships, exhausted staff, political disinterest and criticism that you spend too much on administration, despite the threat of regulatory action, tribunals or trolling if your standards are poor.
Throw in a pandemic – which speeds everything up, reduces resources and removes everything you thought you knew – and you may lose your bearings at the helm.
Yet, if we stop amid the maelstrom and look around, we can be inspired.
Because in the actions of our colleagues and community, we see courage and compassion everywhere.
When you are surrounded by quiet heroes, you can and will keep going.
Or, as my friend wrote: “It takes strength to willingly step into the sullied world and not lose ourselves. Indeed, it may be the very place where we find ourselves, as we witness courage, strength and grace.”
Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children’s hospice Julia’s House