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Leading in the midst of a global pandemic means people are listening to us. People are looking for what they call real leadership like never before. People are looking for leaders that offer hope, truth, and trust in the midst of the excruciating uncertainty the pandemic has created. These are some of the same things people have been asking of leaders for many years. As the corporate environment grew ever more global with the technological advancements of the early 2000s, our awareness increased on topics such as the rising levels of inequality, corporate financial scandals, widespread environmental destruction, and the renewed need for human connection.
According to the World Health Organization, a pandemic is the “worldwide spread of a new disease.” The WHO is responsible for communicating the emergence of a pandemic and its guidance is applicable to the entire world and provides a global framework to aid countries in pandemic preparedness and response planning.. In late fall 2019, the novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China; it spread to other countries quickly, and was declared the COVID-19 pandemic by WHO on March 12, 2020. Currently, there are no approved treatments or vaccines, and the disease continues to spread and take lives daily.
Our experience of COVID-19 is important for many reasons: personally, and collectively; from a physical health and safety perspective as well as a social-emotional health perspective. This global pandemic has made us aware of the gross disparity between the privileged and the vulnerable. It has exposed the global pursuit of financial success over human well-being, and it continues to confirm corruption in almost part of every government and the corporate environment around the world. As such, the pandemic is informing much about what we as individuals and society expect and require of our leaders, both locally and globally. Personally, one of the most challenging parts of being human in the midst of this COVID-19 is the lack of clear, truthful, coordinated information from global leaders.
Added to the conditions created by the pandemic are the acute circumstances we face with regard to systemic racism in our world. Currently in the U.S., and in places around the world, people are experiencing unprecedented levels of personal pain and collective suffering as a result of the unjust deaths of men and women of color. In a press conference June 4th, 2020, Mayor Stoney of Richmond, Virginia said it perfectly, “we are fighting two deadly diseases in the U.S. – COVID-19 and racism. One disease is 6 months old and the other is 400 years old.” Both require a new kind of national and global leadership. “We have to confront where we’ve been to shape where we’re going” Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam said in the same press conference.
From my perspective, Governor Northam’s words are applicable to the pandemic as much as they are to the problem of racism, and the common denominator is that leaders are being called to take actions that humanize our world. As a result of these factors, leaders are being called to step out and speak out, and most of all, to take decisive action to protect the dignity of every human life. We are being called to take personal responsibility for each other as human beings.
Before expounding on what the pandemic and the renewed call for racial justice means for the future of leadership specifically, let’s take Northam’s advice and look at where we’ve been with regard to leadership. In 1990, Albert King published an article about the evolution of leadership and revealed the evolutionary tree of leadership theory, with “each new era represent[ing] a higher state of development in leadership thought process than the preceding era.” The tree starts with the personality/great man era, evolves through the transformational leadership period of the 1990s, and calls for what he refers to as the Tenth Era, the integrative era of leadership. Other scholars, including Peter Northouse have documented similar timelines that show our understanding of leadership as evolving from a trait-based individualistic concept through a behavior/task efficiency focus into a charismatic and transformational understanding, and presently evolving around the idea of integrated and shared leadership.
I firmly believe that the pandemic and social uprising of 2020 have confirmed the call for a new, more responsible and shared form of leadership that not only allows for all of humanity to be seen, heard, and respected; but also demands it. What this means for the future practice of leadership is that we must be focused on creating a more sustainable way of sharing the earth and living together with purpose.
“After fifteen years of social work education, I was sure of one thing: Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” These are the simple, and yet deeply meaningful words of Dr. Brene Brown. For me, this is the philosophical underpinning upon which I build my leadership practice – as a leader in my home, community, and organizations with which I work. D.H. Lawrence once said, “what the eye doesn’t see and the mind doesn’t know, doesn’t exist” (1959). This is what it means to choose to turn a blind eye to the ugly truths being exposed by COVID-19 and the current racial justice movement. Only when one can look at something and see beyond what the mind knows about the thing it sees, can one discover new things and enhance her understanding. This will be the first step toward creating this better, more equitable, and sustainable world for us all.
Leaders have to be responsive and responsible; they must understand that we are living in a world marked by uncertainty, volatility and deep transformational changes. Many people are living in precarious situations and searching for identity and meaning in a fast-changing world. They want to regain their sense of purpose. More than ever, leadership means taking responsibility. It requires courage and commitment to listen and honestly explain the breadth and complexity of issues, to proactively generate solutions and to take action based on core values.
For leaders, addressing the pandemic and systemic racial injustice start at the same place – seeing people as people; each human life mattering no more and no less than another. When we look into the eyes of another person, and see ourselves reflected back, we will see that together anything is possible. Leadership is not a title or even an action; it is a way of being that lifts, sustains, and renews life for all people.