Here’s the great irony. Leaders are often wary of change because they fear resistance from their followers, the time it will take to adapt to the new change, and the fallout of a dip in productivity during the shift to a new state. But what we have re-learned lately is how easy it is for leaders to influence the masses for good or for ill.
Are you wearing a mask as you go out in public? Why or why not? If you say yes, it is likely because you trust the leaders who are advising you about the rationale for doing so and by the modeling they are providing. If you are not, it is likely because you trust the leaders advising that not wearing a mask is a mark of your personal freedom, are modeling not wearing one, and are even advocating that it may be a mark of weakness or a harbinger of infringement on personal freedoms to do so.
How did we come to this? After all, the science around mask wearing is clear. The countries that are successfully fighting the current pandemic are doing so, and common sense would suggest that the use of masks and social distancing are relatively easy fixes to stay safe. The mask, after all, is neutral, but leadership influence is not.
Where we do seem to agree, is that seeking that elusive concept of herd immunity against Covid 19 to end our seclusion, restart our economy and return to some semblance of normality is a good idea. Whether through a vaccine or otherwise, we want our lives back. But I worry that in the process another kind of herd immunity has taken place. One that has inoculated a good percentage of the population against the truth. When a message is repeated often and loudly by a leader whom we follow, it’s not truth that matters, it’s the influence of the leader that does. Most importantly, we follow what leaders do, even more than what they say.
So, to be clear, the irony is this — leadership influence is much easier and more powerful than we suspect. It appears we can be led right off the cliff, like the lemmings into the sea. We can also be led to great heights of productivity and generosity. I’m sure historians would be laughing about now asking wryly, haven’t you been paying attention to mankind’s relationship with leaders? Didn’t you take notice of Attila the Hun, Hitler, and Henry the VIII on the one hand, or Moses, Gandhi and Joan of Arc on the other? It has always been true that leaders can’t exist without followers and during times of crisis there is an even greater longing for strong leadership. We all want someone to assuage our fears, help us feel safe and give us back some semblance of control and stability. Toxic leaders know how to exploit such needs, and yet, to thicken the irony, more positive and less self-serving leaders are less likely to advance their leadership quite as strongly, desiring to take great care with such power. It is also true that devolution to baser ways of thinking and doing marks paths of lesser resistance. It’s always easier to default to worst case scenario thinking and reptilian reactive responses. It is indeed more difficult to practice the discipline of optimism, hope and positivity. We need leaders to help us want to do this kind of work.
So, hear this. As a leader, you hold in your hand the capacity to tear down, destroy, and defeat. You also hold the capacity to uplift, empower, and envision a fairer, safer, and more just future for those you lead. If you are the latter type of leader, think carefully about your influence. Now is not the time to be reticent. Now is the time to lead.
At the start of our On The Table discussion about Leading Across Generations, I had to smile. Appearing on my Zoom room screen were my fellow panelists, all of whom were younger, more ethnically diverse, and considerably more hip than me. It was apparent that I was invited to represent a generation that was more . . . seasoned. And so, in order not to get defensive about my status as an elder, I amused myself by thinking up euphemistic monikers for my advanced state of being. I also wondered if I could quickly call my daughter for a youth enhancing screen filter. It was a delusional start, but it kept me from turning off my camera.
Fortunately, the moderator helped us all feel welcome, and I was able to mostly listen and learn. My fellow panelists, representing Gen Zers to Xers, were clear about their leadership lenses. They urged us all to “unleash opportunities” for younger generations by putting them in leadership roles, build networks of influence across generations, and lean into mentoring in ways that break down barriers and build up pathways for new ways of thinking at the helm. For my part, I thought it important to note that the way people learn is often different across the generations, and that positional power does not equate to meaningful leadership influence. I also have learned that the most impactful leaders are the ones who align their actions with their core values, and who ultimately realize they have to feel empowered themselves in order to effectively empower others.
My fellow panelists urged that we all start practicing what we were preaching by engaging in intergenerational discussions about leadership, and to each use our own influence by being more inclusive and action oriented. Since our discussion, I’ve taken their guidance to heart by being more conscious about mentoring younger colleagues, and by intentionally identifying and referring younger professionals, particularly leaders of color, to serve on organizational boards of directors.
There’s no doubt we all deserve a seat at the leadership table and that we need to be vigilant about creating opportunities for leaders from all generations to be successful. Personally, I’m hopeful that people will not stereotype what I may appear to be on the exterior. But for backup, I’m going to text my daughter about that filter… calling her would be so passé.
This reflection piece was written for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service following an “On the Table” panel discussion hosted by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.
We have all been under some version of a Stay Safe at Home order for the last couple of months. While this has certainly become a common phrase in the lexicon, what does it really mean for us humans, in our role as a family member, citizen? On the surface, of course, it means to shelter in place as much as possible and employ the physical precautions that we have learned to practice. Even now as our country begins to open up, we know that the safest place is still at home. My grandson even made me a reminder! (Featured Photo: The Rock that Rocco made)
But as usual, what’s below the surface holds more meaning and the potential for more opportunity. I’ve been thinking about each of the words in this now ubiquitous phrase and wonder what others think about them as well. As you read what follows, I hope you will consider your own perspectives about these words and their significance in your life.
In the past we have used this word a great deal in the English language within idioms
Here to stay
Stay the course
And we have even pejoratively labeled homebodies as “stay at homes.” I guess we all are now!
But what about the power of stay? Might there be strength in the ability to stay steady, stay strong, and stay present? In the pre-Covid 19 world it’s fair to say that there wasn’t much staying going on. Rather, there was a great deal of rushing to and fro, pushing through discomfort and a general acceptance of forging ahead to get ahead We seemed to be always on our way to somewhere else, some other pressing appointment or task that had to be completed right away. Very infrequently did we take time to stop, or if we did the guilt crept in because somehow we weren’t progressing, doing what we “should” to keep up and keep moving ever onward. I used to relish the rare occurrence of a canceled appointment, giving me a very welcomed hole in my schedule to take a bit of a break, and allowing myself the luxury of pausing to find my bearings.
And so I wonder, might our current context be an opportunity to stop, breathe, think, and stay quiet for the possibility of hearing something you haven’t heard before, seeing something you haven’t seen before, feeling something you dared not feel before? Personally, I have appreciated this new place of peace and contentment, and I have noticed an urge for creativity within my new brain space, and a desire to serve my extended personal and professional family in new and unexpected ways.
Surely, be “safe” in today’s world includes washing your hands, staying at a healthy physical distance from others, and being generally vigilant about where you go and what you do. I don’t know about you, but this can easily lead to a bit of paranoia, wondering if the virus is lurking around every corner. These safety steps can feel exhausting and severely test our patience, yet we need to take the recommended precautions not only for our sake but the sake of those around us with vulnerabilities, both seen and unseen.
But what other kinds of safety can we more purposefully employ now that we have the opportunity to do so? Beyond physical safety, and perhaps as important is our psychological wellness. What are we doing now that can strengthen our resilience for the unknown future? I have long found in my own research and the research of others that adversity, such as we are experiencing, can build strength and a greater sense of efficacy — a feeling of “I can do this and I will do this.” Fortunately, taking the time and making the space for resilience can be found in simple thoughts, kind words and generous deeds, and in the choices we make every day to do better, be better, and as a result, feel better.
Additionally, safe at a distance doesn’t mean we have to be distant from others. What a boon it is to virtually and intentionally connect with old friends, nurture current friendships and connect to family members in new and deeper ways. I find myself grateful for all of these deepened relationships — which in turn add to my resilience, optimism and overall sense of emotional health.
My daughters’ home as drawn by one of her fifth-grade students.
There is that well worn saying, “Home is where the heart is.” And while we may be physically cloistered during this virus, we can certainly experience a more full-hearted sense of home that brings peace and serenity for our deepest spiritual well-being.
The nonphysical home is the one you will find in your center, your inner core. It is where your most highly prized values live; it is the engine that drives your authenticity; it is where you are most vulnerable; and, it is the source of your courage and commitment. Not only am I enjoying my physical home by using it in new and creative ways, and exploring my neighborhood on more adventurous walks, but I am also taking a deep dive into my spiritual home.
The questions I am focused on now include: What am I most committed to right now, and what is my essential purpose right now? How can I make the most of the gift of reflection about myself and my place in the world? For me the answer resides in being there for the ones I love, for the ones I work with, for the ones I have the opportunity to serve who are struggling during this time. What feeds my soul now is my ability to “be good to others” through listening, cooking, delivering meals, sharing positive sources of information, being flexible with deadlines, and generally giving people a break of some small sort to make their day just a bit better.
What new meaning of home, and of life. is being revealed for you?
So now, when you hear Stay Safe at Home, I hope you will pause a little, smile a bit, and think about the possibilities that are right here, right now. Perhaps you’ll find yourself, like me, discovering what it means to Stay Safe at Home through new lenses. Maybe this time in our lives can help us all to think less about what our next move should be, and more about what our current state can be. The opportunities seemingly abound, if we can just find the way to open the door and let them in.
What’s on your mind and in your heart as you Stay Safe at Home?
At the end of a painful week of difficult pandemic related decision-making in her position as Vice President for Community Relations at Goodwill Industries of Southeast Wisconsin, my colleague, Angela Adams, asked me a compelling question. She wanted to know, “How do we show up now?”
Angela was concerned about how her organization would now show up with the people and places it had served for so long. She wondered how social distancing would impact all of the community engagement activities that Goodwill employees volunteered for each day, and how the larger social impact of her agency could be sustained. Angela was also acutely aware that her organization, like all nonprofits and businesses, needed to focus on financial sustainability in order to fulfill its purpose. In other words, if there was no margin, there would be no mission.
The ability to “show up” can take on many different meanings. Currently, as COVID-19 clouds our thoughts, one could understandably ponder new ways we all might need to be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually engaged. Showing up often speaks to how we go about being present with others, and how we try to bring our full selves into the spaces and relationships where we live and work. Given our current context, how can we be present while being distant?
A really good question, like the one Angela asked, ordinarily doesn’t have easy answers. You have to think harder, pay attention in new ways, and then start making sense of your path forward. Fortunately, wise and even inspirational responses are usually easier to find when you’re looking for them. And so, I went looking for examples of how people are showing up personally and professionally. I wanted to know not only about what people were doing, but how they were being. What I found was the beginning of a “How To” guide of what to do and how to be now, and perhaps always.
Show Up by Being
Here’s the start of a “How To” Guide about How to Be:
1. Compassionate: A focus on being caring, considerate, and patient never seemed so needed, and in so much abundance. Individuals are buying groceries for elderly neighbors, acquaintances are offering words of support in online group chats, and kids are placing paper hearts in window panes. In organizations, executives are taking pay cuts, health benefits are being extended to furloughed workers, and latitude is being given on loan payments. Being compassionate is a capacity we can all access and expand.
2. Resourceful: Baking bread without yeast, cutting hair at home, and sharing Netflix (legally) with friends are among the ways people are making the most with what they have. Meanwhile, resources like the Paycheck Protection Program and new crisis funds from philanthropic foundations are being made available so that organizations can access support to survive and serve others. In being resourceful, many are learning to depend on themselves in new ways, while also depending on others in ways previously unimagined.
3. Fun-loving: When late night talk show hosts started doing monologues from their basements, it became clear that a smile can help keep us sane. And so it goes, folks are laughing more when grandma puts her face close to the computer to see everyone, and kids are forgiving their dads for telling bad puns. At work, colleagues are smiling when dogs and cats are zooming around in the background, and when team members forget to press mute before bathroom breaks. A little less seriousness, a little more fun, surely yields more joy, less pain.
4. Innovative: Homemade apple cider gummies to help digestion, hands-free door openers, and toilet paper quota controllers have all been newly discovered twists to overcome unforeseen barriers. On a grander scale, making hand sanitizer in breweries, sewing surgical masks instead of dresses, and building ventilators instead of cars all demonstrate why “pivot” is becoming the buzzword of 2020. Innovation is often borne out of solving problems in ways no one imagined, and a reminder about the value of making lemonade out of lemons.
5. Collaborative: As dads vacuum with their daughters, walkers stroll safely apart, and shoppers share an extra pair of gloves to pick up a potato, there’s evidence that there are new ways of collaborating. The same has been true of professionals in the public and private sectors who are forging unexpected partnerships to create new products, and who are practicing open-sourcing with former competitors to address critical needs. Collaboration doesn’t mean you have to sing Kumbaya, but doing things that are mutually beneficial helps everyone grow the pie rather than fight over the pieces.
6. Communicative: It sure is nice to have old friends give a call just to see how you’re braving the storm. Similarly, it seems more grown-up kids are calling their mothers, and more neighbors are sharing a wave, helping us all to feel in touch and in the know, even when both are particularly elusive. On the organizational level, employers are finding new ways of communicating, striving to make work more effective and efficient. Ultimately, the ones really winning the day are doing what’s needed no matter the medium – communicating with authenticity, and building trust instead of fear.
7. Grateful: What a treat to have car horns honk as they drive by for birthdays, to see far-flung families come together virtually, and to have online talent shows featuring abilities rarely unveiled and not quite ready for prime time. People are also more readily and rightfully appreciating healthcare workers, first responders, janitorial professionals, service workers, delivery persons, and others doing the essential work to keep us safe and well. And, businesses are remembering to thank their customers who buy their products, make use of their services, and in so many ways, are their reason for being.
The list above is surely just a start, and admittedly, no compilation of good intentions can cure all the heartbreaking repercussions of a health crisis, or the deep sting of unemployment. Yet still, it seems each of us can create our own lists to embrace the values and actions we hold dear. Perhaps you would include examples of individuals and organizations being generous, being empathetic, or simply being present. Ultimately, as I think Angela would agree, there is really no shortage of solutions about how to show up now. We just need to keep looking for and learning the answers that will enable us to show up, and never give up.