To What Leadership Opportunities Are We Awakening?

June 2020

To What Leadership Opportunities Are We Awakening?

The pandemic news is tough; it’s relentless, emotionally exhausting, and carries more information and questions and implications than our brains can comprehend.  Anxiety is a natural response to such extreme incoherence and unpredictability (I recommend this excellent article about strategies for “Leading Through Anxiety”), as is sadness, even if you have not been sick or suffered losses of loved ones from the virus.  When it comes to handling the overwhelming big picture, my practice is to gently redirect attention away from everything I cannot do and toward the advice to “lift where you stand.”

One of the places where I “stand” is with those among us who are awakening to exactly how unwell our collective global life had become prior to the pandemic.  We are opening our eyes to how profoundly we’ve been sleepwalking through harms caused by fear-based zero-sum constructs – economic, racial, educational, etc. – that were invented in bygone eras to perpetuate illusions of control.  Covid-19’s disruption has suddenly delivered us to the edge of a precipice at which the breathtaking emptiness of our profit-centric systems is revealed.  What life-centric possibilities can we see from this shocking vantage point, from which there is no retreating?  If we were to take the courageous leap to abundance-based systems, what could life be like on our planet in 5, 20, or 50 years?

Who Actually Approaches the Pandemic This Way?

The psychologist and developmental theorist Robert Kegan sees the transformative potentials of the pandemic for humanity, and I stand with his belief that “[w]e were a sick world before the virus.  The systems we have created – which in many ways have been an enormous advance in human evolutionthose systems are clearly not able to solve our current problems.  The virus has the potential to show us even more deeply that we are first of all members of one single vulnerable species on one single fragile planet.  The more that we come to experience that, the bigger is the transformative potential – that these systems, valuable though they may be, are just constructions.”  While this transformation, if it happens, will take generations, it’s already underway in some pockets now.  Check out the Hawaii legislature’s economic recovery plan, which is seizing the opportunities of the pandemic to build a new system based on upgraded (i.e. more pragmatic, equitable and life-promoting) assumptions.

I also stand with David Cooperrider, founder of the Appreciative Inquiry theory of positive organizational development.  He, too, sees the transformative potentials of transcending the pandemic’s polarities by applying Appreciative Inquiry in a Broken World: “It’s in times of disruption that the best in human systems can burst forth…Values can be lived, come alive, instead of merely espoused. Moreover, while it may seem a luxury to talk about enterprise improvement, betterment, innovation, and positive organization development during a major dislodgment like this, that’s exactly what leaders need to do…[F]or the long-term, we know this from years of research: corporate cultures are almost totally tested and forged in the crucible of crises, during the most challenging times of external adaptation and internal integration.”  At the preceding link, Cooperrider offers a detailed process for using Appreciative Inquiry to design your own organization’s Covid-19 response.  For one example, if your organization hasn’t yet done so, it could act on the business case, the leadership case and – most importantly – the moral imperative to transform into an enterprise where people of color and women flourish.  The organization could start by making concerted efforts to support employees of color in the pandemic, studying – or revisiting – the issue of implicit (unconscious) bias in the workplace, adapting its diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts to the current crisis and implementing the latest DE&I recommendations from studies such as What Works.

Aligning Yourself as a Leader

In his expansive piece in Yes! magazine, “The Light at the End,” Nafeez Ahmed observes: “Within just a few weeks – faster than the blink of an eye in geological time – a tiny, microscopic entity brought the global monolith of human civilization, the captains of industry, the might of the world’s militaries, the financial juggernauts of money and manufacturing, to their knees….You and I are now faced with a pivotal life choice for what comes next, what we devote ourselves to, where our alignments lie, what our real commitments are. This choice will make history.”  As Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen says, “I want future generations to look back on us and say, ‘Look how hard they tried,’ not ‘Look at how blind they were.’”

To what or whom are you choosing to align yourself as a leader?  What is one small step you could take today to demonstrate that commitment? 

Recommended Resources 

Sources of inspiration to encourage your next steps might be:

  • Rest and renewal. As we come to terms with the chronic reality of Covid-19 and the long slog that lies ahead of us in “the new abnormal,” we must counter-balance the intensity of the past few months – especially for leaders who have been working from home with kids! – by taking some time off.  It’s OK, and in fact necessary to our health and effectiveness, to have fun.  Summer in the northern hemisphere is the perfect time to take breaks from the pandemic by riding bikes, picnicking, making outdoor art, camping, going to drive-in movies and all other activities that allow us to play together, safely apart, lifting spirits.
  • “The Other Side of the Pandemic,” an interview of angel Kyodo williams, Zen priest and co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation, on Dan Harris’s “10% Happier” podcast.
  • Note: As I finish drafting this blog post, George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police has sparked protests across the U.S., making wisdom like williams’ even more urgent for this moment of transformative potential. To what are we awakening, because we are willing to risk ourselves in the awakening; in other words, to be the awakening?  As Krista Tippett writes for On Being, from Minneapolis: “[O]ur hearts are broken by what has happened in recent days — the killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and the protests and riots that followed here and across the country. This has all compounded the loss, danger, and grief of these months of pandemic. But it has erupted, more deeply, out of generation upon generation of how we have lived ‘race.’ Race is a dehumanizing construct, an invention of white people in modernity; I recommend this excellent podcast episode by our friends at Scene on Radio to understand its origins. Its endless terrible consequences have distorted our bodies, souls, and societies.”  For those of us who are white and want to take action, here is just one article about how to “lift where you stand” on racial justice.  A superb article on meaningful actions that can be taken immediately by American business organizations is here.
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2 Responses to To What Leadership Opportunities Are We Awakening?

  1. cecilebetit says:

    Thank you Susan for being a beacon. To leaven your message here just a bit, I shared your blog with FB, Twitter and LinkedIn with the following introduction. “As we move into and through our days of unrest from the pandemic and protests, there are members of our community who are reminding us that the way forward needs to be prepared as it has been through the centuries with reflection and concern for well being using the very best and highest qualities we humans can bring into today. Read Susan Palmer here, reflect and act.”

  2. Pingback: Leadership Library Review — “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation” by John Lewis | Susan Palmer Consulting, LLC

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