Do we have real leaders ready to meet the challenges of 2020?

What an incredible start to 2020!

Back in early March, the most tumultuous things we all faced were accelerating change and living through a contentious presidential election in a battleground state. Now, the stacked disruptions of pandemic, economic collapse, and pervasive demands for equality turned our whole world upside down. It’s an unprecedented alignment of forces causing tremendous upheaval.

This upheaval creates incredible stress on each one of us, our organizations, and society in general. Leadership has never been more important or more difficult. At a time when our traditional pathways have been blocked and touchstones have been moved, our leaders must guide us through these times by accelerating learning, building consensus, and spurring the imagination necessary to rethink our way forward.

Our ability to come out of this calamity quickly, successfully, and with a new and brighter outlook depends on creating new approaches to complicated situations. My generation has never faced a situation where we need to collectively rethink, reform, or defend our country in any meaningful way. These times require skills, collaboration, and a tenacity we’ve never shown before.

I’m skeptical that we’re willing to do the hard work and invest the extra effort to make the most of our opportunities. Forty years of a “me first” approach erodes our ability to compromise or successfully address big issues. We see it all around us. Six months into the pandemic, we’re already tired of fighting the virus. Our willingness to address our long history of racism seems to be limited to protests and divisive rhetoric. Even our deteriorating infrastructure fails to motivate meaningful action. Our discussions and timid actions break down long before we reach consensus around effective solutions.

Maybe we just aren’t up to the challenge anymore. We seem to be unwilling — and increasingly becoming unable — to solve complex problems across multiple disciplines. More of us feel a need to be right and win, rather than seek truth, learn, and foster the trust necessary to forge meaningful advances in a difficult time. That takes time, effort, flexibility, and a willingness to have tough conversations. It’s been a long time since this was possible in any meaningful way to effect national change.

Still, we must rally to meet this moment. We are at a juncture where we can take a giant step forward toward what’s right in the arenas of the coronavirus, diversity and inclusion, and social justice, while building a better economic future for our country. Our interdependence becomes clearer with every infection flare-up, peaceful protest, recovering business, and struggling community of affected people.

I must believe the majority of people in our country are citizens of good will and big hearts. Many of us who thought we understood the situation came face to face with our own misconceptions, misunderstandings, and — dare I say it — our own racism. Pushing discussions forward on diversity and inclusion in my business interactions over the past two months led to ongoing, small steps that will foster sustained and meaningful change.

As leaders, we need to do more, making sure the same informal opportunities we enjoy as white males are available to all our citizens. Many of us who scoffed at our white privilege now understand that we never have to worry about having the police called because we napped in our car on a neighborhood street or put face-down on the pavement with my family during a routine traffic stop or any number of the other indignities that happen too often to people of color. It’s time for change.

Our leadership must also include economic progress for everyone, not just those who share our personal economic interests. Our economic success depends on our ability to protect everyone’s safety, include everybody in our march toward progress, and reinvest in our businesses and institutions. The current disruptions create tremendous opportunities to build a brighter future, provided we synthesize integrated solutions rather than relying on quick fixes.

Like most other difficult situations, there are few simple solutions. Extreme positions create incendiary conflict with few constructive actions. The best answers will be found by reasonable people working together to build expanded opportunities for everybody. These actions will balance radical change and the need to maintain a functioning society that works for all of us.

Change will also occur through the thousands of small actions each one of us take to do our part. Providing access to our board rooms; aggressively recruiting, retaining, and promoting employees of color; engaging with efforts to improve our communities; and contributing to causes that promote diversity, inclusion, and social justice.

Lasting progress requires all of us to step forward and do our part. This is our moment. How will we respond?

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