3 Leadership Lessons from 2020

This post will be the last Saturday Spark of 2020. And what a week to end on. Doctors and nurses danced on the sidewalks while getting the first dose of the vaccine. The Electoral College proved democracy can prevail over unprecedented assaults. And, tragically, we surpassed 300,000 deaths in the US from COVID. Hospitals are full and many communities are returning to full shutdowns.

If you are a leader of anything—a business, a school, a team, a household—my hypothesis is that if you wrote down how you are feeling one of the words would be tired. Probably another is proud. If your organization is still functioning (even in a before unimaginable way) you have navigated your people through incredibly choppy waters just to get here. We aren’t out of them yet, but there does seem to be a lot more light radiating at the end of the tunnel.

We have all learned a lot this year about our planet, our country, our community, and ourselves. As I reflect on the most important lessons I have learned over the course of 2020, three rise to the top.

Lesson 1: Creative Adaptability is a Critical Leadership Competency

Very few people imagined they would lead through a global pandemic. Yet, the pandemic is emblematic of many extraordinary disruptions we will experience in the future driven by globalization, climate issues, and technology innovation. When I think about the leaders whose companies are surviving, creative adaptability is key.

High on my admiration list is Tim Rowe from the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC). In normal times, he runs coworking spaces for innovative companies. He’s WeSpire’s landlord. As you can imagine, now is not a great time to be in the flexible, month-month lease office space business for digitally-oriented companies. What is the CIC doing? CIC-Health is now one of this region’s largest providers of COVID-testing. Their mantra is fast, easy, and accessible with appointments and 24-hour results, all at a reasonable price point. They enable safer visits with friends and family, kids to be in school, and researchers to be in labs. His story about how he stumbled into this opportunity while trying to get people back into his own buildings is a great example of creative adaptability and stellar execution.

Lesson 2: Civic Engagement and Well-Functioning Government is a Business Imperative

For a few weeks in March, we got a reminder of how bipartisan collaboration can work and how critical it is in a time of crisis. While it wasn’t perfect, the initial stimulus response—from enhanced unemployment to PPP and EIDL loans—was vital to WeSpire and to many, many other people and organizations. Astonishingly, the financial wellbeing of Americans rose in the immediate period following. It is now much clearer who the pandemic continues to inflict economic pain on. Way too many are suffering due the inability of our federal government to function. As Devra First so poignantly wrote this week, “Restaurants aren’t failing. They are being failed.” Business leaders need to speak up, loudly, to ensure the entire economy doesn’t tip over before we can get everyone vaccinated.

Democracy is the best climate for business and this year we watched democracy tested as it never has been. I was proud we gave WeSpire the day off to vote. Watching local election officials and workers withstand various assaults on the post-election process has profoundly deepened my appreciation for their work. But the most important experience I had as a leader were the three weeks volunteering for the Biden-Harris digital correspondence team. I spent nights, weekends, and 10+ hours on election day answering emails from all ends of the political spectrum and chatting with undecided voters in swing states through Facebook messenger. I learned a ton about how Americans are feeling. It reinforced how big the bubble I live in is. I recommend that every leader find a way to be more personally involved in the democratic process, locally or nationally.

Lesson 3: Leaders Must Be Actively Anti-Racist

Everyone needs to better understand what it means to be actively anti-racist. Particularly those of us privileged enough to lead others. Allyship, while critical, isn’t enough. The analogy is a moving walkway in an airport, with racism and inequality on one end and racial justice and equality on the other. Racists move faster than the walkway toward the inequality end. If you are a “non-racist,” simply standing still moves you closer to racism. It’s only when we actively move against the prevailing system that we get closer to equality. I found this chart to be a particularly helpful lense to understand the  leader behaviors needed to be actively anti-racist.

Like you, I have a tremendous amount to be grateful for amidst this unimaginable year. While I never want to go through another one like it, ultimately, I am a stronger, better leader ready to face whatever the future holds.

Quote of the Week: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

Frederich Nietzsche

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