President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that all adults will be vaccine eligible by May 1, along with the Centers for Disease Controls’s change in spacing requirements in schools are good news for millions of working parents.
After the holding pattern of a year spent mostly at home, many families who are working remotely can finally contemplate a post-COVID future and how to rediscover “normal” life. But the question arises if that return will involve regrets of not doing enough for children, parents, partners, colleagues, neighbors, or community during these long months of remote living.
The answer is likely no. Many express an increasing urgency to not go back to the old normal. These pandemic and economic crises offer an opportunity for self-reinvention and change. So perhaps it is better to plan now as if it is 2022.
Soon after the start of the pandemic in 2020, and ensuing global lockdowns, as CEO of a company with a globally dispersed team, I started writing email letters to staff every week. My goal was simply to share something positive and encouraging every week, in a personal way.
Out of 1,400 employees in eight countries, the letter goes to about 130 English-speaking colleagues at Vitas Group, a social enterprise that makes loans to small business owners predominantly in the Middle East.
The recent one-year anniversary in March since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic marked my 44th letter to staff in a year of sharing thoughts on the human capacity for resilience, courage, humor, and leadership. Here are five learnings for leaders in a post-COVID world:
Become an everyday leader. Living through a massive period of change due to unavoidable, natural and human-made disaster calls for strong leadership at all levels. You don’t have to be a world leader, CEO, or grassroots mobilizer to wake up every morning and show the courage to take on change. In nearly every country, the real leaders have been everyday people: Healthcare workers, grocers, drivers, teachers, citizens and volunteers young and old, members of local churches and mosques, school PTAs, and community groups. Everyday leaders lead by their everyday actions such as the volunteers who turned out en masse in Lebanon last August after the Beirut blast, and recently neighbors in Texas.
Redesign the table. Tracy Gray, founder and managing partner of The 22 Fund, one of the first venture capital funds dedicated to investing in women- and minority-owned businesses, invited participants at the GenderSmart Investing Summit to sit at her table. She relayed that she has been trying to make a place at the table for years, but finally realized that in her industry, there needs to be a new table. This resonates with the words of Dame Graca Machel, advocate for women and children’s rights and the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel and South African president Nelson Mandela, who said, “Women must redesign the table, and not just expect to be at the table.” Leaders in every industry along with policy makers and government need to be accountable for redesigning the tables and producing enough for everyone to comfortably sit.
Dare to dream. During a pause from working at home last May, I found my eight-year-old daughter curiously holed up in a room with her stuffed animals around her, a TV remote control to her ear like a phone, and a Sharpie marker in her hand vigorously writing something. She said matter-of-factly, “I am playing President of the United States.” This was before Kamala Harris was even on the Joe Biden Democratic ticket. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018 and the first elected female head of state in Africa, said, “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” Mark W. Johnson and Josh Sukewicz, authors of Lead from the Future in a recent Harvard Business Review article, write: “Vision is especially urgent during a crisis as global and systematic as this one. Leaders must put in the time to create their vision for a better post-COVID future and guide people to it.
Value kindness. After endless Zoom calls for a full year, there is a premium on real and genuine conversation as well as simple kindness. Working parents have precious little time or patience for small talk or office politics when work-life balance has been completely shattered– particularly for working mothers who have borne the brunt of household and childcare duties. The question, “How are you doing?” at the start of a call merits a real answer and a real reaction. A post-COVID future demands that leaders run an efficient meeting, be attuned to how people are really doing, and respect their time.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness,” begins, “Before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment.” An Arab-American author, poet and professor of creative writing at Texas State University, Nye recounts the story behind the poem and describes the gift of writing in a recording on Becoming Wise. “One of the things I say to all ages is write things down. By writing even a few sentences, you give it a sense of mood, a shape on the page to be able to step back and look at it.” Writing is “an act that helps you, preserves you, energizes you in the very doing of it.” Small acts of kindness, like writing, energize people in the very doing of it.
Reinvent normal. A favorite bedtime story picture book for many children, including my own, is After the Fall by Dan Santat. It is a clever retake on Humpty Dumpty, the classic nursery rhyme that is the ultimate story of reinvention. In Santat’s story, Humpty doesn’t want to be remembered as the broken egg. So after he recovers from his injuries in the hospital, he works very hard to get over the trauma — his fear of heights, that highest wall he used to sit on and lovingly admire the birds over his head. He is an avid birdwatcher but he cannot even get up on his bunk bed now. He avoids steps and ladders of all kinds for weeks, months. One day he musters the courage to climb and goes all the way to the top, then breaks again. But this time he cracks open into a beautiful bird and takes flight. Humpty was not what we thought at all. He was a bird’s egg.
Yes, it is extremely optimistic. But there is no going back. Perhaps in the collective story of reinvention after COVID, this generation of leaders can be like Humpty and have the chance to rewrite the future. History can then judge those who look back on what they have done redesigning, daring, dreaming and reinventing with courage, resilience and everyday leadership.