[My thanks to Elinor D. Bashe, Psy.D., for her contributions]
At the darkest times, we have sought inspiration from sages, philosophers and learned community leaders. Even today, scholars debate who has secured a lasting place among the great thinkers of the ages – the academic “Top Influencer” lists of the centuries. The writings and deeds of Solomon, Thucydides, Plato, Confucius, Aristotle, Maimonides, Aquinas, Locke, Smith and others would certainly have led to significant social media followings.
When we look back at the COVID-19 generation, will any corporate, medical, political, religious or scientific leader stand out among the notable personalities of the day as wise people who illuminated our path? Likely a handful will be remembered for thoughtful guidance that protected life and put businesses on the path to recovery.
Even popular leaders who serve as medical commentators on news programs or those conducting daily press conferences are challenged to offer clear direction. Experts who want to base next steps on data-supported patterns or other nation’s best practices are struggling too. Why?
THE FUTURE IS UNKNOWN
Leaders usually base judgments on a combination of their own prior experience, reams of synthesized data or insights from scenario planning. CEOs often want to see facts and numbers to ground (or justify) their decisions. In the coronavirus environment, hard data continues to evolve and become accessible only after key decisions need to be made. As New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo noted recently, decisions are made based on information we are given about COVID-19, and then new knowledge emerges demanding a change of course. As baseball legend Yogi Berra is credited with prophesying: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
We look to “authoritative voices” to guide us into the future. How do they aggregate information to offer their wise guidance? Do those leaders – in business, government and public health – have enduring facts about this mysterious virus? If they do not, now what? Today’s leaders would be wise to take their cues from the sages of yesteryear who recognized that they were not in control of physical or world events. They used the powers of listening, observation and pattern recognition to arrive at decisions that illuminated dark paths.
This combination of constantly evolving data and fast-moving “unprecedented” experiences make it hard for this generation’s leaders to have any sense by which to guide us. We need to base decisions on the facts available at that moment and avoid being ruled by the fear of being proven wrong. Most importantly, our decisions need to be informed by steadfast dedication to values that include empathy and justice.
VISIONARY OR LUCK?
When leaders make decisions and are proven right, they are hailed as visionaries who grasped something that the rest of us did not see. They often bask in that public admiration. Very few acknowledge that, in part, they also got lucky.
Yet, because we don’t admit that this success may be “preparation meeting opportunity,” we unintentionally accept a paradigm that equates mistakes with incompetence. If we could acknowledge that we took a risk and hadn’t been fully certain of the outcome, we would not feel so foolish when it things did not break our way. Fear of foolishness can inhibit decision-making.
Right now, information about COVID-19 and the future of “opening up” society is unfolding faster than our ability to keep up with it. There is no artificial intelligence data base available to help leaders make wise decisions. Yet, the crisis demands action. So, if we make a bad decision, we then must make another decision.
BEWARE OF IMPULSIVE DECISION MAKING
Art Markman, Ph.D., Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of Human Dimensions of Organizations, suggests something akin to what wise folk of years past drew upon to arrive at a well-regarded decision – slow down! Markman writes in a recent Harvard Business Review article:
“Panic makes people want to act right now to avoid a threat, but most of the actions you are likely to take will not be prudent in the face of a potential pandemic… There are many actions people should take over the next several weeks and months, but the decision to act should be based on deliberation, sober reflection on data, and discussion with experts — not in reaction to a headline or a tweet.”
Markman draws on an assumption that there are data to access and experts who have those “written in stone” facts at hand. Yet, right now, the data that experts offer are evolving constantly.
“Slow it down” isn’t about taking your time to decide. It’s about avoiding impulsivity in a 5G speed world.
Being reflective may suddenly become a wise move at a time when those with power may equate speed with leadership. Wise leaders gather data, listen to suggestions and tap into an inner voice of self-awareness. Once we have synthesized head, heart and gut, we can make far better decisions.
WHO IS WISE?
COVID-19 is forcing us to stop and think! As Metuchen, New Jersey Mayor Jonathan Busch shared recently: “Americans like to plan.” The pandemic is throwing a monkey wrench into the planning engine and requires us to step back and rethink the process. Business and communities will do well post-pandemic to acquire a larger sense of mission. Now, health innovation, the future of education, personal dignity and sustainability are bigger societal priorities. Value will not be only about revenues and gross profit; rather, societal values of compassion and concern.
Following the 2009 great recession, former McKinsey Consulting managing partner Dominic Barton wrote there is no:
“…inherent tension between creating value and serving the interests of employees, suppliers, customers, creditors, communities, and the environment. Indeed, thoughtful advocates of value maximization have always insisted that it is long-term value that has to be maximized.”
We always live in unprecedented times. In the presence of evolving COVID-19 data, we need to slow it down and take a page from the corpus of wise people. Throughout time, wise leaders drew from the power of observation, appreciated human nature and could distinguish between fear and bravado.
We now might ask: “What would Yoda do?” His advice “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” Tomorrow has always been uncertain. What appears new to us is the magnitude and global impact of Covid-19. In the age of information overload and anxiety, we must now rely on the great tool of all – seeking out wise decision makers. They may never have all the needed information at hand; however, their guidance will guard life and look longer-term at a sustainable society.
For millennia we have sought to understand, “Who is wise?” In the ever-popular volume from the First Century, Wisdom of the Sages, one teacher ponders that question: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): ‘From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.’”
The wisest of all were able to be among the people, filter-out the noise and reflect upon timeless truths. Are you that leader?