Last week marked the quadrennial event of the presidential inauguration. As we reflect on this historic year, we can draw on the wisdom of some of our past presidents. A cliché that we often use in business is first attributed to John Adams: "Every problem is an opportunity in disguise." In over 3/4 of a century no year has presented us with more problems than 2020.
As we list the hills to be climbed, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. This is not only the most immediate, pressing problem that we must solve but it has acted as the brightest spotlight, grabbing our attention and calling to center stage other consequential issues. A year spent in a fight with COVID has brought into relief issues of race/inequality, the economy/growing wealth gap and healthcare/our overall general health. It has also, unfortunately, pushed to the background the attention and action needed to address another and potentially more deadly global condition - climate change.
COVID 19 - The US's response to something we knew was coming and at one point was prepared to handle was predictably inept, infuriatingly inadequate and ultimately tragic. The US has lost more lives in 10 months due to COVID 19 than our country lost in the entirety of WW II. And that number grows every day. And that number may be inaccurately low.
Race/Inequality - For over 400 years the United States created, profited from, fought over and has unsuccessfully reconciled its problems with race and inequality. For nearly 250 years, "We The People" has not really meant "all" the people, mostly just the ones with the power and control.
Economy - At this point, due in part but not entirely to COVID, 1/3rd of Americans are having trouble covering their household expenses. Nearly 20% of homes with children do not have enough food.
Wealth Gap - Again, due only in part to what's happened to the economy as a result of COVID, the top 50 wealthiest people in the US have as much wealth as the bottom 165 million. The top 50 richest US citizens have more money than the bottom 50% of US citizens.
Overall Health - The United States spends the most money on healthcare and yet we rank 35th worldwide in terms of our overall health.
Healthcare - The United States spends the most money on healthcare and yet we rank 37th worldwide in terms of our overall quality of healthcare. In 1990, we ranked 6th. In 3 decades, we went from being #6 and spending about $5,000 per person to being #37 and spending over $11,500 per person. (And those are inflation adjusted figures)
Climate Change - The threats we face from climate change are real and potentially dire. However, the biggest threats are apathy to the issues or flat-out denial on a basis of ignorance or an interruption to profits.
Looking at this list, ask ourselves - is there a through line? Let us turn to another former president for some insight. In a commencement address at American University delivered in 1963 John F Kennedy famously said: "Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable." So, how were these problems created and how will they be solved? The answer is the same: Leadership.
A lack of leadership and what we had recently, historically bad leadership, has us facing this confluence of problems. However, examples of good leadership give us hope and we have already seen each of these areas of concern turned into instances of opportunity.
COVID 19 - We have seen almost a full calendar year of healthcare workers and frontline responders literally laying their life on the line trying to heal and protect the rest of us. There are tens of millions of faceless workers, whose jobs are among the most thankless in the best of circumstances, forced to work in unsafe conditions that kept the rest of us fed, our infrastructure humming and utilities operating so that we could continue our work and lives as best possible. And of course, there was the historically fast development of multiple vaccines. This was done through the bold and brilliant collaborations of the scientists and doctors.
Race/Inequality - The word we often see is 'awakening.' This past year has hopefully forced us into some really difficult conversations and not just with friends, family members and colleagues but also with ourselves. Recognizing that these issues exist, and their impact is real is important. Owning up to your own blind spots and biases is important. Contributing constructively to the conversation and acting with purpose to make improvements and progress is important.
Economy - Amidst the hardships, we have seen stories of real triumphant. Many businesses and business leaders have exhibited loads of creativity, adaptability and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. These are traits you need in any business, at any time, but this past year called on it like never before. There is genuine inspiration to be found in those that were fortunate enough to have the chance to display and put that into action.
Wealth Gap - since the beginning of the pandemic America's billionaires have added nearly $1 Trillion dollars of wealth while large portions of the population struggle to make it week to week. Perhaps this more than anything has finally spurred action into addressing this disparity. The phrase 'livable wage' has begun to replace a minimum wage and in many places that minimum wage has been increased significantly.
Overall Health - As we faced a global health crisis many Americans began to really pay attention to their own health. The amount of people with of underlying health conditions and the general poor level of overall health in the US has contributed to the devastating effects of COVID 19. This has forced us to re-examine what we are doing, and not doing, to take care of ourselves. This has also led to actions of better nutrition, more activity and efforts to address our mental wellbeing.
Healthcare - recent polling shows that nearly 2/3rds of US adults are in favor of some kind of single payer or national healthcare plan. This is a complex topic with no obvious right answer. However, what we have now is clearly not working. If you have a system where so many receive their health insurance through their job, what happens when that job goes away due in not fault of their own? The conversation is shifting towards addressing this problem.
Climate Change – This past year has shown us that many things that seemed on a far-off timeline or seemed unlikely are happening now. The same principles can now be applied to addressing climate change. Climate change is happening. As is presently constituted, it is a problem. As we move forward it also presents endless opportunities. It is not just a chance to come up with new ways we live, new ways we work, entire new industries and new ways we run entire economies. Its already happening.
When viewing this list in terms of solving problems and finding opportunities, we ask again - is there a through line? The same qualities that any good leader needs, that all great business leaders have are exhibited throughout. The same qualities that will lead us through our current problems are what great business leaders show and use to lead their teams and businesses.
Addressing the Fear of Failure - Failing is NOT a bad thing. In fact, you will never be successful if you do not fail. You will never achieve all the success you are capable of if you fear failing. When you do fail, learn from it. Take stock of what worked and why. Remember what you may want to try again. Also, take stock of what did not work and why. Remember those, so you do not make the same mistakes again. In a recent episode of the Ted Radio Hour, Stacey Abrams revealed she expects to fail at about 50% of the goals she sets for herself. And she discusses that that the true value is having a process for achieving goals and never letting the fear of not achieving that goal stand in the way of trying. Applying that to 2020, it was very unlikely that a viable vaccine would be achieved in under an 18-24 month timeline. It was ‘impossible’ that its effectiveness would be in the 90% range that we have in both current vaccines. If the scientists and doctors that developed these were too scared to try or afraid of a failed attempt this never would have happened. If, as a business leader, you are afraid to try something new or something bold you will not reach your full potential and your business will not reach its full potential.
Honesty - Words matter. The truth matters. Facts matter. We have learned this lesson all too painfully. There are no alternative facts. We are entitled to our opinions but do not get to have our own facts. When addressing any of the problems we currently face we must be honest with ourselves and each other if we are to solve them. We must be honest about what the problem is and what we are willing to do to address it. In business, telling the truth is a must. If there is a difficult conversation to have with a client, customer or employee just be honest. Tell them the truth with empathy and tact. Do not try to sugarcoat things but do imagine how you would like to receive what it is you are telling them. Treat them respectfully which means being honest and straight forward.
Accountability - Show up. This does not mean just physically showing up. It means be present as well as being a constant presence. Being available in good times, especially in bad times and every other time in between. As a leader, everything is your responsibility. As a business leader, every action your company makes, every single thing your employees do are your actions. Accountability means taking responsibility if anything goes wrong and more importantly, taking the responsibility to ensure it will get fixed. Accountability means leading an effort to devise inclusive, clearly communicated and mutually motivating goals and missions. It means celebrating other’s contributions and achievements. Problems - in business and life – generally get worse and are rarely solved when there is a lack of accountability. Once we hold ourselves accountable, problems are then turned into opportunities. The very best leaders shoulder that burden. In many instances, the very best leaders see their top priority to be responsible for every single thing that happens under their leadership. That does not mean they try do everything or try to micromanage everything. It does mean they set the tone and clearly communicate the goals and effectively help to execute the plans. They foster an environment where everyone is encouraged to be as great as they can be and if someone stumbles, they do not point fingers or hide from those issues.
Reflecting on this historical year and the problems it presented, we will see there are plenty of opportunities that can be had. If great leadership can help to solve these problems and make the most of these opportunities one huge question must be answered: Who will be our leaders?
In her podcast, renown psychology research professor and leadership expert, Brené Brown defines a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for recognizing the potential in people and ideas, and has the courage to develop that potential.” Within that definition is the answer: "anyone."
As we navigate out of the pandemic and return to life as we knew it, economic uncertainty, civil unrest, taking on inequality and the environmental future of the planet we will look for leaders. If we think about problems in a business context, it is the businesses with the best leadership that will turn those problems into opportunities. So, who are these leaders? Anyone. You!
2020 certainly had no shortage of problems and that means there are no shortage of opportunities. Now is your chance to lead. Right now, you can take responsibility to recognize potential in people or an idea. You can recognize the potential in yourself. Whether this means leading within a professional role, leading within your personal life with your family or taking on a proactive leadership role in your own life - YOU CAN LEAD. Whatever that looks like for you, do so without fear. Always seek the truth and seek to speak the truth, especially if it is difficult. And be accountable. Be accountable for all of it. All the bad as well as the good. Model this behavior. Model the actions of a great leader. Lead to identify problems and lead to create endless opportunities.