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Leadership Lessons for 2021

Updated: Jan 28




2021 is certainly off to an eventful start. In just 24 hours from January 6 – January 7, 2021, the state of our democracy changed. On the morning of January 6, 2021, the state of Georgia's Run-Off election results were announced, securing a Democratic majority in the house and senate for the next two years. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, refused to accept the election results or a peaceful transfer of power for the first time in our nation's history. He incited a large group of his supporters to stage an insurrection, and they attacked the U.S. Capital that afternoon. Despite the violent uprising, The U.S. Congress reconvened over-night and certified the election of President-Elect Joe Biden. The following morning, the House of Representatives leader, Nancy Pelosi, called for an invocation of the 25th amendment declaring Trump unfit for office. President-Elect Biden announced the new heads of the justice system. Nancy Pelosi called for an investigation of the Capital police department and for the Head to resign, which he did by the evening of January 7. In the meantime, Covid-19 pandemic cases continue to rise to another record-breaking amount.


My thoughts have been preoccupied with these events and the words and actions of our leaders that have followed. I have heard inspiring speeches that give me hope and blatant lies disguised as rhetoric. I have seen courageous acts of leadership and deplorable acts of cowardice. I have witnessed a clear difference in how unarmed, peaceful protestors for social justice and liberal values are treated in this country compared to how armed, conservative protestors demanding their personal preferences over fundamental human rights for all are treated. It is a lot to process and make meaning from.


These are the questions I am pondering:

  • How are we going to come together again as a nation?

  • How will our society change now that we've lost our sense of security in every aspect of our lives, from predictable routines, health and safety financial security, and democracy?

  • How can our leaders restore our trust in them?

  • How have we strayed so far from empathy and compassion?

  • What has happened to our fundamental understanding of truth?

I wish I could say I have answers to these questions, but I do not. Collectively, we will forge a new path. I hope that it be an intentionally better path. To do that, I believe we have to improve leadership across this country to succeed.


Everyone in our society needs to examine what power and responsibility we give to others and what we are accountable for ourselves. We need to think carefully about whom we give power and responsibility to, why we give it to them, and how we hold them accountable for their actions. Not just our national leaders, but our local leaders, corporate leaders, supervisors, colleagues, and even family members. We also have to take ownership and responsibility for our own actions and lead with courage and empathy.


These are the Leadership lessons I keep coming back to you as I process these unprecedented times.


Lesson #1 - Having authority does not mean you are a leader.

Leaders unite people with shared values and inspire them to work together to achieve a common goal. They encourage them to be their best and help them when they struggle or falter. Being given a formal title or elected to public office does not automatically make you influential. It does not give you a strong set of principles or the strength of character to maximize others' potential. If you are dividing people instead of uniting them, if your goal is selfish instead of for the common good, or if your actions and decisions make people's lives harder instead of better, then you are not a leader.


Lesson # 2 – Actions speak louder than words.

It is not enough to take someone at their word. You have to take the time to get to know people. Observe their behavior. What drives them? What are their values? What do they spend their time and money on? What policies do they vote for? Whom do they admire? What do they do and say when no one else is looking? That is the true test of character. This lesson must then be coupled with Maya Angelou's great advice, when someone shows you who they are, believe them.


Lesson # 3 Leaders lead by example, whether they intend to or not.

Building on lesson # 2, once you are a leader, everything you do influences your followers. The words you say, the clothes you wear, the beliefs you share, the answers you give, the strategies you propose, and how you treat people. All of that is observed, internalized, and repeated. That does not mean you have to be perfect or infallible. It's often more impactful, to be honest, and vulnerable. But it does mean that you cannot claim to be a leader without taking responsibility for the actions of those you lead.

Leading with courage means being true to your values and principles, being honest and authentic, listening to the needs and opinions of the people you lead, and proving yourself trustworthy by keeping your word and following through on commitments. Anyone who ever raised a child knows that do as I say, not as I do, does not work. Children hold a mirror up to us with their behaviors at the most inconvenient times. Likewise, insurrectionists violently attacking the U.S. Congress shines a spotlight on their Commander.


Lesson # 4 – Leaders take responsibility

True leaders take responsibility for the successes and failures of their team. They don't revel in the glory alone. They express gratitude and recognition for the help and support that enabled their success. They don't blame others if mistakes are made or if they don't like the consequences of their decisions. They acknowledge when they were wrong and make an effort to change their course without letting their ego get in the way.


Lesson # 5 - You have to manage up.

Leaders are not saviors. They are not miracle workers. They cannot change things alone. They influence change, but the followers are the ones who do the real work of transformation. Likewise, leaders have a limited perspective. They need our help to understand the full scope of our strengths and challenges. They need input to have a clear picture of the whole system or landscape they are operating within. Therefore, it is our responsibility to tell them. We have to advocate for ourselves, bring attention to the problems we see, and offer possible solutions. We need to do this at work, in our communities, and with our elected officials.


It's always been my nature to want to solve a problem when I one. Even when the problem is with my team or organization leader, it is not in my nature to see a problem and assume someone else will fix it. Ignoring a problem or leaving it for someone else to solve is directly contributing to it. In my professional experience, when I've seen lousy leadership's negative impact, I've taken an active role in changing. I have rallied grassroots support for change, written letters and emails to leadership, and even formally proposed changes via committees. Isn't that what Americans believe? That when we come together, we can defeat our oppressors? Lousy leaders are not going to fix themselves or their problems alone. We have to help them.


We also have to be leaders ourselves. Just like having authority doesn't make you a leader, you don't have to have a title or office to lead. Organizational Development Expert Peter Block writes in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, "The social fabric of community is shaped by the idea that only when we are connected and care for the well-being of the whole is a civil and democratic society created." What could our society look like if we all strived to make life easier and better for one another, not just ourselves? If we all assumed responsibility for our communities and didn't rely on strangers to solve the problems for us? If we led by example and took responsibility for our actions instead of blaming others. If we held our most influential leaders to the highest character standards and held them accountable for their words and actions? What will become of our society if we do not?



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