New year…new decade…welcome, 2021.
To say we have looked forward to your arrival may be the understatement of my professional life. After the disruptions of COVID-19, in particular, the strong desire is to jump out of the gates of a new business year and set the pace for success. And yet, the track is filled with hurdles: continued restrictions, slowed expectations of vaccines, political – and so governmental – uncertainties, here and around the world. As a result, setting expectations for ourselves and our organizations will need to include room for continued improvisation and adaptability.
The closest experience I can recall were the months following September 11, 2001, when all commerce, all communications and all planning took a long, quiet pause. David Letterman was the first late-night host to go back on the air, a week after the tragedy, and the entire show was a discussion about whether it was appropriate to be there yet. To be honest, it took much of the marketplace almost a year to find footing again: when was it okay to advertise with humor again? How long before promotion of mere products and services seemed in good taste? We had been hit, hard, by forces we really did not understand, and there was both fear and a commitment to respect those lost that shaped the timing and nature of the return to ‘normal.’
The biggest difference between that time and now: leadership, I am sad to observe. Whatever President George W. Bush’s deficiencies as POTUS might have been, he brought compassion, empathy and pride in his fellow Americans during that post-tragedy period. Ironically, then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was another leader we felt lucky to have in our midst. When they smiled again, we understood that we could begin to do the same, even as we also knew that dramatic steps were being taken to hold others accountable for what had occurred. Quite simply, we felt led, and appreciated it more than most of us could have articulated at the time.
In our present circumstance, we have people in positions of authority at cross purposes with each other: private business leaders suing public officials, public officials disagreeing with each other, decisions being made that put too many of our family members and friends on the front lines of another scary fight without the tools or the rewards they deserve. There are certainly some great examples of leadership in the midst of this, here and in other places around the globe. But no one yet pulling us all together into an affirmation that we are, in fact, all in this together. And for most of us in positions of leadership for our companies and our communities, there is the heavy weight of knowing that we need to keep moving forward, preparing for progress and desperately wanting to ensure our competitiveness. We want to take responsibility but must do so in a time of continuing interdependence that restricts the normal instincts about gaining advantage.
But the key, I believe, is to start moving. Cautious steps, perhaps, but steps forward. And getting our teams moving, re-establishing familiarity with fresh starts, with change and newness. We are not going back to a definition of normal that any of us would recognize, so fight the instinct to look back. Lots of good work and good opportunities ahead, so let’s be ready for that. Happy New Year and God’s Speed.