I will warn you that this column is inspired by some pretty raw and personal feelings – I’ve had an unsettling few days. But I believe my experience is reflective of many others’, so here’s hoping that it reveals learnings for leadership communication that can serve us all.

As we move through the sixth month of this pandemic and approach a national election more consequential than some, most of us are struggling with both fatigue and an increasingly challenging call to action. It is not our nature – as a nation or as civic leaders – to retreat from problems or just hope they will ‘go away.’ That trait of stepping up to do something is a remarkable element of the fabric of our national history and our evolving culture, whether it is volunteering for military service or founding a local nonprofit to meet the needs of neighbors.  That we are presently experiencing so much ‘together, but apart,’ is creating new – and not particularly welcome – aspects of the journey. We are living through a massive social experiment: What happens when ‘personal responsibility’ becomes a national call to action, and it turns out we don’t have common understanding of the term, or universal acceptance of the call? 

My sister-in-law got married two days ago and we were part of a wonderful celebration. Rescheduled from earlier in the pandemic, and both smaller in scale and relocated mostly outdoors, we did everything we could think of to minimize risks (my contribution was customized ‘celebrate’ face masks). Over the next few weeks, we’ll all learn whether we did enough. I hope so but must honestly say I have no idea. We know we can’t party like it’s 1999, but can we party at all?

My friend’s 88-year-old father passed away the same day. Mostly isolated for safety’s sake, this beloved father was luckier than some in terms of being able to see family. But foregone is the opportunity to celebrate his life in the full-honors way his impact on so many should be recognized. My own parents are also 88 years old, living carefully and I can only hope that they continue to do so until we have a vaccine. We can’t say goodbye the way we’d like to, either.

This morning, an even tougher blow: the husband of a friend across the country died suddenly last night. The instinct to drop everything and fly to be there in support must be checked by pandemic realities. We cannot be demonstrably supportive of those in need as we wish, or the way they might most need.

The students and the teachers in my family are all preparing to go back to school – sort of. The irony of all the years’ fights about how to improve educational outcomes and who knows best is that the current crisis has most just wanting some authority figure to declare ‘the right thing to do,’ while knowing that the real answer is no one knows. Ditto for restaurants and other service-sector places with front line employees enabling economic activity.

The activity in the streets triggered by the murder of George Floyd and fueled by the widely expanding acknowledgement of institutional racism baked into our nation, added another plot line to the uniqueness of this time in our history. And to the challenge of coalescing on a consensus definition of ‘personal responsibility.’ For some, the call is to the streets; for others, pandemic realities put a check on the lengths to which we should uphold freedom of expression.

And now we add the challenges of meeting our obligations as citizens: not only must we prepare to vote differently: either by mail or waiting in socially distanced lines with masks and lots of patience; we must also lean into our citizenship to protect…the Post Office?  It is in the Constitution; it is part of the bedrock of our institutional system of connections as a country. We all get mail, magically arriving from distant places, usually remarkably quickly and affordably. It is true we’ve known for a long time that the USPS “business model” was broken, but we’re going to tackle that NOW?

The physical, psychological and emotional exhaustion is increasingly apparent – individually and collectively. How to lead in such times? What messages support the journey to our shared fate? Here are my fundamental guidelines:

  1. Assume good intentions – really. The politicization of everything makes this a challenging notion, but it is essential to finding effective ways to talk to each other and relearn to trust each other.
  2. Acknowledge that we’ve been living on borrowed time with respect to many aspects of our way of life – the Postal Service dilemma is just one good example. We’ve known our health care access was inequitable, we’ve squeezed funding for education for a couple decades; we’ve allowed underfunding of pension funds and infrastructure, too. Affixing ‘blame’ to our current misery is over-simplifying how we got here, and not really very helpful to finding our way out.
  3. Focus quality thinking on both ‘what’ you have responsibility for, and “who” you have responsibility to. High probability is that the answers will complicate your sense of righteousness – truth is, it is complicated for each of us as individuals, as members of families, as citizens of a democracy. If we’re going to get through this, none of us can shirk any of our responsibilities any longer.

So ‘suit up’ as my coach/father says and be prepared to do your part. The fact is, many of us have had a pretty sweet ride for a long time in the U.S.A. and the time has arrived to ensure those who come after us have the same. Meet your personal responsibility and encourage the same by all those you influence. If most of the 328 million of us do that, we can accomplish anything.

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