As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our lives, the communications challenges for leaders have evolved away from crisis management toward perseverance and accommodation. At a time that people are craving certainty and clarity, leaders cannot honestly deliver those. While leaders search for data points that would enable them to create predictability, we are left to repurpose and reuse the bromides people like me counseled back in March: Commit to do the right thing. Share what you know, acknowledge what you don’t. Keep offering perspective and hope. Be present.
But there are other emerging dynamics: this is also a time of reckoning about racial justice, public health and economic inequality. Taken together, there is real potential to envision transformational change and to inspire people to be part of a future more vibrant, more equitable and more sustainable than we might have been able to imagine just a few years ago. There is already widespread acknowledgement that most workplaces will never be the same. None of us should underestimate the scope and scale of how much our society may be changed by the energy and aspirations of this time.
We also shouldn’t underestimate how hard the work ahead will be. Leaders’ skills as communicators will be challenged as never before.
A significant part of the challenge arises because a lot of what is at play is power: who has it, who needs to share it or lose it, who wants it and how they might get it. If we aren’t talking about power, we’ll be talking about things that reflect power: advantage, privilege, access, opportunity and money. These are important conversations we need to be having, inside organizations and in the public square. We should all expect to get pretty uncomfortable at key moments: you’ll either be reaching for power you’ve not had before or clinging to power you really don’t want to lose (or advantage, or opportunity, or money). These will be important conversations, and it will take lots of conversations for us to improve the outlook for our shared fate. It will take ‘staying power’ and commitment. It is going to require each of us to assume good intentions on everyone’s part – not an easy condition to create in these hyper-partisan, economically-stratified times.
But hard as it may prove to be, there really is no alternative. Pick your metaphor: genie out of the bottle, cat out of the bag, toothpaste out of the tube – we cannot go back. We shouldn’t try to go back. The data on disparities being brought to life by the impacts of COVID-19 are facts we must acknowledge and recognize that it isn’t just unfair – it is unsustainable. The images of George Floyd and other Black victims of systemic racism cannot be erased – so they must be inspiration for us to be better. Our national aspiration toward ‘a more perfect union’ has always meant that there will be work to do on our democratic institutions. It is our turn, to be our best collective selves and improve our collective shared fate.
As I write often, I believe that words matter. Leaders in every sector of our society must be thoughtful in how they use words in these coming conversations. But intent also matters, and context matters. So enter into this work with good intentions, accept the gravity of the times we are in as context. We can be better; we will be better. Toward a more perfect union. Yes.