Leadership

Looking for Leaders Amid the Grimness

In the face of heightened fear and violence, leaders must examine how a troubling global context is affecting them, their leadership, and those they lead.

The world is hurting right now. In the United States, it’s been a difficult year marred by seemingly endless gun violence and heartbreaking racial injustice. Affordable health care that is our right remains still too difficult to access and is now in peril. Globally, we are in the midst of one of the worst refugee crises of modern times. From Paris to Bujumbura, Beirut and Bamako, violence seems a grim norm.

When you are awake to the interconnectedness of our world and aware of the brilliant potential contained within its vast network of valuable beings, the immensity of need and injustice can be overwhelming.

There have been genocides, wars, famines, and countless struggles before us. But today the world is more globally connected than ever before. Information technology collapses time zones, and the instantaneity of the information age makes the terror and duress of others crystalline—virtually impossible to ignore.

As leaders of organizations, teams, or constituencies, what are we supposed do with this information? How do we remain visionary and effective even while the world seemingly crashes around us? How do we metabolize it, and how does it feed our leadership?

The first important step to answering that question is to ensure that we ask it. There is huge significance in simply pausing to consider: How is our particular global context impacting us, informing our leadership, and affecting those we lead? As humans, we are porous, inter-relational creatures. We exist within a complex and ever-changing constellation of experiences and challenges. Nobody lives or leads in a vacuum.

The second step to answering that question is to realize that we always have a choice. We can entertain fear, close our doors, and squint suspiciously at strangers. We can project terror onto those most vulnerable, boomeranging intolerance and violence back out into the world, because we’re too afraid to move beyond it.

Or we can remain open. We can remain open despite every reason not to. We can digest fear, and use it to stoke the embers of compassion and inform our actions accordingly. We can acknowledge our own humanity—which includes acknowledging fear, uncertainty, and feelings of vulnerability—as well as the humanity of others.

At times like these, when the news is an endless litany of upsetting events, it is far too easy to let rage slide into violence, or allow fear to shut us down to the humanity of others. We have examples of that all around us. But leadership doesn’t entail taking the easy option.

Instead, the most courageous stand we can take is against fear itself, by resisting the instinct to close up and push others away. When you lead or develop leaders within the social sector, as we do, where fighting inequity and delivering for others are your charge, we find ourselves up against these hard choices every single day: harden, close up, and push away, or remain open, lean in to painful and often contradictory realities, and continue our advocacy in the world?

At Global Health Corps, we are in the business of health equity. Our crew of builders and doers work to improve the broader systems that affect our lives by way of health systems, and we are excavating the very foundations of our wellbeing—the healthcare delivery and access systems that are so critical to living healthy and empowered lives. Many of these systems are decrepit or in disrepair, and many others were never equal to begin with. Humanity is at the center of everything we do, and resilience is imperative, because not a single thing we strive to do will be easy. This is why our leadership model centers on developing resilience at the individual, community, and institutional levels.

And while we don’t have all the answers, we do know it’s courageous to sit with uncertainty and stare those excruciating and challenging moments in the face. It is this kind of resilience—vulnerability paired with a stalwart commitment to move ahead thoughtfully, with vision and values, toward something better and more inclusive—that we need right now.

A recent poll showed that Americans’ fear of terrorism is the highest it has been in more than a decade, since the aftermath of September 11. That is an immense amount of potential energy, and fear doesn’t abide for very long before it spurs action. That action can be disastrous, or it can be inspirational and constructive. It is critical that we as leaders, wherever we live and whomever we lead, reflect long and hard on these times. It is within each of our abilities to decide how to parlay these grave moments into opportunities for resilience, inspiration, and hope.  

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COMMENTS

  • BY Rob Peters

    ON December 19, 2015 07:35 AM

    My father fought against the Japanese in WWII and many of the Baby Boomers grew up and lived under the specter of nuclear annihilation. Maybe because of our hyperconnected world, it is easier for us to share our emotions and fears with our social friends.  But if history and President Franklin Roosevelt has taught us, “all we have to fear is fear itself.” 

    As an American, I am proud of our heritage.  We are descendants of tremendously courageous people seeking a better life, faced depression, and two world wars.  And now many supposed leaders are stoking the fires of bigotry and hatred by condemning a religion and group of people seeking peace and freedom. 

    Well, I want to remind everyone reading this comment, that one day each of us will die.  So I care more about how I live and try to make our world a little better for being here than living in fear because that is what the terrorists wants. They will not get that from me and I hope you won’t do the same. In the words of country star Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying.”

  • Sandy Cohen's avatar

    BY Sandy Cohen

    ON December 20, 2015 09:28 PM

    Thank you both for your service in communicating this message more broadly! Would love to offer a more enlightened response, but for now want to offer my sincere thanks for your dedication and helping others in the world of social impact to stay inspired.

    Your piece reminded me of this wonderful essay I recently learned of, “Letter to a Young Activist during Troubled Times,” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. A couple quick excerpts that moved me:

    “Do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered…The luster and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially DO NOT LOST HOPE.

    ...In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. Do not make yourself ill with overwhelm. There is a tendency too to fall into being weakened by perseverating on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails. We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear.”

  • Barbara & Jessica, what beautiful and challenging words to read as we are about to close out the year filled with normalized “grimness” (great word!).  The fear in the air is palpable and understandable to some degree.  Thank you for the reminder to let fear open our hearts to our shared humanity and do something constructive and humane with it.  I particularly loved this line “When you are awake to the interconnectedness of our world and aware of the brilliant potential contained within its vast network of valuable beings, the immensity of need and injustice can be overwhelming.”  Thank you for all you both do to lead with humanity and love inspiring so many to invest their lives and energies in building health systems around the world.  Let’s fend off the grimness of fear together and make 2016 a better year!

  • BY Emily Nielsen Jones

    ON December 29, 2015 02:38 AM

    Barbara & Jessica, what beautiful and challenging words to read as we are about to close out the year filled with normalized “grimness” (great word!).  The fear in the air is palpable and understandable to some degree.  Thank you for the reminder to let fear open our hearts to our shared humanity and do something constructive and humane with it.  I particularly loved this line “When you are awake to the interconnectedness of our world and aware of the brilliant potential contained within its vast network of valuable beings, the immensity of need and injustice can be overwhelming.”  Thank you for all you both do to lead with humanity and love inspiring so many to invest their lives and energies in building health systems around the world.  Let’s fend off the grimness of fear together and make 2016 a better year!

  • BY Elaine Lee

    ON April 9, 2016 08:00 AM

    Your post struck several chords with me. Going a step further in my view, anyone willing to help can be a leader in this ever-challenging world. Plenty of pressing issues beg assistance on every front. So, trust yourself, trust some others and please see what together all we plain folks can do: http://bit.ly/1OlYd0X

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