“We know what to do to bring our economy back to life. What we do not know how to do is to bring people back to life.”
So said the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo. He was bringing some much-needed perspective to the recovery from this Covid-19 pandemic that has brought the mighty to their knees (even though the ego of some would refuse to admit it). I’d like to go a little further and consider our roles as leaders as we rebuild and create visions for the future. When I use the term “leaders”, I mean each and every one of us because we are all leaders in our own lives – leaders of ourselves and of people.
In my mid-20s, I began to realise that I had been going along the conveyor belt of life without really thinking about what I was doing or what I wanted to do. Reflecting on small life events, ones that would have been forgotten if I hadn’t chosen to reflect, made me step back and question what I wanted to do. They made me step back in order to step forward and to begin my journey of personal leadership.
An opening, an opportunity, has been created by this pandemic and we need to be thoughtful about what our leadership in life means in the post Covid-19 21st century. In life and societies, we can be fixated on binary, short term measures whilst life is actually about seeing that success depends on other things that are just as important. In business, it may be about planning for the right talent to help your business grow or about ensuring the mental and physical wellbeing of your people. For society to be vibrant, growing and prosperous, such considerations must extend beyond what is for our own personal benefit, to what we want our impact to be on everyone and everything around us.
Even though each of us has a relative level of privilege, the assumptions we make about what it takes to succeed and thrive from that relative level aren’t necessarily true. For example, the idea that you can only personally prosper if you work increasingly greater hours of the day or that your success must come at the cost of another’s or that you need to be out networking every night to succeed. The opposites of this have now been enforced upon us and so, it goes to show, that often the biggest barriers are the ones in our own minds.
Have we ever challenged the assumptions that we hold in our minds of what is true, or are we on that conveyor belt of life, continuing as if only to affirm the status quo? We always look for growth economically, but what does that even mean? “Growing” is seen as the only sign of success or progress and we never question it or the side effects of growing at all costs. The costs are ones we see plainly, if only we reflect.
If we want to talk about growing, let’s talk about growing inequalities, the growing wealth divide, the growing level of mental ill health across global communities. GDP may rise, but contentment and human progress recedes and we need to take this opportunity to address these fundamental elements of being human.
If we needed any indication of the impossible being possible, just think about whether anyone could have predicted that this UK Government would fund the wages of so many at such a significant cost! Or that so many millions of us would be working from home almost overnight. Yes, societies, communities and industries will be significantly altered, but the impossible will become inescapable and so we must ensure that we invest, as individuals, businesses and governments, with purpose, and support the areas that are most likely to drive us towards societal gains, with the equality of opportunity that we’re desperate to see.
The future will involve existential change. It isn’t just about risk management but about flourishing, thriving and maximising impact – renewing whilst growing, together. And living life with purpose, with intentions beyond ourselves and thoughts beyond our own personal gains, doesn’t just come at a cost. In Islam, Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is noted to have said, “None of you [truly] believes until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself.” For the sake of long-term sustainability, individuals, organisations, businesses, everyone must add back those moral and ethical values to continuously sustain our society, especially those experiencing the greatest difficulty. It is here that leadership and culture is truly tested.
Being able to trust ourselves, to direct ourselves and to be prepared for the unexpected and the expected are three distinct areas that we as leaders must develop if we want to create a sense of stability with sustainability. We must give ourselves and others the freedom to unleash those pursuits of passion and to explore with a genuine purpose that is for the greater good. Yes, we need to rebound and reset but we also need to build momentum that will come from being flexible, anticipating the unexpected and seeing the opportunities, especially those that may currently be blind spots.
Underpinning all of that, our relationships, our culture and teamwork is more important now than ever. The difficulties that the vast majority of the world’s population are facing are undeniable. It is in such crises that already established inequalities are further increased. Yet, many of my friends and colleagues speak of wanting to return to normality, even though that normality involved so many inequalities and wrongs, so many divides. Who wants to go back to that?
Look at the goodness that has emerged. We’re reconnecting and feeling what it means to have real human connections. We’re re-learning to be flexible, understanding and compassionate. We’re seeing businesses support societal needs, seemingly without gain (other than positive brand image). We’re slowing down as the world has been brought to a halt and re-learning what it means, in the words of my mother, to be human beings rather than human doings. We have permission to think differently, about what’s possible in a new world we get to create without the usual restrictions. We can rethink bigger and more compassionately than ever before if we think for ourselves and focus our minds.
Aren’t we, then, already truly being brought back to life?