Leading through Uncertainty: Imagining a Post COVID-19 World

It is safe to say that times are changing, the world as we know it is changing right before our very eyes. “Normal” is no longer. As we process this, it is natural for us to be paralyzed, rationalizing in our minds that one day very soon, everything will return to the way it was before. As we move through the phases of grief over yesterday, I think it is important that collectively we take a proactive look into our future. Rather than simply reacting, it is our time to act. For those of us seeking ways to learn, lead, and grow… this is our chance. Moments of uncertainty, like this, provide us with an opportunity to balance our humanity (the side of us that may be scared), with our drive to create change. To be frank, as many of us know, “normal” is not coming back. Yet, I believe that this is a good thing. What was customary in the past left many in our society underrepresented. If history has taught us anything, it is that events like this have the potential to change the societal hierarchy, for better or for worse. The leaders of tomorrow must begin planning and working to build a future that is more inclusive, diverse, and adaptable to change. Over the next few pages, I wanted to share some thoughts about what I believe the future holds and how we can better prepare for it. Most of this is speculation and opinion, but I hope my ideas and questions provide a starting point for a productive conversation.

Let us begin with education and academia. Online schooling has been around for quite some time. I finished my high school career online at a virtual academy. Yet, now, with schools closed, many parents are faced with a new reality (that of being an educator, in a formal sense). I believe it is worth asking whether schooling or learning must take place in a traditional brick and mortar institution. Even more so than any physical space our students occupy, it is also worth examining the metrics we use to measure their understanding. How do we ensure that our children are learning, comprehending, and building the skills needed for success when they are not physically in front of us? How do teachers teach effectively and virtually?

At the collegiate level, academia is also being disrupted. Many Professors are being forced to teach virtually, some for the first time. Educators and students alike may be feeling isolated, angry, and fearful. Industry leaders who have spent years dedicated to the establishment of academia may very well be seeing the establishment they so love change, crumble, and emerge anew. Again, we must ask, if physical colleges are no longer a viable option (at least for now) how do we still accomplish the goal of building leaders? For companies hiring, how do we break down the stigma of online education, what justification do we have to believe it is of lesser quality? These are questions worth asking and worth answering.

As a college student, the skills I am being forced to learn now (that of how to learn online) are ever important as well. Many of my peers hate online classes! The lack of personal connection, the abundance of distractions, lack of privacy, and so on are challenges that we must overcome on the path towards an education. Although I admit I took no joy from the sudden change to my routine, I believe it forced a vital shift in perspective. Instead of thinking “why is this happening to me, this sucks!” I had to shift to “what can this teach me?” Students at all levels are learning new skills, soft skills, that if honed in on now will aid them in their efforts to lead in the future. No doubt, the situation is less than ideal. But we can make the best out of it. It is time to make lemonade my friends, for the lemons do not seem to be running out.

Along with this shift towards online and virtual learning, I also wonder how this affects underdeveloped areas across the country and globe where the technological infrastructure simply is not there. It begs the question, when do we start treating the internet like water? When do we enter the 21st century, admitting that the internet is a vital service that all should have access to? How do we increase equity amongst all humanity? The access to learning via the internet would ultimately drive up the wellbeing and intelligence of society. Knowledge is abundant, for as my neighbor gets smarter, I do as well. The model based on scarcity and greed only serves to dig our heels into the uncertain ground of the past. The path towards quality education for all requires us to take bold steps. We must reprioritize what we deem worthy and acceptable for all to have.

Another concern for the future, is something that has been rapidly expanding since the first industrial revolution, automation. In its most simple form, automation itself has existed since humans first came into power. The very first group who replaced human labor in the fields with oxen, horse, or mule labor were automating a process. Over time, as society grew and developed, we built machines to take the place of animals. Now, we built robots who can “learn” to take the place of those machines, and even humans. These innovations in it of themselves are great. Major jumps in our quality and comfort of life have resulted from such ingenuity. Yet, our current system requires humans to work to receive food, something that in today’s current job market is difficult enough, let alone due to automation.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, I imagine business owners thinking to themselves, that investing in AI, automation, robotics, and machinery is a worthwhile investment. Robots cannot get sick, they require no breaks, and they form no unions. With a large-scale push towards automation, the supply chain becomes more robust. Although machines break, the relative loss to society when a scrap of metal is destroyed is much less than when human life is lost. Industry leaders may see this time as even more reason to shift towards new technological means of doing business. For example, companies like Volvo, Tesla, and others are searching for creative ways to build self-driving semis’ and when completed truck drivers and the industry they exist within will most certainly be disrupted. But there is still hope. We have the time now to accept that change is inevitable, and as we collectively adapt, I have no doubt that as some industries eventually collapse, others will rise in their place stronger and more resilient. One way to do this could be by combining the expertise of each generation. As the older generation adjusts to a new way of existing, the younger generations can offer a hand to assist them. Also, as the younger generation continues to push forward and innovate, they would be wise to heed the counsel, based on years of experience, from their older counterparts. Through an exchange like this, we preserve precious knowledge and experience, using it to inform our decisions on how to build a better future.

Moving along, let us talk about our government. Without getting political, I want to address the system of government itself, the means, and methods in which we govern/are governed. Just as in times of peace and prosperity the strengths of our system are made clear. Now, in a time of crisis, we are seeing the weaknesses of our leaders. A spotlight is on the old and rusted away failures that exist in our government. This exposure is happening across all industries, companies, and local/state-level administrations across the country. I believe, now more than ever, we need to question the role our government should play in our lives. Is it time to relinquish more control over to our federal government? Is it time to redact some of their control, bolstering up our smaller government? These questions are vital to consider. In real-time, we are seeing a cultural, social, and political realignment of values. The question of “who does our government deem essential?” is being answered right before our eyes. Are we looking to see what processes in our system need a major rehaul? How do we innovate, update, and optimize our voting system? What laws do we have in place to ensure corruption is reduced and limited?

Ahead of the election in November, it is also important to ask ourselves what qualities we are looking for in a political leader? What skills do our civil leaders need to possess to effectively lead in a post-COVID-19 world? These questions are extremely important, please, start the conversation and find the answers. Regardless of political affiliation, now is the time to strive to build a system that serves the needs of all. It may seem naïve to attempt to create a perfect system, but it is our duty. At the bare minimum, trying to build a perfect tomorrow, results in a better today.

Another thought that comes to mind related to our government and infrastructure, is healthcare. I believe it is worth asking why employment is a prerequisite to healthcare. A virus, like COVID-19, does not ask where you work before infecting you. The mental and physical health of all our citizens is vital. Along with the shift of priorities happening on a global scale, we also need to consider what should be private and what should be public. I firmly believe that healthcare is a human right, just the same as access to water, electricity, and even the internet. No human in a first world country, no human at all for that matter, should question their decision to seek medical care due to financial constraints. The healthier our society is, the more productive those in our workforce can be. The happier our society, the clearer a path towards safety and equity becomes. Amidst all the chaos we cannot forget that COVID-19 is providing us with an opportunity to make things right.

On a lighter note, let us talk about the arts now, because quite a few things have come to my mind recently. I mostly operate within my left brain; I do not think I have a musical or artistic bone in my body. Outside of writing (which I treat like an intellectual exercise) I do not produce much creative content. But, like most of my peers and colleagues, I have been relying heavily on my favorite shows, movies, music, and books during these times of isolation/distance. This sparked a concern, that overall, we may not be valuing, commending, or appreciating the arts/artists as we should. Many would rather their child grow up to be a doctor, rather than a painter, simply because of financial viability. Yet, when the constructs that surround us are being chipped away, we all seem to turn to the things that make us feel. We turn on the shows that make us laugh or cry, the songs that remind us of times not long ago. These feelings, moments, and sensations are created by hard-working people. I know I have a newfound and deeper respect for them.

Not too long ago, I bought a puzzle from a friend. She is a photographer. I met her at an event in Houston, and there I had the pleasure to learn a bit more about her. Since then, I have kept up with her via social media, and I enjoy her work. About a month back she engaged with her audience in a Q&A on Instagram and it provided a refreshing and raw look into the mind and life of a creative soul. Soon after, she began offering puzzles! You could pick any piece of her work, and boom, within about a week you would have a puzzle. At the time I had been working from home for about three weeks, and I decided to buy one. I am so glad that I did. (If anyone reading this is interested, her Instagram is @kirbygladstein, and you can find more of her work at kirbygladstein.com). She alongside many other content creators have been bravely and boldly providing us with joy via social media and through their work. I sincerely hope that in a post-COVID-19 world we continue to appreciate them because they make life worth living.

Shifting towards a call to action, I want to reference something I have noticed, that I believe can serve as a great example for us all. Imagine with me for a moment, that somewhere, a pastor or minister is sitting in their empty church staring into their camera preaching to their flock via the internet. They have adapted, continuing to carry out their holy work. As they do what they believe is their duty, no doubt they feel joy. Although not religious myself, I hope that these pastors find their audience, I hope that they see that the walls confining them to a brick and mortar space are no longer there. I want to believe that they are examining new ways to expand their ministry, across borders, towns, and platforms. Innovation and strong leadership, no matter in what area will carry us through these times of uncertainty.

Although our message may not be a religious one, I hope that we feel just as strongly committed to sharing it. There can never be enough hope, empathy, and compassion. Now is the time to become agents of change, to innovate in our respective fields. As the weaknesses continue to shine on the failures of our system, let us actively choose to be a part of the solution. The time for change is now. The future is upon us and choosing to act tomorrow, is simply too late.

If history has taught us anything, it is that in uncertain times, in historic lows… historic highs will also follow. Yet, history also reminds us that in the coming prosperity, not all will benefit. Now, as we see the immense potential for growth, we cannot be blind to the potential for the gap between rich and poor, developed and underdeveloped to also grow wider. Let us learn from our past, let us build a more equitable system for all.

Somewhere, someone is writing code for the next Zoom. Someone is thinking of the next Amazon, Uber, or Slack. We need them, we need all of you to begin thinking and finding innovative solutions for the future. For every one Bezos/Gates, there are still thousands of leaders on a smaller scale who can, and are taking dramatic steps to increase the quality of life of those around them. For those of us who recently graduated, or still in college, we cannot lose focus. Despite our fear, there is still much to be joyful about. The challenges of today are an opportunity to create the future we want. I imagine a supply chain major, and engineer, or a doctor who is thinking of ways to create a more fluid, strong, and adaptable system. We, as the next generation of leaders, have a unique chance to build a resilient economy. We can find a way to create something that serves the needs of our markets in an equitable, purposeful, and sustainable way. The scarcity-based model that has served us for decades will no longer work in the future to come. Let us take the time now to develop the skills, that of resilience, empathy, and adaptability, so we can embed them in the industries we go on to serve.

For all of us, as we digest the questions and ideas that we have read, here are a few more thought questions to lead us in the coming months.

How can I lead in a virtual world?

What soft skills are going to be important for me to develop for the future?

In what ways can I implement compassion and empathy into the systems that make up my life?

What weaknesses in my life, business, or organization can I identify, and what am I willing to do to adjust?

History is being written right now and how we respond will be documented for all of humanity. Let us do our part to leave our imprint on the pages to come.

**Editor’s Note: As this is my largest piece to date, I want to take a moment and express my sincere gratitude towards my boss, Matt. Matt worked with me to edit, structure, and finalize this piece. I cannot express enough thanks, it means a lot. Thank all of you who work with me on the back end to create this content.**