Commentary: Four leadership lessons from 2020

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2020 was rough. We lost loved ones. Bosses were forced to facilitate layoffs or were laid off themselves. Some entrepreneurs failed to close on essential business deals. Some were evicted from their apartments. And even the most distinguished of influencers, at times, felt like utter failures in the home if their children were unable to adapt to online education, wearing a mask, ad nauseam.

2020 was a tough teacher. 2020 also was a good teacher. Here are four unforgettable discoveries I gathered firsthand in 2020 that have affected my character and leadership.

Polarizing vs. harmonizing

2020 taught me polarizing is easier than harmonizing. Division and polarization are nothing new, but even newly minted leaders instinctively knew 2020 offered something different, something more intense.

In 2020, people were divided over almost everything. Some leaders were cut off from their constituency, venders and even friends for what was posted on their personal social media accounts, or for what was not posted on social media.

I heard a story of someone who accidently shared his political leaning over a casual cup of coffee with a co-worker, only to discover later he had been removed deliberately from a long-standing group text and was no longer included in the traditional company gift exchange.

Republican or Democrat, mask or no mask, Disney+ or Netflix. I’m not sure if 2020 largely created the rift between Americans or simply exposed the rift. Working apart replaced working together. Ideological separatism replaced collaborative teamwork.

Leaders should take the harder road of harmonizing.

Vision and anticipation

One’s vision is only as good as one’s anticipation. Many leaders just prior to 2020 were drunk with vision, and the subsequent 12 months sobered them up. They confidently cast their “2020 vision” before their organizations, only to have their lack of foresight publicly exposed.

For years, notable conference speakers have been warning leaders persistently of the burgeoning gig economy, the inevitability of commercial automation, and the benefits of giving select employees the option to work remotely in order to reduce overhead expenses. The year 2020 came, and these predicted societal shifts made their presence fully known to everyone during the COVID-19 shutdown. But, who was listening?

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Sadly, a rare few leaders were positioned to serve their people in these ways, because so many “vision-casting leaders” were not properly anticipating their next steps in light of the greater cultural shifts. Their envisioned steps weren’t intuitive enough, quick enough or desirable enough for the newly repositioned consumer.

It’s important leaders understand 2021 isn’t just the start of a new year; it’s the start of a new decade. Things will change over the next 10 years. Some changes will coincide with one’s leadership preferences; some will not.

Leaders who succeed in the new era will be the ones who humbly and accurately anticipate where culture is headed and then envision a future that better serves a society yet to be served.

Optimism about the future

Over the 12 long months of 2020, I repeatedly observed this poignant truth: Optimism innovates while pessimism stagnates.

Leaders with the “can do attitude” stuck their necks out and did something in 2020. Leaders who couldn’t stomach making a move, did not move.

Leaders who humbly moved forward into the unknown are today—by and large—still moving, and those frozen with the “paralysis of analysis” aren’t just behind the curve, they are buried.

Leadership never has been more obvious. Leaders lead. True leaders invite others to follow—especially when times are tough. How can anyone follow a person who is standing still? While it is true many leaders stepped out too soon, risked too much, and made significant mistakes, leadership is risky.

Pessimistic leadership doesn’t have the power to inspire, and it certainly doesn’t have the power to innovate solutions. Optimistic leaders were busy pinpointing opportunities, prioritizing operations and purifying their organizations during quarantine. Pessimistic leaders slowly withered away while criticizing those “impertinent optimists” who dared to try something that may or may not work.

Again, optimism innovates while pessimism stagnates.

The good alongside the bad

I saw in 2020 that the good shamelessly soldiers on right alongside the bad. I became an uncle again for the 12th time. I was invited to celebrate love-struck couples at wedding ceremonies. My friends still were friendly. Jokes still were funny. And, tacos still were tasty.

When I was younger, my dad told me it takes no skill to complain or point out the bad. This comes naturally. Determining to see the glimmers of hope during a raging storm, now, that’s hard work, he said.

Acknowledging the good during a season of testing isn’t inherently discourteous, as some might think. Rather, finding the good in the midst of the bad is what is most desperately needed to see us through times of adversity.

Perspective isn’t everything, but it is a big thing. And, if you can find the good in 2020, you likely will find the good in about any season waiting for you in the days ahead.

Joshua Gilmore serves as the director of Baptist Collegiate Ministries at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. Prior to serving at NGU, Gilmore was a youth pastor in the Chicago area, a professor and administrator at a small college of missions, and a music minister in New Jersey. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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