The certain answer during COVID-19: Be kind, smart and important
Amid pandemic uncertainty, constantly reminding ourselves that we are kind, smart and important makes a more certain world possible.
I recently interviewed Mark Johnson about his new book, “Lead from the Future.” In our discussion he referenced an Army term, “VUCA,” which stand for “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.” Current circumstances within the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly placed us in a VUCA age. Johnson posited that the ability to navigate VUCA was the test of true leadership in a crisis.
I have thought a great deal about the current challenges in our community and countries around the world. Many examples of great leaders, past and present, have flashed through my mind, along with my thoughts about what they would do and how they would deal with the crisis. In those musings, my mind has wondered and wandered toward what the opposite of VUCA might be and how such an environment could be created. I have determined it might be “SCSS” — Stable, Certain, Simple and Straightforward. Is an SCSS environment possible? Who and what would foster it?
In my search for a little less VUCA and a little more SCSS, I was reminded of an unexpected leader from the 2011 film, “The Help.” African American nanny Aibileen Clark takes care of the young child Mae Mobley. Aibileen is the stable, certain, simple and straightforward strength to young Mae, whose parents are more interested in social status and dinner parties than their baby girl.
Aibileen would simply whisper in her straightforward and certain way to Miss Mae, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”
I think Aibileen was sending an SCSS message to each of us. I have been thinking about leaders around me who are demonstrating how to live these principles.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall powerfully and authentically expressed that while maintaining social distance was vital, ensuring we maintain social grace was equally important. Being kind is the epitome of social grace.
My wife Debbie gave me a children’s book recently. (Life’s best lessons are often within the pages of such works.) The book I received is titled, “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse,” by British author Charlie Mackesy. It is a must read.
Early in the book, the boy meets up with a plucky yet wise mole. The mole asks the boy, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Kind,” said the boy.
Imagine a world where every child, and every adult, grew up or grew old wanting to be kind. Kindness is the cure for the contempt we find in our nation’s capital and in far too many of our neighborhoods.
The Dalai Lama said, “Be kind whenever possible.” Then added, “It is always possible.”
Being smart has little to do with intellect and a lot to do with insight. Being smart is also about elevating others rather than elevating yourself. When we transcend the need to be right, we can begin to do right.
There are two kinds of smart people. One is the leader who enters the room and everyone in the room knows the leader is the smartest person in the room. In the end, everyone leaves the room feeling a little “less than” — inadequate or incompetent. The other kind of leader, the true leader, is one who enters the room, and while everyone knows the leader is the smartest person in the room, they leave feeling smarter, better and more empowered.
I have witnessed true leaders in the halls of Congress and international boardrooms of big business. I have seen them in front of large crowds and huddled with colleagues in strategic settings. The truly smart have a quiet confidence that enables them to observe rather than draw attention, and ask questions that elevate the conversation and lift everyone in the room.
Often in the rush and chase of life, what is important is eclipsed in society’s never-ending search for who is important. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson rightly declared, “A life is not important except in the positive impact it has on other lives.”
I have heard from many readers and listeners over the past eight weeks that their attention has returned to the people and principles that are truly important. The pandemic, if nothing else, has brought the world to a point where reflection is once again possible. The important thing is that we don’t let the important moment pass without truly considering what, and who, is most important to us.
Leaders understand the importance of focusing on what is most important and refusing to let anything distract them. Leaders know the way out and the way up in any crisis has nothing to do with politics, something to do with policy, more to do with principles and everything to do with people.
I have experienced politicians who, while speaking to me at an event, were constantly scanning the room to see if there was someone more important they should be talking to. I have also been in the presence of authentic leaders who, despite a crowded room or busy schedule, made me feel I was the most important person in the world at that moment.
Your presence sends an important message to the important people in your world. Your present presence can be truly transformative and transmit just how important others truly are to you.
Pandemics and global challenges are likely to keep us in a VUCA world we will have to navigate. However if we constantly help others remember, and remind ourselves, that we are kind, smart and important, a more SCSS world is possible.
In challenging times I often look to an inspiring saying or compelling quote. If the VUCA world of today is getting to you or you are feeling a little down and discouraged, I suggest you go back to my new-found friend Mr. Mole:
“Do you have a favorite saying?” asked the boy.
“Yes,” said the mole.
“What is it?”
“If at first you don’t succeed ... have some cake.”
“I see, does it work?”
That is kind, smart and important — and so are you.