COVID-19 Makes Us More of What We Are, Including Leaders
When Bill Cosby asked someone what it was about cocaine that was so appealing, they said “cocaine intensifies your personality.” Bill’s retort, captured in Himself, was “yes, but what if you’re an asshole?”
I know it’s probably tacky to quote Bill Cosby. The truth is his comedy is still etched in my memory along with the music of Michael Jackson and the art of other world-class assholes (rapists, pedophiles and other words come to mind). Hell, Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin and other artists, like Van Gogh, “dated” girls, quite literally, since they were under the age of 18. I highly recommend watching Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette for her blistering and insightful take-down of this dynamic among many, many other topics. With all those cultural caveats, provisos, and serendipities out of the way, I say all of that to say this:
Human history shows us time and time again that drugs, money, and power make us more of what we already are by intensifying our character traits, including defects and fears. My observation is that COVID belongs in the same category. It has reinforced political divisions and socioeconomic fault lines based on each person’s pre-programmed filter and the effects of stress on their cognitive functions.
Welcome to the Jungle
Like many others I have consumed countless articles, opinions, videos, podcasts on COVID. Some of these seem to come from reputable sources. These sources may include information from foreign disinformation campaigns and other, opportunistic bad actors, including operators from any campaign or party that has something to gain. A recent Business Insider article cites research asserting that Twitter bots are responsible for many of the tweets and retweets supporting the reopening of states. What bots? Whose bots? Which bots? Let the conspiracy spiral begin anew. I will briefly share what I think I know and believe as of May 22, 2020 as context.
I believe the US federal government and its agencies should have acted early and created a national framework for testing because it would have produced better data. As a population, we could have used robust data to form new opinions, develop new strategies, and/or reinforce our existing positions. The problem with that assumption is that facts and data don’t (or almost never) change minds, but at least our scientists, policy-makers and business leaders would be able to make data-driven decisions. That also assumes transparency and truth from the scientific community, which a recent article in the Washington Times questions. Even quoting a Washington Times article will elicit cries of media bias and the political leanings of the organization (right according to AllSides). Well, at least that leaves our celebrities, athletes, artists, and social influencers who can tell us what they believe. Seriously? Just damn.
I never felt like the US would be locked down for much longer than a month. Why? You cannot legally lock down an economy and free people. Those people get restless, begin to question the decisions, and then push back — either passive-aggressively or aggressively. You can educate and reason with people, but that takes a lot of time and effort. I’ve seen people hold up other countries as models for how to deal with the pandemic, but many of those models are successful because there is a higher degree of trust in government institutions, leaders, and the media than exists in the United States.
I am a bit of a junkie when it comes to news and the media landscape, so I’ll suggest you read “Public distrust in media, helping the public understand how news works” from The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University. This inherent distrust of institutions is only one of the ingredients highlighted in Scottie Andrew’s recent article on CNN titled “America’s response to the coronavirus is the most American thing ever.” Weirdly, the US response to the pandemic feels like it was almost pre-ordained as much as we may have wished for a different outcome. To quote the Guns & Roses inaugural hit, “Welcome to the Jungle.”
What Changes & What Stays the Same?
There are a lot of predictions for how COVID will change us, and Accenture recently weighed in with their top five list. For our purposes here, I will combine and condense the list and omit the insights into healthcare.
- “Virtual century” + “Cocooning.” For the time being, learning, working, transacting, and consuming is remote and virtual. COVID-19 is accelerating the shift to a more remote workforce for those industries that can most reasonably support the model. The cancelation of conferences, events, and in-person meetings across every industry is driving investment in more digital events, content, and new ways of interacting. If people are working and consuming from home, that means they are investing more in those homes for comfort and functionality as operational centers.
- “Cost of confidence” + “Reinvention of authority.” While I’m not convinced that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to more centralized power in the US, I do think this underscores the opportunity for individuals, companies, universities, and other organizations to establish, reinforce and nurture credibility through actions and words.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Don’t get me wrong. We are already witnessing an incredible amount of innovation and ingenuity in response to COVID-19, and I hope these continue to ripple through our societies.
The Accenture perspectives reinforce some predictions I cited in a previous article. PR and marketing practitioner Stephen Dupont, asked fellow professionals the following question in a recent PRSA blog, “what will your work look like in 2030?” The responses were collected before the pandemic and government responses seemingly changed everything.
There remain parallels between the two. COVID is making us more of what we already were before its arrival, effectively accelerating changes and trends. As with any major disruptor, it also created seismic shifts across every aspect of our lives. Here are the key points from the article:
- Everyone will be online and everyone will be connected. This digital connectivity will fuel virtual working, consumption, and transactions (including the growth of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, mobile banking, omnichannel commerce, and digital entrepreneurship). It will also create greater opportunities for individuals to establish their digital, thought leadership brands as professionals and individuals. Expertise has always been a valuable commodity, and people will increasingly compete to establish and monetize their personal niches and fiefdoms.
- Social media will grow and change, and people will continue to be distrustful of institutions. Enough said.
The punchline continues to be the same, “trust will be priceless.”
Communication Lessons from Top CEOs
Check out the Fast Company article about how the public perception of CEOs has shifted during the pandemic. COVID-19 made them more of what they already were. I also believe that those leaders saw an enormous opportunity in the face of crisis. It will be interesting to watch the market capitalization of these companies compared to their peers especially as corporate social responsibility becomes a more mainstream method for individuals and investors to measure companies and their impact on the world.
These leaders are highly visible in major industries and companies, but you can learn lessons by watching them operate with transparency, clarity of message, and empathy. Here’s what I encourage you to do:
- Define your story, which includes who you are, what you do, what you believe, and what you hope to contribute to your community and the world.
- Write it down. Edit it often. When finished, you will have your elevator pitch, mission statement, and professional biography ready to go.
- Who is your community? Define it and consider how you engage with that community. Events will return, so are Meetups or conferences in your future? Can you get involved in an open source project or contribute to GitHub?
- What are the topics you want to cover? Capture your topics in a calendar, carve out some time, write your honest perspectives on these topics
- Publish your ideas on LinkedIn, Medium, or another platform. It doesn’t matter if nobody is watching or listening at first. Get into the habit of framing your ideas. As you become more confident, consider contributing to another trade “publication” or even a podcast.
More steps after this could lead to speakerships, consulting engagements, professional advancement, and more. The simple truth is that you will grow relationships and contribute as part of this process. I believe you will get what you give.