“I’m curious, how might history look back and judge this period and its breakdowns?”
Unsurprisingly, our 8th round of conversations with participants largely turned to the seemingly intractable problems of racial injustice. While the brutal death of George Floyd – and many others before him – took place in the United States, his story travelled far and wide and found resonance with cities and organizations across the world, as one participant in a country far from the USA noted: “What happened in the US is also echoing here very strongly and profoundly. There is a discussion now on how racism is infiltrating our culture, our society, and it’s something more structural.”
For many corporations, particularly in the western world, the protests following George Floyd’s killing triggered a moment of awakening to a deep-rooted, systemic problem – albeit, a problem that has always been there and is a daily reality for many. Our leaders are asking themselves what actions their organizations can take to grapple with this issue, yet there arises a question as to why it takes such very public shocks to stimulate this introspection and the genuine desire for a better outcome. And how will they make sure any transformation goes deep enough and is sustained?
Then, as we saw so vividly in the early days of the pandemic, a profound crisis can summon extraordinary energy to fend off disaster and death. But as time goes on, this energy subsides, with the real risk of finding ourselves back at business as usual. This week, one of the CROs noted that there appeared to be a lot more public frustration on display and an unwillingness to follow rules around social distancing or wearing masks in public, perhaps suggesting that people were tired and could not sustain being on ‘high alert’ for months on end. When that fatigue sets in, it seems one of the first things to suffer is the sense of collective spirit.
Will we see a similar drop in the momentum for action created by the anti-racism protests in the USA? What mechanisms can leaders put in place today to ensure accountability and transparency in 6 months’ or 5 years’ time? As one participant put it, referencing climate change inertia, but it could equally have applied to social injustice: “How might history look back and judge this period and its multiple breakdowns?”
Because when it comes to breakdowns and challenges, today’s world faces many and we shouldn’t be surprised when challenges are revealed to be intrinsically interconnected. One participant noted an unintended consequence of the pandemic in relation to the social uprising, for example: “If COVID-19 hadn’t happened, I don’t think people would be out there as much, protesting. More people are out of work, or even working from home, and have more freedom to protest on a daily basis. In that sense, it’s a positive confluence of two crises.”
To learn for resilience, one has to apply a degree of energy and focused attention to reflecting on one’s experience – indeed, providing a structured opportunity for exactly that is the basis for this whole project. But leaders are human, with a propensity to tire from time to time – itself a learning some leaders find hard to digest! And then other crises ride into town, unbidden, even if not entirely unexpected, and demand both action and more learning.