Innovation through Crisis: How Tough Times Make Inspiring Leaders

One of the fundamental lessons life has taught me is that change necessitated by crisis is inevitable and if we don’t learn to embrace it, we get run over by it.  Throughout the pandemic, I’ve watched as leaders of businesses, nonprofits, and governments have successfully pivoted, innovated, and adjusted to the situation that has been thrust upon them. During an unprecedented global event unlike any we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, the examples of innovation set by these leaders can, and should, be used to teach future generations.

In September of 2020 Glassdoor awarded Mercury Systems Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Aslett the top honor in their “25 Highest Rated CEO’s During Covid” report. The report was based on an analysis of employees’ feedback between March and July of 2020 with Mr. Aslett receiving a 95% approval rating. In the report, the employees praised their CEO for his care for them during the midst of a crisis.

Aslett’s commitment to his employees was highlighted through the establishment of a $1 million employee relief fund and the implementation of industry-leading health and safety protocols at the company’s facilities. With his willingness to pivot while putting his employees first, Mr. Aslett was able to lead Mercury, a global technology company serving the needs of aerospace and defense, to record full-year financial results. This type of leadership is just one example of private sector innovation brought on by the pandemic which turned a negative situation into an overall positive one for a major corporation.

The nonprofit sector also saw innovation brought to the fore by the COVID-19 crisis. In June of this year, it was announced that InspiriTech, a nonprofit human service organization headquartered in Philadelphia, would be recognized as the first-ever winner of the SourceAmerica Innovation Award. The national award “honors a nonprofit organization that created new ways to keep its doors open and workers employed during the COVID-19 crisis.” Responding to the pandemic, InspiriTech was able to transition 570 employees to a work at home setting in just 15 days.

Concerning the transition process, InspiriTech’s cofounder and CEO John Connolly stated, “And yet we have maintained quality — at a time when we’ve been hiring people, at an 80 percent growth rate, made possible by partnering with customers who trusted us not only to build new teams during the pandemic but also to deliver excellent unemployment assistance services to customers at an especially difficult time.” Once again, the crisis brought on by the pandemic created the need for an innovative approach to doing business with a core focus on putting people first by meeting the needs of InspiriTech’s employees and customers.

There are many examples of innovative leadership in the public sector during COVID 19 with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern perhaps being chief among them. Ms. Ardern has received worldwide acclaim for how she has handled the pandemic, recently being recognized by Fortune Magazine as the World’s Greatest Leader for 2021. Her science-based approach to the pandemic has been given credibility through the effective media engagement of New Zealand’s director-general of health Dr. Ashley Bloomfield.

Through regular press conferences and Facebook live sessions, the Prime Minister has been able to actively engage the public while building trust in her leadership. Ms. Ardern and her cabinet led by example when she announced shortly after the pandemic began that they would be taking a 20% pay cut for a 6-month period in order to show solidarity with New Zealanders who had been economically impacted by the pandemic. Her compassionate, yet decisive, actions during the crisis led to her being re-elected in a landslide victory in 2020 showing that good leadership and a willingness to pivot as necessary can lead to being rewarded at the ballot box.

These are just a few examples of innovative leadership brought on by COVID-19 and I know that there are many, many others to learn from throughout our nation and throughout the world. Each one of the leaders I’ve referenced reflects what it means to be a true servant leader as they each put the needs of those they serve, whether it be clients, customers, employees, or citizens, first.

They also show that doing the right thing, in the right way, and for the right reasons in leadership positions can lead to success from a business and political perspective. In each case, their willingness to pivot and go against the status quo was ultimately rewarded.  As we begin to move beyond the global pandemic, I’m hopeful that leaders like these on a global basis will be both lifted up and emulated.

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Leadership in Today’s World: Taking the Longview

I’ve witnessed firsthand the mental health impacts of the pandemic. I watched as one friend’s struggle with addiction issues culminated in suicide. Another friend’s substance abuse issues led to an overdose they were fortunate to survive. Both also struggled with the major impact COVID-19, and the subsequent lockdowns had on their professions of law enforcement and entertainment. Through the pandemic, we’ve all been shown we are fundamentally social animals by nature who have an innate need for human connection. Though the long-term mental health impact of COVID-19 remains to be seen, those already occurring are clearly evident on a global scale.

New research has shown that 70 percent of Australians find their most meaningful and regular social connections at work. This number reflects a higher percentage than connections established with both friends and family members. The research was conducted through Mainstreet Insights survey of workers between the ages of 18 and 65 to see how they’re faring during their second year of living in a world changed by COVID 19.

Interestingly, the survey found that the highest percentage of those surveyed who found their most meaningful and regular social connections at work were Gen Z (ages 18 to 26) workers at 76 percent. This generation also reported the most impact on their mental health from coronavirus-related isolation. Mainstreet co-founder Dr. Lindsay McMillan noted, “It was a surprise to see that despite their familiarity with and comfort using technology, Gen Z workers have the strongest desire for human interaction at work.” The survey found that Gen X workers (ages 41 to 56) ranked second at 68 percent with Baby Boomers (ages 57 to 65) coming in at 63 percent.

In the United States, a recent KFF Health Tracking poll found that during the pandemic about 4 in 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. This is up from 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June of 2019. Research also shows that young adults (ages 18 to 24) have been the most impacted group of adults with 56 percent reporting symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder.

The mental health impact of the pandemic shown by the research on young adults versus their older peers can also be seen in their likelihood to report substance abuse issues (25 percent versus 13 percent) and suicidal thoughts (26 percent versus 11 percent.) A similar impact on young adults from COVID 19 isolation can be seen in Europe where a recent European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) survey revealed that 64 percent of young Europeans are at risk for depression, up from 15 percent before the pandemic.

In an article recently published in World Psychiatry, Brigham Young University Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience Julianne Holt-Lunstad stated “International data from over 3.4 million people demonstrate the association of social isolation and loneliness with a significantly increased risk of death from all causes. Conversely, being socially connected is protective and increases odds of survival by 50%.”

Admittedly, I’m no scientist. However, this snapshot of the effects of isolation brought on by the pandemic leads me to believe that wherever it is safe to do so the world must begin to open back up. As this has begun happening in my part of the world I’ve been viscerally impacted by the sights and sounds of it taking place. My wife Malisa and I attended church services over the past several weeks where for the first time since the pandemic began masks were not required. The joy and relief of those in attendance was palpable as we were physically able to greet our fellow parishioners. An in-person choir generated a harmony of voices which sounded almost otherworldly having not heard this joyous noise in well over a year.

After a recent workout at our local YMCA a thought struck me out of nowhere: things sounded like they did before the pandemic. The sound effects generated by a gym full of pickleball players was something I had also not heard in more than a year. I found myself smiling with my mood lightening as it began to sink in that maybe, just maybe, things were beginning to get back to something like my own perception of normal. I realized how much I had missed simply being around groups of people and how much not being able to gather had impacted my psyche.

Unfortunately, politics have played a major role in the decision making of our leaders around the pandemic and particularly as it pertains to reopening or not. That being said, I believe given the very real data showing the negative mental health impacts of COVID-19 and the isolation caused by it on younger generations should be factored into the decision-making process. Mental illness and how to deal with it has not always been made a priority by society as a whole. Given our current set of circumstances, not making mental health a priority with an eye towards a generational impact could lead to disastrous results.

My great hope is that something good always comes out of something bad and that the mental health issues brought on by the pandemic will serve to help remove the stigma from mental illness. In the end, only time will tell.

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Leadership in Crisis: Finding Common Ground

I’ve often observed that our society is not as hopelessly divided as we are led to believe by many politicians and the mainstream media. Most people I know can agree on the fact that they’d like to live in clean, safe communities where they have access to jobs, good educational opportunities for their children, and quality healthcare. How to provide these things is open to debate but building consensus around the fact that most people can agree that these are important issues is a good place to begin to find common ground, and solve our current leadership crisis.

Since the pandemic set in, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with leaders from all walks of life nationally and internationally. The vast majority of these individuals—spanning generations, nations, and professions—agree that part of good leadership is making people feel safe and secure while providing an openness allowing all voices to be heard. They also agree it’s about building bonds of trust with those who you serve while uniting them around a common vision.

As a former politician I’m somewhat frustrated, yet not surprised, with the opportunity many of our political leaders seem to be squandering to unite the people they serve rather than further dividing them. We, as a society, have never had a more opportune moment to come together given our shared experience of dealing with a worldwide pandemic.

Although our world has been impacted in different ways, we are all bound by our humanity in the fact that we have all been touched in some way through a common enemy in the coronavirus. If ever there has been a time for our global community to rally around a common cause, it is now, amid a global pandemic. However, for this rally to happen we must have trusted leadership initiating it. This provides a major challenge when one considers the findings of the 2021 Edleman Trust Barometer. This year’s barometer, an international study focusing on the principles of trust in business, government, media, and NGOs, “reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world”.

Social media has contributed to the appearance of our nation and our world being more divided by silos and echo chambers which can be difficult to overcome. In a recent NBC News survey, 64-percent of Americans said they believe social media does more to divide us than to unite us. By contrast, only twenty-seven percent of those surveyed believe social media platforms contribute to uniting our nation.  In what the Edleman Trust Barometer has deemed the “global infodemic” this year’s barometer shows that trust in all news sources has reached record lows with social media (35-percent) and owned media (41-percent) the least trusted. At 53-percent, the mainstream media had the largest drop in trust at eight points.

I’ve always found that when trust is breached in any environment by any individual or institution it is extremely hard to rebuild. So how do we begin again and start to mend the frayed edges of our society fractured by mistrust? My answer to this is to use every platform technology provides us to build a stronger global community at every level beginning in the places we live and sharing lessons learned with each other. My conversations with leaders around the planet about their efforts to have a positive impact, both globally and locally, have inspired me and given me hope that change is possible in the world. As leaders, we simply need to join together and make it happen.

To a large degree, politics and the mainstream media are divisive by nature and will remain so for the foreseeable future as division can be used to maintain power and market share. However, we still have leaders in the past and present who can provide a map forward towards building a better future for our world by seeking to pursue consensus building through a focus on servant leadership. They may not garner headlines as much as political bloodletting or sensationalistic scenarios, but their trusted voices are out there, and they need to be heard to combat our constant onslaught of misinformation.

In the end, it is up to all of us to choose our own fate: do we follow leaders in all sectors who choose to focus on dividing us or those who seek to unite us around common causes? My choice is now, and will always be, the latter. With this in mind, I have deliberately chosen to use every platform I’m given to build bridges of trust while bringing people together on common ground. Having always believed in the power of community building I firmly believe positive change is coming and I’m ready to embrace it and be a part of it.

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Changemaking Leadership: Building Bridges Across Generations

There are labels placed on every generation and stereotyping each one is commonplace. I’m a part of Generation X and remember well our generation being labeled as lazy, cynical, and disaffected. Oxford languages defines slacker, a term widely used to describe my generation, as “a young person (especially in the 1990s) of a subculture characterized by apathy and aimlessness.” Having entered midlife I can state unequivocally that many of my friends and peers have become some of the most successful people I know in a number of different fields. They’ve led major corporations, small business start-ups, nonprofits, and social movements which have had a positive, lasting impact on the world we live in. “Slacker” would not be a term to describe any of these individuals to say the least.

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between generations. A fundamental lack of trust from one generation to the next is nothing new. I often hear members of my generation opine on the fear that millennials are going to take their jobs. This is often accompanied by a healthy disdain for what they perceive to be this generation’s lack of a strong work ethic and commitment to their jobs. Jack Weinberg, a noted civil rights activist and architect of the Free Speech Movement founded at the University of California, Berkley in 1964, famously coined the phrase “Never trust anyone over 30.” The renowned Greek philosopher Socrates had his own views on the younger generation of his era stating: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” A statement from a very wise man made over 2000 years ago would seem to echo the sentiment of many in my generation’s views on millennials. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 so eloquently puts it “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Age bias is another factor that can impede productive cross-generational engagement. When I decided to run for mayor here in Augusta at the age of 37, I experienced this firsthand. After making my decision I was blissfully unaware that the norm with running for office was to ask for the blessing of the powers that be. Early on I was invited to a meeting by business leaders I knew and respected. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was too young to run and that I hadn’t paid my dues. At that point, I had the life experience of being a part of running a successful small business and a start-up nonprofit while serving in leadership positions on multiple boards. I felt I had all the leadership experience I needed. Ultimately, I ran despite the advice of my elders. Our campaign team was mainly comprised of a group of twenty and thirty-something-year-olds with no political experience. However, the positive energy and enthusiasm of our team helped propel me to victory in a campaign which flew in the face of conventional political wisdom.

In all honesty, I harbor no fears toward the generations following our own but rather am inspired and encouraged by them.  In Augusta, I’ve watched my millennial friends leave our city to start successful careers in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta to name just a few. However, this same generation of up-and-coming leaders have since returned to their hometown to start up many thriving businesses in multiple fields including real estate development, staffing, finance, technology, advertising, and marketing. A generation I hopefully helped to inspire by successfully running for mayor at an early age have now become business leaders, thought leaders, parents, and philanthropists. Each day they’re having a positive impact on the city they have chosen to call home. They now motivate me to continue with my own entrepreneurial endeavors and helped inspire me to publish my first book several years ago. To be a friend and mentor to this generation is something I value and hold dear.

Every generation has something to teach us and something to contribute.  My wife Malisa and I recently hired a marketing intern to help with our entrepreneurial initiatives, of which we have many. Our new hire Molly is a rising senior at the University of Georgia with a double major in marketing and neuroscience with an emphasis on psychology. She recently sat in on the taping of a podcast I’m developing. Following the taping, she gave me some insightful and spot-on feedback. Based on her input, I decided to reinterview my guest. Why would a 53-year-old man who hosted a successful call-in radio show for a year take the advice of a 21-year-old young lady who hasn’t yet graduated from college? Because as an avid listener of podcasts, which I am not at this point, she was right, and the show will be better because of the fresh perspective she provides.

My recent experience with Molly reminded me of the real key to building mutually beneficial, cross-generational relationships: a willingness to set aside preconceived notions of any given generation combined with a focus on listening to each generation’s unique point of view. I believe Scottish whiskey distiller Thomas Dewar eloquently defined the mindset which can best lead to building healthy relationships across generations while bridging divides when he stated, “Minds are like parachutes; they work best when they’re open.”

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Leadership in Crisis: Don’t Squander the Opportunities

I’ve often made the observation that change for the better in our nation has to start at the local level with local governments extremely well-positioned to take a leadership role.  Having served as a mayor for nine years, there were many projects proposed during my time in office that didn’t come to fruition due to a lack of funding and it wasn’t unusual to have to struggle with balancing Augusta’s budget.  I can speak with authority on the number of well-intentioned, and very pricey, master plans our city currently has gathering dust on shelves as often funding sources to implement them were never identified.  However, local governments nationally are now in a position to truly leave a legacy for their communities due to what I hope to be a once-in-a-lifetime funding opportunity.

This month, the first of two tranches will begin to be distributed to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments through their $350 billion allotment in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Over the next two years, city and county governments nationwide are set to receive a total of $110.7 billion in funding with most of the funds required to be spent by the end of 2024. Whether or not we agree with the plan from a political perspective, the fact is that local governments have the very real opportunity to use these funds to transform the places we call home if they are invested strategically and with an eye to the future.

The impact of the pandemic on city finances nationally has been uneven with initial budget shortfall projections not coming to pass in many municipalities. Last year, Miami initially projected a budget deficit of $25 million but ultimately experienced a $2 million shortfall. The city fell short of the 500,000 population level required to receive initial direct CARES Act funding approved under the previous administration but will now receive $138 million in direct federal funding over the next two years. In Oklahoma City tax collections dropped 5% during the pandemic but currently sales tax collections are 38% above last spring. With the financial condition improving significantly the city will now receive $122.5 million in stimulus funding with another $155 million allotment for Oklahoma County.

Miami and Oklahoma City are just reference points for the massive funding infusion local governments across the country will be receiving from the federal government over the next two years. They simply serve as two examples where a financial windfall will lead to a difficult decision-making process for local governments. Having been a part of a municipal government for many years the opportunity for the funds to be used for transformational initiatives to shape the future of cities in our country excites me. However, the potential for the funds to be abused without transparency in the decision-making process and without proper planning causes me concern. Another concern is that expending the allotted funding in a timely fashion will create significant logistical challenges for local governments.

While serving as mayor of Augusta in 2009 we dealt firsthand with direct local funding from the federal government. At that point, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was the largest stimulus bill in American history. The direct allocation to state and local governments in ARRA was $144 billion, a mere 41% of the $350 billion allotment through ARPA. One of the challenges of expending the grant funding was the simple fact that the federal guidelines regarding their investment were regularly adjusted providing for a moving target while creating an unwieldy process at best. To be honest, from a planning perspective our city was not adequately prepared for such a large infusion of funding. I feel certain the same can be said for local governments nationwide as they undertake a budgetary process unlike any most have ever before experienced.

With such a massive amount of money going to local governments, there is major potential for misuse and abuse. The effects of the ARRA stimulus were researched by economists Joonkyu Choi at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Veronika Penciakova at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, and Felipe Saffie at the University of Virginia. Their findings were sobering. In the contracting process around awarding grant funds, firms awarded grants were awarded 1.8 grants on average. The economist’s research showed that firms who made political contributions were the primary beneficiary of the ARRA funding with a 38% higher chance of being awarded contracts versus firms without the same political connections. With more than double the funding available to state and local governments through ARPA, the potential for this type of political cronyism expands exponentially.

The concerns I’ve raised are legitimate and need to be addressed. However, they do not undercut the massive potential for local governments to deliver on transformational projects and initiatives for the communities they serve. ARPA funding to local governments is broadly flexible with four authorized uses based upon the U.S. Treasury Department’s guidelines: responding to public health needs and economic damage from the pandemic; providing premium (i.e., hazard) pay for essential workers; replacing lost revenue and investing in necessary water and broadband infrastructure. The flexibility gives local governments a broad range of projects to be addressed to meet the needs of their communities. With so much money on the table, a major key will be building consensus around how to invest the funding. I believe another key to a successful process will be a commitment to transparency throughout.

Opportunities for elected officials to significantly impact the lives of the citizens they serve for generations to come don’t come along too often. Will every local government invest their funds wisely with an eye to the future while avoiding cronyism in the process? The answer is no. Unfortunately, some will, some won’t, and some will to varying degrees. In the scenario we’re faced with I would strongly encourage the citizens of every local government to monitor the process, to ask questions, and to offer your input on how you would like to see this funding invested to benefit your community as a whole. After all, it is, in fact, your money.

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Leadership in Crisis: Leading in a World of Alternative Realities

As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, it’s not a stretch to describe these times as disjointed at the very least. In observing the landscape around us, I’m reminded of the old parable of a group of blind men encountering an elephant and describing it based on what they feel. The results varied from a thick snake described by the man who felt the trunk to a thin rope by the one who felt the tail. Several other contradictory observations were made by those encountering other parts of the animal’s anatomy. What does the pandemic look and feel like? That would depend on the perspective of who you ask.

I live in Georgia which was the first state to reopen in April of 2020. I’ve felt comfortable eating in restaurants and working out in a gym while taking necessary precautions for a year now. Life has returned to somewhat of a feeling of normalcy since my wife and I received both doses of the vaccine. However, my reality is not shared by all the citizens here in Augusta. I recently learned that in a city of nearly 200,000 residents with six hospitals and vaccines readily available to date only 22.3% of our population has been fully vaccinated according to the latest CDC data. I must admit that I was shocked by this statistic in that in my immediate reality nearly all my friends and family have been fully vaccinated. On a recent zoom call with a colleague in Toronto I was given an international view of what the pandemic looks like in Canada. During our conversation, my colleague shared with me that his city is still under lockdown with vaccines not yet readily available in our neighbor to the north. Once again, a decidedly alternative reality to my own.

The alternative realities we are experiencing are illustrated economically by both a record-setting bull market on Wall Street and a boom in real estate markets across the country. Today the average closing price of the Dow Jones Industrial Average is 32,199.19 for an 11.84% gain over last year’s average closing price of 26,890.67. In a recent CNBC interview Wharton School finance professor Jeremy Siegel stated, “it is entirely possible that stocks could rise 30% from here.” If Siegel is accurate those invested in the stock market should continue to see substantial growth in their portfolios for the foreseeable future. However, according to USAFACTS 47% of Americans have no money invested in the market and conversely don’t receive a direct benefit from major upswings.

The national housing market, originally projected to grow by just 1% in 2020 prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, added $2.5 trillion in value for the year according to a recent Zillow report and shows no signs of slowing down. According to the S & P Corelogic Case-Shiller Home Prices Indices housing prices in 20 large cities included in the indices increased by 11.9% in February representing the largest increase since February 2006. Among these cities the largest increases were seen in Phoenix (up 17.4%), San Diego (up 17%) and Seattle (up 15.4%). The housing boom has served to exacerbate the affordable and workforce housing crisis which existed nationally prior to the pandemic. An example of this can be found in Charleston, South Carolina where the median home value has risen to $378,046. However, a recent report from Community Data Platforms noted 40% of the city’s households are “cost burdened” when it comes to their housing costs. This means that they are paying more than 30% pre-tax income for rent or on a mortgage. Charleston is just one example of a trend that is playing out in cities nationwide where workers in the service industry, police officers and teachers, to name just a few professions, simply can’t afford to live where they work.

What is the solution to addressing the undeniable disparities with which individuals, businesses, communities, and families have been impacted by the pandemic? There are no easy answers and the full impact of the global pandemic remains to be accurately seen or fully understood with the repercussions undoubtedly being felt for decades to come. However, I would submit that putting a focus on providing trustworthy and ethical leadership in all sectors with leaders putting an emphasis on what unites us and not what divides us would be a good place to start. Although we have all been impacted by COVID-19 in a variety of ways the fact remains: we have all been impacted.

We are all ultimately bound by this global event through our shared humanity. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced the loss of a friend or a loved one since the pandemic began while having to mourn in a new and unsettling way. To some degree, we’ve all experienced the unnatural feelings of isolation with limited human connection where a hope to a return to a normalcy of some sort is a shared reality. Realistically, though disparities are very real and need to be acknowledged and addressed in some way, as a society we’ve never had more common ground to rally around based upon the shared experience of going through a pandemic together.

In a world full of confusion and disjointed norms leading to a fractured sense of reality, good leadership is now more important than ever. Where an increase in the division of societal norms has come to the fore during a once in a lifetime disruption, the opportunity for our society to come together given transformational leadership has never been more achievable. In the end, the ultimate question for leaders everywhere is simple: do we seize the moment?

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Two men yelling at each other

Creating Positive Change in a Turbulent World: It’s Up to Us

Webster’s Dictionary defines zero-sum as, “Of, relating to, or being a situation (such as a game or relationship) in which a gain for one side entails a corresponding loss for the other side.” It also defines bigotry as, “Intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.” These two definitions come straight from the dictionary and are not my own words. However, I believe one would be hard pressed not to see that to a large degree when coupled together they clearly define what we are witnessing in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of our nation and in nations around the globe.

Politics have always been divisive by nature and to some degree by design. Yet there is a major difference between today’s politics and those prior to the twenty-first century.  Today, politics are fed by a twenty-four-hour news cycle driven by media outlets as angrily divided as our political extremes and an onslaught of social media platforms where misinformation runs rampant. The caustic politics of division have now reached a fever pitch which is hard, if not impossible, to avoid. To circumvent the damaging effects of our corrosive politics one would have to cut themselves off from the world around them completely taking self-quarantining to an extreme level. A global pandemic and the strongest outpouring of civil unrest in decades happening during an election year serves to add fuel to the fire and fan the flames of division. We all live in concerning times to say the least.

The picture of our nation and its politics I’ve painted above is not a pretty one nor should it be. As a nation we have very real, very relevant, and very raw issues to deal with. Keeping this in mind, I would propose to you that no single political party or elected official can bring peace and calm to our nation or the communities we call home. Realistically, political parties are based upon the principle of dividing and conquering to win elections as opposed to uniting citizens from all walks of life in victories which will overcome the major issues of our time while helping to heal our nation. Asking political parties to heal our nation would be akin to me asking the guy who broke my jaw in a bar fight to set it for me and having faith it would heal properly.

So how do we fix a problem so entrenched and begin to heal a nation that is fractured in so many ways? Though there is no quick fix and it will take a sustained effort, I honestly believe there is hope. It is my firm belief that these efforts must begin at the local level with a heightened level of civic engagement and a commitment to actively engaging the next generation of leaders. Real change in our nation isn’t going to begin in Washington or on Wall Street, it’s going to begin on Main Street at the grassroots level with local leaders uniting those they serve and making their communities the best places they can be. Real and sustainable change for the better in our nation will not come through any of us putting our trust blindly in the hands of any political party.  It will come from us putting our trust in ourselves and each other. At this critical juncture in world history, we must all be the change we want to see in our world.

I recently served as a panelist for a human rights forum on a local podcast called “Drop the Dis.”  The other panelists joining me were civil rights activist Ray Montana, Captain Charles Mitchell of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Department and Augusta University sociology professor Dr. Todd Powell-Williams. The two-hour conversation was wide ranging and covered the topics of defining/explaining the Black Lives Matter movement, Augusta and criminal justice, improving our world together and speaking to the people. During the open and honest conversation, we each respectfully listened to each other’s diverse viewpoints on race relations and social equity. All of us agreed that the forum was both enlightening and productive as we discussed ways we could all work together to proactively address racial issues locally.

At the end of the conversation I was asked by cohost David Bash what gives me hope for the future. My answer was simple: he, his cohost Chris Nabholtz, and their generation foster in me a sense of hope. When asked to elaborate I shared with them the simple fact that two twenty-somethings with a passion for addressing race relations in Augusta were able to put together an event which will help shape the future of our community was inspiring to me and to all involved. They didn’t wait for someone else to put together a forum that can now be listened to and used to benefit our community as well as others. They stepped up to the plate to be the change they were looking for and I’m proud to call these young changemakers my friends.

Today we live in a troubled world, but this is nothing new. The great challenges facing our nation and all of humanity may shift from generation to generation but there will always be challenges. For me, the fundamental question for leaders of all ages and every walk of life is: how do we unite to not just talk about these challenges but to address them head on?

Over the past year, I’ve connected with changemaking leaders of the same mindset from around the globe. This shows me that a virtual world offers the greatest opportunity we’ve had to unite communities worldwide to address our greatest challenges. Although policy must ultimately be a part of the solution, policy makers must listen to those whose voices aren’t often heard in the political process who want real solutions as opposed to zero-sum politics as usual. Listening to the voices of the younger generation of leaders at home and abroad is key to fostering change in that they will ultimately inherit the issues that those who came before them helped to create.

In the end, creating positive and sustainable change in our communities and in our world isn’t up to politicians; it’s up to us.


Leading Through Crisis: The Complexity of Our Situation

I’ve written a great deal about the critical need for leaders to proactively combat the rapid spread of misinformation during a crisis, particularly one of the epic proportions we’re now experiencing. As the global pandemic has taken hold, I’ve found myself a keen observer of both the information coming out around it and the response to it. I recently shared with my wife the sheer complexity of dealing with our current situation logistically on every level and the confusion this has had a tendency to create with the general public. With a multitude of varying emergency orders issued by state and local governments alone, I’ve found it to be a case where average citizens and local businesses are not quite clear with what and whose rules they need to adhere to. With this in mind, I’m hopeful that this blog will help to provide some valuable perspective with regards to the overall complexity of the situation.

Here in Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has announced a gradual easing of restrictions on his Shelter-in-Place Order originally issued on April 2nd. The lifting of restrictions began on April 24th and included gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetology hair design, esthetics, nail care schools, and massage therapists. On April 27th restrictions were lifted on theaters, private social clubs, and restaurant dine-in services. The timing on the lifting of restrictions by any governor is open to debate which I’m certain will be ongoing in the months ahead. However, one observation I would like to make is that businesses returning to some sort of new normal will ultimately be consumer-driven as we all begin to derive a comfort level with any degree of public interaction which we deem to be safe for ourselves and our families.

I was discussing this line of thought with a local retail business owner recently who clearly stated that the reopening of her physical locations will depend on her client’s level of comfort with in-store shopping. As an avid fitness enthusiast, I would love nothing more than to head to my chosen gym for a good workout after more than a month away but admittedly I’m not ready to go back quite yet. I also love movies and would welcome a little escapism at this point as I know we all would. However, sitting in a movie theater and hearing someone sneeze in the dark would definitely cause me concern, warranted or not. Ultimately, we each have choices to make with regards to when we feel comfortable with public interactions and to what degree, but I use these examples to underscore the fact that in reality consumer confidence is something which simply can’t be legislated.

I’ll use a real-world example to illustrate another level of complexity as it pertains to the federal government’s response to address our struggling economy. In 2009 while serving as mayor, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRCA) was approved to address our nation’s economic meltdown and subsequent Great Recession. The spending bill generated $831 billion in funding which is dwarfed by the $2.2 trillion in funding generated by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). I am in no way a trained economist, but I can speak directly to having had the experience of accessing and implementing the ARRCA funds from a local government perspective. One thing I learned early on is that it’s literally impossible for the federal government to develop comprehensive rules and regulations regarding the implementation of funding packages this massive while appropriating the funds in such an expeditious manner. Simply put, my firsthand experience was that our federal system simply isn’t designed for cash infusions this large and I fully expect there will be some difficulties distributing these funds due to this simple fact.

Realistically, opening back up our economy and returning to societal norms will not happen with the flip of a switch and is not under the purveyance of any one governmental entity. In a scenario so complex with an overwhelming global impact, our emergence from this pandemic will simply take time and patience the likes of which most of us have never had to call on in what has become a vastly impatient society. I have no doubt at all that we will all get through this together as stories of the triumph of the human spirit in communities worldwide grow exponentially every day. I honestly believe that the shared experience of going through this as one global community gives us all a common ground to rally around and that we, as a society, will ultimately emerge stronger for it. I hope that this blog provides some perspective which each of you may find useful and please know I consider myself truly blessed to have a platform to communicate with you all on a regular basis.

leading remotely

Leading Your Team Remotely During a Crisis

As we’ve entered into an unprecedented period in history due to the global pandemic we’re all facing, the fact that the need to lead our team’s remotely for the foreseeable future has become paramount. Whether it be communicating with your clients, your constituents, your employees, or your family, doing so remotely is the safest and easiest way to do it. I’ve long been a proponent of in-person meetings whenever possible but sadly this is no longer an option in today’s world. However, modern technology has made leading remotely more effective than ever before.

To illustrate my point, I’ll use a real-world example. In February of 2014, my final year in office, Augusta was hit with an ice storm so severe it became known as “the storm of the century”.  As the storm descended, our community was faced with massive power outages and impassable roads. Being unable to leave home for a short period, I set up a mobile command post in my kitchen with two cell phones and an iPad to stay in constant contact with my team as well as state agencies, power companies, and the governor’s office. Through this, I was able to disseminate accurate information to my constituents in real-time. I realized early on that in spite of the power outages most people still had cell phone access, so I used Twitter as a platform to share critical information in a timely manner. Basically, I had to make it up as I went along but I knew two things: accurate information flow is critical while leading in a crisis and modern technology had given me a platform to meet the need.

In the span of six years, technology and ways to directly communicate have made huge strides forward. Quick and easy teleconferencing platforms were not widely used here locally and weren’t an option I had the time to consider in the moment back in 2014. However, today there are multiple platforms available that are currently being used by leaders in business, government, and every other sector to effectively communicate with their teams remotely. Although I would hope that working from home and leading remotely doesn’t become the new normal, what leaders everywhere are learning from our current situation will help us better understand how to lead in difficult circumstances in the future. Moving forward I’m hopeful we’ll all find ways to apply these lessons learned in a beneficial manner on a much lesser scale to what we’re facing today.

As an eternal optimist, I’ve now come to understand some of the tangible benefits of leading remotely. Having spent nine years as mayor, I presided over many meetings where a vocal minority attempted to highjack the proceedings, oftentimes with some degree of success. With emotions running high, this type of meeting can begin to veer out of control as things become heated and tempers flare. During a teleconference recently with some colleagues from Australia, it dawned on me that this type of platform doesn’t lend itself to allowing for raw emotion to take over a meeting. Having all of your team members on an equal footing with equal time to share their input can actually lead to better, more civil, and more effective communication at critical junctures where emotions need to be held in check. This form of communication can also be used to provide greater transparency to our leadership efforts during a time of crisis which is crucial.

One thing I’ve always stressed is that every crisis ultimately leads to innovation, which is exactly what I’m seeing around our nation and around the upside-down world we find ourselves living in today. Leaders everywhere are coming up with innovative ways to contribute to the global fight against COVID-19 while still adhering to the critical need for social distancing. Factories are being retooled, new treatments and vaccines are being created, and average citizens are contributing to supplying much needed PPE’s for medical workers on the front lines of the fight. In the midst of what is the most challenging global event most of us will ever experience, it is simply inspiring to me to see how individuals everywhere are responding to the challenge by using the technology most of us have access to today to lead both responsibly and remotely. When asked recently what I thought some of the long-term impacts would be when we get through this situation my answer was simple: great challenges have always molded great leaders and I have absolutely no doubt those leaders are being shaped as we speak. Ultimately, in the long run our world will undoubtedly be a better place because people rose to the challenge during a time when strong leadership was needed the most.

Originally posted on ForbesBooks.

Hope for the Future: Connecting with the Next Generation of Leaders

Let’s face it, having the courage to lead with a willingness to be tolerant of other’s views while focusing on reconciliation at all levels seems to be in short supply these days. I would submit to you that blindly following any one ideology in business or politics will never lead to innovation and is certainly not the cure for political polarization. Sometimes it’s easy for me to see why a great many people now doubt that real change is possible in the world as a whole and have adopted the old “it is what it is” mentality.

Believe me, I get it. I’ve gone out on plenty of limbs in my endeavors to challenge the status quo just to have them sawed out from under me and I’ve got the scars to prove it. However, I honestly believe positive change for the better in our nation and in others is not only possible; it’s inevitable. I say this because I’ve listened to the voices of a new generation of up and coming leaders who are simply fed up with the status quo and are willing to work together to change it. Whether it be addressing toxic global political polarization or a win-at-all-costs mindset of some in the business world, this generation is not only ready for positive change but also willing to roll their sleeves, get their hands dirty, and initiate it.

This past fall, I learned that the University of Texas El Paso’s Student Engagement and Leadership Center had found my book and incorporated it into their “Powerful Pages” program for the semester. Having this happen organically and seeing students begin to post pictures on Instagram of themselves reading the book simply touched my heart. After reaching out to the UTEP SELC’s Coordinator for Student Leadership and Inclusion, Jules Flores, I learned that an intern of hers named Victoria Badillo had discovered the book after being asked to find a current and relevant book on leadership to use for the program. Last November I had the opportunity to video conference in with some of the students for their last meeting. The conversation was extremely positive and encouraging. As we closed a young lady from Vietnam named Yiyu Liao told me “I have a tear in my eye. You have given me hope in politics again.” Next month, I’ve been invited to speak at UTEP and needless to say I’m extremely excited to share a message of hope and inspiration with students and faculty alike.

Several weeks ago, I came across an opinion piece in USA Today by a young lady named Amanda Shafer entitled “’Fake governance’ has plagued my generation. Here’s how we rise above it”. I was fascinated by how Amanda’s views of political polarization mirror my own. However, more so than that, I was encouraged to learn of a non-profit Amanda is a part of called BridgeUSA which currently has chapters on seventeen college campuses in the United States and more in Europe through their affiliate BridgeEurope. The organization seeks to work with “America’s future leaders on college campuses to foster spaces wherein a diverse range of ideas can engage one another through the practice of responsible discourse.” After reading the article and researching the tremendously necessary initiative BridgeUSA is undertaking, I reached out to Amanda to applaud the work that the organization is doing as well as to offer my help with their efforts in whatever way they see fit.

When speaking to a Political Science class at Augusta University recently I was asked by a young lady if hope and change were possible given the climate of the world we’re living in these days. My reply was that no endeavor or enterprise built around anger, greed, or seeking power is ever truly sustainable. I then shared with her that it is her generation, a generation not yet completely jaded by the world around them, that gives me hope and inspiration that over time positive change will come and that brighter days lie ahead. I said this with no irony nor doubt. I said it simply because I believe it based on my experiences I’ve highlighted above and many more I’ll continue to document and share as I firmly believe the world can always use a little more hope.

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