Four Significant Leadership Lessons From 2020


2020 was rough. Leaders lost loved ones. Bosses were forced to facilitate layoffs, or worse yet, were laid off themselves. Some entrepreneurs failed to close on essential business deals and 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 and wearing a mask ad nauseam. I am in no way trying to patronize leaders or trivialize the diverse trials that they have inevitably experienced in this infamous year. I believe 2020 was a tough teacher. However, I also strongly believe that 2020 was a good teacher. And, if 2020 was a good, tough teacher, class was in session all. year. long. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy to allow the leadership lessons of 2020 to be lost in the blizzard of besetting challenges? So, here are four unforgettable discoveries I gathered firsthand in 2020 that have affected my character and leadership. 2020 offered no shortage of instruction and insights; so, feel free to add to this list. Now, now, class is beginning. First, 2020 taught me that “polarizing” is easier than “harmonizing.” Yes, division and polarization are nothing new, but even “newly minted leaders” instinctively knew that 2020 offered something different - something way more intense. In 2020 people were divided over almost everything. In this proudly self-proclaimed “cancel culture,” some leaders were completely 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 one who accidently shared his political leaning over a casual cup of coffee with a co-worker, only to later discover that he had been deliberately removed 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? It’s crazy! I’m not sure if 2020 largely created the rift between Americans, or simply exposed the rift, but one thing is for sure, very few leaders sought to close the growing divide. When did “working apart” replace “working together?” When did ideological separatism replace collaborative teamwork? Secondly, I learned that one’s vision is only as good as one’s anticipation. Many leaders, just prior to 2020, were completely drunk with vision, and the subsequent 12 months sobered them up. They confidently cast their “2020 vision” (pun intended) before their organizations, only to expose that they publicly misreported their “foresight examination score” and apparently didn’t even visit the “leadership optometrist,” so to speak. For years, notable conference speakers have been persistently warning leaders 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? 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. Sadly, their envisioned steps weren’t intuitive enough, quick enough, or desirable enough for the newly repositioned consumer. It’s important that leaders understand that 2021 isn’t just the start of a new year, but 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. However, the 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, with services that legitimately serve. The third leadership lesson of 2020 has less to do with one’s ability to anticipate the future but speaks to one’s disposition towards it. 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. And, the leaders who couldn’t stomach making a move, did not move. It seems to me that leaders who humbly moved forward into the unknown, are today, by and large, still known, and those who were frozen with the “paralysis of analysis” aren’t just behind the curve, but they are buried. Leadership has never 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? Wouldn’t that be called, “standing?” Yes, Yes, I know. Many leaders stepped out too soon, risked too much, and made significant mistakes. But, isn’t leadership risky? Pessimistic leadership doesn’t have the power to inspire, and it certainly doesn’t have the power to innovate solutions. While optimistic leaders were busy: pinpointing opportunities, prioritizing operations, and purifying their organizations during quarantine, the world’s pessimistic leaders slowly withered away in irrelevance while they casually criticized those “impertinent optimists” who dared to try something that may or may not move the proverbial needle forward. Yes, I say again, optimism innovates while pessimism stagnates. Lastly, I have learned that “the good” shamelessly soldiers on right alongside “the bad.” But, very few see it. Two thousand and twenty can’t be all bad. After all, I became an uncle again for the 12th time. I was invited to celebrate love-struck couples at wedding ceremonies. My friends were still friendly. Jokes were still funny. And, tacos were still tasty. Yes, 2020 has humbled me, but 2020 has also blessed me. When I was younger, my dad told me that it takes no skill to complain or point out the bad. This comes naturally. However, my dad went on to say, that determining to see the glimmers of hope during a raging storm - now that’s hard work. 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. When will we realize that the good peppered throughout this year is not any less true than the draining details of the same? Perspective isn’t everything, but it is a very big thing. And, if you can find the good in 2020, you will likely find the good in about any season waiting for you in the days ahead. Because, where bad goes, good goes, too.