Leading in the Pandemic Era
The COVID pandemic is the first truly global experience, revealing the complex interconnectedness of our lives. Today’s leadership needs to highlight our mutual dependency and bring us together for good.
The COVID pandemic is the first truly global experience, revealing the complex interconnectedness of our lives across the entire planet. Even the “world wars” of the 20th century were not truly global experiences; they did not impact the quotidian lives and deaths of people in every corner of the planet. The question I’ve been pondering is this: Will the pandemic bring people of vastly different experiences, perspectives, and values together or we will retreat from one another and from the increasingly complex, global challenges we face?
I believe the important lesson we need to learn from COVID is that our well-being is not solely in our own control. It is dependent on the behaviors of our friends, as well as strangers with whom we come into contact and even those in far off lands. Our well-being is dependent on those who may seem very different from us and with whom we may virulently disagree.
At times during this pandemic, our instinctual reaction has been to retreat into smaller and smaller pods of those we can trust and create larger and larger barriers to the outside world. Yet, this is not a long-term solution, and for many people not a workable solution at all. After all, we are social creatures, whose lives are intimately dependent on others no matter how far we retreat.
Consider for a moment all of the people and processes that were necessary for you to eat last night’s dinner. (Pause and consider.) If any of those processes broke down or persons did not fulfill well their role, the dinner you had likely would not have been served. We live our lives in webs of relationships that support, undercut, and influence our well-being.
The viral mechanics of COVID make it abundantly clear the ways in which our well-being is dependent on the actions of others. While this may seem new to us, this has always been the case. I recall in 2009, a NY Times Magazine article that reported on decades of studies that demonstrated that our own health habits (i.e., smoking, eating, exercise, etc.) are subtly and powerfully influenced by who our friends are, and even who our friends’ friends are. Without conscious intention, we take on the behaviors of those around us.
Thus, you may say this elevates the importance of choosing to live among and spending our time with only those who have “healthy” habits, with whom we agree with politically, and with whom we share similar life experiences and core values. However, when we do, we lock ourselves into bubbles of group think, where we become blithely unaware of our own biases and blind spots. We may seem safe and secluded. Yet, as COVID (and last night’s dinner) teaches, we are not really protected. Our lives are still dependent on those beyond our small circles.
The overwhelming complexity of COVID and the emerging challenges facing us today, from climate collapse to attacks on our democracy triggers our flight (or fight?) response. Individually, we can’t change the situation, and we can barely understand its complexities and what we can do that would help. So, it seems often better to hunker down in our own social bunkers and ignore the truth of our mutual dependence.
But consider the opposite. What if our social relationships reflected and encompassed more and more of those people whom we already depend on daily? What if we intentionally worked to form relationships of mutual support and shared inquiry with those who seem very different from us?
The Jewish concept of Covenant (brit) – which the Jewish People at Sinai entered into with God and with all future Jewish generations – is a partnership distinct from the contemporary use of contracts. The latter typically involves a transaction that fulfills the self-interests of both parties. You get something you want and in return I get something I want. Contracts also tend to be time-limited and only encompass a very circumscribed part of your life. On the other hand, Biblical covenants are between two parties for the sake of a third party – the Sinaitic covenant was for the sake of the world. Covenants also tend to be eternal and encompass aspects of your entire life – consider the extent of mitzvot commanded of the Jewish People. Finally, we are changed through participating in a covenant; we grow in our knowledge, in our capabilities, and in our relationship with our covenantal partner.
We grow because fulfillment of the covenant requires that we learn how to partner for the sake of ourselves and the entire world. We could partner with those just like ourselves (religiously, ideologically, ethnically, etc.) and work in small pods that seem to keep us safe and in control. Yet, consider how much more one grows in a partnership with those who bring different passions, perspectives, and purpose. A covenantal relationship that seeks out and embraces differences, pushes us beyond our boundaries (physical, mental, and emotional). It awakens us to new possibilities. And, yes, it dis-comforts us. We cannot fully settle into habitual patterns, thinking our behaviors not only “right” but also taken-for-granted. Yet, this discomfort is a font of growth – a spark to reflection, increased self-awareness, and personal development.
I entitled this Insight “Leadership in the Pandemic Era” because even when COVID wanes, we will still be in the globally-interconnected world that COVID brought to our awareness. Regardless of the specific challenges that we seek to address as a professional or lay leaders – injustice, hunger, housing, anti-semitism, climate collapse, etc. – to be successful we will need to form covenantal relationships with those who come with different past experiences, with those who see the world differently, and with those whose core values may be different than ours. This will not be easy; it tends to go against our “human nature” which is to keep close to those who are like us. But, as our tradition teaches, we are not just animals tied to our “nature”; we are also angels (from Bereishit Rabbah 8:11). As angels, we have within each of us the divine capacities for compassion, courage, and curiosity. Becoming truly human involves cultivating those capacities (called middot) that enable us to transcend our baser instincts.
As professional and lay leaders of our community, we need to awaken to our mutual dependency on one another and upon others with whom we may not always agree and we may not always get along. Working together, we need to craft covenantal partnerships for the greater good, which will also be for our own growth and well-being, as well as the continued vitality of our Jewish community. It brings hope during this season of joy to see this already happening in so many places among the agencies of our Associated system and across our synagogues.
At Na’aleh, we hope to do our small part in helping you to master the core practices of leadership, needed to embrace covenantal change in our community and world. Participate and we will guide you:
- To form relationships of mutual support, shared inquiry, and critical reflection.
- To awaken to the complex and evolving systems of which we are a part.
- To create working partnership that embrace difference.
- To strengthen your divine capacities, such as compassion, courage, and curiosity.
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