“These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”
-- Abigail Adams
Is Abigail Adams right? You decide.
Right now we live in a moment of great discontinuity. It is bizarre because the economy is booming, inflation is low, and the stock market is growing. This economic growth should fuel the closing of deep divides and drive investment in innovations that better the common good. Yet this economic patina doesn’t stop me from waking up at 2:15 every morning wondering if it’s time to pack up my family and move to Canada.
Everyday, in great relief, we watch a multitude of forces push against one another. There is the call for greater equity and inclusion in our society while our government separates children from their mothers. There is a need to tear down systems that perpetuate gender and racial inequality while Congress and the White House appoint judges whose prerogative is to re-enforce these systems as the rule of law. As someone who is committed to strengthening the social fabric of communities and ensure it wraps its way around everyone — someone who is able to write this because my grandparents came to this country with the same hope as the mother who recently had her child taken from her at the border — I wonder about what it will take to move through this time. Is it marching and protesting? Financial donations to the ACLU? Is it holding elected officials feet to the fire? Is it all of the above? Or none of the above?
I really want to believe Abigail Adams, yet there are my early-morning terrors and my musings about what Vancouver is like this time of year. I can only speak for myself and say that finding my leadership during this period of time has been difficult. I find myself feeling more passive than active. Outraged? Always. Most of all I feel exhausted by the daily distractions that keep me refreshing nytimes.com because I worry about the slight of hand of our political leaders — “Look over here, so that you miss what I am doing over there.” But deep inside I know I give them too much credit. They are not great magicians. They are just good at keeping me in a perpetual state of ambiguity.
Frustrated by my own malaise, I started using a new lens when meeting with different social-sector leaders. I wondered how their leadership has evolved over the last three to five years. What is motivating them today and how has it changed the way they look at the world? Some I see holding on for dear life to what they have, trying to ignore this moment in time and investing their energy into making sure the world works the way it has always worked. Others, superhuman in their activism and constantly enraged, only add to the cacophony.
I have also observed leaders who are methodically working the problem. They are able to see the day-to-day reality while making big and small changes to systems and processes. Here, even the person who is wrestling with an immediate crisis is using it as an opportunity to catapult her or his community’s impact to the next level. In one case, it’s about getting back to the values and beliefs that are most important — a willingness to face the fear of losing support in order to achieve a deeper mission objective. In another, it’s about embedding oneself so deeply into the system you hate in order to gain the trust and power needed to subvert it — a sort of social-sector espionage. These are deep commitments that don’t pan out within an annual budget cycle. It can take years before any change manifests.
At a glance, you could mistake these leaders for being willfully ignorant, yet they are opportunistic in their orientation. They are not bowed by the moment, they are looking for ways to move forward, taking the time to understand their own deeply held assumptions and biases. They look up, listen and learn, make connections, build new relationships, and use the challenge of hard work to quiet fear and embrace possibility. I admire these qualities because they are cultivated from within. These are lived principles that shape character and frame a way of seeing the world. This is vision. The kind of sight that can look through daily challenges and focus on what is meaningful and right. This is where a genius wishes to live.
Though the cynic in me worries about how we as a nation can move so quickly from “Hope and Change” in 2008 to “This American Carnage” in 2016*, I feel we are living in a great moment of creative tension. Out of dark instincts, a desire to improve the human condition will prevail. That we all can stop mistaking Ms. Adams’ “genius” for someone else and realize that it is us.
*Quote from President Donald Trump’s 2017 Inauguration Speech.