Leadership in a time of crises

Current U.S. crises – the Covid-19 pandemic, endemic racism, burgeoning economic inequality, a looming recession (or even a depression) and a president who appears to prefer tyranny instead of democracy – offer a once in a generation for change. We need leaders who envision what might be rather than attempting to preserve the badly broken and immoral what is.

Distress in the U.S. is palpable, caused by 100,000 plus deaths, the murder of unarmed black men and imprisonment of almost 20% of black men under 30 years of age, a 1% whose wealth exceeds the combined wealth of the bottom 80%, unemployment at about 20% and growing, and a president who prefers dictators to democratically elected leaders, militarism to lawful protest, and loyalty to himself over truth and a free press.

The current distress offers a unique opportunity for systemic, adaptive change. A national healthcare system would cost less while more effectively prioritizing well-being than does the current broken, exclusionary healthcare approach dominated by large profit-driven corporations. Improving race relations, empowered minority communities – increased access to voting, better schools, better housing, non-discriminatory employment programs, etc. – and demilitarizing the police will bring an end to police killing black men at twice the rate that the police kill white men. Fairly taxing corporations (many now pay no income tax), the 1% (e.g., by removing the cap on incomes subject to social security taxes), and enacting inheritance taxes that end wealth being passed from generation to generation will reduce economic inequality, exactly as those taxes worked to end America’s gilded age. Electing political leaders who cherish democracy and who seek to serve rather than rule their constituencies. These proposals are suggestions not ukases. Working together, people can develop and implement even better ideas.

Behavioral psychologist and Roman Catholic deacon Frank Barrett compares leadership to jazz. Trombonist Milt Bernhart told an anecdote that vividly illustrates the healthy and energizing interplay between a leader (Duke Ellington) and his followers (the band):

The band was to play a piece of music based on a movie. To get them started, Ellington put a single eight-bar line of music on each stand. “I looked down into those famous baggy eyes and asked, ‘Pardon me, Duke. What’ll we play besides the eight bars we’ve got?’ His brows went up a fraction, and he said ‘You’ll know.’ That was the end of the questioning period.” This is a different art of leadership, designing just enough structure that constrains and guides the soloist to discover new possibilities.7[1]

Jazz incidentally, demonstrates that followership can be not just satisfactory work but a noble calling.[2] The leader may receive the most prominence but without followers will achieve little. Imagine how relatively impoverished Ellington’s music would be without his band.

May the music begin!


[1] Frank J. Barrett, Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), p. 139.

[2] Frank J. Barrett, Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), p. 120.

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