It is no secret that the world is hurting. We continue to struggle with what living life looks like in a covid-19 pandemic era and it is affecting every aspect of our human society. It was always true that the covid-19 pandemic ushered us into Grey Zone Change, a space between the current state (system A) and the emerging future (system B) that is undefined and unknowable. What is true of grey zone change is that we accept the assignment of stepping into the unknown, to get to a transformational new way—the promise of a better future. In doing so, we also accept that as part of journeying into the unknown and working through the in-between space, there are costs we must contend with in the transition as we learn and develop forward.
The covid-19 pandemic has brought with it human/psychosocial costs, economic costs and geopolitical costs and of course the compound cost of each impact when viewed from an intersectional lens on the people groups most impacted. The human/ psychosocial costs include the ongoing health impacts on global society, such as the immunity gap and debt, mental health crisis and widespread traumatic impacts that ensued after 2 years in and out of isolation to save lives as we learned about the coronavirus. We are also seeing reductions in empathy and rising incivility, both in terms of diminishing of basic norms of respect, politeness and consideration of others and in terms of threats to public-mindedness. Public-mindedness is both moral civility as respect for the fundamental right of others’ civic standing such that we do not tolerate racism and discrimination; as well as justificatory civility, requiring avoidance of justifying political rules based on self-interested and political agendas.” The economic costs include continued global inflation impacts and food insecurity and concern for geopolitics with the war in Europe’s pressure on energy and food costs. And of course, we are grappling with historical and ongoing structural inequities that have been exacerbated and illuminated for marginalized people groups and nations states across all these dimensions when assessed from a systemic and/or world-system lens.
It is one thing to know all this. It is another to live it. These costs show up in daily life, when the price of basic groceries or to fill a car tank means you are double checking precarious bank account balances; when cold, flu, respiratory syncytial virus or covid-19 means parents and children are missing days of school and work at a time and there is no children’s medication on pharmacy shelves to ease symptoms; when you wake up to more news of war and famine impacts around the world and yet another racial or oppressively violent incident in the public sphere or at work; when you wake up unrested and lethargic and wonder if you can make it to work but drag yourself there because bills need to be paid; when you reach work to learn another team member, or the one boss that keeps you going has decided to leave as employees from individual contributors to the C-suite continue making transformative life choices in the Great Reconsideration/Resignation/Reshuffling…
Where does this leave us? In 2022, and for the foreseeable future, we must get better at living with and through the costs of transformation…and for those who lead, supporting others on the journey as well.
In previous blog posts, I reflected on the need for leaders to be clear and generative and to “find your square”—essentially choosing the work in the world that is yours to do at this time, knowing that you individual and leader, cannot do it all. I build on that now in the midst of my own continued grappling with these impacts in my intersecting roles as scholar-practitioner, leader, coach, policy-maker/advisor on Boards and from my standpoint as a global African woman, socially/racially classified as a Black woman in the world. None of what I share here or on previous blogs is a panacea. The road to transformation under any circumstance is hard work. I continue to learn from my own mistakes and wounds as well as from an ongoing commitment to scholarly reflection and praxis. It is from that place that I call for the following three radical commitments, which each hold inherent tensions in the journey forward: A radical commitment to groundedness; a radical commitment to hope (i.e. the possibility of positive change/transformation); and a radical commitment to action.
- A radical commitment to groundedness: In a world swimming in pandemic era impacts, how does one keep grounded to the reality of what is happening in the world, while being grounded in one’s own wellbeing, to find continued clarity? A radical commitment to groundedness requires:
- The capacity to see the full reality around us, rather than get stuck in myopic perspectives or echo-chamber thinking. This requires continued learning, reflection and meaning-making both individually and in collective community/the public square. It calls for constant engagement and exposure of ourselves to our fragile and hurting world, in full knowledge of the personal impacts and emotional toll that can have.
- The capacity to attend to one’s own whole person wellbeing (physical, spiritual, emotional, mental and socially) by continually reflecting on new knowledge and learning while balancing the exhaustion of doing so in a pandemic-era reality. This requires radical care for one’s own personal and interior wellbeing using individual, interpersonal and community supports available such as counselling, coaching, community groups and personal wellbeing practices. It is the counterbalance to constant external exposure, especially in these times.
- A radical commitment to practice hope [i.e. the possibility of positive change/transformation]. To lead in a pandemic era requires continually asking: What are the possibilities? It is the refusal to give up hope as a practice of moving towards action for transformation. This commitment requires the capacity to balance collaboration with differentiated strategies in the search for positive change (single events or actions in a positive direction) and transformation (fundamental change in systems that do not serve us) by exercising:
- The capacity to engage with those most impacted by issues, who have the genuine will to co-create and collaborate across differences to look for solutions. In the grey zone of change where there are no clear answers, the will to innovate, to try plausible experiments and prototype and to learn and iterate is our greatest leverage to keep moving forward. This is a collaborative and integrative stance to transformation, looking for the bridges and doorways to transformation
- On the flip side, this commitment requires the capacity to know when the conditions for planning for positive change/transformation through collaboration are absent, being diminished or when exhaustion is setting in. It calls for the capacity to stop, ask for a boundary and look for other strategies to positive change and transformation on behalf of yourself and if you are leading, on behalf of those you lead. We know from complex adaptive systems that transformation happens in a myriad of ways if we can change the underlying patterns that keep unhelpful systems in place. Knowing when to look for differentiated strategies is essential to avoid burnout in the midst of constant change and the resulting change fatigue or immunity to change that can get in the way of progress.
- A radical commitment to clear action: This is the commitment to action that is your personal and interior motivation for positive change. It is grounded in:
- The capacity to have a clear purpose, anchored in our personal identity stories that create Resonance or moments of awakening that open space for transformation. It is your reason for being a change actor in a hurting world. It is the unwavering commitment to make a difference.
- On the other hand, a radical commitment to clear action means being thoughtful about what you can and cannot do and resisting the saviour complex that presupposes you can do it all, all at once, all by yourself. It is the capacity to exercise wisdom to know when to persevere and when to let go and try a different way towards positive change and transformation.
These translate into the following:
- Be open AND take care of your own wellbeing
- Seek collaboration AND practice differentiation in search of positive change and transformation
- Make clear commitments AND exercise the wisdom to let go and pivot
Overall, please know that every action, interaction, and inaction matters because:
Everyone who draws breath “takes the lead” many times a day. We lead with actions that range from a smile to a frown; with words that range from blessing to curse; with decisions that range from faithful to fearful. Friends lead friends, parents their children, teachers their students, bosses their employees, doctors their patients, politicians their constituents. Of course, those roles and relationships often run in the other direction and can turn on a dime, as when constituents lead politicians, students teach their teachers, and young children provide wise guidance to their elders. And people can lead from the margins as well as from the center, which is the beauty part of any ecosystem. My point is simple, though its implications are not: with every act of leadership, large and small, we help co create the reality in which we live, from the microcosm of personal relationships to the macrocosm of war and peace. When I resist thinking of myself as a leader, it is neither because of modesty nor a clear-eyed look at the reality of my life. It is because I have an unconscious desire to avoid responsibility. That is magical thinking, of course. I am responsible for my impact on the world whether I acknowledge it or not. So, what does it take to qualify as a leader? Being human and being here. As long as I am here, doing whatever I am doing, I am leading, for better or for worse. And, if I may say so, so are you.Parker Palmer, Leading From Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead
 Book available on Amazon, free workbook available at https://sldconsulting.org/grey-zone-change/
 Open Access E-book available online for download: Bonotti, M., & Zech, S. T. (2021). Recovering Civility During COVID-19. Springer Singapore Pte. Limited. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-33-6706-7