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Humankind’s Adaptability to Crises: Pandemics Not Excluded

May 31, 2020

Gas Mask Kiss

Humankind’s ability to rise to crises and extraordinary challenges has some prominent examples from the past. When things appear bleakest, with no light at the end of the tunnel, there’s a tendency for people to turn pessimistic about the future. “We’re doomed as a society” comes the refrain from some quarters. Survivalists kick into gear, warning people about the imminent end—which also spawns the sales of survival gear and food supplies, not to forget shelter.

It doesn’t help that in the age of social media and hyper-vigilant news outlets, both preying on human fear, that information gets distorted. Indeed, “fake news” gets manufactured, with the aim of financially exploiting this fear and to further inflame it.

It’s only when people get through a crisis that they emerge stronger and are able to reflect on what they experienced. Personal leadership matters. This post provides three prominent examples of how humans have adapted to very dark periods. The first two examples relate to the rise of the Third Reich (1933-1945) under Adolf Hitler and the World War Two.

First we’ll look at The Blitz, Germany’s bombing campaign against Great Britain during 1940-41. Hitler had become frustrated with the inability of the Luftwaffe to gain air superiority over Britain’s Royal Air Force. He then changed tactics to bombing towns, cities, and industrial plants in an effort to demoralize Britons. During the bombing campaign, the Luftwaffe dropped over 100 tons of explosives, killing an estimated 40,000 Britons. Indeed, during one six month period it took 1,700 freight trains to haul away 750,000 tons of rubble from London.

To try to protect its citizens, Churchill’s government used subway tunnels and other underground basements as communal shelters. Although subway (“tube”) tunnels were used to some extent during World War One, there was reticence to do so in the second world war for reasons of allowing the system to continue operating. However, the need to protect citizens grew as Hitler persisted in his efforts. (Above photo: Britons celebrating “Blitzmas” 1940)

As one American expressed at the time: “By every test and measure I am able to apply, these people are staunch to the bone and won’t quit … the British are stronger and in a better position than they were at its beginning”. People referred to raids as if they were weather, stating that a day was “very blitzy.”

Those working in the fields of psychology and psychiatry expected that citizens would require counselling and treatment from what was called shell shock (now PTSD), common among combat soldiers. But this need never arose in any meaningful way. Churchill’s extraordinary leadership during the war, combined with the tough resolve of Britons and their dry sense of humour, enabled the population (especially in London, but over 15 cities and towns as well) to persevere. The comradery and cohesiveness of citizens during a very dark and uncertain time in Great Britain’s long history prevailed in the end.


Concurrent with the bombing of Great Britain, what is unquestionably the darkest period in modern human history was taking place: Nazi concentration camps.

While historians have spent years documenting and trying to estimate the numbers of people killed by the Nazis, the following is generally agreed upon for (using a selection of certain groups):

Jews: 6 million

Soviets: 5.7 million (not including 1.3 millions Jews as part of above)

Roma gypsies: 250,000

Serbians: 312,000

Homosexuals: ranging from hundreds to thousands

With respect to the many concentration camps, the Auschwitz complex had the most deaths at a staggering one million, followed by Treblinka 2 (estimated 925,000) and Belzec (435,000). The magnitude of the numbers of Jews and others systematically murdered makes one’s head swim, and hard to grasp that a genocide could be so organized and executed. However, behind each and every death was a human face: mother, father, sister, brother, grandpa, grandma. (Above photo: U.S. soldier at concentration camp upon liberation)

Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book described his experiences at four German-run concentration camps: TheresienstadtAuschwitzKaufering and Türkheim. The Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist began his career while still a medical student, counselling young people on suicide prevention. At the mere age of 25 he began working at the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital, and between 1933 and 1937 was treating 3,000 patients a year. It was in 1940 when working in Vienna that he was deported to a concentration camp.

During his imprisonment, Frankl began documenting the conditions he witnessed. He collated his observations into three stages of what the prisoners went through:

  1. initial shock of arrival
  2. apathy once acclimated to the camp’s conditions and a focus of self-survival, including close friends
  3. Depersonalization, bitterness, and disillusionment once freedom was attained. No one was waiting for them when they arrived home.

Frankl’s concise “Man’s Search for Meaning,” written in just over a week in 1946, concluded that  the deepest desire for human beings is to find meaning in life. If they can achieve this then they can survive anything. In reference to his experiences in concentration camps, Frankl decided that these would help make him a better person. His own suffering provided him deep insights and learning.

Freedom Tower

Although now almost two decades ago, the horrific day of September 11, 2001, seems like yesterday to many older people, though in a nightmarish way. In a matter of a few hours on a sunny morning, almost three thousand people lost their lives, representing dozens of countries, and the many first responders who rushed into the two blazing towers to valiantly try to save lives. (Above photo: Freedom Tower, by J. Taggart)

The stunning loss of life in such a short time (2,996 and 25,000 injuries), the ensuing financial upheaval (eg, $40 billion in insurance losses), and business damage (18,000 businesses lost or disrupted) underscore the first direct attack on American soil. However, Brown University in 2018 estimated that the total costs to the U.S. were $5.93 trillion, comprising mostly the War on Terror and care for veterans.

While the resiliency of New Yorkers, and Americans more broadly, following 9/11 was commendable, with the city’s economy rocketing upwards in the ensuing years, the problem of PTSD not surprisingly accelerated. Scientific American in 2002 found that PTSD among New Yorkers and those present on September 11th was 11.2 percent, almost three times higher than the national average. Because of PTSD’s insidious nature, it remains an important issue to address.

In my four trips to New York City between May 2017 and May 2019, New Yorkers I met said they couldn’t bring themselves to visit the 9/11 museum or the new World Trade “Freedom” tower. The memories of that fateful day were still too painful for them to visit what are billed as among the city’s top two tourist attractions. These individuals I spoke to had either worked in the immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center, and luckily escaped with their lives, or had friends who perished when the two towers collapsed.

It’s still somewhat hard to grasp that many young people who are about to enter the work force were born after 9/11. They don’t remember the panic and uncertainties of that blue sky Tuesday morning. And you didn’t have to be an American to feel a sense of dread and loss: from Canadians to Europeans to Australians to Asians, the world mourned—and feared what could be next. But the world moved on as always, whether it’s fighting terrorism or adapting to rising sea levels due to climate change.

Yet the human race, despite its tendency to wait till a major problem hits it in the face, adapts. People are inherently creative and innovative, as witnessed by what has taken place to date with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic (and Covid-19 syndrome). Automotive companies have stepped forward to make hospital ventilators, individuals have sewn hundreds of thousands of non-medical masks, volunteers shop for home-bound seniors, small businesses have created new ways to serve customers safely, and over 100 vaccines are in development in several countries to defeat Covid-19.

The human race adapts.

That’s been it’s history and evolution.

And we’ll all get through this pandemic if we’re patient, respectful of others, listen to our local medical authorities, and adapt our daily routines to the bigger goal of coming out the other side stronger and better prepared to confront the next major global crisis.

Because there will certainly be one.

Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. One always measures friendships by how they show up in bad weather. Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. —Winston Churchill

The Pandemic Pendulum: From Fear-Based Shutdown to Fearless Idiocy

May 24, 2020


Leaders of nations have perpetual challenges—small and large, short-term and long-term. Sometimes these challenges come with ample warning, perhaps months in advance as a crisis builds. Other times, they arrive with relatively short notice. And then occasionally—more likely rarely—leaders face Black Swan types of events: those that arrive with virtually no warning. An example is a major earthquake that spawns a tsunami which inundates the coast of a developing country, leaving thousands dead and injured, looting in stores, violence, and the cry for help from rich western countries.

The SARS-CoV 2 (Covid-19) pandemic is not a Black Swan event.

Sufficient information started emerging in December 2019 from concerned Chinese citizens (notably ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang and colleagues), including secret briefings provided by U.S. medical intelligence to the President. Canada’s prime minister and senior cabinet ministers were briefed by January on the growing virus problem, called initially the Wuhan Virus, whose origins are now traced to mid-October at a Wuhan wet market.

National political leaders have uniquely more complicated problems, and with broad constituencies, in comparison to business leaders. Democratically elected leaders are often in office for shorter periods than business leaders. As a consequence, they have a strong tendency to contaminate solutions to vexing problems with the political implications for the next elections. That aspect has produced a litany of bad decisions across many national governments.

One doesn’t have to be particularly creative or insightful to equate this tendency to the incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as he deliberates on how to deal with Covid-19 with a national election due in just over five months.

Oh, the challenges of holding the office of the world’s most powerful military power.

1918The human race has an incredible dual conflicting propensity:

1) To stick its head in the sand when a significant global problem looms, eg, rising sea levels due to climate warming.

2) To react very quickly when a crisis strikes and humans engage their creative instincts, eg, Covid-19.

The failures of national leaders, from Canada’s Justin Trudeau to Donald Trump to the UK’s Boris Johnson to Italy’s Giuseppe Conte, to immediately sit up and pay attention to what was happening in Hubei Province in late 2019 and into 2020 will be written up in the history books in the years to come. Just as we, as a society, have become familiar with the 1918 influenza ( where the first case was identified at a Kansas military base, but incorrectly labelled the “Spanish Flu” since Spain was the first country to acknowledge it had the virus), so too will our children’s great great grand children read about the catastrophic 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and the massive bungled efforts by the majority of national leaders. (Above photo 1918 Influenza)

Panic produces delayed and very poor decision-making. For example, Prime Minister Boris Johnson exhibited a cavalier attitude towards the growing pandemic for a few months, initially buying into some of his advisors’ notion of letting the population acquire a Swedish-style herd immunity. Just when Johnson discarded this advice, he contracted Covid-19 and ended up eventually in ICU. That’s when Boris got religion, a new prophet for fighting the virus with characteristic British vigour and resolve. But the consequence has been especially grave for the United Kingdom with some 35,000 Covid-19 deaths at the time of writing.

There has been no uniform approach to dealing with the pandemic. Sweden has gone one direction; time will tell if it was foolish or wise. Canada, when it reacted finally, swung the pendulum to the far end of virtual shutdown. Only as of the long May weekend have restrictions partially eased, depending on each provincial premier’s directives. But the economic damage is already severe, with a rapidly mounting price tag. In mid-May, a jointly signed letter from business leaders, economists, and health professionals urged the prime minister to allow the country to move faster to resume business. Some may argue that it’s easy for highly educated, upper middle class people to insist that businesses reopen which employ typically much lower paid employees, and the ones who’ve borne the brunt of Covid-19.


The United States’ approach to the pandemic is one for the history books. From total lockdowns in New York State and California, for example, to a nonchalant attitude in the deep South and parts of the Midwest, where social distancing has been scorned, the pendulum couldn’t decide where to rest.

In economics, the word “equilibrium” is a favourite. Of course, it’s used in a conceptual way to illustrate how an economy continually shifts in demand and supply, whether for goods, services or labour. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, what’s increasingly being demanded and sought, not just by economists and business people but citizens and increasingly healthcare professionals, is a more or less equilibrium between total lockdowns and a re-opened economy. In short, it’s a very delicate balancing act, requiring ongoing finesse in knowing where and when to tighten up and then release.

Choosing a fully reopened economy would prove disastrous; just check out the fall of 1918 when the second pandemic wave of the Spanish Flu struck. Devastating. Likewise, the escalating social costs (eg, mental health, PTSD, divorce, suicide, family violence) on top of the economic and financial damage from a fear-based approach to confronting the pandemic can’t be treated lightly.

Because most countries (except for those such as Taiwan, Singapore, Germany, Iceland and Greece) reacted far too slowly to the emerging pandemic, we are now where we are. In the absence of proven vaccines and intermediary treatments to reduce deaths, what’s key is to enable real-time experimentation with resuming business and citizens’ freedom of movement. That means immediately knowing when a resurgence of cases starts to occur and taking prompt corrective action, including contact tracing.

Testing is a cornerstone of medical intelligence. Symptoms screening and conducting regular, random sample testing are vital to understanding the spread of the virus, its containment, and death rate (to now a rough guess).

Just as leadership pandemic paralysis is undesirable so too is the presence of fearless idiocy; this has no place in our environment. People who ignore physical (social) distancing and proper hygiene endanger us all. And they’ll contribute to dragging the pandemic on longer and with more fatalities.

That brings us back to the pendulum.

No, it’ll never reach a static point until Covid-19 is fully contained, keeping in mind it may be a disease that’s with us for years to come. For the next year, or whatever time it takes to deploy one or more vaccines, the pendulum will swing slightly if we’re doing things right—namely, adjusting along the way. But it needn’t swing wildly.

National leaders’ role in this pandemic is to control the pendulum.

This is a pandemic, and every single person in this country, and in the world, effectively, is impacted by it. Nobody’s immune to it. Nobody can avoid it. And because of that, you can change your priorities. Mark Cuban (Owner of Dallas Mavericks and Member of Shark Tank )

The Grapes of Wrath 2.0

May 17, 2020

Operations At A Drive-Through Food Bank In California

When John Steinbeck wrote his epic novel The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, he searched for a title but came up empty handed. His (first) wife, Carol Henning, suggested a line from a section of the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on.

Set during the Great Depression, Steinbeck’s searing portal of the Joad family, sharecroppers from Oklahoma evicted from their farm and who travelled to California to find work, has been viewed by some as an indictment of capitalism. Awarded the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the novel is a critically important commentary on income disparities—in the 1930s and in 2020—and the economic power that the wealthy continue to possess in America.

Hollywood’s critically acclaimed 1940 film by the same name, starring Henry Ford, provided the important visual images that Steinbeck described. However, in the succeeding years Hollywood shifted its emphasis. During WWII and the 1950s (McCarthyism and the Korean War) Hollywood celebrated capitalism and the American Way, and warned of the Red communist threat.

In what can be described as adolescent patriotism in the decades since, the United States remains plagued with rising income disparity, Third World conditions in parts of the country, and a growing super rich elite whose patrolled gated compounds keep them detached—physically and morally—from the masses.

Now the planet is enmeshed in a pandemic. The Grapes of Wrath 2.0 has returned with a vengeance.

Witness the miles long, bumper-to-bumper lines of vehicles for food donations (above photo California). No, NOT in the 1930s but today in the United States. Where stressed to the max Americans ignore self-isolation and social distancing guidelines/laws because they can’t feed their families (20% of children don’t receive adequate nutrition), can’t pay their rent, can’t pay their taxes, can’t pay their employees, and choose to demonstrate in the streets and on the steps of state legislatures. (Below photo Great Depression)

This has occurred sporadically in Canada, but nowhere near on a per capita scale as the U.S. It’s not just because Canadians are more compliant than Americans, but the federal government immediately began pushing money out the door to citizens and business. It’s never enough, as the saying goes, but the aim was to address the immediate needs of Canadians. Time will tell what next fiscal steps will be needed, depending on the success of gradually re-opening the economy, which starts in mid-May in stages across the country.


When President Roosevelt launched his Hundred Days program on March 4, 1933, he was seeking essentially two main things: a) economic recovery from the Great Depression and b) institutional reform. The great British economist John Maynard Keynes admired FDR’s resolve, although he believed that institutional reform could wait. Re-establishing consumer demand, in Keynes’ view, was more important at that moment.

As Keynes stated in a letter to FDR:

You have made yourself the trustee for those in every country who seek to mend the evils of our condition by reasoned experiment within the framework of the existing social system. If you fail, rational change will be gravely prejudiced throughout the world, leaving orthodoxy and revolution to fight it out. But if you succeed, new and bolder methods will be tried everywhere, and we may date the first chapter of a new economic era from your accession to office.

Fast forward to spring 2020, where a fevered pitch has reached a crescendo on Capitol Hill, spreading across a country of 337 million people, where fake news tramples on legitimate news, where a united front on combatting the Covid-19 pandemic is no-where to be found, and where a polarized population—unless glued back together—will eventually tear apart the country’s social fabric.

A uniting national force, such as a Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Reagan is no-where to be found. November 2020 holds little in hope. One has only to look at some other countries for current examples of uniting leadership in a corona virus world: Angela Merkel of Germany, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, Sebastian Kurz of Austria, Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, and Katerina Sakellaropoulou of Greece.

We’re likely only in the beginning of the third inning (for baseball aficionados) of the pandemic. No one on the planet, regardless of any extraordinary epidemiological forecasting powers, knows how this is going to play out and eventually conclude: from a human health perspective and an economic one. This situation amply underscores the vital need for effective, consistent, and inclusive national leadership.

Americans deserve better.

They must demand it—both from their president and Congressional representatives. JT

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.― Abraham Lincoln

Strong Leaders Initiate Action—Do Something!

May 10, 2020


Dateline: March 1933

Old people were particularly vulnerable. Guaranteed pensions were a rarity in the 1930s; workers expected to save for their retirements or work until they died. But bank failures stole their savings, and unemployment their liveihoods….Some moved in with their children; millions simply suffered alone. [President] Franklin Roosevelt in March 1933 couldn’t know the extent of the calamity; no one could. (H.W. Brands, Traitor to his Class)

Fast forward 87 years to today, where for the past five months a pandemic is running rampant around the world. COVID-19, the disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2  (SARS-CoV-2), has killed over 265, 000 people worldwide and created an estimated $12 trillion in economic loss. Official unemployment rates have tripled, countless small businesses are on the precipice of closing permanently, and food lines (notably in the United States) are bumper to bumper for miles.

National leaders have reacted in various ways to the global crisis. In many instances, they’ve behaved spasmodically; some leaders have sat in stunned impotence, denying there’s a problem. Others have chased their tails, trying desperately to address such problems as lack of testing kits, protective equipment for healthcare workers and ventilators for hospitals. A few national leaders have acted pro-actively and are starting to show positive results in both flattening the infamous Covid-19 curve and slowly re-opening their stalled economies.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed office on March 4, 1933, he knew he had a huge problem on his hands. The Great Depression was in full swing. On top of an estimated national unemployment rate of 25 percent (much higher in certain parts of the country), bank failures, and growing despair among Americans, FDR realized that social unrest among males posed a potential problem. (Take a moment to read about the CCC, the United States’ greatest public relief program.)

In what’s called the Hundred Days, FDR unleashed a battery of legislation through Congress. And almost nine decades later, Americans are still benefitting from FDR’s decision to take action during one of the country’s darkest periods. Below are examples of the 15 pieces of legislation approved by Congress during this period.

  • Banking Act (bolstered later by the Glass-Steagall Act)
  • Economy Act (to control spending)
  • Civilian Conservation Corps (see above link)
  • Securities Act (to disclose stock issues)
  • Agricultural Adjustment Act (government to guarantee sector’s health)
  • Tennessee Valley Authority (as a development agency for electrical power)
  • National Industrial Recovery Act (pumped billions into public works projects)


Other legislation initiated by FDR spanned debt relief to farmers and mortgage relief to home owners, and emergency aid to the poor and the unemployed.

The speed with which this legislation was accomplished is remarkable, and done in half of the scheduled session of the legislature. Applying this to contemporary U.S. politics is alien in thought and design. Sure, FDR had his detractors, including those who believed that he was amassing too much power and that the state was encroaching upon the personal lives of Americans. Yet successive generations have benefitted from FDR’s action-oriented vision.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw a problem and a need in 1932. And he did something, with the assistance of competent advisors and cabinet secretaries, when he took office in March 1933.

If you’re a leader, regardless of level and industry, and see a problem, big or small…

Do something!

We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon. — Franklin D. Roosevelt

Leaders Pay Close Attention…and Then Act

May 3, 2020


Hardly any faculty is more important for the intellectual progress of man than ATTENTION. Animals clearly manifest this power, as when a cat watches by a hole and prepares to spring on its prey. – Charles Darwin (The Descent of Man, 1871)

We humans consider ourselves to be the superior beings on Mother Earth. Indeed, we don’t like to think of ourselves as animals, though that’s what we are in effect when it comes to behaviour, given our propensity for violence, whether against other humans, wildlife or the environment. Perhaps, however, it’s an insult to other “animals” to say that humans are part of their animal clan.

Sue and I had a yellow Labrador Retriever for 11 years. We got Max when he was just six weeks old from a farm east of Ottawa. Our four adult kids loved him, as did our grand kids. Max was gentle and patient with the little ones, but nevertheless exuberant when company arrived. He also slept a lot–or so one would like to think.

Watching a dog sleep is an interesting occasion. Just when you think Max was dead asleep on his comfy dog bed, one eye would pop open, and then the other. It may have been the innocuous sound of a door opening or the sound of cheese being grated upstairs in the kitchen (yes, he could hear that), but Max was now alert. And he had the uncanny ability to distinguish between a visitor entering the house, which prompted a few deep barks and a scurry up the stairs, and one of our kids, which prompted another quirky behaviour: grabbing one of his stuffed dinosaurs and bringing it upstairs as some sort of welcome gift. It’s a Lab thing, I guess.

MaxSue and I also enjoyed watching him chill out in the sun on the back deck. He looked at peace with himself, having a good snooze. But his ears twitched at every sound, his nose quivered at unknown scents, and he’d suddenly stand at alert to look out over the fence, only to plop himself down again and feign sleep.

I share this story to illustrate what Max did so well: he paid attention all the time, even when he was supposedly sleeping. He watched out the windows to constantly scan what was going on out on his street (yes, it was his street in his mind). He moved from person to person when family or friends visited, ensuring that everyone got some attention, not to mention a donation of some of his fur. And he’d lie at your feet when he detected you weren’t feeling well.

For a dog with the IQ of a toddler, Max and his canine peers do a pretty job at trying to subtly teach we humans how to be present in the moment and to be aware of our surroundings.

Except that we’re not doing a very good job at it.

Let’s consider top corporate leadership, where one would assume that CEOs and presidents are paying attention to what’s happening within their organization’s walls.

Whether it was General Motors’ ongoing negative media exposure caused by years (indeed decades) of gross senior leadership incompetence of ignoring faulty ignition switches in the Chevrolet Cobalt or leaking fuel lines in the Chev TrailBlazer, or inner city drug problems and associated violence spurred on by indifferent mayors, paying attention is the role of true leaders.

As Chicago’s feisty but effective and committed former mayor Rahm Emanuel stated emphatically on the issue of OxyContin abuse: “The heads of the pharmaceutical companies and the head of the FDA and the heads of the medical profession need to step up and start taking responsibility. You have a regulated drug that is leading to overdose and heroin addiction. Snap out of it and pay attention.”

Love him or hate him Emanuel, as President Obama’s pit bull former Chief of Staff (who drove the Affordability Healthcare Bill to conclusion), got things done. And he’s absolutely correct when he says, in effect, that corporate leaders must pay attention to the damage they’re inflicting on society.

The same applies on a much grander scale to General Motors top management which, through its arrogance and high-handed manner, caused the needless death and injuries to numerous people. That some senior executives were not charged criminally is a mystery, though not necessarily surprising. GM’s recalls numbered over 28.5 million worldwide, or as TIME magazine stated, “All the Cars GM Has Recalled this Year Would Wrap the Earth 4 Times.”

Leaders pay attention.

They don’t cower and pretend that all is well. They suck it up and hit problems head on. General Motors’ top management was either unaware of its problems or ignored them. The CEO wasn’t paying attention. In the case of GM’s new CEO, Mary Barra, she worked diligently to rectify the problem, though it’s pretty hard to bring the people back to life who were killed by the company’s incompetence.

And in a Covid-19 pandemic, think of the national leaders who stepped up to the plate to tackle the problem head on. Examples include Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien, New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern, and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen.

So with that all said, what type of leader are you?

Do you pay close attention to what is going on around you?

Do you act promptly when something is not right?

And do your eyes pop open, like Max’s, when you detect a subtle change?

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence.
– Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, 1976)

It’s About Power With…Not Power Over

April 26, 2020

Power 1

Jim Prince, a Tennessee businessman, succumbed to cancer in November 1998. As he fought the cancer over the course of many years, he came to realize that he “…had never done anything to benefit future generations.” He eventually decided to leave 513 acres of prime hiking land to outdoor enthusiasts, keeping it out of the hands of land developers. Broke from his soaring medical bills, he mortgaged his house and borrowed the money to purchase the land.

After six months of lobbying with the support of outdoor associations, Prince persuaded the State of Tennessee to purchase the 513 acres and turn it into a recreational park. Soon after, he lost his voice to throat surgery, and not long after that Prince died. His spirit, however, lives on. He is quoted as once saying: “There’s no limit to what you can do as long as you don’t worry about who gets the credit.” (As told by Russell Gerbman in Backpacker, June 1999).

This story speaks to the need for organizational leaders to work in the spirit of what’s best for their customers, stakeholders and co-workers. The same applies to leaders at all levels. It’s about collaboration and focusing on the organization’s mission, supported by its values. And in a world that’s being wracked by a pandemic—Covid-19—it’s impressive to watch people and companies step up to donate time, effort and money to a common cause. Trying to claim credit doesn’t appear to be anyone’s motive.

This is a dramatic change of reference from the traditional practice of top-down decision-making. It’s about power with, not power over.

Think about a situation where your manager gave the credit and glory to you and your co-workers. How did you feel? Think of a situation where your manager retained the praise and credit for himself or herself? How did you feel?

The concept of collaboration based on power with brings to mind my volunteer experience with the Canadian Red Cross in the late nineties. In the spring of 1999 I assisted with the arrival of Kosovar refugees at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick. It was a powerful experience.

What was intriguing at CFB Gagetown, and other military bases where the refugees were housed, was the sense of community that quickly developed. The refugee groups at each base formed informal councils where issues were discussed (e.g., language training, schooling for the children, cultural needs and recreation). Spokespeople were identified so their concerns could be brought to the appropriate agency on the base. Despite what these people had gone through in Kosovo, they recognized the need to form a community in a strange land.

What was so compelling about this experience is that it speaks to the concept of power with. Although the Kosovars on the military bases had certain rules to follow, they took the initiative to share power so that they maintained some sense of dignity and control over their lives.

Power 2

The same can be said for organizations. It’s not just an issue for senior management to relinquish control and to share power with employees. Employees must also demand it. They must take that first step—that leap of faith—towards assuming more responsibility in the decision-making process. However, with that increased power comes accountability.

The issue of sharing power and empowerment has an inherent dilemma. Managers talk of empowering their people yet cling to power. People want to play a greater part in making decisions and assuming more responsibility, but they often resist the accountability that accompanies this. While these are generalizations, they do speak to the opposing tension that’s prevalent in the debate on empowerment.

During the same period I was doing volunteer work with the Red Cross, along with working for the federal government, I was also doing a Masters degree in leadership and organizational learning at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. It was in my second summer residency that I met a profound Canadian leader. Dr. Alfred Taiaiake (author of Peace, Power, Righteousness and Director of the Indigenous Governance program at the University of Victoria in British Columbia) spoke to my peers on the need for First Nations communities to take charge of their destinies. As he writes in his book:

Leadership is exercised by persuading individuals to pool their self-power in the interest of the collective good. By contrast, in the European tradition power is surrendered to the representatives of the majority, whose decisions on what they think is the collective good are then imposed on all citizens….The indigenous tradition is profoundly egalitarian; it does not put any substantial distance between leaders and other people, let alone allow for the exercise of coercive authority….The lesson of the past is that indigenous people have less to fear by moving away from colonialism than by remaining bound by it; in their resistance, they demonstrate an inner strength greater than that of the nations that would dominate them.

Power 3

What can we learn from Dr. Alfred’s comments?

How can we inspire employees so that they make the decision to empower themselves?

As leadership practitioner Harrison Owen has stated: “If I empower you to some extent you are still within my power.”

The word “empowerment” has been badly abused for decades, both in the literature and in organizations. When I worked post-retirement part-time for a large US-based home improvement chain the word “empowerment” was tossed around like candy at employee town halls and in corporate training. It was horribly abused by the federal government where I worked for three decades.

So how do we come to grips with empowerment and learn how to share power?

It begins with stepping back and allowing ourselves to align what we say with what we actually do.

Max DePree in his second book Leadership Jazz recounts the powerful learning experience he went through with the birth of his granddaughter, Zoe. She was a premature baby, weighing one pound, seven ounces. Zoe was so tiny that DePree could slide his wedding ring up to her shoulder. Because DePree’s daughter had been abandoned by Zoe’s biological father, the neonatal nurse, Ruth, asked Depree to take on a special role. Whenever he visited Zoe, he was to rub her little body with the tip of his finger and tell her how much he loved her. It was important, Ruth told him, that Zoe be able to connect DePree’s voice with his touch.

DePree notes: “Ruth was doing exactly the right thing on Zoe’s behalf (and of course, on my behalf as well), and without realizing it she was giving me one of the best possible descriptions of the work of a leader. At the core of becoming a leader is the need always to connect one’s voice and one’s touch.”

Take a moment to reflect on this powerful story shared by DePree.

Do you as a leader, in whatever formal or informal role you hold, connect your voice with your touch?

Letting go and learning how to share power doesn’t come easily to many of us. What IS important is that we take that first tentative step towards Power With.

Let’s get started.

The more power you give away, the more you have.
Frances Hesselbein

A Call for Leadership: Building Hope, Expectations and Delivery during a Pandemic

April 19, 2020


“Out in the farm country, anyone connected to liquidation lived in fear of being lynched. A Kansas lawyer who handled a foreclosure was found dead in a field. An Iowa judge was dragged from the bench, stripped and beaten. Soon, spiked telephone poles and logs blocked the entrance to Iowa cities. Armed farmers gathered at foreclosure auctions to threaten the lives of bidders, ready to buy their neighbors’ possessions for a dollar or two, then give them back to their original owners. But with foreclosure so widespread, it was getting harder to feel so generous.” (The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter )

Dateline: early 1933

Very, very few people would remember this catastrophe, the early years of the Great Depression. Indeed, they would now be around 100 years of age.

Although the world has seen numerous recessions, stock market crashes, high inflation and high unemployment simultaneously, and the recent Great Recession, the Great Pandemic of 2020 will go down in history as a calamitous event. We’re still very early in the process, being spring, with huge uncertainty as to when the novel corona virus (Covid-19) will be contained (and ended with an eventual vaccine) and economic life can be resumed.

National governments, along with their central banks, are throwing all their economic firepower at the problem. But it’s far too soon to say with any reasonable certainty how successful they will be in such areas as stemming small business failures and consumer bankruptcies; maintaining stock and bond markets stability; preventing regional bank failures; keeping large corporations financially viable; and ensuring municipal and state governments’ fiscal integrity. (Above photo: Brooklyn unemployment office)

Enter the human side of the pandemic, with those working in the mental health already sounding the alarm. We’ve only been social distancing for just over a month. The rapid escalation in unemployment is only recent, a portend to future serious problems. Psychiatrists are warning of what’s being called a mental health pandemic. PTSD is emerging as a huge problem: from nurses and doctors to police officers to paramedics to those who lost family members and weren’t able to be with them when they died to those confined to their residences but with no social supports.

The economic and healthcare costs of the pandemic can be roughly quantified. The human and socials costs cannot.

Not long after Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency on March 4, 1933, he realized that two big problems were the debilitating effects of unemployment and looming social unrest, notably among males. In what is still recognized as the greatest public relief project devised, planned and executed in U.S. history, FDR launched the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

FDR faced a national unemployment rate of around 25% (double to triple that in certain industrial sectors and age groups), a GDP that had fallen 15% since 1929, a plunge of 60% in crop prices, and a devastating drought in the Midwest. Having hundreds of thousands of unemployed males, who were growing impatient and angry because they couldn’t feed their families and pay the rent, was a recipe for disaster.


On April 7, 1933, only 34 days into his administration, the first members of the Corps were enlisted. The CCC lasted for nine years until1942 when the U.S. Congress voted to end it in order to deploy resources to the Armed Forces. The CCC employed 300,000 men annually, for a total of three million during its lifetime. Consider that the population of the United States in the mid 1930s was a mere 125 million in contrast to 2020 of 337 million. Extrapolating from the CCC, today that would amount to about 770,000 people (women and men) annually working towards the betterment of America. (Above photo: CCC workers)

People don’t want handouts; they want to contribute to their communities and country. The country’s deteriorating infrastructure would welcome a 21st Century CCC.

Of note, the product of the CCC’s conservation and construction efforts are still seen today throughout America in its parks and dams. Three billion trees were planted; 800 state parks created; 20 million acres protected from erosion; and 125,000 miles of trails cleared (including the first ski trails in Stowe, Vermont).

And of significance during the program’s life, FDR mandated that the money earned by the men (yes, it was the 1930s) had to go to their wives and children back home. Spending money on gambling and drinking wasn’t on FDR’s agenda.

With Roosevelt in the White House, Americans were feeling a little better than the week before but still confused….The country, as W. A. Scheaffer of the Sheaffer Pen Co. cabled his friend Ray Moley, had come to a “standstill.” [Sheaffer] was not sure how he could hold out a week or ten days. His business needed legislation now. The crisis upended the personal lives of everyone, even the Roosevelts. Eleanor fretted that the family had no cash to settle the large tab at the Mayflower Hotel. Franklin told her not to worry about it. (The Defining Moment)

Unfortunately, leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt are in short supply in today’s political world, if even one exists. The current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not a visionary thinker, let alone a capable high level manager of executing a nation-wide public relief project.

This is a pity. And as for my own country, Canada, it too suffers from a lack of prime ministerial visionary leadership. 

What the coming months, year and beyond hold for our collective socio-economic and mental health well-being is anyone’s guess. But it’s pretty clear that an incremental approach, one based on week-by-week speculations by experts and politicians is not overly desirable. The biology aspect of the pandemic, and accompanying medical-healthcare responses, obviously requires treatment methodologies, a vaccine in a year or so (plus its deployment time), and much better data on which to base decisions (eg, social distancing, the resumption of school and business).

It’s the economic-business side of the pandemic that this leadership post has focused, but on a larger and longer-term perspective. Bold, visionary, decisive leadership is needed NOW to address the massive increase in unemployed people and cascading small business failures. And even as restrictions are slowly eased up in the coming months so that businesses may resume operations (for those that haven’t folded) many people will remain unemployed, their dignity and self-esteem usurped by visionless politicians.

Or do governments wait for what American philanthropist Nick Hanauer has warned, “the pitchforks are coming.”

Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But by all means, try something.— Franklin D. Roosevelt