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Top 4 Leadership Challenges for 2021 and Beyond

Our leaders (and all of us) need to pay attention to these!

2020 was a very difficult year in so many ways. First and foremost, there was the COVID-19 pandemic, which created unique challenges, and completely disrupted what we considered to be our “normal lives.” Second, although the U.S. has always been divided along political party lines — liberal and conservative — this came to an apex with a President who not only leveraged that divide for political purposes but was very effective at doing it. And, almost under the radar screen (unless you were a victim of weather-related disasters), is the ongoing warming of the planet which threatens our very existence as we know it.

With all of this in mind, here are the top four leadership challenges for the near future:

1. Preparing for the Next Crisis. The global pandemic seemingly caught us by surprise and off-guard. The slow response and the eventual overwhelming of our medical systems, as well as the enormous disruption to our economy and livelihoods, was unprecedented in modern times.

Although we “civilians” didn’t see it coming, scientists and the government knew that such a crisis event was inevitable. There was a pandemic response team — the Global Health Security and Biodefense Unit, and a “playbook.” Unfortunately, they were not activated. What this tells us is that the best leadership strategy for impending crises is preparing for them. More on crisis leadership here.

2. The Widening Divides. One of the most pernicious human tendencies is to see others — people who we view as “outsiders” — as threats or enemies. Social psychologists call this the in-group, out-group bias. We tend to draw closer to those who seem to be in our in-group and become more wary of those in the out-group.

Psychologist Muzafer Sherif demonstrated this in the 1950s by having summer campers divide up into two competing teams. As in-group solidarity became stronger, the dislike of the out-group campers grew stronger, leading eventually to violence.

We see this each and every day with the increasing divide of the two political parties, with Whites and people of color, between religious groups, and, so on. So, the leadership challenge is to not encourage such divisiveness but to bring different groups together to solve shared problems and achieve common goals. A challenging goal indeed!

3. Global Warming. While we are all preoccupied with the first two challenges — the pandemic and our mutual dislike of those who are different — we are mostly ignoring the shared threat of climate change. Increasingly, deadly weather events, caused by global warming, are ongoing and increasingly severe. It will take concerted effort to combat this enormous problem facing the entire human race.

And, as one challenge compounds another, we have to deal with the fact that there are two groups — climate change believers and deniers, and the widening divide between those two factions. If we can’t even agree on the problem, how can we work together to solve it?

4. Education and Appreciation for Science. As a social scientist and a baby boomer raised on the promise that education and science would lead us to a better world, I find it appalling that so many Americans have become “anti-science” and, to some extent, “anti-education.”

Even though scientific advancements, fueled by an increasingly educated population, have lengthened our lives and the quality of those lives, many people view science as the enemy (that old in-group, out-group bias at work again). Belief in hoaxes and fanciful conspiracy theories? It’s due to a lack of critical thinking skills that come with education. So, more, not less, education and advancement of science is the goal and a significant leadership challenge to implement.