1. Lessons In Leadership

Leading Through Tough Times

These three attributes are critical.

I always enjoy chatting with my friend Candy Gray. In addition to being an HR leader at Facebook, she also has experience at DreamWorks SKG, Disney, Airplay, and assignments where she’s rubbed shoulders with all types of talented individuals and would-be leaders. We’ve compared notes on what it takes to lead teams and, especially for CEOs, to steer a business through difficult times while keeping their eyes locked on the future. While there are many leadership styles and personalities, she points to three essential qualities that will see leaders through the darkest storm: optimism, perseverance, and resilience.

I’m pretty sure I’ve blogged about each of these traits, especially in the era defined by the COVID-19 virus. At first glance, they seem like different ways of talking about the same thing — probably because the leaders we admire most have all three. Consider this example. 

A young man looks at the world around him and sees incredible, institutionalized social injustice. He sees the despair of those around him. But he also believes a better way is possible and that he can join with others to make positive change happen. That’s optimism.

The young man begins a perilous journey, is beaten by police, imprisoned, hospitalized, targeted by hate groups, again and again. He refuses to give up the mission. Instead, with each assault, he becomes more motivated. More determined. He inspires more people to help the movement. His work brings the passage of laws that protect the freedoms he’s been fighting for. But there’s more to be done, and he keeps fighting the good fight. That’s perseverance.

As the young man grows older, he continues as a leader in the movement, becoming a member of Congress. He urges young people to pursue their dreams. He shows them how to knock down or climb over the barriers to justice and freedom. Although the physical attacks ease off, his work does not get easier. Somehow he builds the stamina — physically, intellectually, and emotionally — to bounce back and maintain the energy and attitude to play the long game. That’s resilience.

This is the story of John Lewis , the late civil rights leader and United States Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district. He died last summer, at the age of 80, after a tough battle with cancer. Here’s something he posted on Twitter in 2019, in the midst of political battles that had discouraged many of his much younger colleagues and supporters.

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.” 

Optimism. Perseverance. Resilience. It’s what leaders look like. Today. Always.