It is by now obvious that we are living through one of those epochal moments that subsequently will be used to divide historical periods. Great wars serve as such markers for regions or individual countries (as in the use of “antebellum” and postbellum to describe the South before and after the American Civil War), and even calendar years can serve a similar purpose, as in “B.C.E.” and “C.E.” to denote the historical times before and after the Year One. Henceforth, the coronavirus will be such a divider, and, as with war, the actual event will stretch for a quite lengthy period. At some point, we will come to know a world after coronavirus, but when that moment arrives will vary by location and just what it will look like is, at best, now just a guess.
The uncertainty of the current moment leads to an avalanche of daily missives from consultants and publishers trying to describe what the post-COVID world will look like and when it will arrive. Almost all of them (this from McKinsey is a good example) describe multiple scenarios ranging from optimistic to darkly dystopian. In our practice, we hear more and more from leaders grappling with the anxiety such uncertainty engenders, both in their communities and in themselves.
Modern humans (“modern” and “pre-modern” denote another albeit imprecise division in time) are not wired to deal well with ambiguity and uncertainty. One could argue that the essence of modern life is a relentless drive to understand and control nature and events. What remains of uncertainty is why the insurance industry exists—what outcomes we cannot control we can insure. The last 150 years lulled homo sapiens into believing that we can “see it coming” and either bend the story arc to suit us or find ways to blunt the impact when it cannot be bent.
That said, the coronavirus is not a “black swan,” an unforeseen, highly unlikely event. We have known that a pandemic was possible, even likely, for some time. What makes the COVID-19 story arc defy both bending to suit humans and standard monetary means of mitigation is the sheer extent of its reach. It is truly a global event, affecting every country and, eventually, locality in the world. Management through social distancing—the only tool we have at our disposal—slows but does not stop the spread. And the economic devastation it creates as countries scramble to adapt is both deep and pervasive.
A highly effective vaccine would bend the story arc in humanity’s favor, but that is a year away under the best of conditions. What, and more importantly who, will be left by then to care or care about?
That the uncertainty of all of this makes many (most?) of us anxious is no surprise. Homo sapiens is used to being able to imagine a future. Not only can we no longer imagine what that future will be like, we also can’t be as sure we will be there when it arrives. This existential fear brings out the best and worst in people—and we have seen plenty of both in recent days.
Leadership steps into this anxious void. School heads no less than political leaders set the tone for their communities. We used to end our leadership development programs by saying that leadership is what happens in a moment of chance opportunity when someone steps up. Heads, this is your moment. Your school’s survival may well depend on what you do.