Preparing for the Inevitable
There are a some things in life most of us just didn’t see coming; movie casting choices, fashion trends, fusion restaurants. But most of the big events that shaped our generation like wars, pandemics, and financial crises provided warning signs we chose to ignore. President George W. Bush said in November 2005, “In a pandemic, everything from syringes to hospital beds, respirators, masks and protective equipment would be in short supply.” Then in 2014, President Obama said, “there may and likely will come a time in which we have an airborne disease that is deadly. And in order for us to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure – not just here at home, but globally- that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly.”
We knew the “what,” we just didn’t know the “when.” Of course, other than the public health community, “global pandemic” appeared low on the list of everyone’s concerns in the fall of 2019. So, leaders didn’t have much motivation to prioritize preparedness when so many other issues seemed to offer a direct challenge to our way of life. Knowing which opportunities to pursue and which problems to solve is at the heart of strategic decision-making. When we reach a consensus on what matters most, we have the beginning of a solution. We are motivated to integrate our differences, make compromises, and sacrifice for the common good. We don’t always produce a viable solution, but without that initial motivation, we lack the attention span to engage the issue and play a role in the right response.
In Ian Bremmer’s latest book, The Power of Crisis, he provides a rather pessimistic outlook on how we have dealt with three of the biggest challenges we face and will face in greater measure – pandemics, climate change, and technology disruptions. However, he devotes equal attention to a few past successes and optimistically provides some potential solutions if we find ways for greater global cooperation. He is far from certain the international community will choose engagement over isolation. Bremmer’s strongest hope is that we will recognize the seriousness of each of these threats and see the absolute necessity to make different choices than our current trajectories would indicate.
Bremmer has identified three threats that he hopes will lead global leaders to recognize the need for a unified response. But these crises or others will always be present. In other words, we will always be living in a rapidly changing and unstable environment. Leaders will need to find ways to develop and maintain core competencies to successfully deal with whatever crisis comes their way. This isn’t just a conversation for global leaders who will wrestle with safety measures during the next pandemic or how to regulate carbon emissions or technology privacy concerns. In our personal and work lives, we know that health issues loom, challenging relationships will emerge, and transitions will occur with those we lead and follow. The timing is uncertain, but the event is not. To respond well we will need to be constantly preparing to act.
Bremmer offers the same encouragement for all three of his big crises – start working together now. He makes the interesting observation that “our capacity for both creation and destruction is accelerating faster than we can track.” One implication is the length of time between warning signs and the event’s arrival is narrowing rapidly. Like an aged athlete who no longer possesses the ability to physically compensate for a mistake or even a delayed response, we can only succeed by anticipating where we need to be. And equally important, we must move immediately to that anticipated spot.
To keep moving and learning, we need to maintain optimism. For the global crises we face, it is easy to see why people lose hope and disengage. With a limited ability to predict the future and a feeling we can’t change things, we default to the status quo. We can follow the same pattern in our personal lives. However, when we believe we can contribute and make a difference we don’t live in denial or apathy. We need to connect to a positive vision of the future and see our role in making it a reality.
We also need to possess an openness to learn from others. Humility is critical to preparing for a crisis. Realizing what we don’t know and what we can’t control creates a natural learning posture. This means pursuing information from a variety of diverse sources. Only listening to those we naturally agree with causes us to either overreact or underreact. The Covid response in the US was a painful reminder that everything can be politicized.
A big part of Bremmer’s optimism stems from a historical pattern that a crisis brings people together and focuses resources to solve big problems. When a crisis hits, we are reminded of what we have in common and the necessity of cooperation. The initial need for survival creates a willingness to sacrifice our preferences. Once we are working side by side with a broader range of people, we often begin to change our perspective about others and the crisis. As we serve with others, we build trusting relationships. The strength of those relationships plays a big role in how well we respond to the challenges that are coming our way.
It can be easy to sit back and criticize national leaders for a failure to anticipate and solve the big problems we face today. But how are we demonstrating the humility, sacrifice, collaboration, and optimism needed to prepare ourselves and those around us for what we know is coming our way?