Exploring Human Potential

For A Nation Gripped In Fear, The Solution is Positive Leadership.

Posted on | December 3, 2021 | 4 Comments

Mike Magee

I wonder these days, “What are my fellow Americans thinking?” Not knowing the answer, I thought I might share with you what’s on my mind as the nation absorbs everything from Omicron variants to Roe v. Wade teetering on the cliff.

My reflections have centered on the issue of change, how it affects people, communities and societies.

In our lifetime, we have witnessed the emergence of the Internet and HIV, of globalization and overnight delivery, of bubbles and bursts in our stock market, of the genomic revolution and the aging revolution. We have witnessed our health care system creak under the weight of a pandemic, and borne witness to an ongoing attempt to overthrow our democratic form of government. We are heavily armed, are always prepared for war, but show little desire for peace. State legislatures across the land work diligently to minimize the number of votes from people of color, and members of our Supreme Court, with straight faces, seem to suggest that carrying a child for 9 months and then giving it away is no big deal.

We are in the grip of change. Change is one of the few human experiences that supports two dramatically opposed human emotions.  On the one hand, change is fear and on the other, change is exploration.  And while you can support both emotions simultaneously, you can only do so for a short period of time before the tension created between the two forces you to choose one or the other.

If you choose fear, the natural tendency is to retrench, retreat, wall yourself off in the hope that the world will return to what feels normal and safe.  If you choose exploration, your mind moves ahead of the change, envisioning a better way, a way out – dreaming, imagining how best to arrive at that new destination.

At times like these, leadership really matters. Negative leaders embrace fear, using it as a currency to mobilize and organize populations and achieve short-term regressive goals.  In contrast, positive leaders are explorers who use a compelling value-centered vision as currency. Through role modeling and the strength of new ideas, they draw people in as they work through the challenges and shape an environment consistent with their long-term vision.

Negative leaders retrench and divide; positive leaders connect across the divide.  Negative leaders segregate; positive leaders aggregate. Negative leaders build walls.  Positive leaders build  “islands of common stewardship.”

On these islands, one consistently finds qualities like openness, inclusiveness, cultural sensitivity, justice, opportunity for all, goodness and fairness.

On this island people speak a common language grounded in shared values and a unified vision for the future.  They share as well common tools including lifelong learning, new technologies, curiosity, introspection and an active social conscience.

On this island exist formative relationships, that is, as I care for you, you form me as a human being.  And on this island there is a rich supply of renewable capital – human capital, financial capital, social capital, and cultural capital – the equity captured between individuals committed to each other’s success and to the concept of cooperative productivity.

I am concerned that we are giving way to fear for a number of reasons?

First, fear is currency for negative leaders.  In an environment overwhelmed with fear, negative leaders find fertile ground for their divisive messages, and once in control, fan those fears to advance their goals.

Second, fear has distinct mental health implications.  Threats to our democracy, reinforced by rotating cycles of pandemic isolation, have expanded the number and severity of violence, addiction, and mental illness.

Third, fear accumulates and discriminates.  My post-9/11 studies on fear levels in New York City revealed that vulnerable populations already primed for discrimination or abuse including blacks, Hispanics, and women had the highest levels of persistent fear.

Fourth, fear is fundamentally regressive in that it blocks imagination, innovation, and risk taking.  In short, it robs us of our dreams and hopes for a bright future.

How do we combat fear?

Begin by identifying, nurturing, mentoring and advancing positive leaders.  That means voting for people who lead with vision rather than fear.

For parents, community leaders, and teachers, identify promising young minds early in their lives and support their advancement and success.

For children and young adults, identify one or more positive mentors to guide your future, and ask their permission to turn to them from time to time to provide you with guidance, wisdom, and advice.

For all Americans, pursue balance.

Skills, aptitude and ambition assure success on a superficial level, but not happiness.  Happiness evolves from a life well spent, from enduring relationships, and from persistent and sometimes stubborn adherence to the values that have formed you.

Never stay silent in the face of evil or injustice.  Your silence will forever entrap you and define you as passive, vulnerable and insecure.  Better to have the courage and take the risk of speaking up and standing out.

Persist and endure.  Face challenges with realism and without procrastination. The brain magnifies fear. Every issue we will face can be managed as long as we do not give up.  Persist, and endure. When your head hits the pillow, transfer the power to a Higher Power.  Then take a fresh look in the morning. Things always look better in the morning. You are much stronger than you think.

Honor judgment over decisiveness.  We have somehow in our culture come to value rapid decision making in the extreme.  But as a surgeon, I learned early in my life that if you operated on the person who didn’t need the operation, and didn’t operate on the one who did need the operation, the outcomes would be disastrous even though you had been decisive.  It is not about being decisive.  It’s about using good judgment.

My final advice? Find an island of common stewardship to live on.  And if you cannot find one, create one around yourself.

People are basically good, but they are not perfect.

People are basically kind, but when afraid can act unpredictably.

People are basically loving, but when misled can respond with hatred.

People are people.

In every organization I have been in – and for better or worse I have been in many – there are roughly 10% saints, 10% sinners, and 80% in between.  And what determines which way the 80% go are two things.

First, who is leading them.

Second, what is going on in the environment at the time.

Of the two, the most important by far is who is leading them.  For if they are led by a positive leader, they not only have a visible role model embodying values and behaviors worth developing, but also have an individual committed to shaping the environment in a manner that supports positive values and behaviors, and a constructive vision for our collective future.


4 Responses to “For A Nation Gripped In Fear, The Solution is Positive Leadership.”

  1. Douglas Henley, MD
    December 3rd, 2021 @ 11:00 am

    Very well said Mike! Important comments indeed.

  2. Mike Magee
    December 4th, 2021 @ 5:42 pm

    Thanks so much, Doug!

  3. Laura Hudgins
    December 4th, 2021 @ 10:36 pm

    Thank You, Dr. Magee. Thank you for your book on Leadership as well. I always appreciate your perspective. We need to nurture everybody to lead in some capacity. I work in the schools, and tell the students school is not just about gaining a 6 figure salary. It is also about learning constructive communication, financial literacy, health literacy, developing positive and healthy relationships, and so forth. Laura, RN

  4. Mike Magee
    December 5th, 2021 @ 9:08 am

    Thanks so much, Laura, for this, and for all you do. Your students are so lucky to have you. All the best! Mike

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