Charting a Course in a Post-COVID World
In this article adapted from a June 11, 2020, webinar, Michael gathers some ancient wisdom to shed light on current events, especially as we continue to grapple and wrestle with exactly what will happen with COVID-19.
In this article adapted from a June 11, 2020, webinar, Michael gathers some ancient wisdom to shed light on current events, especially as we continue to grapple and wrestle with exactly what will happen with COVID-19. “I can’t claim to have a crystal ball to say what the world will look like, but, given the situation we’re in now, I think there are some lessons that we can learn that will be very helpful for us as we seek to move forward,” he says.
We exist in a time of distress and, in times of distress, the people make great demands of their leaders. All too often, though, the people fail to demand the same of themselves. We turn to the leaders we want, not the leaders we need; we take from our leaders what we want, not what we need; and, in doing so, we abrogate civic responsibility and fall into a trap as ancient as the first books of the Bible.
Moses, the central figure of the whole Old Testament, is the template of leadership we need for this COVID time, the exiled Israelites under his charge the warning we must heed. What we want right now are words of hope, what we need right now is a model for leading a people when the entire basis for your culture shifts underneath you.
Moses, the central figure of the whole Old Testament, is the template of leadership we need for this COVID time, the exiled Israelites under his charge the warning we must heed.
In 2019, I was in Ukraine just before their presidential elections. I met with the leadership of the country, as it was then, and with those running for office. Over the course of sixteen meetings with candidates, leadership, and cabinet members, every single one of them referenced Moses. Their words typically ran, “Given the crisis we’re in, given the moment we’re in, what we really need now is a ‘Moses’.” What they thought they meant was someone who would come, do the seemingly impossible by parting the Red Sea and get people safely through the other side of a dire situation.
The first time someone shared that with me, I smiled and asked if they had read the Book of Exodus recently. They hadn’t. The “Moses” of popular imagination miraculously parts the sea but as a leader he is so much more. In Exodus, as Moses was seeking to lead people through a time of crisis, the people came to him and said: “It would have been better for us to be where we were rather than come to this place and die in the desert.” Moses took this very hard. When it happened for the second time, in the Book of Numbers, Moses went so far as to ask God to remove him from his leadership position, “Look, I can’t handle this. I want you to remove me.” It’s a dramatic request. He’s actually asking for his life to be removed in order to deliver him from the burden of leadership.
The Expectation Gap
The impact of the Israelites’ time in the wilderness was profound not only on the people, but also on Moses as a leader. He despaired of the people and of his task. However, it is the disillusionment of the people that should interest us the most. By any objective standard, it wasn’t true that their situation was worse than where they had come from. By any objective standard, it was better. They were living as a free people in the desert rather than as slaves trying to make bricks without straw. In making their complaint to Moses, the people were not comparing what they had previously had (slavery) with what they currently had (freedom). They were comparing what they currently had with what they expected to have, and the expectation gap had led to despair and disillusionment. And it fueled a further (dis)illusion: just as in today’s world, we blame the leader, so the Israelites blamed Moses and his style of leadership for their hardship. Their blame and despair amplified Moses’ own sense of failure.
This expectation gap is as important in this coronavirus crisis as it was in the wilderness. As we navigate COVID-19, we have wrestled between people’s expectations (how quickly it may pass, our ability to confine it, the ability to quickly come up with a solution) and reality. Leaders are confronted with a global expectation gap, which has manifested itself in the same public despair, and they’re not sure now how to navigate this particular course.
The Narcissistic Shift from Duties to Rights
The course is more precarious, especially in the Western world, because we are collectively facing mortality for the first time in this age of advancement and individuality. We view success as the ability to postpone the moment of mortality for as long as possible, rather than conditioning ourselves to live with our inevitable death and meet it well. It is a narcissistic narrative that began half a century ago, when more and more people stopped thinking about their duties and obligations and instead began to think in terms of what rights we should demand.
In short: everything revolves around us. We look increasingly toward our government to protect and preserve. We perceive they are duty-bound to protect us from things previous generations felt only God could protect us from: fear of disease, famine, crises. Where once we would turn to Him, now we look to our government as if it was God. This loads governments with a weight they cannot carry and, in the process, those in leadership are tempted to make promises they cannot deliver. When those promises break and we realize our limitations, cynicism is the result and we struggle to think through our own limitations.
Around the world, 2.4 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims, and countless others, including the Jewish community, look to Moses as a leader. Interestingly, this much exalted leader is described as one of the humblest men who ever lived. As a matter of fact, as the humblest man. The former chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Johnathan Sacks, points out quite how remarkable is his humility. How remarkable it is that the distinctive quality associated with the man who led an entire group of people through a time of immense crisis and terrible loss, is not force of character, but a gentleness and humility for which he is still remembered and revered.
We need to embrace Moses’ humility and rediscover the limits of what we can do. Like Moses, we need to unashamedly turn to the one who can intervene and, at times, even change the course of history in his hand, as he could turn a stream of water.
We need to embrace Moses’ humility and rediscover the limits of what we can do.
Generate Capacity Not Dependency
We need leaders who are not just addressing our interests but are raising our sights. If we feel everything can be done for us, we are in danger of generating a global form of dependency rather than generating capacity. When we become overly dependent, even on skilled leadership, we find ourselves in great difficulty.
Let us look again to Moses. If God can intervene, why does He need Moses? Why not do everything Himself and bypass human agency? The answer is that it has always been God’s desire and fashion to use people, to guide them and to lead them. He doesn’t just bring us into being, He gives us a purpose and reason for being. Life may be difficult, but it tells us we’re actually necessary, within his economy, to bring about what He would have us bring about.
Life may be difficult, but it tells us we’re actually necessary, within his economy, to bring about what He would have us bring about.
We don’t simply need hubris and motivation at this point, we need to develop a capacity for innovation. If we are going to progress, we must innovate and re-make so we can live in a fresh and a whole new way. The encouragement I find is that we don’t have to generate this strength ourselves. One of the most remarkable promises we find in the Bible and through the life of Jesus Christ is the gift of endurance. When you have endurance to run a race, you’re not talking about being delivered out of it, you’re talking about being given strength for it.
The reason why endurance and agency speak into the issue of truth and trust is that when we overpromise and underdeliver, we see an erosion of sympathy and an erosion of loyalty to the institutions of leadership that can deliver aid and relief and shelter at this time. It is not weakness to recognize our limitations; if we are to rebuild trust within our own communities and within the global community, we need to have the strength of character and the strength of humility to admit our own limitations and the strength to endure in spite of those limitations. We are faced with the challenge of casting a vision for hope, which doesn’t generate false expectation.
Questions of Responsibility
Alongside wisdom and humility, we need to ask the question, “What is it that I’m being asked to do?” Moses is twice confronted by the people with the question: “We’re here in the desert, we’re going to starve here, why did you bring us to this point?” In Exodus 16, he deals with the objection in his stride, and he says: “Okay, here’s the solution.” and he lays out his answer. But when it happens a second time, as recorded in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 11, Moses loses heart.
Why does Moses lose heart the second time and not the first? We can find the answer in an unlikely place. Ronald Heifetz, Harvard academic, one of the leading lights in the field of management and author of the seminal 1994 book Leadership Without Easy Answers says that, “in times of global crisis, one of the greatest failures we have in leadership is diagnostic. We can’t distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges.”
When it comes technical challenges, we know the problem, we know the solution, and we know the resources required to implement the solution. The only question is around how do we implement an effective and efficient system? Technical problems respond very well to strong command and control systems. But adaptive challenges are very different. Adaptive challenges are when the issue is unknown, when we’re struggling to realize how we can deal with it. There are no known or proven solutions, and now we’re struggling to innovate and create in order to meet the new challenge. What we’re facing with COVID-19 and its impact is an adaptive challenge, not a technical one.
What we’re facing with COVID-19 and its impact is an adaptive challenge, not a technical one.
When Moses hears the same complaint brought to him for the second time, he feels such despair because he realizes this is different from the first time. The first was a technical challenge, the problem was the food. Now it’s an adaptive challenge, the problem is the people. Adaptive challenges are hard. The solutions often require our values, our culture, our practices, to change. The question is: “Who on earth is capable of bringing about that change, in our thinking, in our hearts, in our life?” Moses realizes he can’t possibly do this, and he says to God: “You’ve given me a burden too great.”
God’s response to Moses is interesting. He does two things: He distributes the burden of leadership across a wider field and He helps Moses realize and accept the limits of his own leadership. What he cannot do, God can. Jesus Christ said that he was able to give peace in this world in a way that the world doesn’t give it. The world can give peace in the form of a solution but when we’re dealing with things unseen, we are living in a hope which is yet unrealized.
A Peace the World Cannot Give
The remarkable thing Jesus promises us and says he is able to do, in a time of crisis as well as in a time of stability, is to give a form of peace and comfort and hope within the human heart, which cannot be taken away from us; something the early Christians themselves discovered 2,000 years ago.
In Romans, Chapter 8, there’s a very famous question, “Who can separate us from the love of God?” Interestingly, that question is never answered, the question actually answered is, “what may separate us from the love of God?” It answers with a list, and the first two words are striking, especially in today’s context. The first word literally means “to be constrained.” The second word means to be “hemmed in,” which is why we translate it to “stress.” If you hem in an animal, it’s going to feel distressed and act accordingly. Those two concepts speak directly and immediately to the situation we all find ourselves in. Romans tells us that even under feelings of constraint or of being hemmed in, there is a strength and a love and a peace that is able to endure and survive.
The list in Romans ends by saying that, even if the sword were to come (i.e. if our life was to be taken away), it is possible to know a peace in this world; even death itself is unable to disturb or remove. We’re in desperate need of that hope right now. We’re in desperate need of a hope that doesn’t just simply take us and inspire us to the point of our grave but raises the question, “is there anything else actually beyond it?” And that’s exactly what Jesus himself began to talk about and to promise.
This is the world that we live in, but it’s not the world that we live for. There is also a world that God promises is yet to come, and we can live in light of that, which means that even if we cease to have life in this world, there is still a life we can enjoy eternally with Him. If we know peace in this world with Him, that peace will continue thereafter. He makes it possible through the extension of His forgiveness. This is a very different narrative to the one that is building up at this moment, but it speaks into the challenges we all face.
Approaching Adaptive Challenges
We are living in a time of great adaptive challenge. We are dealing with unknown problems, to which there are no known technical solutions, and part of the solution is going to require a change of attitude, of heart, of practice. The post-COVID world will be a permanently changed one, and even when we come up with a vaccine and a cure, the memory of it will live long, and patterns of behavior are going to need to adapt.
We are not even sure at this point if a vaccine will be successful, but we’re doing the best that we can. Therefore, the question is, “How do we live in the meantime, and what happens when we’re not talking about six months or a year or two years, what happens when we’re talking about five, or ten, or for a lifetime, what is it that is able to help us through?” We have to face the adaptive challenge head on. We need, therefore, a creative, innovative response.
How do we live in the meantime, and what happens when we’re not talking about six months or a year or two years, what happens when we’re talking about five, or ten, or for a lifetime, what is it that is able to help us through?
It’s not enough to simply go back to familiar patterns, we need the strength of character to move forward. We need a strength which can endure, even when distress is great. And that is ultimately what Moses found as he found peace with God: a strength to be able to continue to lead in humility, in service; even though he continued to wrestle with the hearts of his own people, as he sought to see them set free from the things which had formerly captivated them.
We need of an immediate form of peace, which can speak into our anxiety and our loss. Jesus is uniquely qualified for this task. When we talk of losing someone, and as so many of us now deal with the consequence of death in the fallout of COVID-19, the reason we grieve is the feeling of “I will not see them again.” But there is a promise Jesus Christ makes that, if we put our trust in Him, there is the hope of a resurrection.
We need of an immediate form of peace, which can speak into our anxiety and our loss. Jesus is uniquely qualified for this task.
When we die, it’s not the end. In that sense, within the Christian faith, no one is ultimately lost. We will meet again. We grieve because there is the pain of absence and of separation, and we can’t continue the relationship we once had. But we can look forward to a time where we can find peace with the one who brought us into this world, and know that when He brings us back, we can meet those who we have loved once more. It is something that is capable of giving strength, even in times of distress, It is received and achieved, not through any great achievement of our own, but because of what He was willing to do for us when God entered into this world and gave his own life for ours, so that we may find that peace with Him.