From the Beacon, December 2020

As we approach the end of 2020 and prepare for a new year, public leaders will face a new challenge: a restive and unhappy public mood that increasingly resists the ongoing policy interventions necessary to save lives and navigate the middle and end stages of the pandemic.

Over the coming months, public leaders at the local, state and national level will find themselves confronted by frustrated and impatient residents who more frequently push back against face covering requirements, gathering orders, quarantine protocols, and the operational format of schools (regardless of whether it is in-person, hybrid or remote).

Factual explanations will not mollify this unhappiness. Listening, understanding and empathizing are the skills to pull out of the leadership toolkit in these situations. And at the same time, it will be important for public officials to monitor their own emotions, and practice the self-care that will allow for renewal and resilience during this next stage.

The past year has been deeply disruptive, turbulent, agonizing and stressful, and not just because of COVID-19. Even as the second surge envelops the entire country with record-breaking illnesses and deaths, our national political polarization continues, and systemic racial inequity remains unabated. 2020 brought us multiple stressors, all heightened by the isolation of remote work, Zoom calls, distanced meetings, gathering limits, and abiding uncertainty.

Ironically, the November and December holidays may accelerate this collective unhappiness. That’s because our holiday traditions and celebrations are deeply personal, and rooted in social, family and religious gatherings that are imbued with love, friendship and shared joy. Travel and gathering restrictions – which are absolutely necessary to contain the virus and save lives – disrupt the very activities that give us comfort and security, and help us feel more human.

In short, the holidays remind us of how much we’ve lost during the past 10 months.

So it is fully understandable that people want to turn the page and unharness themselves from the short leash that the pandemic has lashed onto their families and social connections and daily experiences.

However, in spite of medical breakthroughs, with the distribution of vaccines beginning later in December, it will take months and months to emerge safely. Even though there is light at the end of the tunnel, the novel coronavirus will be with us deep into the summer, national political polarization will not evaporate overnight, and the legacy of systemic racism will remain a vital priority to attack for years to come.

So how can public officials navigate effectively during times of heightened stress and tension?

1. Leaders take the long view. Top crisis management experts recommend that we look to the future, and not be disproportionately distracted or weighed down by the immediate, daily operational challenges and disputes. The key question to ask is not what to do today, but rather, what do we want for the future, and what’s the best way to get there? All of the daily decisions are easier when you have this vision in place to provide the context for your decision-making along the way. When you share this vision – and better yet, when this vision is part of a collective sentiment – this will provide clarity and inspire confidence. Looking to the future is the difference between providing management and providing leadership.

2. Recognize that people are hurting, sad and angry. That’s OK. Given the circumstances, these emotions are completely natural and understandable. Yet these also give rise to impulses that interfere with rational decision-making. By practicing empathy – seeing and respecting the issue or problem from the other person’s perspective – leaders can build a bridge of trust, and help others overcome their fears. One of the reasons why people raise their voices or interrupt during interactions is because they do not feel heard. Taking the time to listen and learn their stories will lower the volume and facilitate true connections.

3. Remember the preflight instruction we receive before takeoff on any airline: “In the event of an emergency, place your oxygen mask on first before helping others.” To be a leader, you need to take care of yourself. That’s not being selfish, that’s a simple recognition that there is no way that you can help others if you don’t have enough air. Leaders intentionally provide the personal time and space to renew and replenish their energy – that’s what makes resiliency possible. Spend time with your family. Hike outdoors. Exercise without injuring yourself. Read for pleasure. Call your friends. Cook a favorite meal. Turn off your phone. Get plenty of sleep. Try meditation. Don’t do too much. Don’t make this a checklist. Make it enjoyable. Because you deserve it, and you need it, as a person and as a leader.

The past year has been unlike any other in our lifetimes. As a municipal official, you have been on the front line of the crisis, marshalling your community, deploying massive public health services, implementing changes in governance and service operations overnight, and providing comfort during a time of great loss for thousands of your neighbors.

The end is in sight – 2021 will look more like 2019 than 2020 – and that is really good news. Yet there’s a bit more to the journey. We’ll be able to navigate if we continue to look to the future, practice empathy with those around us, and intentionally care for ourselves.

As 2020 nears its end, please know that all of us on the MMA staff are deeply honored by the opportunity to work with and support you, and we are abidingly grateful for all you are doing to lead the communities of Massachusetts during this time of enormous challenge.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO