Societal Leadership: Building Stronger Communities to Emerge from Crisis

In the past few months, we’ve all seen an incredible amount of change happening in the communities that we are part of. Our lives have been uprooted in so many ways, and there is uncertainty and fear about what will happen next. 

Yet in the midst of the tragedy impacting so many of our communities, we have also seen on the news and across social media incredible stories of selflessness and service. Hospital staff are putting their lives at risk every day to care for patients. There are stories of restaurant owners donating free lunches to families in need. Engineers are developing an open-source design for ventilators and N95 masks, so that anyone with a 3D printer can begin making them. 

While it can be inspiring to hear the stories of these leaders, it may also feel intimidating. You may feel happy and grateful that these people are doing extraordinary things, but you may also be thinking, “I’m stuck in my house, and I don’t have any critical skill sets or vast resources. So what can I possibly do to serve as a leader during this global crisis?”

Serving Our Immediate Communities

Cambridge Dictionary defines a society as, “a large group of people who live together in an organized way, making decisions about how to do things and sharing the work that needs to be done.” If we want to influence society at large, we can start small by considering how we can serve the folks and the communities in our immediate sphere of influence. 

Your family. 

For many families, sheltering in place has had a huge impact on how they operate as a unit. If you are staying with your family, leadership here  could mean volunteering to take on additional household responsibilities or setting an example of how to be considerate of each other’s space. For family members who are not living  with you, or whom you’re seeing less often than usual, this is an important time to reach out and let them know that you care.

Your school, workplace, or place of worship. 

One of my favorite leadership quotes is from Remember the Titans: “Attitude reflects leadership”. With the new challenges we are all facing and the constant spiral of negative news, it can be very easy to become demotivated or disengaged. Unfortunately, this attitude can be contagious. As such, one important way you can demonstrate leadership is by maintaining a positive attitude and sharing that with your classmates or colleagues. You could do this by showing appreciation for your teacher, bringing your enthusiasm to a new virtual project you are working on, and offering to help others who may need extra support during this time. 

Your leadership in these communities is not only an act of love and service to these individuals, but it will also help you emerge together from this crisis as a closer and stronger unit. 

Serving Our Society

Beyond your immediate communities, you also have the ability to influence society at large – whether you realize it or not. Even though your physical connections are limited, you likely still interact with folks in a virtual space. Consider whether you are demonstrating and communicating the leadership qualities of empathy and compassion in your everyday life. Do you ask how your neighbor is doing when you see them across the street or call to check in on the elderly folks in your community? How do you treat the cashier at the grocery store? Are your social media posts kind and inclusive? Are you being authentic and conscientious in what you share? Is your message encouraging and uplifting? The way that we connect with and treat each other forms the society that we live in. In this way, allowing positivity and compassion to lead all of our actions is an act of societal leadership. 

Beyond daily interactions, we’ve seen countless examples of ways to expand your service and leadership within your community. Just a few examples I have seen from my own personal and friends’ experiences include: 

  • Spreading positivity in their neighborhoods by putting rainbows in their windows or writing motivational chalk messages on the street
  • Sewing masks for frontline workers who can’t access proper personal protective equipment
  • Offering to pick up groceries for elderly or immunocompromised neighbors
  • Sharing musical, visual arts, or other talents on social media to bring joy to those self-isolating at home

None of these examples require a ton of resources or specialized training, but may look very different for each individual. The form that your societal leadership takes should be authentic to you and the unique passions, viewpoints, and talents that you bring to the world. By combining the special form of leadership that each of us can bring, we can make a powerful impact in shaping our society. 

Reimagining Our Society

While we have the ability to shape our society every day, the current situation creates a unique opportunity to consider more transformative changes. It’s certainly true that there is an incredible amount of strife happening all around the world. Yet from all this loss and disruption, we also have an incredible opportunity to stop and rethink what we want our society to look like. Having paused our daily hustle and bustle, we can stop and reflect on such questions as: 

How can we maintain this sense of community and connection? 

This time to slow down has created an opportunity to deepen existing relationships with our loved ones, and build new ones with neighbors or other folks in our communities whom we’ve never interacted with before. We’ve created a society that can emerge from this crisis with greater strength and solidarity than ever before. As we return to work and to school, to our busy schedule full of activities and social events, let’s consider how we can continue building this sense of community, rather than returning to our old ways of relying on the occasional text message to connect with others.

How do we want to treat those who are vulnerable?

During this time, our society has come together in incredible ways to support vulnerable populations, including the elderly, those with disabilities, people who are experiencing homelessness, incarcerated individuals, and those who have lost their incomes. Seeing this surge of support has created a sense of hope and optimism. Yet it also raises the question of how we can care for these individuals when we are not undergoing a global crisis. Should they be treated with any less compassion when we resume normal life, or can we as a society choose to continue this support? 

What does our ideal society look like, and how can we continue building it?

During this time of reflection and disruption from our routines, we can create the space to completely reimagine what our society could look like. Do we want it to be more just? How can we achieve that? There are many things happening that activists have been advocating for over the course of many years, but it has taken a crisis like COVID-19 to achieve them. For example, many companies who did not previously offer paid sick leave to their employees have since begun doing so. We have the opportunity during this time to rethink how we want all aspects of our society to function, and how to make the best of the impact from this pandemic to begin building towards that vision. 

Each and every member of our society has the opportunity to lead and serve, and to shape the future of their communities. Every action that you take–whether it’s big or small, in person or virtual, seen by your whole town or just one family member–gives you the opportunity to lead through service. We each play a unique role, and together we can begin working now towards the society we would like to emerge from this pandemic. 

About the author: Nicole Ashong is the International Recruitment Manager – Asia Pacific for HOBY WLC 2020. She is a 2004 Central PA HOBY alum and has volunteered with both Central PA HOBY and WLC. Nicole currently lives and works in Singapore, where she is social distancing with her husband. 

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