Rising to the Challenge: Responsible Leadership Beyond the Crisis

In an hour long discussion, David Brooks, Elizabeth Kiss, and Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw shared what type of leadership is needed in 2020, a disruptive time marked by COVID-19, US election, and Brexit.

Brooks event cover

The leaders of the future need to be people who can do more than simply get things done. They need to be men and women who are deeply motivated by the particular challenges they seek to redress. People who are driven to service and are willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of such service. Tomorrow’s leaders also need to be humble—aware of their own limitations, whether in knowledge or skill.

These are some of the sage insights that surfaced in a conversation between David Brooks (award-winning author and New York Times columnist), Dr Elizabeth Kiss (Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford University), and Dr Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw (Senior Historian and Director of History, Research and Scholarly Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery). Several hundred guests tuned in to this online panel discussion, which was hosted by Dr Edward Brooks, Director of the Oxford Character Project, on November 12. Brooks, Kiss, and DuBois Shaw were invited to reflect together on the subject of leadership and especially the crucial qualities of responsible leaders. Given the upheaval of COVID, the fraught American political scene, the UK’s exit from the EU, together with the many other crises and challenges extant in today’s world, the timing of this discussion was altogether apt. Indeed, many more such conversations will be needed in the days ahead.

A few themes which emerged along the way are worth highlighting:

  • DuBois Shaw emphasized the positive role of emotional vulnerability—of being real—in leadership. As an example, she talked about Gerald Ford’s public display of sorrow in the midst of Betty Ford’s battle with cancer. While this display was initially met with criticism, it went on to have a profound impact: in response to the Fords’ candid, emotional discussion of Betty’s illness, the number of American women undergoing breast cancer screening significantly increased.
  • David Brooks suggested that there is a pressing need for leaders who can help transition a white-dominant world into a more diverse one—in a manner that preserves the ‘social fabric’ and minimizes conflict, enmity, and loneliness.
  • Elizabeth Kiss highlighted the link between emotional intelligence and a collaborative approach to problem-solving. Leaders who lack a strong EQ will find it difficult to navigate the diversity that is part and parcel of a more synergistic, interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving. Additionally, she lamented that many aspiring leaders tend to focus on the huge challenges in the world at the expense of introspection and coming into mature self-knowledge. She thus underscored the need for serious reflection on one’s gifts and sense of calling, as well as those issues with which one is especially concerned. This process will ultimately enhance the effectiveness of our leadership and guard us against burnout when the going gets tough.