Note from Jeff: After an extended absence, The Duty of Foresight column returns, and it is a great privilege to be back. This column is the first in a two-part series on Preparing for The Next Six Months. Part I is below. Part II is here. Also, I believe that Black Lives Matter.
With September just three weeks away, we are about to begin what could be the most consequential and difficult six months in recent memory for our country and for associations.
For the rest of this year and at least the first three months of 2021, the acute public health, economic, political and social conditions in which we find ourselves today will most likely get worse. Unfortunately, some of this deterioration is already factored in and cannot be prevented. Whether there is a more severe decline in our present circumstances on the horizon, however, will depend considerably on the individual and collective choices we will make during these next six months. While it is hard to write these words, it is vital that association decision-makers confront the ground truth in front of them so they may prepare themselves and their organizations for what is still to come.
Since the start of the pandemic in the spring, I have advised association boards, chief staff executives, and other staff and voluntary decision-makers to adopt a pessimistic mindset for the short-term. This advice was not offered lightly. Operating from a place of pessimism is a profoundly uncomfortable choice that runs counter to our core human need for hope and optimism. Nevertheless, given what we have experienced already this year, and what we can reasonably expect will happen as we move into the autumn and the following months, the pessimistic mindset remains the only responsible choice for association decision-makers to make for three very important reasons:
The pessimistic mindset initiates unlearning
The unbearable human toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, as well as the cascading economic, political and social disruption it has unleashed, has made plain what we have known for decades but could not admit until now: We hold far too many damaging and unsustainable orthodox beliefs about our society, our country and our institutions. In the case of associations, unlearning the myriad pre-2020 orthodox beliefs that underpin every aspect of our organizations’ work is a critical first step in lowering the barriers to the accelerated and complex—yet necessary—learning that must be done.
By its very nature, the short-term pessimistic mindset spurs us to challenge and discard these detrimental ways of thinking and acting once and for all. Eliminating orthodoxy in favor of new mindsets and next practices can spark long-term optimism that creating a better future for ourselves, our stakeholders and our successors remains possible.
The pessimistic mindset facilitates new learning
The pandemic and our national reckoning with the disgrace of white supremacy and systemic racism are two compelling examples of why learning must be an intentional rather than an incidental process. In the case of the pandemic, health care providers and medical and scientific researchers alike have worked tirelessly to understand and treat a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and a disease (COVID-19) they have never seen before. The horrifying murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the early months of 2020 led to a long-overdue awakening in our country about the profound suffering endured by Black Americans through centuries of oppression and discrimination.
In these situations, our learning has been intentional, constant and rapid, and it must continue unabated. For association decision-makers, the short-term pessimistic mindset can be a crucial catalyst for adopting serious and substantive learning—especially learning with the future—as a priority shared practice for sense-making and meaning-making in an irrevocably-altered world.
The pessimistic mindset activates stewardship
The critical forces of turbulence reshaping 2020 combine to create an inflection point that demands the comprehensive reinvention of associations for the rest of this decade and beyond. As is true about the process of learning that will help move it forward, the reinvention of associations will need an intentional and sustained effort.
What’s more, reinventing associations for the rest of this decade and beyond means more stewardship and less leadership. To create 21st century societal institutions capable of taking substantive positive-sum (rather than zero-sum) action for the benefit of their stakeholders and successors, association boards must embrace their unique stewardship responsibilities and challenge other stakeholders to make meaningful contributions to the work of stewardship as well. The short-term pessimistic mindset provides a clear and focused lens that all stewards can apply as they collaborate to leave both their associations and their broader industry and professional ecosystems better than how they found them.
We must recognize that The Turbulent Twenties are here, and there will be no going back. Every American has been challenged to adapt to this new decade far sooner than expected, and the next six months will be a formidable test of our resilience, responsibility and readiness not only for the short term, but for the remainder of the 2020s as well. The pessimistic mindset is not a panacea, but we must use it over the next six months to begin thinking more deeply. We must ask different questions about how we will work together to prevent complacency and create a more equitable, ethical, humane and just future. Look for some of those questions in my September column. Please stay safe and well.