Better Together

“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” – Howard Zinn

By McKeel Hagerty

The trouble with big challenges is their scale. When we look at them in total, we simply do not know where to begin our work.

As a colleague of mine remarked this week, 2020 has been like trying to take a shovel to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. We shovel and shovel but it doesn’t seem like we make progress. Is it even worth the effort?

2020 began with an international trade dispute. Then came COVID-19 and the resultant financial scourge. Then it was the previously ignored and very real travails of social and racial injustice. Then a contentious election. Let’s not forget fires and hurricanes. And now – just in time for the holidays – more COVID.

Every single one of these big issues has impacted us locally. Our lives, our work, our businesses, our schools, our health and our happiness have all been hit or have required pivots. We are in every way a different community than we were nine short months ago. I know 2020 is not a person that will listen to our cries for a time out, but TIME OUT!

If you mustered the courage lately to turn on the news or to read anything about these big issues, you saw a lot of maps: pandemic maps, electoral maps, catastrophic weather maps. Big maps turning colors that we may not like or that represent imminent threat; millions of lives and households and businesses abstracted into colors.

In these abstractions, I am reminded of the wisdom of the Polish American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski when he remarked that “the map is not the territory.” In this phrase, we find the perspective we need. A big map is an abstraction from something or a reaction to it. It is not the thing itself.

To jump right to it, our individual work can help with big challenges. We can do this. We just have to change our plans and change our perspective. And get to shoveling.

A few years ago before his passing, I had a private meeting with Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations. He was an incredibly articulate and calm presence who led the U.N. during a time of difficult, polarizing global issues like apartheid and peace in the Middle East.

I asked him how he dealt with such large, complex issues. He said, “McKeel, the mistake most people make when taking on global challenges is that they focus too much on the top levels of leadership. Most real transformation begins at a very local level, with individuals taking small but definitive actions.”

That’s a brilliant observation. As individuals, we tend to think we are spectators to the grand dramas of our time. But we are not in the audience – we are center stage with the spotlight on us. We are main characters and what we do matters.

The gateway to the holiday season is Thanksgiving. I think it’s the greatest holiday of the lot because its very name suggests gratitude. Even though we couldn’t travel or gather in large groups, I find myself full of gratitude and admiration for my fellow human beings.

Despite all the frustration, I have witnessed countless examples of love, kindness, thoughtfulness, support, compassion, civic duty and justice. There is enormous power in such individual acts.

Business leaders can play an even bigger role here. When people are afraid, they don’t listen, think or make decisions very well. I have long said that the first job of a leader in any crisis is to get everyone breathing again. As COVID again spikes and worries mount in anticipation of a long, dark winter, we can help people find their way to a healthier perspective.

A new perspective starts by reminding ourselves of the truisms above: We can’t “fix” COVID, but we can take care of ourselves and those around us. We can wear masks. We can vote without drama. We can support those who do not agree with us. We can feed the poor and the ill.

In these small ways, we can take our shovel to the sand dunes.

That doesn’t sound like a typical business strategy or philosophy, certainly not one that you’d have heard back in the day from the Jack Welch school of management.

But, remember that businesses are just collections of human beings. If they’re not doing well, your business isn’t going to do very well, either. Help those around you weather this crisis and they’ll help your company weather it, too.

Here’s to a better, healthier 2021.

Onward and upward.

McKeel Hagerty is the CEO of Hagerty.