By Mary Anne Petrillo 

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.†― Henry Kissinger

Last week’s news report of 100,000 people who have perished from COVID is one of many emotional news stories that has left me in need of strength, patience, and direction. It appears a steady stream of divisive topics pours out into every communication channel these days. But as our pandemic response continues, I listen to local industry managers and sit in attendance with regional leaders and am struck by the fact that these individuals are not polarized in their approach to balancing good health with a robust economy. On the contrary, they are actively seeking solutions from an extremely limited array of options. This is frustrating, as we are all trying to uncover the right answers. COVID-19 has shown us that just because there are no clear answers does not mean we should do not try to seek them out. If you listen to your neighbors and friends, or scroll through social media and look for it, you will begin to see many individuals guiding each other to a better understanding of the change that is upon us. 

A rural economy is strongest when it is built on the unity of its community. Unlike urban environments, rural business owners generally know their customers on a deeper, more personal level. Even those who cater to tourists treat their customers as family, or at least as distant relations. 

Social media and traditional media may have you believe there is no unity, there is no leadership, but I do not see this. The lodging community of Mendocino County is a good example. With the Governor not allowing lodging to open to tourism until Stage 4 our local lodging community has not sat back and waited for direction. They have collectively created teams and subcommittees. Addressing everything that can impact today, tomorrow, and the distant future. From bulk PPE procurement and safety protocols to advocacy, they are remarkable in their tenacity and graciousness in exploring options and alternatives. The energy they have put in place will tie them closer to others who will assist them on their quest to create business models that work in this new economic landscape. We must help each other reimagine our future.

The reality is it is not easy to serve the public. This is true in the private sector as well as the public sector. Government officials’ behavior is, in large part, based on rules that have been laid down over time. Sometimes these rules are designed by the very same people who may now be opposing them. In the same way, Entrepreneurs exhibit behaviors based on consumer reactions to their products or service over time. Now overlay these sometimes opposing behaviors with a global pandemic and a universal truth begins to emerge; that our personal health is directly tied to the health of all and we are at risk simply by where we stand and the air we breathe. Under these conditions leading individuals to a new future seems inconceivable. 

There are too many things that feel unjust to me these days. But I can see how, collectively, our anger and our uncertainty will move us towards the next stage. As individuals, we must lead each other through the phases from shock and despair, to anger, and onto action, because this virus will be managed. It will come. If by now you do not see yourself as a leader, stop for a moment and think about all the new things you have learned over the past 12 weeks. Consider how many friends, colleagues, institutions, and government officials you have spoken to, written to, or zoomed with to plead your case, or to understand how to behave. True leaders understand the rules and work to redefine them when new choices must be made. We are all learning how to become better leaders so that we can move us towards better days in this new world.