By conventional business measures, the early takes from the White House on the Covid-19 crisis should have come as no surprise. Even as the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. passed one million, administration policy showed a clear effort to signal confidence in service of the financial markets. It lacked empathy for those who needed to be served most: the people. Prioritizing commercial interests ahead of making a more meaningful cultural, social, or personal contribution is a standard business model--increasingly older and outmoded, yes, but still business as usual.
If old-school business thinking is part of the problem, where can we turn for inspiration? Who are the new-school role models for businesses and government? Who is thinking beyond the moment to build sustainable solutions for the betterment of people and the planet? The answer is more likely our youth--the next generation of young advocates, ambassadors, and activists working in a diverse range of fields who are making a contribution today with tomorrow in mind. Compared with most of today's leaders who have succumbed to orthodoxy, these young leaders are more radical and open to possibility. They lead by embracing five unorthodox traits: creativity, courage, compassion, curiosity, and conviction.
During this time when we all need a way forward, these new-school leaders--people like Mikaila Ulmer, Naomi Wadler, Carter Anderson, Ashley Edwards, Alina Liao, Carmen LoBue, and Tiffany Pham--have lessons to teach the old school. Yes, they are younger. But, as you will learn, they are wiser. If we are going to run the country like a successful, visionary business, let's look to them and their way of thinking for guidance.
Old-School Thinking: Older institutions often become so focused on today's performance that they don't imagine beyond the moment until a disaster requires it--which is often too late. Their leaders tend to be shortsighted.
New-School Thinking: Today's young leaders are creative enough to see possibilities, pursuing a better today, tomorrow, and always.
Mikaila Ulmer is a social entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Me & the Bees Lemonade--a brand that does good by sharing profits with organizations working to help honeybees. When Ulmer launched her business in 2009, the world didn't need another lemonade product. Which is likely why older beverage brands looking at conventional short-term metrics did not see the same opportunity. Meanwhile, bees needed perennial protection. How did Ulmer know this? Because at the age of 4, after being stung by two bees in one week, she did research with her parents to overcome her fear. She learned that healthy bee populations are vital to support the global food supply chain. She transformed from being afraid of bees to being their advocate. Ulmer built a branded solution that wasn't immediately obvious to anyone but her and her childlike imagination. Reflecting upon the secret to her brand success at the United State of Women, a summit convened by the White House, Ulmer remarked: "The biggest dreamers are kids. We dream big. We dream about things that don't even exist yet. We believe in our dreams." She concluded: "My advice to anyone who is looking to start a business is simple. Bee fearless. Bee-lieve in the impossible. And dream like a kid." Her lesson is to lead with creativity.
Old-School Thinking: Older institutions often place managers masquerading as leaders at the top--people who are focused on controlling personal and corporate reputations ahead of making real impact. Their leaders tend to be more self-interested.
New-School Thinking: Today's young leaders are courageous enough to do what is right--desiring respect over fleeting popularity.
Naomi Wadler and Carter Anderson are student activists, renowned for contributions to the #neveragain movement. In 2018, following shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the two were told by their principal not to stage a walkout at their elementary school in support for victims. Concerned with the signal a demonstration could send, the principal initially deterred them by saying the issue was too much of a grownup one for them to be tackling. His concession? To allow them to do something at recess, provided they could get adult supervision. Their response? Wadler and Anderson, then age 11, said, "We wouldn't need parental supervision to be shot in our classrooms." They clarified, "We weren't asking for his permission. We were asking for his support." Because they had the courage to stand up for their beliefs, their principal rewarded them by giving his full support to their initiative. In 2020, Wadler, the youngest participant at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, shared that: "A lot of young people think they have no power, they can't control what's going on. We can choose whom we want to elect and we can be the ones running for office." Wadler and Anderson's lesson is to lead with courage.
Old-School Thinking: Older institutions often prioritize making monetary gains, maximizing shareholder value versus living up to their higher values each day, which can ultimately create distrust among their constituents. Their leaders tend to be financially driven.
New-School Thinking: Today's young leaders are compassionate enough to always put caring before commerce--in good times and bad.
Ashley Edwards and Alina Liao are social advocates and the co-founders of MindRight Foundation, an organization they created while in their 20s to empower youth to heal from trauma. In 2016, when they started their tech-based nonprofit, they could have aimed their service at a ubiquitous universe of "everyone," which might have offered the fastest way to have raised working capital. Instead, they focused on those underserved youth that most required support. Significantly, Edwards and Liao earned undergraduate degrees from Yale with a focus in economics. So, while they were inspired by their upbringing to give back through education, they had the scholastic pedigree to make a more conventional choice, such as pursuing a career as a means to maximize their earning potential and find a different outlet to invest in what they cared about. Unconventionally, they embraced the paradox. Remarking on why their approach to leadership worked, Edwards and Liao advised that it is because, in all they do, "we bring our values to our work." Their lesson is to lead with compassion.
Old-School Thinking: Older institutions often become so stuck in their routine--repeating what they know--that they miss important shifts in culture, categories, and consumers. Their leaders tend to be closed-minded.
New-School Thinking: Today's young leaders are curious enough to make continuous learning a lifelong necessity and not a nuisance.
Carmen LoBue is a filmmaker and activist who keeps her work relevant via making query a core part of her process. At 20-something, she's already making waves as an award-nominated director for her socially resonant work. One such contribution is an important new docuseries that explores the topic of harassment from the point of view of marginalized people from all walks of life. HERassment, in part, was a film project inspired by her younger sister: "I know my mom isn't talking to her about it." LoBue's key challenge was to make a dent--to tell the familiar story in a timely way--to have a conversation with, not give a lecture to, her audience so they would really listen. How did she achieve the goal? By first asking her audience questions, remaining curious, and listening to them. Said LoBue: "When you ask a question, you open your world; you make it larger. When you don't ask, your world stays small." More than earning recognition for her creative output alone, LoBue has been gaining recognition for her cultural contributions. In reflecting upon her contributions, LoBue said: "The onus is always on young people to ask questions. You have to be willing to do the work of investigating. In order to continue learning and continue writing my legacy, right now I'm simply asking myself to keep asking." Her lesson is to lead with curiosity.
Old-School Thinking: Older institutions often want to avoid taking risks, proceeding with caution to the point that competitors--driven by their beliefs and moving with speed and confidence--pass them by. Their leaders tend to lack conviction.
New-School Thinking: Today's young leaders have conviction enough to try and fail, without delay, to achieve their highest ambitions.
Tiffany Pham is a media authority and cultural contributor. She is the founder of Mogul, a social media platform for women all around the world to connect and share information. Her long-term ambition: to inspire her audience to achieve their full potential and, in so doing, to bridge the leadership gender gap. Given the size of this ambition, it could have taken years to make her dream of Mogul a reality. But since this was Pham's calling and because of her conviction, it did not. In 2014, at age 27, while already working at three jobs--one at CBS corporate, one with the government of Beijing, and one producing films on social issues--Pham taught herself to code late at night and developed the prototype of Mogul. By 2015, a year after launching Mogul from her bedroom in New York City, her business reached 18 million users across 196 countries and 30,470 cities. Her advice to leaders seeking to make a lasting impact: "Don't worry about it being perfect at the beginning. Start building. Start creating. Just get started." Pham's lesson is to act quickly by leading with a conviction for your beliefs.
There are myriad reasons why the leaders and lessons shared above might be easy to dismiss--beginning with the fact that they represent the perspective of youth, albeit successful youth. Conversely, there is one good reason to pay heed: The way the adults in charge responded to the early signs of Covid-19 in the United States not only didn't work, it exacerbated the problem because it placed the priority on commerce before people. Clearly, our elder leaders have much to learn. It is essential for all of us, including government, to evolve how we do business and for the old school to look to the new school for guidance--embracing the traits of creativity, courage, compassion, curiosity, and conviction as necessary for enduring prosperity. This is not a call to reject the importance of a vital economy. It is the opposite. It is an argument for recognizing that when we get our priorities straight and put people and their long-term best interests first, commerce will follow.
Mark Miller is the chief strategy officer at Team One, an integrated media, digital, and communications agency, and co-author of Legacy in the Making (McGraw-Hill Education).