Commentary: Compression And Tension

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to “Taking Charge of Change: How Rebuilders Solve Hard Problems,” by Paul Shoemaker 

When I was in the first or second grade, growing up in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Snell-Crawford Park was just a few hundred feet from our backyard. In the hot humid summers, I’d take off down into the woods, try to avoid the poison ivy, and walk along Soldier Creek. Somewhere along the trail was a small, simple arch bridge with a road running over the top of the creek. I’d sit underneath that bridge and wait for cars to go rumbling over. 

Even with a bridge that simple, I was sort of fascinated by how a structure could hold up a whole concrete street and cars speeding across. 

Bridges across the United States are deteriorating. There are over 600,000 bridges in America and nearly 40% are in need some sort of repair. And 46,000, are “structurally deficient” in need of urgent rebuilding. 

The state of deteriorating, structurally deficient bridges is an evocative metaphor for the nation we are living in right now. The social, economic, and health structures underlying American civil society are in a more critical and inequitable condition than they have been in decades. 

Some parts of our nation are in need of urgent repair and rebuilding, like those bridges that are structurally deficient. As is and always will be the case, these times call for a new kind of leader. 

Leaders for the 2020’s need to have a unique combination of qualities and skillsets that will enable them to be effective at addressing the accelerating economic, social, and health disparities across an increasingly uneven, siloed America. 

The five leadership qualities and skillsets, the 5 Vital Traits, that will matter most are: 

  • 24-7 Authenticity
  • Capacity for Complexity
  • Generosity Mindset
  • Conviction about Data
  • Cross-Sector Fluency 

These traits are not random or independent, any more than the many parts of a bridge are unconnected. When we walk or drive across any bridge, unless you’re an engineer, you may not fully grasp how many connected parts — piles, piers, abutments, superstructure, etc. – work together. 

A bridge stays in place because all the forces acting on it are in balance. Most bridges stand for years, decades, even centuries. There are many kinds of bridges, but virtually all of them carefully balance two main kinds of forces — compression pushing inward, and tension pulling outward. 

For leaders for the future, the Rebuilders, the personal qualities of 24-7 Authenticity and a Generosity Mindset are in balance with the tangible skillsets of Data Conviction and the Capacity for Complexity. And the trait that connects them together is Cross-Sector Fluency, as you can see in the accompanying graphic. 

Massive upheavals like 2020 can be moments for undoing and expelling old ways of thinking and working and being. As Seth Godin articulated recently in his typically simple, yet powerful, language: “The industrial era, struggling for the last decade or two, is now officially being replaced by one based on connection and leadership and the opportunity to show up and make a difference.” 

This is where the rebuilders as leaders for the decade ahead come in, as powerful forces for a new kind of connection and leadership. For a future that otherwise risks fast-becoming less and less equal and more and more siloed along economic, political, and health lines. 

To be blunt, there are heroes and villains to be made in the years ahead, just like there have been at other huge inflection points in American history. From the robber barons at the turn of the 20th century and war profiteers to the greatest generation and the frontline heroes of both 9/11 and COVID, American history is replete with villains and heroes. In times like these, leadership is the seminal lever in civil society. Those that show up with the five vital traits will not only be the rebuilders for the future, they will be genuine American heroes.

If we can bring forward truly new and better leaders, then this period of time we are in will turn out to be a moment not just of division and inequity in the near-term, but of progress towards stronger, better communities and companies over the long-term.