The process of rewriting history is demanding for all of us. When the cracks appear in a long-held belief, it causes anxiety and pain. As the certain world is replaced by great uncertainty, the risk is that we cling more than ever to what we know. The familiar’s gravitational pull works no matter how dysfunctional we know the familiar is. When we recognize this, we can hold the space for this breakdown and transition more gently, more respectfully, with more care. Otherwise, anxiety turns to anger and people lose trust in each other and in their institutions. The result risks becoming a vicious cycle: as the challenges of our times intensify, we trust our leaders less, the outlets we seek for our dissatisfaction – such as anti-scientific beliefs or conspiracy theories – become more extreme, and our leaders in turn trust us less. They become even more inclined to stick to what they know – the old stories – denying us agency as they engage in futile attempts to solve challenges for us, without us.
That is why the most essential work in this time should be a reimagining of what leadership is. If those in positions of power act as if there is nothing wrong, nothing to see here, our distrust of them deepens even more. Leaders who build the citizen future start by acknowledging uncertainty, sharing questions and challenges with us rather than providing (or not providing) answers for we. They create opportunities for us to participate and contribute. They cultivate what is called “security uncertainty”: recognizing the unknowns, not denying them. They don’t claim to know exactly what the future looks like. They reassure us that we will be more successful in building it by working together. As philosopher and activist Adrienne Maree Brown says, “No one is special, everyone is needed.
To survive and thrive, we must step into the citizen future. We need to think of ourselves as citizens – people who actively shape the world around us, who cultivate meaningful connections with their community and institutions, who can imagine a different and better life, who care and take responsibility, and who create opportunities for others to do the same. Fundamentally, the leaders of our institutions must also consider people as citizens and treat us as such.
If we can enter the citizen future, we can face our countless challenges: economic insecurity, ecological emergency, threats to public health, political polarization, etc. We can build a future. We will be able to have a future – together.
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