Guest post by Alan Tang.

The year 2020, as it turned out, was a year to reckon with. At the very beginning, I mused that the pandemic would shine a light on everyone as they navigate the unknown. Like standing in your undergarments in the middle of an auditorium with the spotlight on you. A frightening nightmare! No one, not even the most bold person would welcome that kind of transparency. Instead, we desire the kind of privacy and safety that shields us from vulnerability. Without a choice, the pandemic has exposed much of that vulnerability, showing what we did and didn’t do in response to all of the changes around us.

To manage a business, lead staff and counsel clients, I have spent too many long nights thinking about this. Especially when working with candidates for public office who stepped into a brighter spotlight than they might ever have imagined before signing on to a campaign. But this also applies to other ‘servant leaders’ who may have grown accustomed to leading from behind but now have to stand up front where the spotlight is the brightest. Everyone, myself included, have faltered to a degree in stepping up to the front in the face of the unprecedented. If there was ever a notion that with enough effort, we can be ‘perfect in every way’ or we can be ‘everything to everyone,’ the validity of that idea was certainly challenged this past year. But while none of us is perfect, I have seen some heroic, extraordinary efforts from people who stepped out of their comfort zones.

These include doctors and nurses who went above and beyond the call to help COVID-19 patients and ended up succumbing to the virus themselves. Or, leaders who continue to forge ahead into the unknown to create a safer community for everyone to live and work in. Some of these efforts may not work out, but they have sparked other ideas that may. In the last six months, I have been an eyewitness to the courage and bravery of these few. Certainly, performing in the bright spotlight is not for the faint of heart. The spotlight  of an awards ceremony is one thing, but this type of spotlight requires a different kind of boldness.

There was an earnest call for leadership and resiliency in 2020. While it was resoundingly aimed at elected officials in the public arena, it was also compelling each of us as individuals to step up and do our part. There were no spectator seats in 2020; everyone was pushed onto the playing field under the spotlights. What you did and didn’t do were seen. But what is more important than what others may have seen of you, are the profound insights you discover in the mirror under those spotlights.

If we fast-forward, 10 or maybe 20 years from now, and we are asked by a five- or ten-year-old what we did to help others during the pandemic of 2020, what would we say?

Throughout history during times of great adversity, we see stories of courageous people who took great risks upon themselves to serve something greater than themselves. They chose not to be victims of circumstance and did not seek to be heroes. They just did what was right and did not let the possibility of failure or personal harm prevent them from going ahead with it.

One example is Sir Nicholas Winton, a young British stockbroker who did something truly incredible in 1939. He risked his life to save 669 mostly Jewish children in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust by ensuring their safe passage to Britain. And then, like a real hero, he never spoke of it again until fifty years later when his wife found a scrapbook in the attic of their home that contained the names, pictures, and documents of the Holocaust victims that he saved. Why did he do it? He never really explained, though he offered a humble rationale in an interview with The New York Times in 2001: “One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that. Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”

How about Harriet Tubman? She was a slave and later prominent abolitionist who had escaped from a plantation and was partway through a near-90 mile journey from Maryland to Philadelphia, and freedom. She left Dorchester County, Maryland, in September and travelled by night, journeying through Delaware, guided by the North Star (Hōkūpa‘a, in Hawaiian is the same star used by Polyneisan navigators). In the years that followed, Tubman returned many times to Maryland to rescue others via the so-called “underground railroad,” a network of safe houses used to spirit slaves from the South to the free states in the North. She would help at least 70 people – family, friends, and strangers – escape slavery, taking enormous risks with her own hard-won freedom. She travelled in a variety of elaborate disguises and armed herself with a revolver. 

We may not imagine ourselves stepping up to be heroes like Sir Winton or Harriet Tubman. Perhaps they didn’t imagine their heroism when they first stepped up, too. But perhaps they knew it was a truth that can’t be avoided.

There is an old Okinawan saying (probably with Chinese roots) that goes like this, “Ten shiru, chi shiru, onore shiru.” Translated, it means, “Heaven knows, Earth knows, I know.” My interpretation: there is no hiding from the truth: Heaven where we came from knows; the Earth where we will be buried knows; and yes, you know, too what needs to be done and whether you are doing it or not. That is the ultimate spotlight.

Previously posted in Linkedin