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David Noer: Surviving the Year of the Rat

David Noer: Surviving the Year of the Rat

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The pandemic originated in China and 2020 is the Year of the Rat in the Chinese lunar calendar.

The image of a big, fat, smelly rat gnawing away at the foundations of our society is a compelling representation of what has unfolded thus far.

To be fair, in the Chinese calendar, the rat is a symbol of wealth and renewal. For us that represents a bad news/good news prognosis. The bad news is that in our fractured economy, wealth accumulation seems an unrealistic dream. The good news is that with relevant leadership, renewal is possible.

A better label for 2020 would be the Year of the Chicken, from the folk tale when Chicken Little panics and sets off to warn the king that the sky is falling. In the fable, she misinterprets an acorn falling on her head, alarms friends such as Ducky Lucky and Turkey Lurkey, and in many endings, winds up being eaten by Foxy Loxy. Our sky is not falling, and although like Chicken Little, we have been hit by some painful acorns, we can emerge without either becoming Foxy Loxy’s meal or electing him.

We can select leaders who will heal our wounds and bring us together, not throw salt in them and further divide us. North Carolina is a swing state and both parties are pouring buckets of money, flooding us with advertisements that insult our intelligence and pelt us with distracting, delusional Chicken Little-like acorns. Elections are not reality TV and distortions, misrepresentations and personal attacks demean the process. The best defense is to employ the mute button and use more rational criteria to inform our decisions.

The type of leader with the skills and perspective to heal our wounds is described in a classic study by Kouzes and Posner. They asked people what competencies they wanted in their leaders. The answers are a recipe for healing and renewal: "(M)odel the way" (walk your talk); "inspire a shared vision" (see a better future); "challenge the process" (seek better options); "enable others to act" (trust and inspire); and "encourage the heart" (show empathy and emotional support). If we are to recover from the trauma of the Year of the Rat and avoid Foxy Loxy, we need leaders who inspire us with hope, not stifle us with fear.

It’s not enough to rely on elected leaders, we must become leaders ourselves. We don’t want for opportunities. Our community is hurting: people have lost their jobs and are struggling to pay their bills. Families are hurting: Isolation and confinement have exacerbated tensions and have provided breeding grounds for verbal and physical abuse. Seniors see contracting the virus as a potential death sentence. Teens are angry and frustrated with a thwarted internal urge to spread their wings and socialize. Without paychecks and social reinforcement self-esteem wanes and depression knocks at the door.

There are many definitions of leadership, but the one that best fits the Year of the Rat is conceptualizing it as a helping relationship. As friends, neighbors, parents or spouses, we can reach out. We can role-model optimism and not allow the acorns of blame and self-pity to spread. We can help others latch on to a positive vision of a better tomorrow and take some small steps today. Most of all, we can demonstrate emotional support and empathy.

Many years ago, I heard an inspiring story that powerfully illustrates the requisite leadership strategy.

One evening, an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. “The battle,” he said, “is between two wolves inside us all. One is evil — it is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good — it is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The old man replied, simply, “The one you feed!”

To survive the Year of the Rat and overcome the paranoia of Chicken Little, we have to nourish the proper wolf.

Community columnist David Noer ( is an author and organizational consultant who lives in Greensboro.

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