Transformative Change Requires a New Kind of Leadership

Image of small green plant growing out of dead brown stump

When the El Paso County Coroner’s Office released its annual report last year, it was a wake-up call to anyone who cares about the health and well-being of our community. Homelessness deaths rose by 55%, fentanyl deaths increased by 16%, suicide rates are beginning to tick upward again, and homicides rose significantly, with five deaths occurring in a single, bias-motivated mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ nightclub.

Our community, like all communities, is so deeply interconnected that the well-being of one person has a ripple effect on us all. Studies show that communities that prioritize health and well-being tend to experience significant benefits in a variety of ways, including educational achievement, safety and crime, and life expectancy.

However, finding solutions isn’t easy. If it were, we would have done it. Countless dedicated individuals and organizations are doing good work on these difficult problems. The issue is not that people don’t want to help or be helped. The issue is that we are caught up in fundamentally flawed systems and trying to work through incredibly complex problems. Until we commit to rebuilding the systems that prevent each of us from accessing the support and resources we need to thrive, things will continue to get worse.

Rebuilding flawed systems doesn’t happen overnight.

Systems are complex with many interrelated pieces, including a wide range of individuals and organizations with their own perspectives and interests. Because of this, no one solution can adequately address every issue at play. A system cannot be fully understood from one perspective and complex problems cannot be solved by one organization alone. As the coroner’s report so starkly highlights, “the way it’s always been done” isn’t working.

The kind of transformative change we need requires new and different leadership. Our longstanding definitions and expectations of leadership as a heroic, hierarchical, individual, or organizational act don’t map to the size of our increasingly complex, interrelated, systems-level problems. Leaders, organizations, and sectors no longer can work in isolation and expect to move the needle on issues or create lasting impact. As a society, we aren’t facing new problems so much as wrestling with systems that do not serve us.

We need to confront the mental models, power structures, policies, resources, procedures, and relationships that hold these broken systems in place. We need to genuinely listen to and act on the voices of those most impacted by these complex systems and issues.

We must be willing to question, experiment, fail, learn from our mistakes, and course correct when and where necessary. We need to push past political and personal ideology, have difficult conversations, confront uncomfortable truths, and lean into the discomfort of knowing that what we are doing isn’t working. It means reflecting on and challenging our own ideas about issues such as homelessness, mental health, and addiction. Only when we shift our mindset from individual blame to systemic improvements will we create a city where “community” includes everyone, regardless of their circumstances.

If this sounds like hard work, it is. It’s a huge undertaking that involves all of us taking collective responsibility. It requires us to roll up our sleeves, get messy, work together differently, commit to the long haul, and not give up or attack each other when things get tough.

If it sounds impossible, it’s not. When it comes to the health and well-being of those in our community, change is not only possible, it’s non-negotiable.

Are you ready to commit to this new way of working?