Jamie Williams “Leadership is critical in times of crisis when human life is at stake”

By Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly

Living in times of a pandemic puts a lot of stress on our personal lives and business. This time I decided to interview a leading American athlete and hear his thoughts on the subject.

Jamie Williams is a football star, a champion with the San Francisco 49ers team, winner of the Super Bowl. Yearning to enhance his cognitive skills, Jamie decided to change his career and became a successful entrepreneur and film director/screenwriter. He wrote the initial screenplay and inspired the amazing speech by Al Pacino in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday.  Along the way, he achieved both a Master’s Degree in “Mass Communication and Film” and a Doctorate Degree in “Organization and Leadership”.  Jamie Williams, a key mentor of the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center, has visited Bulgaria several times and loves it. He’s given motivational speeches and inspired the Levski football team before an important match. His lectures are focused on developing leadership skills and building successful teams.

Jamie, I heard that recently, you were awarded, along with one other student, as “the top MBA students for the class of 2020” of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Tell us more? Coming from a humble background, was it hard for you to have access to higher education? Did you get a scholarship?

Lilly, first of all, thank you for taking the time to interview me, as you are key to my admiration and love for the country of Bulgaria. And yes, I do come from the “other side of the tracks” and what most people consider the poor side of town. However, most of my friends were also poor, so I didn’t feel alone in that regard. I grew up in the Midwest state of Iowa, which reminds me of Bulgaria — agrarian and friendly. Life was simple; people enjoyed each other’s company and top education was free. The schools were awesome for everyone, including poor kids. All of us young folks stayed outside and played sports. Athletics and academics were magic for me; both allowed me to express myself and develop. The combination of the two earned me a full-ride scholarship to nearly every major university in the country. This was a Godsend because my parents were laborers and neither graduated from high school.

How is your life now during COVID-19? How do you cope with the isolation? How do you protect yourself? What is your survival strategy? Do you exercise, do you take any vitamins, food supplements?

Life in the era of COVID-19 in America is the “upside down.” Very little makes sense and our people are being pulled in a myriad of directions. Fortunately, those dearest to me are all well. Personally, I’ve always been a loner and can handle isolation and change. My concern are for others who can’t cope. I have plenty of books, music and home projects to keep me busy. Yesterday I planted gladiolus, pansies, petunias and daffodils. When I go out, I wear a mask to protect others and myself. I do exercise and take vitamins (airborne) every day. Movement, humor, brain stimulation and family are keys for maintaining sanity during times like these.

Leadership has never been so important than at this time we are now experiencing with the arrival of the pandemic. What leadership skills do you think are most important at a time like this?

Leadership is critical in times of crisis when human life is at stake. One must lead with empathy. A leader must also employ a long view both forward and backwards. She or he should look to history because most things have happened before. Consider the upheaval caused by the Justinian Plague or the medieval Black Death. Society recovered and pushed onward. True leaders establish a new vision that inspires people to transverse the obstacles in front of them. But, vision can’t manifest without the strategy, a skill few leaders honestly have. And lastly, the unknown produces fear, causing those in power position to point fingers. True leaders make peace with fear and step into the darkness “pointing the thumb” — which is called courage.

What challenges facing today’s leaders are the most difficult to navigate?

In my opinion, the challenges facing current leaders in business, education and politics that are most difficult to navigate are the noises created by the non-leaders in leadership positions. They create more disruption than a host of hurricanes and tornadoes, by misleading those hoping for solutions. Every civilization contended with disrupt-prone leaders who always knocked progress sideways for self-interest. Real leaders cannot be corrupted and “run against the wind” if that’s the direction to help others.  

Can you think of great leaders from past history who faced similar challenges? What did they all have in common?

Great leaders have enhanced the human experience from beginning and until now. I’ll pick out a few for you to consider; each “pointed the thumb” and produced light from the darkness: Hammurabi of Babylon, Hatshepsut (female pharaoh), Moses, Phillip of Macedon and his son, Alexander, Jesus, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Constantine the Great, Charlemagne of the Carolingian Renaissance, Joan of Arc, Thomas Aquinas, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. This list is not exhaustive but a flavor of what shaped Western Civilization. The Eastern side had just as many breakthroughs, but that’s a story for another day.

One bright spot emerging from the “shelter-in-place” and social distancing mandates is our understanding of the value of teamwork. We are all in this together and our behavior affects everyone else. Can this feeling that “we are all on the same team” be perpetuated beyond the time we are currently experiencing? If so, how?

That’s an awesome question. Teamwork is only sustainable when the cause is common and the culture stronger than strategy. I believe in the goodness of people, but a small specter of darkness always follows.

Another positive from this pandemic is the heart-felt appreciation felt by communities for hospital staffs, grocery workers, first responders and others serving our essential needs, who we have perhaps taken too much for granted in the past. Do you think these newly expressed feelings will be sustainable after the pandemic is over? Will the relationship between leaders and those being led be changed?

The pandemic introduced a global reality check that we all must contend with and the majority of those who survive will not forget. The fear of an invisible predator that takes loved ones will remain. Hopefully, fear keeps us together. However, the relationship between leaders and the led will vary. Those who led well will be honored, those who misled will not be forgotten.

How is life going to be after COVID-19? Will people be afraid to socialize? Will most of the activities happen online?

Life will be different after the pandemic. Medicine and research will change. Technology will accelerate to patch holes in the global supply chain. Artificial intelligence and automation will replace human responsibilities. Wearing masks in public will become commonplace. Handshakes will go the way of the dinosaur, and gatherings will likely feel unnatural. However, it is human to commune, so that part of nature will be challenged. If a vaccine is created, people will ultimately let their guard down until the next virus creates mayhem.

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