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  • Brendan Shaw

‘Roll with the punches and get to what’s real’: reflections on 2020

Brendan Shaw

"We are trying to reassure people that removing all of the lavatory paper from the shelves of supermarkets probably isn't a proportionate or sensible thing to do at this time."

- Dr Brendan Murphy, Australian Government Chief Medical Officer, March 2020

“I get up And nothin' gets me down You got it tough I've seen the toughest around And I know baby just how you feel You got to roll with the punches and get to what's real”

- Van Halen, Jump, 1983

I was a Generation X teenager growing up in the 1980s when the rock band, Van Halen, had their biggest hit with Jump.

So, it was sad to hear a few months ago that Eddie Van Halen had died, in yet another piece of bad news for 2020.

When I was a teenager the year 2020 was, in the psyche of Gen X at least, a marker for future social development.

Through my lifetime the year 2020 was, in everything from science fiction to corporate strategy documents to love songs, a vision for the future. A beacon of hope to mark the progress humanity had made by the 21st century.

It’s probably fair to say that 2020 didn’t quite turn out the way society might have thought in the 1980s.

People being tasered by police and fist fights amid mad scenes of irrational panic buying of toilet paper in supermarkets is not what we imagined 2020 might be like all those years ago.

I don't think that's what Van Halen meant when they sung about how to 'roll with the punches' ...... (Sorry, it's been a long year).

Yet upon hearing the news about Edward Van Halen's death, strangely I found some lines from Jump both relevant and inspiring for dealing with 2020 (with thanks to David Lee Roth).

The importance of adaptability and resilience, staying focussed on what is important in life and getting to what’s real were all things that people around the world were reminded of through the course of 2020.

Climate change and bushfires the new normal

We’ve just heard that 2020 is likely to be the second hottest year ever on record across the globe.

The second hottest year in global average temperature after 2016 with last year, 2019, coming third.

The World Meteorological Organization has released its latest report on global climate and said that the years from 2015 to 2020 are likely to be the six warmest ever on record.

Source: World Meteorological Organization. 2020. State of the Global Climate 2020: Provisional Report, Geneva, accessed 13/12/2020.

A few weeks ago UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres argued that we are close to a climate catastrophe, saying “Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are increasingly the new normal”.

As if to make the point, countries like Australia and the United States saw unprecedented bushfire seasons in 2020.

As one newspaper editorialised, under the cover of COVID-19 the world is going backwards on climate change.

The UN Secretary General called for an escalation of global action on climate change, saying that nations’ climate change policies have “yet to rise to the challenge” and that the world had arrived at a “moment of truth for people and planet alike”.

And in the last few days, at the Climate Ambition Summit co-hosted by the UK, France and the UN we saw more than 80 world leaders urge swifter action on the climate crisis because of the world is not on track to fulfil the commitments of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

The trick now will be to see if all the urging to speed up progress translates into real action and progress.


Even as 2020 began, news started to emerge of a new, deadly and infectious pneumonia caused by a coronavirus coming out of Wuhan.

Initially, the local Hubei authorities didn’t get across the facts and see what was really happening. They went as far as to question and arrest the doctors and medical staff who were trying to raise the alarm about the emerging new disease.

The subsequent international response to COVID-19 this year demonstrated time and time again that those governments who were adaptable, listened to the scientists and medical experts and based their strategies on evidence did better at responding to the pandemic.

Those countries that ignored the facts and experts or even denigrated them did much, much worse.

It didn’t matter whether it was the police constables in Hubei or Donald Trump in the US, in many cases the same thing happened. Warnings from medical and scientific experts about COVID-19 were ignored and the experts were actually criticised, ostracised and punished.

At the time of writing there are 72 million global cases of COVID-19 recorded and 1.6 million deaths.

But by year’s end the collaboration between the scientific research, the public sector and private sector looks like it is starting to pay off, with vaccines being approved and hope that 2021 will see successful mass vaccination against COVID-19.


While governments have been challenged to use reality and evidence in developing responses this year, the corporate world also had its share of ‘get real’ moments.

Whether it was Rio Tinto deciding to blow up 46,000 year old ancient caves to make a buck and dodging responsibility for it or the board of AMP dodging questions about their role in not dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, or massive fraud in the financial sector in Wirecard, the corporate world has had its share of leadership failures to face.

There is an emerging view worldwide that leaders who were honest, authentic, humble and aware of their own limitations were often the best performers at times of crisis.

For example, several leaders engaged in global COVID-19 responses, health systems and crises have recently written that what is needed in these times are adaptive leaders who use evidence-based learning, stress-test their own beliefs and assumptions and use transparency, accountability and inclusion in their leadership.

Basically, people who can roll with the punches and get to what's real.

Whether it is political, business or community leaders, these are the people you want around when the proverbial hits the fan.

US presidential election

Arguably, these issues of adaptive, authentic and humble leadership were tested in the recent US presidential election.

The end of the year saw President Donald Trump defeated in the US presidential election by Joe Biden. Biden campaigned on the need to respond to the facts on things like climate change and COVID-19 and against fake news and misinformation, with a dose of humility to boot.

Yet as this tumultuous year comes to a close, Trump and others in the White House are still making claims about the election that are plainly at odds with reality.

For a look at how a factful, evidence-based evaluation of the US election outcome might look compared to the fake news allegations of fraud, read David Von Drehle's hilarious article where William of Ockham, the 14th century Franciscan monk and philosopher of 'Ockham's Razor' fame is teleported forward in time to 2020 to review what really happened.

Women in charge

One of the interesting leadership issues of 2020 was that countries that were led by women tended to fair better in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic than countries run by men.

The reasons for this are debated, but the suggestion is that on average female political leaders have tended to do better at rallying voters in their countries to combat the pandemic than their male counterparts. The Financial Times suggests that “it does seem that female heads of government had better results than their male counterparts on death rates”.

Source: Tett, G. 2020. "Have countries led by women coped better with Covid-19?", Financial Times, 3 December,, accessed 13/12/2020.

The reason?

The suggestion is that, at least with the 2020 crop of female heads of government, women tended to have enough humility to listen to scientists, learn lessons from elsewhere and had the empathy to talk to the community in a language people could understand.

Whereas the grumpy men running other countries didn’t do nearly so well.

There’s also the suggestion that female leaders tended to be more risk-averse with people’s lives than men but were more comfortable than men to take risks with the adverse economic consequences of lockdowns to save lives.

It might be said that the aspects of successful leadership in the 21st century were on display through 2020 in female world leaders’ better response to COVID-19.

Will 2020 be the death of ‘post-truth politics’?

For years we have seen debates in many countries about whether science, facts and evidence still matter.

There has been dialogue about post-truth politics, alternative facts and culture wars. For many years leading up to 2020, populist politicians and their supporters seemed to take ignoring reality to a new level, confidently asserting their versions of reality despite obvious contradictory facts.

Whether it was debates about immigration, climate change, Brexit or trade wars, the response of many politicians was that people did not want to listen to science and facts anymore.

While Michael Gove might have been right at the height of the Brexit campaign in Britain in 2016 when he said that people “have had enough of experts”, 2020 was the year of reckoning for all of this nonsense.

This year was a brutal reminder that responding to the evidence, the facts and the science of what is really happening is one of the reasons that humanity has got as far as we have.

This is not to say that the science and the experts are always right, or that values should be ignored, or that different views shouldn’t be debated. Far from it.

But this year has been a reminder that, ultimately, we need to cut through the spin, misinformation, lies and silence to develop strategies, policies and actions based on our informed best guess of what we understand reality to be.

At a time when many countries are polarised by culture wars, identity politics and different versions of reality, the fact is things like climate change and COVID-19 don’t care about any of that.

They remind us that as humans we’re much more alike than we often like to think.


As a result of everything that’s happened this year, maybe one of the key words for 2020 has been ‘resilience’.

Whether it’s people enduring months of government-enforced lockdowns to overcome COVID-19, health systems trying to cope with enormous strains on their infrastructure and staff as a result of the pandemic, businesses adapting to a new normal of staff working from home, US democracy being tested in the aftermath of the presidential election or people surviving through extraordinary climate change-induced wildfires, resilience has been a word that has been used everywhere this year.

We’ve often talked about resilience, but many people around the world have lived it in spades through 2020 as they rolled with the punches.

Looking forward

So, as we round out the year, I’m hoping that we head into 2021 and the next few decades with a renewed respect for evidence, facts, science, critical thinking, informed debate, open minds, collaboration and creative solutions.

It might just be that 2020 has reminded us about the importance of rolling with the punches and getting to what’s real.

Maybe we enter 2021 and the third decade of the 21st century with a better sense of how to do that.

I’ll leave you with a bit of philosophy from Van Halen to explain it all.

Wishing you safe travels and best wishes for 2021.

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