COVID-19: Charting a Way Forward by Using All Five Minds

By Fran Gelder, MA

Listening to the Public Health experts at this stage of the pandemic allows for some cautious optimism for a slow, steady, and eventual return to “normal” life, or at least a “new normal”.  Current media messaging ranges from a collective pride in weathering this storm together, to a sombre tale about long-term impacts to our way of life. Now that economies are beginning to “open up”, how are we to make best use of the expensive lessons already learned while planning and preparing for an uncertain future?

Indeed, as public health measures are relaxed, leaders among us will be contemplating many questions. Foremost among them: Is there a way back to our former lives? How do we move forward? Where do we want to go as a society?  And perhaps most importantly, who do we want to be? Meanwhile, those of us who count on our leaders to show good judgement and do the right thing will be asking: Who do we trust? It’s a question with no easy answer given that even our best sources of information are steadily undermined by unknowns, misinformation, spin and, of course, conspiracy theory.

Fortunately, there are many resources, tools and approaches available to help leaders to think through the risks and opportunities when faced with uncertain landscapes. One such approach is offered by Dr. Howard Gardner, well known for his theories of multiple intelligences. In his book “Five Minds for the Future”, Gardner identifies the human capacities required to deal with the complexity, uncertainty, diversity and competing interests involved when attempting to define a potential future state.

Briefly the five minds are:

  • The Disciplinary Mind – to master the science, mathematical and historical context. This requires leaders who are not only trusted experts but who also have the knowledge, skills and capabilities to make sound judgments with humility, empathy and courage, including the courage to admit what they do not know or when they were wrong.
  • The Synthesizing Mind – to integrate ideas across disciplines and systems and to create a coherent whole that can be communicated clearly to others. Building alignment across organizations is key to the success of any initiative. Engagement, communication, and common purpose is critical, and the synthesizing mind oils the gears of integration while identifying areas of potential friction.
  • The Creating Mind – to engage the capacity to discover and anticipate new problems and opportunities. It asks the challenging questions and explores new questions that need asking to reveal unexpected possibilities and unseen potential. From leaders, this requires openness, transparency, inspiration, and vision to allow for challenge, innovation, as well as risky, and fringe thinking to truly explore all possibilities.
  • The Respectful Mind – to appreciate and celebrate diversity, unique perspectives, insights, ideas, and individuality. For the respectful mind, listening is a key behaviour. By listening we demonstrate respect; we learn from others and we learn about others. By listening we show that we care about and value people for who they are. Embedded in this notion is that active, purposeful and respectful listening is more than a skill, it’s a decision!
  • The Ethical Mind – to understand the impact of decisions on others, to do what is good, and to sit comfortably on both sides of the decision-making table. How do we invite consensus? How do we foster harmony? Do our actions support and enrich lives of all those around us, especially the least fortunate and least influential among us?

Engaging the Five Minds requires us to dive deep into the well of emotional reasoning and intuition. As we emerge from a leadership climate of control typically deployed in emergencies, we will need to return to a style of leadership to engage and empower others – a style designed to give back control and to inspire.

Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future is but one approach that provides us with a lens to critically examine, explore, engage, and create in ways that are meaningful, democratic, and humanitarian. Now that COVID-19 has made its mark on humanity, there is no going back; we can only move forward toward the uncertain future. In doing so however, our leaders and indeed all of us can contribute to a better future – one that allows us to fully express who we want to be.


Frances Gelder is a former Public Health Officer from the Province of Ontario. She holds a master’s degree in Leadership Studies from the University of Guelph.