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For Van Jones, a focus on health is key to leadership

July 8, 2020, 6:54 PM UTC

For Van Jones, this was the year that forced him to take a look at his own health—and see that prioritizing his well-being could be a leadership trait.

Speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference on Tuesday, the CEO of REFORM Alliance said he realized during the pandemic that his hypertension and prediabetes could make him a “tasty snack” for COVID-19, and he decided to start taking better care of himself.

It was a decision that drew “ferocious” blowback on Twitter, he added, with some followers seeing his announcement as a way of letting racist systems that restrict Black access to healthy food and health care systems off the hook.

But Jones said he saw it differently—it was a way to help him keep fighting.

“The old model was, you know the future, you know all the variables, and you just come up with a plan, and you execute that plan, and that’s leadership,” he said. “Well, what was your plan in January 2020, and how’d that work out for you? This is the year that demonstrates being prepared to pivot, being prepared, knowing who you are, being centered in your values, being healthy, being clear, and then being able to deal with the changes that come, is a much better leadership model, I think.”

When it comes to leadership, the importance of mental—not just physical—health is now becoming much more clear, added David Hoke, senior director of health and well-being at Walmart, who spoke on a panel alongside Jones.

“I don’t think you can do one without the other,” Hoke said. “And what’s becoming clear now with COVID, with the racial injustice that’s now been more exposed, that the infrastructure to address that is frankly piss-poor everywhere around the world.”

Encouraging leaders to take their mental health seriously, he said, now means having conversations with those same leaders telling them that it’s okay to be vulnerable—and pushing back against a particularly American ethos of toughness, where you can’t show weakness or you fail.

“The idea that [that ethos] is going to get us through the world we’re living in now just isn’t going to work, because it’s just fundamentally not true,” Hoke said.

Discussions about the impact of both structural racism following the killing of George Floyd and a widespread health crisis now provide the chance to break down barriers, said Jones.

“For the first time you’re having both conversations: a conversation about the need for structural change and the need for behavioral change,” he said. “Both are the logical lessons coming out of the first half of 2020. We’ve got to deal with sick people and sick systems. We’ve got to deal with structures and behaviors, and the good news, as this conversation here shows, is everybody knows what you’re talking about—because we’ve all had a common reference point called the first half of 2020.”

Plus, he added, “we’ve still got the second half to go!”