Though I’m sure he had a very different context in mind, Bobby Kennedy’s words from all the way back in 1966 strike me with a particular urgency today. Leaders today are being asked to guide their teams and organizations through a tumultuous present and towards a uniquely uncertain future. But rather than allowing our inability to see through uncertainty paralyze us with insecurity, it is critical that we face our current obstacles with vigor and with a vision for the future, as far as we can know it.
In observing leaders across the nonprofit sector and through leading our own teams and efforts, we have discovered some common themes among leaders who are not just surviving amidst the pandemic, but are preparing to thrive in the world beyond COVID-19.
Lead with empathy and optimism.
While it is true that this crisis has affected everyone, it is equally true that everyone is experiencing this crisis differently. As leaders, we must be cognizant of both, and be empathetic to the various ways the pandemic have impacted each person we interact with at every level. I have always believed that taking a personal interest in the lives of your staff and building authentic relationships with them is helpful for all leaders. Now, I’d say it is imperative. I meet more often as a group and individually with staff members, starting all meetings now with a general check-in and more socializing than I typically did before. I’m also more flexible than I’ve ever been on deadlines (I’m still not very flexible, but I’m trying!). I understand and am respectful of everyone’s personal situation right now. Ask yourself: Who is homeschooling children, who is entirely alone, who can’t get outside at all and who can work outside when the weather cooperates? All of this is important and relevant to their performance and cohesion as a team.
Though being empathetic to individual circumstances is essential, as a leader you need to, at some degree, ignore your own. Everyone has had bad days during this pandemic during which they have lost some amount of hope about the future of their organization. However, as a leader it is important to always portray optimism and to believe it. I do believe the future of the nonprofit sector is strong. I do believe donors will become more generous post-crisis, that a reexamination of their priorities will lead donors to recognize the importance of the causes they are devoted to. I do believe Orr Group and our staff have an important role to play in the sector and will find ourselves in even greater need than ever before. Today is difficult, but soon it will be over, and with that the promise of tomorrow will come. Leaders need to believe this and communicate this often. It is easy to lose sight in the monotony of the daily grind as well as the troubling economic climate; but leaders must focus on the horizon and ensure that everyone recognizes better days are ahead.
Lead quickly, act decisively and with a strategic mindset.
Simply put, leaders have two jobs, to inspire their teams and to make decisions. During a crisis, you can expect to make more decisions, and you’ll also have less time to make them and a smaller margin of error. That’s why it is often said, “crises are a time for leaders.” Bureaucracies are not well designed for an environment in which new pressures are constantly put on your organization’s financial model, as well as your ability to deliver programs and achieve your mission. This isn’t to say that a leader must make all decisions with no input, but rather that each decision must be made with the utmost urgency. I enter every meeting I attend now with the mindset of, “what decisions need to be made via this meeting and what info will I need from the meeting to make those decisions?” Not only do I try to bring this attitude to the staff, but I also try to be clear when I make a decision, or I communicate a timetable on when a decision will be made if I’m unable to come to one during the meeting.
That said, the need for speed should never prevent you from being strategic or considering the long-term impact. Decide quickly, but implement your decision deliberately and strategically. For instance, a quick decision would be that you need to cut personnel expenses. Then, the deliberate and strategic approach to implementation would be to first consider alternatives beyond layoffs (pay cuts, temporary furloughs, suspension of 403b/401k matching funds). If layoffs are necessary, consider the future impact of even a temporary loss of the specific position or person in question. Changes within your organization, whether they be to pay scales, people, or policies, should be made with consideration to the impact they will have if they were permanent. I heard one leader recently provided this prospective: “We’re not looking to apply band-aids; we’re looking to do surgery.”
Lead by example.
I’ve long communicated to teams I’ve led that I will never ask them to do something I have not or would not do. While this memorably led to a camp staff member calling my bluff as the CEO to help move a deer carcass, it’s a solid leadership premise that is even more imperative in a time of crisis. I can articulate optimism that donors will still give but my actions in actively soliciting donors right now will carry more weight. People look to and emulate the behavior of leaders. Even if you don’t realize you’re being watched, you are, and how you react to circumstances communicates a message, now more than ever. If you are disheartened in a meeting or decide it’s too difficult to accomplish certain important tasks now, expect everyone else to be disheartened and procrastinate as well. Likewise, if you don’t make time for your own mental health and family priorities right now, your employees won’t either and it will degrade their morale and performance accordingly.
This is a time for leaders. Managers can be effective when times are good, but teams with leaders will react and adapt to crisis much better and more quickly. By following these tenets – leading with empathy and optimism, acting quickly and decisively but with a strategic mindset, and leading by example – you can position your team and organization to shape and take advantage of the recovery as it comes.