Recently I heard these words: “There is no playbook for how to lead through this crisis…” I couldn’t disagree more. Perhaps leadership learning is not specific to this “unprecedented” crisis – but all major world (and even many organizational) crises were unprecedented before they happened. This is ours.
Everything you know about leadership has not changed. In fact, much of what you know is simply being called upon in unexpected ways. This is a time to remember the basics. If you are looking for a playbook, one of my favorites is The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner. They say that leadership requires us to set an example, inspire a shared vision of the future, challenge the status quo, foster collaboration, encourage and strengthen others. They share that leadership is everyone’s business.
When we are not at our best, crushed by the weight of a global pandemic, worried about making ends meet and what the future holds for our kids, it may feel tough to set an example. However, in large part, setting an example is about leading with vulnerability and compassion. Set an example by reviewing your team or organizational values. Are these expressed in everything you do?
In crisis, we must model both optimism and realism? Will you allow your teams to see into your home office space, and your emotional life? Will you model transparency, authenticity, and kindness?
Organizations who, pre-pandemic, had a shared vision for the future, still have that vision. Presumably, you still care about a world free of cancer. A world where gender equity is a reality. A world where poverty is a thing of the past. While this global crisis may change your mode of mission delivery, your long-term vision will likely be unchanged. Or perhaps now is the time to revisit it? Either way, ensuring that your team is on the same page will reinforce your sense of purpose.
As human beings, we have what is believed to be a unique ability to hold the past, present, and future in our minds all at once. According to Psychology Today and discovered by scientist Endel Tulving of the University of Toronto “Chronesthesia is the technical term for the brain’s ability to maintain simultaneous awareness of past, present and future and to “travel” back and forth between them.” More commonly called mental time travel, our ability to simultaneously think about the future, draw on past experience and consider the present can help us navigate the times we are in.
Hopefully, your vision is grounded in shared values and these values are embraced, lived by your organization. Use this virtual time together, to discuss both one-on-one and in larger groups, how you will live your values during this global crisis.
Like many, I have mistakenly shared the JFK quote that conveniently suggests the Chinese characters in the word crisis mean danger and opportunity. While inaccurate, the sentiment behind the quote remains true. According to Kouzes and Posner,
“Challenge is the opportunity for greatness. People do their best when there’s the chance to change the way things are. Maintaining the status quo simply breeds mediocrity. Leaders seek and accept challenging opportunities to test their abilities…Exemplary leaders look for good ideas everywhere. They promote external communication. They listen, take advice, and learn.”
Those of us who work in the social profit sector seek to change the status quo. We challenge broken economic, health and government systems. Leaders in the sector pursue not only band-aid solutions to problems (foodbanks), we seek to change the underlying cause that requires us to need foodbanks, poverty. We promote universal access to healthcare and post-secondary education. We recognize that women and people of colour are inequitably at risk. We fight for equality for LGBTQ2s communities. We see the barriers society puts up for those living with disability and work to tear them down.
This global crisis has underscored the inequities in our systems and as a result highlighted our purpose driven work. It has provided more data to inform our work. It has emphasized the importance of our sector’s work and it has brought to light the inequities that exist within our sector too.
As we look to the future, two possibilities shine bright. One, that the sector will engage in greater collaboration and be committed to addressing poverty eradication in all its forms so we can move away from temporary solutions like food banks and shelters. Two, that we will find ways to work together to strengthen the contributions of the amazing individuals who work in this sector. We are a sector of leaders. We need to not simply be “in this together,” we need to stay in this together.
We’ve heard for years that the social profit sector is in a leadership crisis. Add to this a global crisis and we have an opportunity to affect real change on a lasting basis. The question we need to keep asking ourselves is this: If not now, when?
Over her 30+ year career in the social profit sector, with brilliant teams of volunteers and staff, Maryann Kerr helped raise $110M and was the Founding Executive Director of Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto. Maryann knows that successful organizations create and nurture a climate where everyone understands their role; politics are minimal; engagement is high and turnover low. Environments where employees co-create the roadmap to mission delivery. Compassion, kindness, a commitment to the profession and deep respect for the professional fundraiser are at the core of her work. Maryann brings a loving and critical lens to the sector to facilitate difficult discussions to affect change.