But how to focus on high performance when even the best leaders are exhausted after a year of deep uncertainty fueled by the multiple crises affecting each facet of our lives – physical health, mental health, financial health, spiritual health?
My answer is carving out time, over the New Year and through the winter, to exercise and embrace the self-knowledge that comes through reflection, integrity and discipline.
For those struggling to make this real, the Performance Imperative’s preeminent pillar on “Courageous, Adaptive Executive and Board Leadership” provides some guidance.
In my consulting practice, I’ve reflected and gained some perspective by focusing on the historical context of leadership in crisis and overlaid the learning with my experiences working with social sector executives and teams. In addition to reading numerous articles, listening to podcasts, and participating in and leading webinars, these books have provided me with foundational ideas to combine with the tactical experience I gain through reflecting on my client work. I highly recommend each of them:
- Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin
- Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
- A Failure of Nerve, Edwin H. Friedman
- Lessons in Leadership, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
And yet, for as much as I continue to read and reflect, I’m believing more and more in one of the quotes that has inspired my work for well over a decade: Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. (Albert Einstein)
Leadership is a complex art – it requires rational thinking, decision-making, emotional intelligence, managing relationships, understanding political motivations, and navigating power dynamics. At its foundation and simplest form, leadership requires a solid sense of self, so that leaders can lean into their strengths, surround themselves with others who complement their skills, and blend strategic and authentic communication. It takes self-knowledge to lead with integrity, to find the personal and professional principles that define you as a leader and then to have the discipline to stay true to them.
As the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine is rolling out and with a change in national leadership, we can begin to shift from crisis-response mode towards a gradual period of restoration. Leaders will need to continue considering options and methods for survival, even as they clarify their plans to re-imagine and rebuild their organizations for the longer-term.
This rebuilding effort will take time and reflection. It may appear less dangerous than the initial crisis phase, but it may prove even more challenging. Consider the following questions as a guide:
- What have we lost or relinquished collectively that might not return?
- What opportunities or perspectives have I gained through the losses?
- Even if I made early staffing decisions based on an ethical compass (to not let anyone go), do I now need to reconsider for the sake of the organization and our long-term sustainability?
- What do I need to reform and restructure to make sure we can continue to achieve our mission for the people and causes we serve?
- How might I recognize what really matters and imagine what has the potential for new possibilities?
- What’s working well that I can build upon? Where can I build momentum where there is already energy?
- How can I better delegate the day-to-day and carve out time for the longer term needs to connect, plan, re-imagine and rebuild?
A leader’s goals should be clear and can be top-down, but the ways to achieve the goals should be informed by a wide-range of diverse input.
Where the social sector prides itself on inclusive and empowered styles of leadership in normal times; in a crisis, there are times that call for more “command and control” decision-making. Many leaders made difficult yet necessary decisions in 2020 on short timelines and with limited input. Yet, achieving the best results into 2021 requires that decisions are inclusive and expansive – including listening to staff, communicating clearly and providing transparency about the safety of the organization and people’s jobs - it is the executive leader’s imperative to listen, learn, and lead.
Listening can be hard when executives are pushing toward goals that may be hard for staff to swallow. But no one has all of the answers in this mixed up crisis-laden environment, so leaders must build psychological safety for staff and be open to their feedback.
Staff have critical insights, since they are closest to the clients and causes that organizations are in the business to serve. Your role as a leader is to ask and to listen. Although some ideas may initially seem disruptive, they are likely perceptive and may provide the right options for moving forward with strength.
The leadership needed to optimize dynamic and flexible responses, as the phases of crisis play out, consists of the following attributes:
1. High self-awareness and self-care. Our messy private lives are now intertwined with our professional lives. We are all in each other’s personal spaces; we have experienced overt distractions (toddlers, dogs, construction projects) and leaders need to accept their own and others’ vulnerability, express compassion and adapt. What have we learned about ourselves and our colleagues that we should take forward?
Leaders also need to restore themselves each day – carve time and space for reflective practices that allow them to have a balcony or longer-term view. Now more than ever, leaders need to make the very best use of “self”, as it remains their most important resource. The Hudson Institute of Coaching suggests: Slow down, take a step back, and pay attention to the inner gifts you have that will help you focus on what you can control in the midst of all this chaos.
2. Deep sense of Integrity. Leaders need resilience, openness to creative ideas and to harness opportunities toward the possible. They also need to lead with their personal, professional ethics, always in tune with their sacred principles. For leaders who are unsure of their north star, this is the time to gain clarity about why you are leading in the social sector, and to consider the type of leader you want to be, remaining steadfast to your purpose.
3. Discipline. Leaders were forced to gain comfort with chaos and ambiguity in 2020, identifying and then using tools for real time adaptation. This continued period of uncertainty needs to be balanced with keeping mission at the forefront. They need a willingness to engage in ongoing scenario planning and risk assessment – likely increasing risk tolerance in this time of great challenge. For organizations that have a Strategic Plan, this is the time to revisit it and break-it-down into manageable sections - ideally that represent 90-day prioritization cycles. This requires a highly functioning, adaptive and disciplined approach.
This is a challenging time and leading in a time of crisis requires relentless optimism in spite of the difficulties.
I hope this inspires you to carve out time and space in the quiet of winter, to reflect on the lessons of 2020; shoring up self-knowledge, focusing on what best defines your personal integrity, and finding the energy and discipline to rebuild. The social sector needs you and the mission of your organization to succeed!
If you need help clarifying and achieving your goals, let me know: Debra@DBNassociates.com
I want to thank the amazing client leaders I work with; they inspire me to continuously learn and improve. A big shout out to my fellow Leap Ambassadors, and brilliant and wise thought-partners: David Marzahl, Valerie Black, and Val Porter Cook for many conversations that helped develop these ideas.