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Two Truths And A Lie: Leadership During A Pandemic

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

The emergence of COVID-19 as a global pandemic has required leaders to determine the appropriate course of action for their teams, the work of their organizations and, most importantly, themselves. This is a truly unprecedented time to lead.

Lately, I find myself reading blogs and articles in trusted leadership magazines more than usual. There is lots of good guidance available to help create a crisis response plan, along with insightful advice. I imagine there will be no shortage of hindsight lessons shared once we are collectively confident this pandemic is in our proverbial rearview mirrors. Upon reflection, though, I realize what I am looking for is content to help make sense of this moment we currently face — when many states have loosened stay-at-home orders but there remains so much that we still don’t understand about COVID-19.

I know I am not alone and that there is a desire for solidarity among nonprofit leaders as we wrestle to ensure our work does the most good in one of the most challenging times of our nation’s history. Here is what I know to be true at this moment.

Truth: Emotional intelligence is the secret ingredient for a strong crisis response.

Emotional intelligence (or EQ) is at its essence, the capacity to understand and successfully manage your emotions along with those of the people around you. This is critical because crises impact people in very different ways. A high-functioning team will coalesce around its leader’s assessment of the challenge ahead and require varying levels of support to rise to the occasion.

Here are two tangible ways to leverage emotional intelligence.

• Be vulnerable and human. Take an honest inventory of your leadership style, including any less helpful behaviors you may default to under stress. Recognize these behaviors or signals without assigning judgment, which can lead to shame and a less-than-honest assessment. Ask yourself: What things are within my control to mitigate the impact of those triggers? Will I grant permission to my colleagues to flag behaviors that may stifle innovation or collaboration? How?

• Practice self-awareness. My organization has functioned virtually for over two months and moved a tremendous body of work in support of our community. Clear, consistent communication has been instrumental in our ability to accomplish what we have. As an introvert, I am very intentional to prioritize check-ins with the team to understand their emotional states, and I work to carve out time in my day to recharge. I also share more of the context that informs the direction I take more than usual, to keep the bigger picture and our guiding framework top of mind amid a dynamic set of outcomes and goals.

Commit to consistently assessing your state of mind and adjusting your environment to ensure your optimal performance. By honoring your own humanity, you promote balance for those on your team, foster an environment of psychological safety and create space for your colleagues to show up willing to contribute wholeheartedly.

Truth: This moment is ripe for systemic change.

Apathy and the fear of disruption have stalled many efforts to create lasting change. But, the experience of a global pandemic has disrupted everything and forced us to examine long-held notions of the “right way” to accomplish our respective goals. How we define a problem becomes the container for its solution. This moment presents an opportunity to reimagine systems and center them on the experiences of their most common end users.

As you craft and refine your pandemic response, I offer the following questions to guide further inquiry and subsequent problem-solving:

• What is the problem we seek to solve?

• Why is it a problem? For whom? How do we know?

• What role might race play? How do we know?

• What appear to be viable solutions? What (or who) informed that assessment?

Note: It is important to check your solution against the answers to the above questions to ensure alignment between your team or organization’s intended actions and actual impact.

Disaggregated data from across the country has illuminated disparities in infection and mortality rates along familiar lines for those working in the nonprofit and or public sector —the result of social predisposition. I still find myself in conversations with public leaders where a direct question or statement related to race goes over like a lead balloon. In those instances, I am reminded that courage is essential for systemic change. Furthermore, avoidance and indifference represent deliberate choices and, in this instance, could mean our efforts inadvertently reinforce the conditions that serve as the impetus for nonprofit programs and services.

In order to fully maximize the potential for change that this pandemic presents, we must incorporate a thoughtful analysis of race and how it factors into our work.

Lie: Back to normal is ideal.

The desire to return to familiar patterns and a certain level of predictability is reasonable. That said, the status quo is, in many ways, the antithesis of nonprofit mission statements and visions. We can use this crisis to create a new or better normal — one that embodies our hopes for the future. However, hope alone is not a strategy. A new or better normal will require leaders to closely examine organizational priorities and decision-making guardrails for alignment with our preferred state on the other side of this pandemic.

We should also be mindful that it will be some time before we are effectively on the other side and able to quantify the magnitude of impact on our communities. Rather than a sprint to a “finished” pandemic response, I have grown in my understanding of this time as a series of marathons. As such, I am committed to a practice of continuous improvement, mindful to set a pace for my team that affords the time and space to reflect, refine and recharge along the way.

Nonprofit leaders should leverage this crisis to drive systemic change and retool how we lead.

- Acooa B. Lee Ellis

This article originally shared on Forbes Nonprofit Council

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