Updated: Dec 27, 2022
I wrote "Two Truths And A Lie: Leadership During A Pandemic" nearly two years ago and shared what I knew to be true at that moment.
The combination of a global pandemic and intense examination of our nation’s history of racial oppression created a unique opportunity to advance efforts to address disparate outcomes on matters such as public safety, health and access to wealth. It felt as though a wormhole—or shortcut between two different planes of space and time, had opened up. I worked to maximize what I knew to be a finite window to accelerate progress. I moved with urgency—so much so that it took some time before I recognized that many people in my community and the country had settled back into a familiar pattern: Outrage and heightened awareness lead to bold discussions and statements, which lead to tinkering around the edges, which ultimately lead to resistance to/fatigue with systems transformation.
I eventually realized that I was pushing at an unsustainable pace. I wrestled with the guilt of time away from my family and an intense sense of duty to make the absolute most of an historic moment in our nation’s history—particularly for my community. This sense of duty was intensified by my identity as a female leader of color and mother to a young Black boy. I was profoundly affected by the disproportionate impacts Covid-19 had on people of color, along with the footage and subsequent reactions to so many police shootings of Black men.
Personally, the last two years have felt like a race to cover academic ground lost with 1.5 years of distance learning for my son to ensure he did not lose confidence in his intellect and simultaneously create a safer world for him to become a Black man. Professionally, I was managing the impact of emergent workplace norms and remote leadership of a large department of professionals driving a tremendous body of work while leading systems change coalitions outside of my organization.
I had not given much thought before to how much energy it took to manage the regular occurrence of microaggressions and bias I encountered as a Black woman leader until I was face-to-face with the edge of my own surge capacity. I needed a sustained break to rest, reflect and recalibrate on the work ahead. I am not alone.
Nonprofit leaders have been stretched in ways few could have predicted two years ago. Rapidly evolving community needs, navigating the challenges of effective service delivery via hybrid work arrangements, along with a shifting philanthropic landscape have all required extra doses of foresight, agility and temperance. Many leaders are exhausted but don’t often feel able to take the time needed to recharge. I think it is time for the nonprofit sector to embrace rest as a critical aspect of leadership and tool for professional development. Below are seven tips for how organizations and leaders can foster resilience through a culture that supports rest.
Create the context.
1. Evaluate current operating practices for business continuity. Are roles clear? Is there a process for handing off work? What norms exist around collaboration? Is there broad awareness of these processes and norms?
2. Develop a leadership bench.
Talent within the organization needs to be developed and maintained with intentionality so that there is space and trust for you and others to find respite. Look for ways to actualize your organization’s leadership potential.
3. Bring board members along.
While efficient, high-level updates in board meetings can obscure the energy and time it takes to produce meaningful work. Utilize committee meetings and one-on-one conversations to offer board members a glimpse into what it takes to deliver, as well as build confidence in the organization’s ability to sustain work in a leader’s absence.
4. Communicate a consistent point of view.
I have shared with members of my team that I have grown to understand rest as part of “the work.” I monitor paid time off balances and encourage breaks for team members after major projects or when signs of fatigue are evident. Make space to pause.
5. Get clear about what you need.
Begin with an honest assessment of the time you need. Account for key dates on the horizon. Use this information to pinpoint a window to take a break. Future mapping time away is a helpful way to prioritize breaks before calendars fill up. Take care to map out impacted stakeholders to inform or consult.
6. Manage expectations.
Set clear boundaries for yourself and others regarding your availability during time away. For example, are you answering emails delivered during time away? Ensure alignment on deliverables as well. Tap out.
7. Activate your team’s bench.
When leaders consistently develop talent, provide clear direction and then grant space and support to lead, staff will carry the baton and move the work forward. Extended breaks allow emerging leaders to lean in. Leaders without positional authority can still make an impact.
I took a sabbatical. Prior to doing so, I had a series of discussions designed to center my commitment to well-being, communicate support from senior leadership for taking the time necessary and affirm confidence in my team’s ability to operate well in my absence. I first met with my direct reports to align on process points where my presence would be most critical to fine-tune timing. I then connected with my leader, the board committee I support directly and my broader team. I returned to work with a profound sense of gratitude and renewed energy, astounded by the ways members of my team stepped up and, more importantly, stepped in to support one another.
The tendency to persist despite fatigue is often applauded. Unfortunately, this tendency can increase the likelihood of a dropped ball or diminished capacity to be fully present or patient. It is time we normalize rest as an important tool for effective leadership.
- Acooa B. Lee Ellis
This article originally shared on Forbes Nonprofit Council