by Barbara Turk -- When the house of cards built by the banking and insurance industries began to topple, we could only begin to guess at the long-term damage that would result for non-profits and their clients. It was immediately clear, however, that non-profit leaders would be tested. Would they have what it takes? Is there particular things leaders need to do when faced with exceptional uncertainty?
At CRE, we believe the managerial courage, practical skills, and flexibility that are always demanded of executive leadership in non-profits, even in good times, are also what are helping these leaders and the work of the sector survive and thrive now. The challenge is to stay focused on the most critical tasks and habits of leadership at a time when the legitimate and important crises and day-to-day effort to keep our work going for increasing numbers of poor and low-income people demand more of us than ever before.
What are the most critical leadership practices for these times? Here’s my current list. I tested it last week in a conversation with our 10th Leadership Caucus, and it was a thoughtful and lively discussion. I’m also interested in what you think--what you would add to this conversation? What leadership habits are you practicing that help you now?
1. Practice self-awareness
Non-profit leaders always need to be aware of their strengths and limitations, and what impact they have on the people they work with. This is especially true when the stakes are higher and the pressure is on. Your staff, your board, your community stakeholders—they’re taking their cue from you. How do you respond to stress? What overt and covert messages are you sending? Is your impact consistent with your intent? Strengthening self-awareness is not something you can do alone. How could you get feedback that would help you test whether you’re having the impact you intend to have?
2. Think strategically and manage tactically
This has military connotations for some of you, I know, so let me say it another way: Don’t get sucked into crisis management. This is hard for some of us on a good day. But now, the consequences for keeping your head down and managing by task list are worse. You have to keep your head up, be aware of what’s going on around you, be relentless in pursing information about both threats and opportunities, and fight fear with facts. And yes, keep managing, but manage with a sense of priorities.
3. Make and manage difficult decisions
Organizations that have trouble making decisions and managing them—that is, communicating and carrying out those decisions--are going to have a harder time now. Every organization has a culture. And every organization has a culture around how decisions are made. Usually its implicit, nobody talks about it, it’s just the way we always do things. Now is a good time to make it explicit. Think about who has what roles in what kinds of decisions. Let’s say we have to lay off staff: Who decides? Who informs or makes recommendations regarding that decision? Who is merely told about the decision? Let’s say we already did lay off staff. Let’s debrief. How did that go? What did we learn? What would we do differently next time? Have this conversation now, before the tough decisions hit you.
4. Build and work your critical relationships
My original thought here was “Don’t work without a net.” The idea is that it is lonely at the top, and every leader needs at least one person, if not a kitchen cabinet, to bounce things off of, someone who is not a member of your staff, especially now. The Leadership Caucus liked that one better, but making new friends and keeping old ones for your organization is especially important now. This is a time of opportunity and necessity, especially when it comes to finding common cause with other organizations, making political alliances and building your board.
5. Be relentless in pursuit of your mission
This is another way of saying that advocacy is critical now. That, and remembering why you do what you do will sustain you.