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Leadership in a Time of Crisis

Date: April 14, 2020

Ethan McCoy

Former Senior Writer and Editor, CEP

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What does good leadership in crisis look like? In this time of unprecedented challenge related to COVID-19, what can we learn from the great leaders of the past?

In a webinar conversation last week, Nancy F. Koehn, business historian and James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and CEP President Phil Buchanan explored these and other key questions about leading in a time of crisis, with a particular focus on the challenges facing those in philanthropy and nonprofits right now. (CEP’s Grace Nicolette shared welcoming remarks and facilitated Q&A.) We hope that the insights from this hour-long conversation will be useful to philanthropic and nonprofit leaders alike as they seek to lead their organizations through a singularly difficult time and continue the vital work they do for their respective fields, communities, and/or populations.

You can watch the full recording of the webinar here:

In addition to the webinar conversation, Buchanan also shared a series of tweets on March 24 laying out 15 things for leaders to keep in mind as they continually adjust to leading their organizations during an ever-evolving and increasingly challenging environment. In that thread, Buchanan writes:

Being in a leadership position of any kind at an organization of any size is a challenge in this moment. Some thoughts (which may or may not be helpful or remotely right but are running through my head).

  1. You can’t communicate enough. People want to know what’s going on — and that you’re not minimizing and that you’re on it. Use all the channels you have to communicate with folks. Be open and honest but also encouraging.
  2. Check in with people one on one — it is huge and will help you as much as (or more than) them. I am doing 10 minute check-ins with the 45 or so folks on the CEP staff and these conversations help me know how people are doing and also lift my spirits big time.
  3. Empower folks to be creative in this moment. This is key. Step away from the specifics and be pleasantly surprised by what people can do. They know how your organization can best be helpful in this moment.
  4. Recognize that parents are in a whole different boat than others during this time, especially parents of little ones. Support them and realize there is no way they can be productive in same way as folks who don’t have small kids. Also, meet little ones over Zoom; it will make you happy.
  5. Update your board so it knows what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, what you’re planning. And so it can help you! Your board members want to help you. They can probably help you more than you realize.
  6. Recognize we’re entering a period when more and more folks on your staff will be affected by this virus. They will know people who get it. Some of them will get it. Talk now about how you will prepare for the fact that some staff will be going through a lot and need support.
  7. In the same vein, make sure you have contingencies and redundancies. Make sure you are prepared to operate with people — including yourself — out for an extended period. Who will perform those functions? Do they know what they need to know?
  8. Capture cost savings now. The more you can reduce costs now, the more flexibility you will have and the more likely you can avoid layoffs. CEP suspended all searches a week-plus ago to capture the savings relative to budget.
  9. Talk to your peers who lead other organizations in your space. Share what you’re doing. Listen and learn from them. Talk about what you can do together to be helpful in this moment. Lean on each other! No one can do this alone.
  10. Take time for yourself. Step away and be with the people you love. Go for a walk. Get perspective. Watch a movie with your significant other or friend. Listen to music. Whatever gives you peace. (My family is having a Zoom dinner with our friends Friday — and we can’t wait.)
  11. Realize you will make — and probably already have made — some big mistakes. Acknowledge them. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, and it allows others to know it’s OK if they make mistakes too.
  12. Know we will get through this — and help folks understand what that might look like. How we can be stronger for what we have endured.
  13. Question all the usual operating assumptions — now is not the time to default to something just because it’s how we have done it in the past.
  14. Know that you’re doing your best. And that that’s all you can do.
  15. One more: remember that if, like me, you are able to continue your organization’s operations remotely, you’re incredibly lucky. Find ways to support the many leaders and staff who don’t have that option right now like Cathy Moore (who I wrote about here).

We are in an unprecedented and challenging time right now, and people are looking to leaders around them at all levels. As Koehn reminded us last week, now is the time for leaders to step up: “You’ve never been needed more than you are now, and you will never be needed more than you are now.”

Ethan McCoy is senior writer, development and communications, at CEP.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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