Leadership in Times of Uncertainty

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We’re living at a time of uncertainty when both work life and personal life are buffeted by political and social anxiety. Our employees, colleagues, board members feel it; our nonprofit clients, patients, students, visitors feel it; so do family and friends. The uncertainties we face around government and philanthropic funding, and government and community relationships, make this a challenging environment for providing services. And the ideological cleavages between individuals and between groups can be crippling to important relationships, as individuals and groups are pitted against one another.

How to lead in a time of uncertainty? Plan A Advisors Plan A Advisors is joined by Dr. Steve Axelrod who provided significant content and direction – not just for board chairs and chief executives, but for everyone holding a position of responsibility in the nonprofit sector.

Be Aware

Community awareness. Begin by recognizing what everyone is experiencing. Understand that anxiety is stirred and felt on a personal, institutional and communal level, and that people don’t “check it at the door.”

Self-awareness. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. Be in touch with what you are feeling, finding ways to mitigate stress, and finding outlets for the feelings stirred. Monitor and stay close.

Individual acknowledgement. Try to understand who is feeling what, and acknowledge people’s feelings when you see signs and symptoms of anxiety, which can take many forms: physical, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal.

Individual empathy. Demonstrate empathy in the broadest sense, not with the issues themselves but with the experience of anxiety.  While not an antidote, your empathy will guide you to provide what people need most right now—your availability, regular communication and a positive look forward.

Navigating Difference

In challenging times it is important to keep current political events in perspective and not neglect the important relationships and personal sense of purpose that make up so much of the texture of our lives.  As leaders, we need to navigate relationships with those whose viewpoints differ from our own and to reassert the importance of the organization’s mission.  A time of uncertainty is a critical leadership moment; your actions now can reverberate for months to come, so seize the opportunity to reassure and to lead.

Communal acknowledgement. Acknowledge tension and anxiety in the workplace, and differences of opinion amongst your staff, board members, and constituents. Times of stress are when people can feel that survival is at stake, further dividing us into armed camps.

Reassert mission. Returning attention to your organization’s mission – its raison d’être – as well as an agreed-upon set of core values is a way to find common ground. Mission reminds everyone of a shared responsibility to constituents, be they clients, visitors, students, or members.

Amplify action. Be clear about what you can do as an organization, and what individuals (board members, employees) can do to address uncertainty and serve your constituents. For example, the threat of decreased government funding is real, but the opportunity to increase philanthropic support is possible too.

Model appropriate behavior. Embrace the moral authority you embody as a leader by modeling the behavior you want to see in others. If you recognize a dearth of emotional maturity around you, provide it. Importantly, resist the temptation to take actions appropriate to you as a private citizen when it is inappropriate for the workplace.

Positive interaction. Action and interpersonal connectedness are the best antidotes to uncertainty and alienation. Get people working together positively on both the communal and individual levels. Withdrawal, isolation, passivity and indifference present great risks to our economic and emotional health.

Be a Great Communicator

A good leader guides an organization to financial stability and psychological stability as well. Communication is the most powerful tool for limiting adverse emotional reactions and keeping people engaged during a time of uncertainty. Board, staff and constituents should hear from leaders regularly and reliably with empathy, straight talk, and when possible, reassurance. Rumors and gossip should be dismissed, when they can be, and addressed with specificity when they cannot.

Communicate up, down and out. Board, staff and constituents need to hear from leaders that the organization’s core mission is as relevant as ever, and that management and the organization’s governing body are stewarding it toward effectiveness and sustainability despite the uncertainty that may loom.

Get personal. By restating and reaffirming your vision for your organization’s future, you underscore your own continued and personal commitment to the organization, even in challenging times. Reaffirm what is important to you by referencing the organization’s core values and the ways you interpret and apply them to mission and vision to help personalize your message.

Time your messages. Your audience will learn to tune in for a clear and honest accounting of current conditions and the actions you need to take. But pay attention to the timing of communications. Giving too much non-specific advance information about possible measures to come can breed toxic reactions—nobody functions well with the Sword of Damocles hanging over them.

Articulate sacrifice. If organizational change is necessary because of changing conditions – economic, political – take the opportunity to articulate its effect on you and everyone around you, including those you serve.  Your integrity is now, more than ever, a critical component of your leadership, so make sure that if you are asking others to sacrifice that you are also doing your share.

Advocate. Develop a platform for advocacy, pressing your organization’s case and engaging others to do the same without skirting the impropriety of lobbying.

Take Action

At stake during times of uncertainty are the financial and psychological welfare of an organization. Good leaders keep a close watch on the external landscape, recognizing the organization’s inherent connectedness to all that surrounds it, and working to mitigate the anxiety that comes when an external threat is high. By appealing to both challenge and hope, a good leader can create a sense of urgency in rallying an organization to manage potential risks. And a good leader will take advantage of shifts in the philanthropic landscape if they offer opportunity.

Monitor. Take stock of how elected officials, governments, funders, vendors, constituents (be they clients, students, visitors, patients…) are responding to uncertainty so you can interpret signs of changing behaviors and attitudes and note actual or proposed changes in policies and practices.

Budget. Build financial scenarios that account for possible changes in funding, particularly where government programs that provide grants or reimbursement for service delivery are at stake. Model your personal response to news of any dramatic change, including a decline in the stock market, which can affect an endowment portfolio and foundation grant-making.

Fundraise. Recognize that philanthropy often shifts its focus in times of uncertainty and stress, from long-term program investment to advocacy or short-term support for endangered programs.

Conserve funds. Reduce costs now to build a more sizable cash reserve – if you can – to cover unanticipated gaps in funding or to take on a future fight that might ultimately rally your supporters. And consider changes in your investment policy that protects assets should markets sour.

Conserve talent. Demonstrate a commitment to the growth and development of the organization’s talent in bad times as well as good. Affirm your ‘stars;’ they need to know their value and their role in the organization’s future. Hold up a mirror to poorer performers and challenge them to improve in critical areas. The best leaders earn their staff’s respect and gratitude even when delivering tough messages. If you give the proper time and attention to managing and recruiting talent, your organization will be better positioned when recovery begins.

Dr. Steve Axelrod provided significant content and direction for the guidance offered here. Dr. Axelrod holds a Ph.D. in psychology from New York University and has 25 years of counseling experience. He has been retained to work with leaders in a range of organizations, from nonprofits to Fortune 500 companies, and has lectured on the psychology of work at the executive level and the powerful influence of a leader’s psychological dynamics on organizational performance.