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Leadership Lessons: Navigating a Crisis

Recently, I saw a quote that said that adulthood is not one crisis after another, it’s multiple crises, simultaneously, forever.

Is anyone else feeling that way lately?

We had a little bit of a breather this morning when we found out that our Ukrainian colleagues are making their way from Kyiv to safety, but the war for too many continues and the choice to have to leave their homes is a terrible and heartbreaking one. One they shouldn’t have had to make. Should anyone wish to contribute to a reputable NGO, the ILN’s chair recommends this one, which has a long track record – they have been embedded in Ukraine since 2014 and are already supplying Lviv and other places with humanitarian aid.

All of this has me thinking about crisis this morning – so I’m again pausing any regular posts about building relationships or networking. Let’s instead talk about how to tackle a crisis. I learned a lot as a new leader having to address the pandemic and now we’re watching Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy do an amazing job of meeting an unimaginable set of challenges head-on and in real-time.

One of the first lessons for leadership that I learned in the pandemic was that I’m not unique – even if the situation facing me was one that was unprecedented, someone before me had been through something challenging and awful before, and I could learn from the way that they had handled it (or not handled it) to lead our organizations through.

There are lessons that I learned that I feel are helpful to share with others who may be new to leadership, or may be looking for something to hold onto in turbulent times.

  • “Be more human.” This one comes from a keynote speech that Dan Pink gave a few years ago at a conference I attended, and it’s so important any time things feel a little out of control. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of leading with our humanity first – many of us continue to be uncertain, if not downright anxious, about what’s next, whether that’s the war in Ukraine, the ongoing pandemic, our businesses, our employees, our families, the economy, you name it. That uncertainty and anxiety are can cause friction at home, with our colleagues, out in the world, and definitely in our communications with each other and our colleagues, clients, and those we lead. It’s okay to admit that we’re anxious too. There’s a thin line between seeming hysterical and terrified about what’s going to happen (even if you are), and letting the people that you lead know that you share their anxieties about the future, but that no matter what happens, you’re in this together, and you will do everything in your power to guide them through this. Leading with empathy and humanity at all times is essential.
  • Add a dose of grace and patience. For many of us (most of us?), the last few years have been full of chaos. We have been watching a war happen in real-time – not just with videos played by the media, but with civilians and soldiers on the ground sharing their experiences via multiple forms of social media. Some companies have only just returned to working in the office, while some are still determining their return-to-work plan, while others have been back in the office for months or longer. Some of us may never return to the office. We’ve learned over the last two years that we ARE able to bring our full selves to work which also means that real-world issues affect our professional lives, which means that a one-size-fits-all plan no longer works. We are individuals and we need to recognize that our employees and colleagues are too. Accepting that those you lead may need some leeway and flexibility is key. Understanding that not only will others make mistakes and not do this perfectly, but YOU also won’t, is an important lesson for all of us. Trust me – I didn’t (and don’t) get it perfectly right, and that’s okay! The more we approach this with grace and patience, the easier we make this transition for everyone, and the more those that we lead will be willing to look to us for support and guidance.
  • Hey, self-care! This has become a bit of a catchphrase lately, and I know a lot of people sort of roll their eyes about it, but I am hit in the face with this over and over again. I’m not talking about getting in a bubble bath and spending four hours reading for pleasure. I’m talking about the importance of schedule and boundaries. You may know that I’m a work-from-home veteran, and so I assumed when the pandemic began that I had my routine down already. But I learned very quickly that because I wasn’t facing my workweek with enough intention, I was ending up working extremely long days without enough focus, and they were leaving me too drained to do enough of what I needed to do. I started treating my time much differently and it leaves me MUCH more focused, which helps me to get things done more efficiently than before.
  • Communicate MORE. This was a new one for me! It was surprising for many, but most lawyers were inundated during the pandemic (as you all know). I always aim to be of value and not a bother, so early in the pandemic, I was very quiet – and then a lawyer reached out to me with a couple of questions, and it made me realize that they needed to hear from me too. My communications still needed to be of value, but I could be providing them with resources that they could avail themselves of or not, and reaching out on a continuous basis. After sending out my initial communication, one of my members and the managing partner of his firm, sent me this excellent piece on “Leading through COVID-19: An Organizational Psychologist’s Perspective,” which reinforces this point, and makes several other excellent ones. Particularly when working virtually, regular communications with your team are absolutely essential – they must be valuable to your team, but they need to know that you’re there, that you are willing to listen and help them, and what resources you have available to them. Although many of us are no longer working virtually, I’m sure you can extrapolate that in a similar crisis, like the one currently happening in Ukraine, regular and constant communication is helpful – both within an organization and other parties who may need to be notified and involved.
  • Build in community. This is an idea I wish I’d come up with myself, but one of my lawyers approached me with it – we were supposed to have our Annual Conference early in the pandemic, but like many organizations, postponed our in-person events for two years. Instead, he suggested, why not at least have our welcome reception online using Zoom? While we did eventually have a number of virtual learning opportunities, three virtual conferences, and many networking sessions online, this was our first replacement for a community event. It didn’t completely replace what we were missing, but for a little while, we could connect with each other, see everyone’s faces, and preserve our “culture” at a moment when things were really challenging. Obviously, this doesn’t work for every crisis, but we know from the current one, that seeing the faces of the people of Ukraine has also made their stories real for all of us, has personalized them to us, and connected them to us. And for people who have family, friends, and loved ones there, the ability to connect even for a few minutes by video is truly precious, because you know that they are safe for that moment.

More than anything, the one thing that facing any crisis has taught me is that we are better together than alone. And over the past several days, I have seen that again. People coming together to raise money, send goods, employ sanctions, force change, open their homes to refugees, and much more. The ILN is also working on what we can do as a group, which we will be sharing in the coming days. Please share your own ways to help and also any verified NGOs working for Ukraine in the comments.