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6 Steps to Leading through Adversity and Crisis

Our leadership is tested in the midst of crisis. As business and nonprofit leaders, we can be so good at navigating day-to-day operations or even large-scale, planned change, but become paralyzed when unexpected news, crisis, or adversity hits. I’m sharing 6 important steps for leaders to take in the midst of grueling times. I want to acknowledge that my reflections are informed by my learning, relationships, and experiences as a White, cis, hetero, able-bodied woman. Every leader’s approach will look different, based on identities, life experiences, and strengths.

Acknowledge

If you are a leader who doesn’t know what to say in the midst of cultural, political, historical, or public health crises, you are not alone. When the coronavirus emerged, some leaders were incapacitated with overwhelm to the point of not talking about it at all. When public instances of racist trauma and violence occur, leaders – especially White leaders – become paralyzed. We care and we feel, but we don’t know what to say, so we say nothing. We are scared of getting it wrong, so we opt for silence.

Here is the thing. A thoughtful something is better than nothing, even if it isn’t perfect. The first thing we need to do is acknowledge what is happening. You don’t need to get into your own feelings or “fix it.” Acknowledging is honoring.

A simple “I see you,” “I am with you,” or “I am struggling with this, too” can mean a lot to those working for you.

Hold space

Depending on the crisis, some or all of your staff may need space to process alone or together. Offering to create collective space is a powerful thing to do, but please make sure you:

(1) Make it optional: some people find strength in being together and some people do not. Honor these differences and express clear and non-judgmental permission to opt out.

(2) Consider multiple spaces for affinities. What barriers to emotional safety may exist in the specific space you are creating? For example, if you are creating space for your team to connect around the murder of a Black person, will Black employees feel safe sharing their grief in a predominantly White space? Check in with your Black employees to see if they would like to connect in their own separate space. If so, check in with your non-Black POC staff to see if they would like their own space, as well. Allyship, grieving, and action looks different for different identities. Honor this reality and let your team create the space(s) they need.

(3) Remember, collective space is about “us,” not you as the “leader.” Resist the urge to dominate, fix, or know exactly what to do and say. Open it up, listen and let ideas, leadership, wisdom and truth emerge from the group.

(3) Consider that the “space” some may need is at home, in their beds. Personal and mental health days are a great way to honor this. Are you offering enough of them?

Give Grace

Crisis puts people on edge. Many of us do not operate at our best under stress and threat. As leaders, we can navigate stressful times with a heightened level of grace and empathy. Grace does not mean excusing harmful behavior or letting problems go unaddressed. Grace is seeing the humanity in one another and upholding personal and organizational boundaries with love, empathy, and gentleness.

Speak out

If you care about whatever crisis or injustice is happening, say something that reaches beyond the walls of your business or organization. Here are some common barriers to speaking out, along with some suggestions.

Many businesses and organizations don’t know what to say, so they say nothing. If this is you, consider that your silence speaks just as loudly as your words. If you don’t know what to say, keep your statement simple and live with imperfection.  

Many choose silence because they feel taking a stand would be too risky and make some of their clients uncomfortable. Here’s the thing. This is a “neutral” stance, and there is no neutral. To borrow Martin Luther’s words, “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.” Do you want to be known for your silence or for your voice?

Some choose silence because they don’t see a direct connection between their mission and the topic at hand. I get this. And I also know that we – humans and the earth and all living things – are connected. So, it is likely that whatever crisis or injustice is occurring IS related to something you do or someone you serve or employ. However, let’s remember that it isn’t about “you.” It is powerful when a business or organization takes a stand about something that does not directly connect to or benefit them.

Solidarity

Solidarity moves beyond the sentiment of “we are in this together.” There is a “togetherness” about solidarity, but one that recognizes and understands the differences of our experiences. When we invoke solidarity, Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández encourages us to consider these 3 things:

  1. Solidarity is always about relationships.
  2. Solidarity always requires us to be intentional about our commitments.
  3. Solidarity requires actions that also change us, perhaps even require a sacrifice.

Ask yourself (and your team), what expressions of solidarity feel authentic to your business or organization? Is it sharing about the work of another organization with your audience? Is it donating money? Donating other assets? Is it attending a protest together? Giving time off for volunteer service? Is it sitting around a table one day and creating art and letters of support to people who are more impacted by (whatever issue) than you? Is it leveraging your access to power and making a connection for someone? Activating your community to take a specific action?

Action

All of the steps above are important. But your leadership must not end with a statement of acknowledgement or extending a message of solidarity. You must take action. And the action must make a difference beyond yourself. For example, if your action is to learn more about sexism, identify how your education will serve others. If your action is to better understand climate change, commit to action you will take as a result of your knowledge. Change (and community trust and credibility) will only come with taking action. We need businesses and organizations to join the choir of individuals who already are.

If these steps make you feel uncomfortable, take heart and lean in. As we know from history, change and impact are never born from a position of comfort. You can do this.

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