IN MORE RECENT DAYS, on the other side of working through several years of crisis with an intense adrenaline push driving me to not stop day after day for the sake of my staff and the children and families we serve - for a time, not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel - I have had time to reflect on what has taken place over the past several years - what just happened, what did it take to lead through a crisis, how these years have changed us as people, as families, as a city, as a nation. I’ve thought about what makes a good leader no matter what the circumstances are surrounding the leader and I’ve considered, as I always consider, my own ability to lead an incredible nonprofit organization, touching the lives of over 20,000 children and families in the city of Philadelphia, across 250schools, and in 39 of the 48 zip codes, in the new world we are facing.
Leaders should continuously consider their motives for why they are doing what they are doing. They should be thinking long-term for the benefit of others and not short term for the benefit of themselves. I consider myself lucky, blessed even, to be the head of a nonprofit organization, not founded by me, but recognized for high quality services in each of the distinct areas we support. It’s an honor and a privilege to be in this role in front of incredibly talented staff who make me and this organization look amazing every day. We aren’t doing anything extraordinary but we change lives. Each staff member is focused on someone other than themselves and they come to work each day ready to look a child or young person in the eyes so that he/she/they know they are cared about, regardless of what they bring to the table.
My job is to keep my employees going, able to care about others with zeal and energy, believing that the agency has their backs in a trusting environment. This job is becoming increasingly challenged as we are becoming a people with less confidence in one another than any other time in history.
In an effort to create transparency, to show my heart and mind as a leader of an incredible organization with incredibly competent and dedicated employees, I am beginning a series of videos, streams of thoughts leading to questions for others to respond to in a blog. Let’s create a space together where we learn and grow from one another, using the technology we have to draw in creative minds.
My goal is to bring minds together, to challenge me and us to think out of the box. But also, in the next ten months I will be leading us down a path that doesn’t only allow humble deep dialogue about what we are facing in our schools and communities, but it will also guide the reader and the writer to some innovative work that we must all embrace.
As I evaluate my ability to be the right leader for an organization I am called to nurture and the many lives and systems that rely on the work we do, I consider my own energy, motives, zeal, passion, creativity, innovation, and focus on mission to decide if I should remain or step down, allowing the next leader to enter my position. I must be this leader if I truly care about the main purpose of my personal existence.
I don't think anyone really knows how to prepare for a global crisis. Sure as leaders we have plans in place to handle emergency situations. There are manuals on how to respond to all kinds of crisis, but global pandemic is not one of them.
Crazy as it may sound, great leaders often possess qualities that may seem contradictory to one another. Leaders that are able to adopt a wider and more flexible range of behaviors allows them to create stronger and lasting connections with people. As leaders we need these connections. Now more than ever, we need to resonate with as many people as possible to keep moving the vision of the organization forward.
We must communicate actively and often, be both realistic and optimistic—striking a balance can be difficult, be clear, compassionate and honest. Recognizing that mistakes are inevitable because there is no precedent for this kind of thing. When mistakes are made, recognize, accept and change/correct course. No need to assign blame or get into the details of why it happened. Its recognizing that it did happen and identifying solutions or course corrections to get back on track.
It takes a unique kind of leader to push against the natural human tendency to downplay and delay. Our instincts as leaders are to gather information, assess, and render a decision. Sometimes we consult with others and act only after we have weighed the pros and cons and looked at it from all angles. We want to withhold bad news from staff to shelter or protect them because we don't want to burden them with anything that is not within their control.
But when you are in a crisis situation and everything is changing rapidly, by the day, the hour, the minute, you can't wait for more information or downplay the threat. You have to act with urgency. You can't take the time to gather more information. You have to make decisions in the moment based on the immediate circumstances that might have a greater impact on the organization and staff than you had time to figure out. You communicate often with transparency and provide updates and a realistic view of the situation. And sometimes you have to admit that you just don't know how things will work out, but that you will do your best to minimize the impact on everyone.
As COVID-19 spread across the country and the world, I realized that I needed to be open and honest with the staff about everything that was going on. I realized that in order to lead my team through this crisis, many of my actions and behaviors would seem contradictory at times. But if we were going to get through this pandemic and survive, that is what would need to happen.
I had to learn that while casting and carrying our vision for the future, I also had to recognize that I needed to be able to pivot and adjust as we charged ahead. It may be a long process to hammer out a strategic plan, but its not just about putting pen to paper and stating a vision or creating goals and objectives. Its understanding that obstacles and challenges may arise along the way and being prepared to modify that vision to keep driving it forward may be necessary. You need to know how and when to change your style of leadership based on what is going on around you.
This leads me to my next point about learning to live in the moment. By doing so you see what is going on around you and can adjust accordingly. It is tough to strike a balance between living in the moment while also preparing for the future and holding true to the vision. Patience is key here and not a virtue that all leaders possess because its not easy. We often want to go full steam ahead chasing the vision, but if we do so then we might not see what is happening around us. That is why it is important to strike a balance between living in the moment and looking ahead to the future. A strong, stable organization must be patient in order to see that change happen. Sometimes a vision doesn't happen right away. It takes time. So having a strong foundation in place provides stability and the resources you need to be patient and moving the vision forward. My favorite thing about leadership is when something that I've been thinking about and planning for a long time circles back to me in the form of an idea from someone else on my team. I don't worry about getting credit for the original idea. I like it better when I know my people are listening, thinking, and planning alongside of me instead of against me. Buy-in from staff is one of the most important things you need to keep an organization going. If you don't have buy-in you can't move forward.
Accountability and responsibility are two things that leaders have to accept no matter what. Anyone who has been in a position of authority knows that. Delegating authority and power to people can create a challenge for some leaders because you own every decision, every mistake, everything. You can't have the mindset that if you are going to be held accountable then you need to do all of the work. You have to trust the people that you put in place. However, that ability to be flexible and adjust your style of leadership is key here because when something as big as a global pandemic comes and threatens the livelihood of your organization, you have to be willing as a leader to step up, take control and authority back while also maintaining buy-in from staff.
At one point I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge. I came out of COVID weary and exhausted and saw ahead of me new challenges that would increase in the days ahead:
So much to think about and consider. So I say again, a leader should NEVER put a band-aid on an open wound that requires surgery, reconstruction, and to be sewn back. We are not here to look good for four years to be reelected. We are not in position for selfish motives. We are in place to be stewards of the job given to us – to manage our resources, human and financial, with the highest level of integrity. We are here to create lasting change that may not be recognized during our lifetime and may not ever be publicly recognized, but impacts the lives of those we touch.
I am here, in a leadership role, in front of an incredible organization, for two purposes and two purposes alone:
Create a safe space for staff to grow, laugh, learn and feel supported so they can go out into the community and create dynamic change for others.
Ensure the dollars we receive are well used to support the thousands of lives we serve every day.
CORA, the organization so near and dear to my heart, of which I am required to steward on a daily basis, is on the cusp of some incredible work being led by a team of staff who are ready to bring all that they are, all that drew them into the human services industries they are in, to the table in a way that transform services for children and reignite the passion of those working in these fields. Philadelphia is a home of many resources, although we are poor. Leaders of this city work hard to bring supports to our families and our schools. This must be highlighted and recognized and better used. We are partners, working together towards the same goal – safe and loving and nurturing homes, schools, communities, neighborhoods and city.
Do you feel jaded? I was there but I will not give up, nor should you. Don’t be satisfied until we have what we’re looking for and let’s stop fighting against one another and start talking, together, about how to create lasting change. Let’s talk about leadership, needs, financial sustainability as we serve, innovation, and creating lasting change…. I look forward to our dialogue.