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Leading An Organization When The World Is On Fire

People at a diner

It felt like we were finally coming out of a fog. With stay at home orders lifting, social distance restrictions easing up, and the market continuing to rebound, a few weeks ago it seemed as if we were on a path to a new normal. Till we weren’t.

On May 25th, four Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46 year old black man. He was accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. 17 minutes later he was unconscious. Shortly thereafter he was declared dead. The videos began to circulate and the protests started. The protests turned into riots and overnight our country was on fire. The pain of the unheard crying out for justice. 

We have not made an official statement and I’m not sure that we will. For now, here are five questions pointed towards our beliefs, not our opinions, that I can answer with confidence on behalf of our organization: Do we believe that institutional racism is alive and rampant and needs to be taken apart piece by piece? Yes, we do. Do we believe that violence and racism are tragically woven into the fabric of our country? Yes, we do. Do we believe that the perpetrators of this injustice, and many others, should be held accountable for their actions to fullest extent the law allows? Yes, we do. Do we grieve alongside our brothers and sisters whose pain we cannot fully comprehend? Yes, we do. Do we believe things can and will get better? Yes, we do. These are things we believe, not things we think. I believe that distinction is important. 

Like many of you leading teams and organizations, I feel the gravity of the present moment. The confusion, the grief, the shock, and the uncertainty about which path to take and how to walk it is real. The virus has not gone away and won’t for a while. Parents are already dreading the start to school and the various flimsy formats being rolled out. The gap between Wall Street and Main Street gets wider every day. Economists can’t seem to agree on whether recovery will be a V, a U, or something else. Our nation has once again shown the world our true colors. Our people carry all of this anxiety, grief, and stress with them into work every day. So do we. 

Here are a handful of tips for leading an organization when the world is on fire:

  1. Dedicate time and space to listen to your people.

Carve out an hour, a half-day, even a full day to listen--one-on-one if possible--and as a team if appropriate. Each of your people has a unique experience and perspective on what is going on around us. It’s important to dedicate time and space to listen to them. If you do not do this proactively they will find an outlet somewhere, likely in the breakroom without moderation. 

  1. Refrain from posting, sharing, or processing publicly. 

Entrepreneurs possess an inflated sense of their own importance. We assume that everyone cares about what we think, see, or feel. Now is not the time to share your uncle’s doctored memes to Facebook (is there ever a time for that?). Refrain from forwarding news articles, videos, etc. to your people. Don’t engage in any public quarrel or discussion unless it is in the purview of your position. With heightened sensitivity, anything and everything you say can be misconstrued. It’s difficult to lead an organization when your employees are coming to work discouraged or angry about something you retweeted. 

  1. Double down on your non-negotiables.

In my coaching engagements I have each leader dial in 3-5 leadership non-negotiables. Ambitious principles just outside our comfort zone that we practice as disciplines because we know they will make us better leaders. Now isn’t the time for trying on new hats. If you don’t have the track record of someone who cares about inequality, be slow to speak and quick to listen. If you don’t have a PhD in virology maybe hold off on pontificating about how social distancing should really work. Stick to your principles, as long as they are worth something. 

  1. Practice empathy as a discipline.

If you’re like me, you don’t wake up with a very full empathic reservoir. Now isn’t the time for cold, firm, leadership. Some of your people are especially fragile and will need something that many of us find uncomfortable if not unnatural, gentleness. Practice empathy as a discipline and over time it will become a part of your character. 

  1. Look in the mirror.

Many people view leaders as the ones who have it together. They’ve risen to the top on some combination of charisma, intelligence, and discipline. There is never a better time than the present to begin the deep work of examining our personal biases, fears, wounds and more. We often prefer to be oblivious when it comes to examining our own shortcomings, but those of us who are willing to uproot the darkness in our own hearts ultimately will better serve and lead the people inside of our organization. 

This too shall pass. Hang in there. I’m pulling for you.