The Evolving Role Of A Leader

As organizations try to make sense of the current environment and plan for the unknown challenges ahead, there is a critical need for leaders who understand how to navigate massive change. Douglas explores the evolving role of leadership and how it applies to your organization.

Kimberly Nemrava, Project Lead, Innoweave // Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet

The pandemic has reminded us of a few things: that stasis is never guaranteed, that we aren’t in charge of everything, and that everyone and everything is interconnected.

The only island we actually live on is this planet. This has become clear as we begin to understand the impact of this pandemic, in terms of the vulnerabilities both to our organizations and our communities. We also have the opportunity to respond — and set a course for a more holistic and collaborative future.

Everything is easier to understand with a model. One model that forms a helpful framework for the pandemic comes from the disaster response sector, which breaks disaster into four distinct phases.

The first phase, where the shit hits the fan, is called the response phase. It’s characterized by a fast, steep spike on the graph.

“It’s what the infection curves look like,” says Kimberley Nemrava, a disaster planning expert who, after 30-plus years with the Red Cross, developed the Leading Through Crisis program, now run through Innoweave. During the response phase, you and your team are scrambling. Adrenaline is flowing, barriers disappear, decisions are made.

“It can be exhilarating, but it’s also exhausting — and it’s highly creative,” Nemrava says.

The recovery phase involves planning for long-term consequences. In this key phase, you’re still scrambling, but you’ve got some focus and traction. You’re making decisions to stabilize, care for your team, stem your losses and help others who are worse off. You may shift your lines of business, or open new ones.

The preparation phase should see you planning for another possible wave of the pandemic. How can you be better prepared next time something like this happens? The tricky thing is, this needs to be done at the same time as the response and recovery phases, when all cylinders are already firing.

The fourth and final aspect of disaster response is business continuity. When the pandemic struck, you watched things dive. But all your work during the response and recovery phases meant that the business continuity curve began to show an upward trend once again as well — sometimes even stronger than before.

“The first three sections are all new work,” Nemrava says. In January, none of us were thinking about a disaster, let alone planning for a second wave. Similar to how mindfulness teaches that the first step in letting go of heavy emotions is to actually recognize and acknowledge them, the first step here is to get clear on what happened to your business.

“When you understand what has happened,” says Nemrava, “then you can understand, ‘OK, what type of responses can I expect from my people, and how can I support them through this?’” This period of reflection enables you to better move forward into reimagining and rebuilding.

Find Strength In Your Values

It’s obvious to you that you must rebuild, but sometimes it’s tough to get everyone on board. Your people are exhausted and may still have critical needs that weren’t addressed in the response phase. They’re worried about that second wave: How will they be able to cope? Where will they find the energy to keep the wheels on their job, their family, their health?

This is a normal response in the wake of a crisis. The remedy is to hold fast to your organizational principles — or revise them appropriately. The pandemic has forced us to slow down and take stock of what’s not working. Organizations are jettisoning initiatives that no longer deliver results, reorienting around their mission statements and feeling for what the world needs most.

“I don’t know any organization that’s not re- examining its values, its principles and its goals and objectives in light of [COVID] and Black Lives Matter and other social justice priorities that have really been prioritized,” Nemrava says. “As you’re going through this massive change, if you can do value- and principle-based decisions, it gives people confidence to move ahead because they’re feeling overwhelmed.”

If the virus cycles forward again through the autumn, and the economic dominoes continue to fall, the intensity of change will accelerate.

“People are going to have to be really good leaders and not compromise their values,” says Tom Benson, CEO of WildPlay Element Parks, which experienced an 85 per cent dip in business from COVID. “Stay true to taking care of people, and stay true to looking out for the environment and looking out for what would matter to your guests or your customers.”

It’s easy to compromise on the high-level things when cash flow shrinks, says Benson, but pulling back on your values will signal the death knell for your business—and your integrity.

Your People Are Your Power

The second step, after reorienting around your values, is to take care of any current vulnerabilities, so people can turn their attention to the future. Shore up problematic areas. Carve out resources and time to help your people sort out the emotional upheaval.

Third, be clear — crystal clear — about which priorities are being downgraded. Ruthlessly reassess to get things off people’s plates that are no longer priorities, and try to keep the work lean. You cannot prepare for a second wave if your team is spending energy on initiatives that no longer matter. You may need to remind people more than once to leave those old priorities behind, Nemrava advises.

Investing in your team’s well-being and professional competence will help you come back stronger. WildPlay hired a nanny to help its core team keep functioning through the lockdown. Roy Group pulled together and injected dozens of hours of leadership development into its own team. Accent Inns — which responded quickly at the beginning of the pandemic to offer accommodations to front-line workers — bucked the layoff trend by actually hiring people onto its sales team.

“In the end, I think that’s why we succeeded,” says CEO Mandy Farmer. “We were able to tell people, ‘OK. Your job is secure. You do not need to worry.’ ”

Equally important is investing in yourself.

“You can always invest in being a better leader,” says Benson, who is just closing out five years as president of the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO) on Vancouver Island.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on—it’s a capacity-building thing that we just need to do in our businesses. Read. Talk. Be curious, purposefully curious. Get involved in groups that can help to grow your leadership skills. Help others to become leaders, and you will actually end up being a better leader.”

We’re in this for the long haul, so it’s more important than ever to keep your perspective and realize that it’s OK to just deal with things as they unfold.

“I remember climbing this peak and just givin’er to get to the summit, only to realize that that wasn’t the summit,” says Benson, recalling his early days as a climber. “It was a false summit. And then I went on to what I thought was the next summit. And even that wasn’t the summit.”

It’s a guiding parable for how to conceptualize leadership amid today’s ever-shifting landscape, where entire dunes disappear overnight, only to re-form in new places. The thing for leaders to do now is to plan for a bunch of false summits.

“Make sure you keep enough energy and your habits are solid enough to allow you
to keep going,” advises Benson, himself a disciplined follower of personal routine, “because the circumstances will keep putting summits in front of us that we just didn’t know were there — and you’re going to have to take them in and go.”

Distribute Leadership

As job descriptions shift and flex, untapped competencies tend to float up to the surface— and smart leaders capitalize on this. “A company or organization is strongest when diverse and empowered leaders are given the freedom to act, lead and decide for the good of the company,” RaceRocks 3D cofounder and president Anita Pawluk writes in an email. “We have empowered and put the trust in our team leads to successfully navigate the company through this time of change.”

Langford Mayor Stew Young reached out and brought together an enormous web of helpers when the pandemic got real—and he’s the first to admit he couldn’t have done it alone.

“I needed other people to help me lead,” Young says. “This is a pandemic; it’s never been done before. We didn’t know really what we were supposed to do.”

Young brought together a team of physicians, pharmacists, public servants and business leaders to help him plan and execute a region-wide response, which involved a sweeping public education campaign, regular phone check-ins for residents by city staff, physical outreach for people who needed it and seamless support for businesses, from supplying masks and stickers to facilitating Plexiglas installations.

“I felt a lot better as a politician that I had professionals with us working and helping in deciding what direction we take,” Young says.

When crisis hits, it’s an opportunity for others to pitch in and shoulder a different
load than they are perhaps used to. When the world went into lockdown, powerhouse non-profit Power To Be moved its programs online, staying in touch with its participants through regular phone calls, instead of through in-person programming.

“We had some vehicles sitting in our parking lots, and staff that were really eager
to go do stuff,” says CEO Tim Cormode. The team partnered with another not-for-profit and delivered food to vulnerable families along the coast of Vancouver Island and in the Lower Mainland. Cormode’s team shifted attention to what needed to be done, instead of who should be doing what.

“It was all hands on deck,” says Cormode. “No job descriptions, in the sense that we’re just going to work together to get what we need done.”

Collaboration Is Our Way Forward

The rhetoric for a few years now has been that we live and work in a fast-changing environment. The pandemic has acutely sharpened focus on the tools people need to cope with uncertainty, and on the importance of collaboration for us to move forward effectively. Our entire economic model is structured with competition at the centre,

but the pandemic has revealed, with searing clarity, how this competition model has forced gaps and inequities between human beings. We now find this unacceptable.

“Leadership is really about us: the economy; us: the community,” says Joanna Tong, executive director of external relations at the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria. “There are a lot of things large organizations can do more to partner with or to help with smaller businesses — whether it’s in the supply chain, whether it be sharing some skill set or expertise … When we move forward, it’s not just about a number of businesses to be reopened; it’s about the economy of greater Victoria moving forward.”

Stories of positive, effective, collaborative leadership emerge daily—and this inspiration is key in collectively moving the ball down the field. “If you’re going to really evolve in the future,” says Cormode, himself a peerless trailblazer whose gift is enabling and magnifying the work of others, “you need to figure out a way to collaborate more effectively with your peers, your staff, your stakeholders and really work together.”

That we’re all in this together is what the pandemic has finally managed to hammer into our brains. We can make the journey scary and unfair by taking advantage of each other, hoarding supplies and letting the fastest travellers run ahead. Or we can make the trip super enjoyable by sharing resources, encouraging people to take turns leading, and exchanging inspiring ideas as we explore together.

However we decide to do it, we’ve got a long trail ahead of us. “If you think the destination is two feet in front of you, you’re probably wrong—it’s probably a little more out of sight,” says Benson. “And it’s OK. We just have to be more OK with uncertainty and holding our energy for a longer period of time. Plan for the thing that’s on the other side of the summit, not for the summit. Plan on getting down the mountain.”

Continue Reading: Building a Brand in Times of Uncertainty