In the months since the pandemic upended every organization I know, I have heard two phrases more often than any other when I’ve asked people how they were doing.
The first was: “I was built for this.” Not said with false bravado or unearned optimism. They were genuinely ready to lean in, do whatever it took.
The second was: “I’m not sure I can do this.” Not said in defeat or shame, but with open eyes and refreshing self-awareness.
Both phrases were uttered in complete honesty. And both showed up early in conversations as we all level-set against our new reality. Then, about four months in, something happened. People who were “built for this” started to tire. And people who “weren’t sure” started to find their groove.
Time, once again, proved to be the great leadership leveler. This sprint turned into a marathon – and is now more akin to a very Canadian portage of indefinite length and ever- increasing pack load, causing us all to adjust our pace and expectations. The ability of people and organizations to self-regulate — up or down – has been heartening to see throughout our community.
There have also been casualties. And I don’t simply mean businesses going under. I mean the collateral damage of heightened leadership expectations, with unbearable pressure, without a timeline, and with an unseen virus swirling around us.
People are being asked (even forced and expected) to step into leadership roles without any preparation. Normal rules of engagement — training, communication, planning — are being cast aside, deemed a luxury in a time of crisis. Honest conversations about one’s own readiness and willingness (or lack thereof) to step up are being viewed as wholly optional, if not outright counterproductive, in such existential times.
To be sure, the crisis required immediate, sustained action — and still does. Thankfully, there are many examples of those who were ready to respond, not just react, and model leadership development. I think of Dr. Bonnie Henry, about whom I have written before. The South Island Prosperity Partnership’s rapid response with their deeply impressive Rising Economy Taskforce. The City of Victoria’s updated economic action plan – Recovery, Reinvention, Resilience. I’ve watched with pride as foundations and donors liberated their networks (and grant protocols) to get resources to those in immediate need through efforts like our own Rapid Relief Fund, administered by the Victoria Foundation.
In each case, decisive and impactful action didn’t just appear overnight. Their leadership equity – their ways of leading and collaborating — had been banked for some time. They were actually “built for this.”
Where people and organizations struggled was when there was no plan, no readiness, no muscle memory, no prescribed way of leading. I saw this not only in newer startups, but groups with long-standing legacies. Companies were asking employees – even founders were asking themselves – to take on more without knowing where it would take them or even how to do it.
The pervasive peer pressure of sharing our COVID triumphs, pivots and new plans on social media only added to the burden, like some perverse real-time version of the old phrase, “What did YOU do in the war, Daddy?”
If ever there was a case being made for proactive leadership development, now is the time. Yet the reality is, too many organizations are still in crisis mode. So, let’s keep it simple.
■ If you can’t specifically name your method of leadership development, either personally or organizationally – right now – go get help. Find a coach, leadership development consultant or ask your industry association for free training. This crisis isn’t over – and the next one won’t wait. Yes, you might just be trying to keep the lights on. But, I promise you, there won’t be a better time to start (and you’ll forget when the good times roll again).
■ Before you tap someone for an expanded leadership role or new responsibilities (including yourself!) work through the Three C’s (from the very least you can do to the very most):
Simply have the conversation about what you need and why. Perhaps the decision has already been made, but make sure it’s clear.
Engage those you are tapping in a robust discussion, and come to an agreement. If you are asking yourself to take on new responsibilities in your organization, seek out a trusted, unbiased party to stress test your plan. (Better yet, ask your advisory board.)
What does this role look like and what problem is it solving? Is there an alternative — possibly better — approach to the leadership gap or opportunity you are facing? Ask your team – not just the parties involved – to co-create, to elicit new perspectives and earn buy-in.
■ Finally, ask yourself where you sit on the readiness spectrum. At one end is: “I was built for this.” On the other: “I’m not sure I’m ready.” Check in regularly and honestly with yourself. Things change quickly. Time passes slowly. And vice versa. It’s OK to adjust your pace and expectations.
It has long been said that our region is a bubble; that we are far less affected by macro influences like global financial crises, national housing markets and external socio-political events. The great equalizer named COVID-19 has reinforced for us all that, while this may still be true to some extent, it is not by chance or because of simple geographic fortune.
Victoria and Vancouver Island are home to individuals and organizations who have demonstrated that leadership, at all levels, requires investment, proactive planning and brutal honesty about where and how we can contribute to the best of our abilities to continue to protect this most remarkable community.
It all starts with leadership — and you get to define it.
Jim Hayhurst is a trusted advisor to purpose- driven organizations and leaders. He is currently active in six companies and social impact projects that elevate Victoria’s reputation as a hub of innovation, collaboration and big thinking.