Resilient leaders create resilient organizations

by jhilley on February 1, 2013

Nancy Koehn’s article, “Lincoln’s School of Management”, has been on my mind since it appeared recently in the Sunday New York Times (1/26/2013).  It’s a good read which I commend to you. “In this season of all things Lincoln” Nancy Koehn identifies the leadership traits and practices in an historical character and draws lessons from these traits and practices for our modern traits and processes.  “The lessons of Lincoln seem as fresh as ever. They demonstrate the importance of resilience, forbearance, emotional intelligence, thoughtful listening and the consideration of all sides of an argument. They also show the value of staying true to a larger mission.”  Nancy Koehn:  you had me at resilience.

Resilience, the ability to recover from or adjust easily to a disturbance or change, is an essential trait in leaders.  And personal resilience in leaders is an essential ingredient in creating resilient organizations.  Lincoln had it and resilience was what was needed at a time when our government and nation was fraying and in tatters.

Resilience among our leaders is needed today and by our organizations.  Koehn places her focus upon business leaders who need to keep pace with a rapidly changing landscape.  Resilience is just as important to nonprofit leaders.  (Resilience is so important for nonprofit leaders and organizations; we created the Organizational Resiliency Gameplan Assessment that measures the “resiliency capacity”:  the ability of a nonprofit to adapt, change, and thrive, while continuing to develop effective processes, structures, and programs in order to take action and achieve its mission.)

Running a nonprofit is not akin to the challenges former CEO Anne Mulcahy faced when running a large company like Xerox, nor akin to the demands of being President of the United States, especially at a time of national crisis with the human toll from slavery and war.  Nevertheless these are not easy times to run a nonprofit when leadership must navigate today’s increasingly competitive and unstable economic environment and changing policy climate.

To nonprofit leaders at the helm of organizations, many of which are providing critical needs and services, I pass on these insights, most of which Koehn identified as part of “Lincoln’s School of Management.”

1. If you are tempted to be overtaken by fear don’t let it control you, lest you lose clarity about your larger purpose.

Before and after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, 150 years ago, “Lincoln confronted a string of military setbacks, intense political opposition, and his own depression and self-doubts.”  His eleven year old son, Willie, had died five months earlier.  “Yet despite all of his mental suffering” Koehn writes, “Lincoln never gave way to his darkest fears. His resilience and commitment to preserve the Union helped sustain him.” Ari Bloom, a consultant Koehn interviews adds:  “The ability to experience negative emotions without falling through the floorboards is vital to entrepreneurs and business leaders.”

I remember the time I was running an organization that was considering creating a large scale childcare center to provide a needed service for our community.  I had worked tirelessly researching the need, identifying potential partners and building a base of support.  I was young and if not careful, could be too quick to respond to criticism.  And I was deeply committed and protective of this proposed project because I had sunk so much time and capital into the project. I was also fearful that the project could be rejected  — and in some way representing the rejection of my leadership – especially by a couple of board members who had resisted this project.  My fear of what could happen and what it could mean started to impede the due diligence the board needed to go through.  I remember before a board meeting allowing myself to feel the negative emotions of rejection and what it would feel like if the project died — rather than pushing away my fears that were beginning to stand in the way of getting the work done.  The key was to experience the emotions without being controlled by them or falling through the floorboards.  I was reminded to refocus that my goal was not on defending the merits of the project, but upon the larger mission of the organization.

To nonprofit leaders who have just been informed that important grant won’t be renewed, to those leaders preparing for the upcoming board meeting where you will face that one activist board member who is known for taking the air out of the room for the other board members, to those who are struggling with the staff member whose skills don’t exactly fit the changing needs of your organization…remember Lincoln’s forbearance.  Much of what leaders experience every day is emotionally difficult and require executives to face the challenge of navigating their own and others’ emotions with forethought and consideration, always mindful of the larger purpose (of your own and that of the organization).  Don’t let fear control you, lest you lose sight of the larger purpose you and the organization are about.

2. Develop the Ability to “Shift Gears”

As we work with nonprofit leaders we see the tendency among them to repeat over and over the same tactics that are not working.  Times call for working harder… and smarter.  Resilient nonprofit leaders aren’t successful because they are bull-headed in their determination; they are successful because they are dogged and persistent.  But more important still is the ability to be nimble and adapt and change quickly to changing circumstances. Situations may call for deliberate deconstruction and reinvention by leaders. “Lincoln’s ability to shift gears during hard times – without giving up his ultimate goal – is a vital lesson for leaders operating in today’s turbulence.”  Adaptive is the operative word in 2013, requiring us to shape one’s tactics to changing circumstances.

3. Gather information from a wide range of people…and Listen!

Nancy Koehn recalls historical moments during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and suggests that Lincoln’s propensity to gather advice and information from a wide range of people, including those who did not agree with him is instructive to us today.  We do well to listen to our clients, employees and other key stakeholders, especially to those who may be critical.  When working with new nonprofit directors, I encourage them to be very intentional in their first 100 days, making sure they spend time both outside and inside the building.  Healthy organizations have a developed communications plan that helps them listen to and gather information about whether their work is viewed with confidence by the community of stakeholders.  When it comes to internal communications organizational effectiveness leading to greater resilience occurs when communication strategies are implemented across the organization. Clear leadership, internal communications practices, and accountability systems are critical components of an effective organization.  Such effective communications – internally and externally – is driven by the leader at the helm.

For other blogs by John Hilley, visit MyGamePlan.org’s parent site:  www.patmosconsulting.com. Click here to follow JohnHilley on Twitter.  

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