CEOs and Executive Directors: Leadership During Times of Crisis

Guest blog by Dr. Lee Barker, President Emeritus of Meadville Lombard Theological School

Interviewed by Brenda B. Asare, President and CEO of The Alford Group

What does it mean to lead through crisis? Many CEOs are asking themselves this question as they navigate the uncertainty of a global pandemic and an economic Black Swan. We all have heard “let’s hope for the best, plan for the worst” along with “we will get through this.”

It is during times of crisis that leadership matters and the way that leadership shows up can make or break an organization. President of The Alford Group, Brenda B. Asare spent time with Dr. Lee Barker, President Emeritus of Meadville Lombard Theological School discussing leading an organization through challenging times.

Dr. Barker led Meadville Lombard Theological School through the great recession and other major organizational challenges, which resulted in a complete re-haul of the organization, pioneering a new way of providing seminary education.

Below Dr. Barker shares his insights on leading through challenging times to reach the next level.

Keep mission first

A CEO is the one person hired to fulfill the mission of the organization and so decisions of great consequence can only be guided by that singular goal. It’s never easy. There are often individual personalities to accommodate, limited funds to consider and many opinions about how best to fulfil the mission. And sometimes there is even a lack of clarity as to what the mission actually is or should be.  When that is the case, I have found it is worth the effort to initiate a mission review process, one that will help everyone (including the CEO!) appreciate the basis for decision-making.

Develop Plan A and Plan B

External events, such as a pandemic, can undermine an organization’s functioning and even its future. These are circumstances when a strategy is called for, even when it is understood that no one has ever identified a strategy that perfectly addresses this unique situation. Regardless, the most important thing is to be able to communicate how the organization will move forward. It might be as basic as articulating a process by which a comprehensive plan will be created. Or it might be a detailed plan that allows the organization to experiment with different solutions. Confidence comes not by knowing if the strategy will work, it comes by having a strategy that is well-reasoned. And it comes when you know that if this strategy is not effective, you have Plan B waiting in your back pocket.

Read more: COVID-19: Four lessons learned in crisis management

Shed barnacles

The 2008 economic downturn forced us to make radical changes to assure the very survival of our organization. We did not simply shed those programmatic, non-mission based “barnacles” that every organization accumulates over the years, we created a new business model and a new delivery system for our services. Having experimented with a number of solutions before we arrived at what was most effective, there was one, most important lesson: just because the organization’s survival was at stake, that did not mean change was easily accepted by stakeholders and clients. Even when changes are made for the most obvious and necessary reasons, it’s still important to anticipate the emotional fallout that comes with change. That means having an intentional, two-way communication strategy that always keeps in mind the maxim, “Surprised people behave badly.”

There was one, most important lesson: just because the organization’s survival was at stake, that did not mean change was easily accepted by stakeholders and clients.

Engage authentically with yourself

In a time of crisis, a leader might avoid planning for the long-term future because they are either paralyzed by the magnitude of the challenges or because they are consumed by putting out the numerous fires that have been ignited by the crisis. The feeling of being overwhelmed is natural and we should be gentle with ourselves and accept it as a sign of our own humanity. Every leader must cultivate their own way forward, but when I feel stuck, I routinely visualize the faces of people whose lives have been changed by the work of our organization. Then I ask myself, “What if they didn’t have us? Where would they be now?” That’s a compelling motivator.

Engage authentically with others

In such times, it is often easy to forget that there are others who have the exact same organizational focus as the CEO – the Board of Directors. I found that I would be constantly on the phone with them – either as individuals or as a formal body. They served as a sounding board for new ideas, offered their sympathy and inspiration when I was deep-down frustrated, and provided support and cover when difficult decisions were in the offing.

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Focus on organizational strengths

It was my executive coach who supplied the most helpful perspective. As I worked through with him the possible scenarios that addressed our challenges, I would voice the merits and disadvantages of each. At some point he said to me, “Lee, I’m getting the idea that you believe you can solve all the problems of the organization. That’s not realistic. The best you can do is to help its flame shine more brightly than it ever has before.” What a relief! With that bit of wisdom, I was able to embrace a plan that had the most advantages and the fewest drawbacks.

Now is the time to anticipate what that new normal might look like and begin planning for it. And that can lead to an exciting time of true innovation.

Optimize the opportunity to work differently to create more impact and efficiency

When the current crisis subsides, a new normal will emerge. It may be, for instance, that both clients and staff will carry some of the personal effects of trauma from the pandemic and it will be important to take that into consideration. Or it may be that the “stay at home” order and the greater reliance on technology will create a new expectation of where and how staff work and the way clients receive services. The new normal will play out differently in every organization. But there is one reality that every organization will face: the future will look differently than we had previously imagined. Now is the time to anticipate what that new normal might look like and begin planning for it. And that can lead to an exciting time of true innovation.


Thank you, Dr. Barker, for your insights. While we are optimistic about what lies ahead, the one thing that we know for sure is that the world will be forever changed. Leaders will be called upon to not only help their organizations survive – but thrive, be more resilient and move fearlessly into a next normal with confidence and flexibility.

 

Dr. Lee Barker was President of Meadville Lombard Theological School for 16 years, leading the organization through multiple periods of crisis and challenge. Since 2019, Lee has been consulting nonprofit executives in the areas of strategic planning, board development, fundraising and more. Lee currently serves as an associate vice president with The Alford Group.

Contact Dr. Lee Barker for counsel on how to lead your organization through COVID-19 and beyond.