Can Leaders Be Happy During This Troubled Time? Three Leaders Weigh In

Mark Monchek,
Founder and COO, Opportunity Lab

I’ve been thinking about what leaders need to do, for ourselves and for the people we serve, during this challenging time.  In many years of learning how to lead, I’ve found that it is when I am my truest self that I can offer the most to those I work with. During this recent period, marked by the pandemic and continuing social and political disruption, I’ve experienced a lot of grief, fear, and sometimes even anger. Many people I work with have also experienced these feelings; and so, when appropriate, I create space for us to share them.  This makes me feel like me.

I have also felt great joy and gratitude – in fact, I feel these far more often. I am deeply grateful that I love my work, and that I work with caring and committed people. Allowing myself to be happy and grateful is equally important, because it’s a big part of who I am and keeps me true to myself. Being happy rather than depleted offers me the energy to help others who may need more support than I do. My experience is that leading from who I am, and creating space to genuinely explore my team’s needs, is what works best for me. I hope that it also gives the people I work with an example that one can hold the experiences of both joy and fear, gratitude and grief. Maybe not at the same instance, but within the same period of time. 

Pondering the particular challenges for leaders during this time, I wanted to go beyond my limited perspective.  So, I decided  to check in with a few of my most respected colleagues. Their responses have inspired me, as I hope they will inspire you.

Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH
Founder and President, The Foundation for Art and Healing

Faculty, Harvard Medical School

As Shakespeare pointed out in As You Like It, all the world’s a stage and all the people players. As such, it’s no surprise that a leader is invariably on stage, playing to an audience who holds the leader’s happiness in its hands. And so I ask the audience: “Can a leader, committed to inspiring others to achieve their goals and to removing obstacles to progress, actually achieve a non-suffering emotional state, accentuated with the joy of emotional well-being?”  “Definitely yes,” the audience answers, ”but it requires two things. The first thing is an acceptance of the uncertainty of success in their leadership efforts during turbulent times; the second is a commitment to radical honesty about the first thing.” Let me try to explain what I think the audience is saying.

Our best efforts can be undone in a heartbeat, with no warning or recourse. We are currently at sea, riding the roiling waves of continual uncertainty. Like Ahab’s sailors, we have developed sea legs, embodying a new relationship to the equilibrium of the “new normal;” and like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, we need to beat on, boats against the current. I agree with the audience. I believe leaders can be happy if they face the reality of the current moment, commit themselves towards purposeful action to lead with courage, compassion, and respect, and at the same time allow themselves to be fully in touch with the possibility of failure. They also need to be honest about that possibility with those with whom they share the stage–and, above all, the audience.

Curtis Thompson,
SVP of Sales, Feltsberg

Let me start with what I believe our people need from their leaders, especially during this complicated time.  All of us are having to manage our personal lives differently.  For example, anyone with children has had to completely re-engineer their home life to provide not just a home, but also a classroom for their children.  This is complicated enough for people with ample resources, and hugely more so for families who struggle financially or for whom both parents need to work.  This is one example of how leaders need to understand what new challenges their people are facing, and be flexible enough to allow people to continue being productive under these new circumstances.  That flexibility, of course, must go both ways.

With regard to what we, as leaders, need to do for ourselves, I think there are two fundamental things. This morning, I listened to a great podcast called Elevate in which they interviewed Greg McKeown, who wrote a book called Essentialism. McKeown argues that the number one focus for anyone who needs to perform at a high level is to “protect the asset;” this means ensuring that we look after our health, so we have the energy to lead.  We must eat properly, get enough sleep, and, of course, exercise.  The second thing is: we need to be consistent with our people about the fact that we need them to continue to execute on our business strategy.  This ensures that our companies and organizations are healthy enough financially to afford the resources we need to continue to thrive in uncertain times.  Despite the challenges, expectations remain high. If we ask people who work with us to constantly look for opportunities to take advantage of the current crisis, it will provide the best chance to come out of it stronger than ever.

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