May 19, 2020

Leadership For The New Tomorrow—What Does It Require?

“A brave leader is someone who says I see you. I hear you. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m going to keep listening and asking questions.”   —Brené Brown

What does it take to successfully lead your organization into the new tomorrow? An unknown tomorrow? Zoo Advisors hosts David Walsh and Kathy Wagner invited five “contributors” from AZA organizations across the country plus AZA’s chief Dan Ashe to offer their thoughts and perspectives during our most recent webinar. The ZA team launched the discussion with background observations from several articles in the news (links available below) that offered insights into leadership during the pandemic—with some possibly surprising conclusions.

The leaders we read about—heads of state Jacinda Ardern from New Zealand, Mette Frederiksen from Denmark, and Angela Merkel from Germany; and our own NBA Commissioner Adam Silver—shared similar traits and approaches in their leadership during this time of crisis.

  • They listened to experts, made tough decisions, then were quick to take action for the good of their constituents, without consideration whether it was likely to be a popular decision.

  • They relied on data from experts but took personal responsibility.

  • They were calm in the face of crisis, listened to their audience, and demonstrated empathy.

  • While they were assertive and confident, they showed their vulnerability, often making comments like “I just don’t know; this is our best idea.”

  • And, they acknowledged others and their thoughts and invited their contributions.

ZA contrasted traits from the “old” and “new” models of leadership and polled participants on what traits they saw as effective in today’s environment:

  • “Old”—dominance, criticality, endurance, aggressiveness, creativity

  • “New”—vulnerable, calm, self-aware, listener, externally-focused, empathetic, decisive

Poll results rated calm, empathetic, decisive, and accessible as top traits for leaders. Somewhat surprisingly, in contrast to recent literature, “vulnerability” did not rate highly, although in subsequent discussions this concept arose repeatedly.

Perspectives from our colleagues frequently echoed what we saw in world leaders—thanks to Dan Ashe, Susan Altrui, Shareen Knowlton, Judy Mann, Aaron Marshall, and Lisa Peterson for sharing their ideas. Here’s what we heard:

  • Find the positives in every day; look for the bright spots.

  • Acknowledge that we’re currently living in “experiments in change”—we’re dealing with uncertainties all around us.  

  • Listen to your team and care for them, but don’t forget to “feed your soul” too.

  • Recognize that we’re all in this together.

  • Align your stakeholders ahead of time and present a united front.

  • Keep your mission alive—keep the “why” in everything you do and help your staff understand this.

  • Get into the weeds—literally; work side by side with your team to not only get the work done but show solidarity.

  • Get used to “the unknown,” which may be hard for those of us used to managing with science and data.

  • Acknowledge that we’re all navigating issues that are inherently emotionally charged and the need to deal with them directly.

  • We’re learning together—this is an opportunity for those not normally involved in decision making to weigh in with different perspectives, if we’re open to hearing them.

  • “Give grace and give space.”

Along with these insights, participants observed the need for hope and new possibilities this crisis may present, realizing that we are in an adaptive cycle with our mission at its core, and that we will be challenged to decide what we can let go. We heard a caution not to “sugarcoat” information, but to tell it like it is, acknowledging that things aren’t always rosy. And we repeatedly heard about the need for showing our vulnerability—that we don’t have all the answers, that we too are uncertain and anxious, and that we’re figuring this out together.

ZA then asked “what training or coaching in leadership might be needed for the new tomorrow?” with the following input from participants:

  • “Soft skills”

  • Flexibility

  • Emotional side of leadership

  • Dealing with anxiety

  • Continual feedback, keeping ideas flowing

  • Mindfulness

  • Nimbleness

  • Values, attitudes, behavior vs. skills and expertise

  • Managing change

  • Gaining balance

  • Adapting to new ways of working; embracing new realities

  • Listening

Thanks again to our contributors and participants. We’re all in this together—learning from and supporting each other as we move into the new tomorrow.

Click on the following titles to view the PowerPoint presentation and articles that offer a deeper dive into this conversation and some new perspectives as well:

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