Leading through difficult times


Published on: March 2023

Written by: Lacee Jacobs, Sean Slade, Kate Hemingway

There is no doubt that the last three years of unprecedented change and uncertainty have been difficult for many.

Difficult for society, communities, and teams, as well as for individuals. Burnout and angst result in more frustration and ongoing resignations — people are exhausted, and many have had enough.

In school settings, education leaders juggle the need to learn with the need to keep everyone safe. These leaders have witnessed the suffering of students, families, and staff while navigating muddling — and, in some cases, absent — policy directives. Amidst all this, they’ve found a way to keep classes in session, students learning, and those who are under their care out of harm’s way, but just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, many have been hit with a new wave of dissent from their school boards, PTAs, and community forums.

Businesses haven’t been excluded from this tidal change, either. Tired employees more frequently express disillusionment with their roles and the meaning of their work. These past three years have provided many with the time to reflect on both what they do and why they do it. Some have been rejuvenated by this reflection, and others, less so; quiet quitting, or outright loud quitting, is becoming more of a norm.

Leaders are trying to cope with these issues while caring for others. Understandably, many have responded to the instinct to hunker down, not make waves, and keep a low profile, but unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t solve the problem. People need their services, business, and schools to succeed, not barely function. There is a cost to working heads-down.


Where does one start?

As with many things in life, there is a positive slant to the noise. What’s becoming clear over time is that people care, whether about their families, work, or communities. If they didn’t care, more schools would be closed, and all PTA meetings would be empty. Similarly, leaders and employees wouldn’t keep coming to work everyday, fighting the good fight to improve company cultures and create environments where anyone could thrive. People are demanding more from schools and organizations, but the currency they seek goes beyond money to include greater purpose, opportunities for meaningful work, and more community interaction.

“In our organization, we’ve emphasized both purpose and belonging because they must go hand in hand. We want people to feel like everything they do matters not just to the organization, but to each other. We want people to feel a shared sense of purpose as well as fulfillment in their own purpose. We refer to it as solidarity”. – HR Executive (from Ron Carucci’s HBR article, “To Retain Employees, Give Them a Sense of Purpose and Community”)

So, what can leaders do during these difficult times?

Focus on what’s working and what can gain traction: these leverage points enable greater engagement, satisfaction, and growth. Respond by growing connections and enhancing relationships. Concentrate on the human side of leadership.

  • People are tired and frustrated → Show compassion and empathy
  • People are reactive and demanding → Face the issues and be curious
  • People feel scared → Admit uncertainty and make it more normative
  • People feel lack of meaning → Enhance the purpose and vision

Hunkering down and ignoring concerns, issues, and frustrations will cause them to grow and fester. By confronting them with compassion, leaders can provide steps to move through these times.

Embrace emotions as data, and then act wisely; show more compassion and be curious with others. Leaning into the human side of leadership and magnifying the genuine care that already exists will help people find a common purpose and community.

While these times have been and will remain difficult, they provide an opportunity to regenerate organizations and teams. Growing your quotient for discomfort will give you staying power along any journey. Though things might not change immediately, creating inclusive spaces for all voices to be heard will empower the disengaged and reconnect the dissenters. As Mother Theresa posited, perhaps a lack of peace comes from people having forgotten that they belong to one another.

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