Leadership for the New Normal

by Steven Windmueller

We are experiencing the greatest institutional crisis since the 1930s. What is particularly unique to this current situation involves its level of complexity – social structures of all types must contend with issues of such magnitude, that normal decision-making practices seem inadequate and even problematic. The degree of uncertainty seems so incredibly profound. We have entered into uncharted territory with respect to the leadership challenges before us. In this context, being told to “think outside of the box” may no longer have credence, as the box itself seems to be a moving target!

Complexity is the Name of the Game: In confronting this current environment, leaders are being introduced to a whole new set of operational challenges. Leading in an environment of chaos and uncertainty and managing in a period of conflict and confusion reflect the depth and scope of this economic dislocation. “This too will shall pass” may no longer be the appropriate leadership mantra. Rather, we are likely to embrace as our core principle: “anything but remaining here.” This could likely serve as the emerging new leadership message. Many of the institutional “givens” are no longer viable, creating multiple dilemmas as leaders seek to address new ways to manage personnel, operate programs, and engage constituencies. In the end, all options are now on the table, leaving little room for preserving a sense of stability and a framework for order. In the environment of the new-normal, leaders will need to demonstrate greater accountability, openness, and visibility. As business consultant David Wee suggests, “We need to compete by running faster, working harder or smarter than others in the marketplace…” Fairness and equity, he suggests, must also be understood as traits leaders must demonstrate in this new constellation.

Experimentation: Leaders in this first decade of the 21st century are being asked to re-invent their institutions so that they might operate in a different work paradigm. What will institutions look like, and how will they operate in this fluid and uncertain environment? For leaders then, the test will be to find a pathway through this maze of complexity. Yet, leadership theory suggests that even in crisis settings, new opportunities abound, challenging leaders to take risks and to explore new possibilities that would never have been considered in more “normal” times. The art of experiencing failure on the road to discovering new operational models may emerge as the norm.

Is Anything Sacred? Leaders were always told to protect “the core” of their enterprise; now businesses and non-profits are no longer even certain of what to define or protect as “sacred” or special to their operation. This creates in turn a situation in which everything is “in-play,” adding yet another dimension of uncertainty and drama to the traditional operational principles of governance and management. Meg Whitman, former Executive Director of eBay, proposes the following: “Leadership entails painting a vision of where you want to go, establishing priorities for getting there, building the right team, aligning the organization, and holding people accountable for results. It also requires an ability to communicate effectively so that everyone is on the same page. In addition, effective leaders create cultures where mistakes are acceptable.” The sacred now is about the process and the performers, and no longer the program!

Values as Core: While institutional structures and programs undergo radical, and in some cases, rapid change, leaders are told to return to the basics. In this context, institutions, whether out of desperation or out of conviction, are jettisoning many of their basic programs. Maintenance of core institutional goals and underlying values remains a primary leadership challenge. In this context, organizational leaders will need to both articulate and embody these values. Consultant Valerie Dennis suggests that beyond the realm of public responsibility, values-driven leadership must be seen as an essential feature of successful institutions. It not only serves as a competitive advantage to the external market but as a means to attract key lay leaders and quality professionals who demand more in the new-normal. Top talent wants to be identified with institutions whose decisions and actions are shaped by a defined value system and whose values are compatible with their own. “It assists in retention, job security, and building longer-term intellectual capital within an organization.”

Power Issues: In the context of such rapid and complete transformation, institutional leaders report increased levels of conflict and tension over sharing of power and access to the decision-making access. This power surge can be seen in a number of different arenas, as boards seek to recast their roles and middle-management personnel argue for greater control over outcomes. Leaders are challenged both to be more transparent as they confront the difficult and painful options that may involve downsizing of personnel or closing of facilities or ending programs and to find their voice in asserting their vision and defining the direction for institutional change. In the end, much of what is playing out is centered on failed leadership What economists have learned is that companies can be easily derailed by poor leadership practices, the wrong management team, unclear values, etc… Just as with the business sector, the non-profit world is under increasing pressure to determine the new-normal and in turn, to build a sustainable foundation for the future. In the minds of many analysts, the rediscovery of the creative art of leading reflects the “new thing” needed to move organizations forward.

Checking-In: Leaders in this new environment report a heightened attention on their part to spending more time “hand-holding” key stakeholders, staff, and board persons. In such a destabilizing environment, one of the core functions facing leaders involves communication and engagement with these core constituencies. Helping people deal with confusion, offering input on possible outcomes and scenarios, and clarifying facts, all become essential tasks for organizational leaders. In dysfunctional work settings, one often hears about “performance malaise” where workers operate in an environment of “just getting by” or defining their current position as merely serving as a spring board for a future promotion. According to many management experts, one of the essential tasks of effective leadership involves its ability to read the depth of uncertainty and the levels of disconnect if they are to be effective and responsive to key audiences and to offer to those feeling most vulnerable a context for re-engagement. Rekindling the passion maybe one of leadership’s greatest challenges in the new-normal!

Dr, Steven Windmueller holds the Professor Alfred Gottschalk Chair in Jewish Communal Service and serves as the Dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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