‘Learning while working’ through the COVID-fog

By Rick James

The profound uncertainty from the ramifications of COVID-19 is like leading in a fog. A leader’s competence will be judged by their ability to create sustainable new worlds for their organisations. Judgement and vision are key. Yet how can one prove oneself to be an able leader when you cannot show them a simple end goal? This will require leaders to engage in ‘learning while working’ according to David Nabarro from the World Health Organization. When navigating the unknown, leaders will need to learn to constantly take in new information and work with diverse sources of intelligence and expertise. We really have to look to learn from those closest to the reality on the ground.

NGOs have spoken for years about actively listening to the people we exist to serve. Sadly this has largely remained as easy rhetoric. We have rarely let it have a genuine impact on our programming and decision-making. Yet in the face of COVID, even the business sector is acknowledging that “addressing social inequalities by understanding the world from the perspective of those who are excluded will also be a distinguishing attribute for future leaders” (Hope-Hailey 2021).

  • How does your organisation really listen to those you exist to serve?
  • What one thing could you do differently to make it more active and meaningful?

Hazards to trust

By Rick James

The other week we looked at how trusted leaders responded in the first stage of COVID. But many places have now moved into a second stage, where the medical crisis is giving way to an economic crisis. What does this mean for leaders today?

This second stage places particular moral hazards for leaders to maintain trust from being seen as ‘benevolent’ (‘on my side’). Technology has enabled more contact between different levels of staff. On the whole, this has made leaders appear more accessible, humane and empathetic. But having broken down the barriers of formality, how then do both parties deal with uncomfortable conversations about redundancies? How will that exposure to the fragility of home lives play out when making difficult decisions? Will the ‘mutuality of sacrifice’ be sustained into this next stage? 

In addition, health issues may not end soon. There may be a backlog of trauma and stress from the last 18 months, particularly for any NGOs and churches working on the frontline. Many staff may be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted (and leaders too). To be seen as benevolent and therefore trusted, you may need to become champions of physical and mental health for your hybrid workforces. This was probably not on the list of core leadership competencies when you started your job!

How do you think your co-workers would assess whether you are not ‘on their side’?
What one thing could you do differently this week to show that you genuinely care?

Trust in the face of COVID

By Rick James

I’m a big fan of the work of Veronica Hope Hailey. In the last few months she’s published some ground-breaking research on trust in the face of COVID-19, which we will look at in the next couple of weeks. She found that in the first stage of COVID last year, even in midst the midst of restructuring, divestment and redundancy programs, high trust leaders still lived out the four key ingredients of trust:

Ability: They empowered employees and local managers.
Benevolence: They demonstrated care and support for employees both emotionally and practically.
Integrity: They communicated how they would navigate the crisis in a timely, open and respectful manner. They sought to demonstrate the sense of fairness that underpinned their difficult decisions.
Predictability: They built a bridge to the future in the minds of the workforces by showing employees that in the midst of disruption there was a continuity of values or purpose, sometimes calling upon their historical roots to show how they informed the future vision.

Take a moment to look back on the last year, how have you got on in these four areas?
As you look to the week ahead, what specific actions could you take to live out these four ingredients of trust?

Holding together

By Rick James

The couple of months since the last weekly thought have still been very strange. Perhaps we need to get used to things being ‘never normal’, rather than a new normal.

Here in the UK we felt very self-satisfied with our vaccination programme and related reduction in social distancing. But in most of the rest of the world this is not the case. We see distance and division increase, with red-listing countries; vaccination inequity and rising inequalities. We witness harrowing disasters across the world, whether natural or man-made in Ethiopia and Afghanistan. Listening to the news, I’m often reminded of the book title by Chinua Achebe ‘Things fall apart’.

Yet the Bible has a different narrative. It says that Jesus ‘is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Col 1:17). At times like this I have to shift my gaze. It helps me to meditate on this and apply this to my life today.

What does ‘in him all things hold together’ really mean in our fractured world?
What does it mean for the families, communities and organisations that I am a part of? 

Weekly Challenge – Leading out of COVID

Dear colleagues,

Instead of a weekly thought this week, we would like to set you a challenge. Over the next few weeks we wanted to showcase your own thoughts and experiences to the topic ‘Leading out of COVID’ (though we know many of us are still in the midst of it). Please do send your own responses to that question (however you interpret it). We’ll help you turn them into Weekly Thoughts that can be shared with this wider community…

Do send your responses to: Elaine Vitikainen elaine@ev-visuals.com

As ways to provoke your thinking you might consider questions like:

  • What have I learned about my leadership through this pandemic?
  • What do I hope to take with me and hold onto from this experience?
  • What does my leadership need to be like ‘post’-pandemic?
  • How would I reimagine my organisation to become fit for purpose in our radically changing world?

These are only questions to stimulate your thoughts, so don’t use them too prescriptively. They are not ones to structure your response around, unless you find that particularly helpful.

Cheers

Rick and Elaine

‘CARER’ Leadership in a pandemic

By Rick James

Leading during a pandemic is incredibly tough. People are worried and uncertain, so their brains are reacting neurologically to a high threat response. I find this acronym CARER (from Jon Pratlett) helpful in thinking about how we might lead:

Certainty – Strive to create certainty, wherever possible – even in minor ways. “When you give people any information at all, it activates the reward networks in the brain because the brain craves information. Any kind of ambiguity, on the flipside, creates a threat response.”  

Autonomy – At a time of uncertainty, try and offer unexpected autonomy and flexibility. Even giving people the option of choosing a time for their performance review might reduce some threat!

Relatedness (Belonging) – humans are social beings. So as leaders, “if we take a genuine interest in our people, in who they are, what’s going on at home, increases empathy and understanding and encourages effectiveness in spite of the virtual environment.”

Equity – At times of uncertainty, we need a sense of fairness in how we and others are treated. Some people will be more productive virtually, others will be less (those with home-schooling or caring responsibilities for example). Watch out for a ‘crisis of fairness’. 

Recognition – Working virtually we need recognition more than ever at the moment. We need to feel appreciated and listened to. Also when giving feedback remember that people are especially sensitive right now.

As you look to the week ahead, consider what one or two things you could do differently to increase CARER amongst the people you work with.

Become tech savvy

By Rick James

With virtual teams, you need technology to connect. So to lead well today you have to become very comfortable with technology. If you are too old for technology, then you may be too old to lead in a digital age. You don’t have to become a geek, but at least work closely with one! Consciously push yourself to learn more.

You will need to learn what technology works best and use it appropriately. Some great collaborative software exists, whether Miro, Mural, or Google Jamboards. But keep your virtual meetings short and sweet. There’s plenty of research that says that after 50-minutes our brains need a break for a few minutes (and not to catch up on emails!). Otherwise people’s productivity will fall and boredom will rise. 

It is also about using the right technology to set the tone. We have an excess of technology at our disposal. Different methods like email, phone, Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp, or Slack work better for different purposes. As Ecclesiastes would say, there’s a time and a place for each mode of communication, so chose carefully how you communicate.

This week, what new technology could you learn to enhance your leadership?

A future not our own

Last week was the anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Romero, shot in the Cathedral in San Salvador in 1980, while in the midst of preaching against violence and repression. I often return to this amazing poem written for his funeral. It is a good reminder at Easter of who we are and what our contribution is.

A FUTURE NOT OUR OWN

A prayer at the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision. 

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us. 

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything. 

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. 

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. 

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

He has overcome the world

By Rick James

2021 has started badly. As I write COVID-19 is ripping its way through Southern Africa for the first time. A very close friend has just died. Jesus’ words in John 16 “In this world you will have trouble… ” feels all too true. At hard times like this I know I have to allow Jesus to finish his sentence for me “… but take heart for I have overcome the world.”

Hope does not arise from things looking positive, nor wishful thinking, nor superficial optimism. Hope starts byacknowledging the deep pain, confusion and frustrations of the current realities. Yet it does not languish there. Hope discerns and then works towards a goal. Hope is a motivation to persevere towards that goal even when we are not sure of the outcome. Hope is a virtue, not a personality type. It is a mindset that helps us to stay in the game in the face of significant adversity. 

That mindset is based, not on circumstances, but on our faith in Jesus. Faith and hope (and love) are inextricably linked. It matters where we put our faith. 

If I really knew, deep down, that Jesus has overcome the world:

• What difference would this make to the way I see my week ahead?

• What would I do differently in the light of this knowledge?

Re-considering 2020 as ‘pure joy’? Seriously?

By Rick James

2020 has certainly been an awful year for many of us. How many times have I asked myself ‘When will we get out of this?’ or ‘How can I get out of this?’ Maybe these are the wrong questions. Perhaps I should be asking ‘What can I get out of 2020?’

I often wonder what those strange verses in James 1 mean. He exhorts us to:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,  because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything”.

I don’t think this means I have to consider the trials themselves as pure joy, but if they produce perseverance and maturity then perhaps what comes out of them is net gain. Dealing with any suffering takes perseverance, preferably with the support of others around us. We may realise we cannot solve this problem, we cannot fix things. For many of us this is tough to take. And our response is almost passive, allowing God to “Let perseverance finish its good work in you”.

2020 hold the possibility of being a profound turning point in many ways. It could prove a transformational time in our personal relationship with God, in our relationships with others and in our leadership. Our dashed hopes this year may reveal what we actually put our hope in. As our idols come into the light we may be better able to let them go. 2020 can lead us to an appreciation of life, restored relations with those around us, recognising personal strengths we did not know we had and realisation of new possibilities. Such post-traumatic growth can be considered as pure joy.

Looking back on 2020 reflect on:
What has God been trying to do in me in 2020?
What is 2020 revealing about you? What idols or attachments have come into light?
What has God been trying to do through me?