Leadership in the Time of Doubt

05 May 2020

By Jeff Morrison, Executive Director of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association

CHRA is blessed to include so many renowned leaders within our membership. As leaders, there is no end to the challenges you face, and no end to the kinds of solutions that you need to develop. Navigating through difficult situations is a common challenge, especially when determining a path forward is not always clear-cut or obvious. As housing leaders, we are all used to getting creative and thinking “outside the box” to tackling the long list of challenges we all face.

But I think many of us would agree, the COVID-19 pandemic has been different. As the worst global pandemic in over a century, no one has any experience to fall back on, and there are few, if any, guides or playbooks to consult in this sort of situation. The pandemic has forced many of us to adopt leadership by trial and error; using intuition and adaptation rather than proven processes and approaches. My experience at CHRA has been no exception.

Although there have been countless articles and courses offered on crisis leadership, given the sheer scope and scale of the current pandemic, I wanted to share the lessons I have personally learned over the past couple of weeks in navigating an unprecedented health and economic crisis. I write this not only to share my experiences, but to empathize with those of you who may also face occasional self-doubt and uncertainty at a time when uncertainty is everywhere.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Every crisis management guide in the world talks about the importance of communication, and it’s there for a reason. Good communication is probably the most important thing a leader can do. Communicate with staff, communicate with your Board, communicate with tenants, communicate with stakeholders. Even if the communication is incomplete and you don’t have all the answers, the people you work with want to know that the ship is still sailing, and that you’re aware of the issues you’re facing, even if you don’t have all the answers. I’ve found good communication to be self-therapeutic; it forces you to collect your thoughts and identify information gaps.

It’s OK not to have all the answers. By their very nature, crises like the current pandemic results in a long list of questions for which we don’t, and often can’t, have all the answers. Leaders don’t control all the variables in situations that are beyond our individual control. Over the past seven weeks, I’ve had almost daily occasions where my answer to a problem has been “I don’t know”. That’s OK. So long as we acknowledge the gaps in information, and identify how and when information will become available, it’s all right to acknowledge that the right answer will not always be apparent.

– It’s OK to be tired. After almost eight weeks of the pandemic lockdown, with constant demands to refocus, redevelop plans, devise new strategies, and issue appropriate responses, I’m tired. Of course, leaders work long hours with constant pressure, so many of us are always tired. But this is different. Not only are we mentally drained, many of us are emotionally drained. Again, that’s OK. Make the time you need to rest, relax, and recharge – if you push yourself too hard during a difficult time, you can’t be of any help to anyone.

– Remember that we all deal with crises in our own way. During difficult times such as these when anxiety is high, it can be easy to lose our temper or be impatient. But it’s important to remember that crises affect everyone differently; your good day could well be someone else’s horrible day. Empathy and leadership go hand in hand – now, more than ever, show patience and understanding with others. It will be paid back in spades.

– Compliment and inspire. I’m fortunate to work in a sector that is filled with people who do an enormous amount of good. Recognizing the amazing work of colleagues is motivational; it personally reminds me of why we do what we do. Whether it’s a short tweet, an email, or some nice words said on a Zoom call, a compliment by a leader can make all the difference to teammates and peers; it raises their spirits and serves to inspire. And especially on days when you’re personally feeling run down, helping to make someone else’s day a little brighter helps you out just as much.

– Technology is your friend. As a Gen Xer, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been enamoured by workplace technology. I’ve always viewed Power Points, video calls, online functions, and so forth with suspicion and dread. But in a time like this, technology is proving its value. It’s enabling meetings, connections, and engagement, and facilitates decision making. If, like me, you’ve never had much occasion to learn the ins and outs of technological solutions, do it now – it’s a small investment of time with very positive returns.

– Laugh. A crisis is no laughing matter, certainly not a crisis like this that is leaving untold death and destruction in its wake. But if we are to focus solely on the negative, it would destroy us. Leaders can’t be effective if they’re suffering mentally, so take a moment to laugh and enjoy. Laugh at a joke, a silly online video, a mistake we’ve made – it can be anything, but just laugh.

During a crisis, it’s important for leaders to be honest, and for others to recognize that leaders are people too, subject to the same ups and downs that everyone faces. This blog won’t win any writing or research awards, but rather its purpose is to be honest and share with my peers some of the takeaways I’ve learned during this unique and unprecedented situation.