Leadership in Crisis

As the COVID-19 pandemic grips us, nothing is more important than effective leadership. We need our leaders to not only guide us through this ever-evolving situation, but to define our mission and set a tone and standard for how we respond.

While there has been little time to reflect since this began, I have been thinking a lot about what makes a good leader and how to lead in a time like this. Here are my thoughts:

When you run a homeless services agency you get used to dealing with adversity. Because of the nature of who you are serving, crises are common.  People experiencing street homelessness are in crisis every day. As an emergency shelter provider, by definition, you serve people who, but for the cot or meal you can offer, would be on the street with no safe place to sleep and no food to eat.

I have worked in homeless services since 1998 – my whole career. My leadership style has been defined by this reality.

In some ways it is easy to lead when you are fighting for people in need.  When it is obvious that the human beings you serve need access to basic life-saving resources that many our society take for granted, a leader can have confidence and clarity that our work matters. When you can clearly see how opportunities like creating jobs and building housing can truly transform not only the lives of people you serve but improve the community as a whole, a leader can have a vision beyond crisis and will be fueled by the promise of long term impact.

Nevertheless, advocating for resources and creating innovative programs to house and employ a segment of the community – adults experiencing homelessness – who many have written off or are down-right discriminated against, requires grit and stamina.

Even in the best of times, when the constant course of obstacles appear, I often say to myself “Come on people – homelessness is not yet solved….We need to try every damn thing we can!” and I keep going.

As a leader there are a lot of intangibles in your job description. Establishing vision is one of them. Creating a team that can not only get the job done but embody the spirit of your vision is another. Setting the tone, the culture, the mood are daily practices yet no one really defines how to do this.

Most days I am winging it and going on instinct and experience. I am fortunate to have had terrific mentors and enough situational experience – successes and failures – to draw upon. Most importantly I am fortunate to have an incredible team – one with depth, diversity, character and commitment.

When a crisis like this hits you realize why all those intangibles really matter.

As I look at leading in the COVID crisis here are my observations –

Culture is everything

The culture of an organization is tested in crisis. When things get hard the way in which team members relate to each other, to clients and to the overall way they view their purpose matters. The essence behind why people come to work becomes the guiding star in crisis. When anxiety and stress kick in we turn to our muscle memory. When culture – the way in which you define your vision through every day choices and interactions – is strong in an organization, it will be the back bone that keeps the team focused and driven.

“Let’s get it done” has been adopted by Bridge House as a tag line but it is so much more – it is the mantra for our culture. There is fierce conviction behind this statement not only rooted in a core belief that homelessness is unacceptable and can be solved, but that each person experiencing homelessness has true potential. I am proud to say the Bridge House culture is not only guiding our crisis response, but allowing us to double down on our commitment.

Collaborating and delegating is essential

Delegating becomes a necessity in crisis. Delegating to team members should always be a priority but there is no choice when a swift response is needed. As a leader looking at a myriad of challenges – safety concerns, financial stress, program adaptations – it is abundantly clear no one person can execute alone. Therefore, a solid team is crucial. It is also critical that a leader be able to ask for help. With a strong team in place there is no apprehension for the leader to do so.

At Bridge House we have a deep bench. Our current team at Bridge House, Ready to Work, Community Table Kitchen and Path to Home is the strongest I have ever worked with over my 22 year career in homeless services. Our whole team, from the front lines to our Director level staff, has stepped up in enormous ways to fulfill their established roles. But, even more remarkably, I am finding that our team is able to adapt and support each other as seamless ecosystem. We are anticipating solutions – rather than reacting to obstacles – as we need to pivot and adapt in real time. I knew we had a strong team with superior skills, I did not anticipate that they could adapt as effectively as they have. I attribute this to our culture and values and, as the leader of the organization, I can say it is a huge comfort to be able to delegate without question.

Creativity is key

No crisis has a linear path. Every problem and every solution has 5-6 ramifications that are hard to predict. To be nimble is to survive.

Bridge House has always taken the stance to challenge the status quo with our solutions to homelessness. We have pushed the envelope and insisted on a creative angle for every effort we have tried. The results are usually good but even when our ideas fail the creativity and outside the box thinking we have applied always results in a stronger understanding of problems we are trying to solve. Therefore, with this crisis, we already have a problem-solving dynamic that allows for speed and flexibility which is greatly enhancing our ability to expand much needed services to the most vulnerable in the community.

Clear and consensus values are imperative

Well-defined and articulated values are a key ingredient to running every successful business or organization. Values must be more than a sign on the wall. They must not only guide strategy but be thread through every layer of operations. In crisis, collective buy in to these values makes decision making easy (well, easier) because there is no question about what the intent or outcome should be.

At Bridge House trust, integration and innovation are three of our most important values.  Trust is at the heart of our relationship with our clients, our colleagues and our community. Integrating people of all types, backgrounds and perspectives is part of our organizational fabric. Our approach to ending homelessness is to innovate and challenge the status quo – therefore, in this time of crisis, all of our priorities and decisions embody these values.

Thank you for taking the time to read through my thoughts. It has been a cathartic process to organize  and write them – well worth the time even in such a tumultuous, ever-changing world.

Stay safe and healthy.

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