Leading in High Pressure and in High Risk

Leading in High Pressure and in High Risk

Leading in High Pressure and in High Risk 1350 900 Brook Thorndycraft

Fear is a powerful emotion. Unmitigated, it can change our judgement and decisions to be less aligned with our values and priorities. Right now I am being approached by a lot of organizations that are facing tremendous pressure about what is happening in Palestine. And a lot of the action or inaction is coming from fear rather than alignment with their purpose. If you are feeling frozen, like many of my clients, about how to respond to this or other high pressure contexts, here are some questions and suggestions that might help you find your way. 

First, get clarity about your purpose

It may help to reconnect with your purpose as an organization. What is it that you do and why is that important to you? Spend some time with this question. This goes beyond reading the mission and values that you include in your strategic plan, to try to really feel it. Why do you do the work you do? Why do you care about it? Who else cares about it? Why is that important? 

Questions to ask about the pressure you are facing, as it relates to your purpose

Sometimes there is something so important that it is worth making a choice or decision that is not obviously directly supportive of  your purpose, but is aligned with the answers you arrived at to the questions earlier in this article. Often this  can have major consequences, so make sure you are making decisions with intention. Here are some questions to ask:

  • How does each option considered align, or not align with our purpose? 
  • How does our organizational purpose align in this moment with what our ethics are telling us we should do? 
  • If we end up making a decision that doesn’t obviously directly support our purpose, what kinds of risks might we face, and how can we mitigate them?
  • If we end up making a decision that is outside of the purpose of our organization or even could be seen as hurting it, how would we explain that to ourselves and our stakeholders? Who would need to be onboard with that decision? What would be the potential consequences and how would we deal with them? 

Who are you responsible to?

In moments of intense polarization, it is important to accept that there is no decision you can make that will please everyone, and there will be people who are upset by your decision. While this can be stressful, you can make sure that you are considering the people and stakeholders that you are most responsible to. 

This is connected to your purpose. The people you are responsible to includes the people who work for the organization, people you serve, and any other stakeholders or people who really care about your purpose. 

I would argue that the people who work for the organization are the first responsibility to consider, for three reasons. First, there are the legal and ethical responsibilities, as an employer, to create a healthy and safe workplace. Second, the people who work in the organization are the ones who are most likely to face any negative reactions to choices you make. Third, these moments can have a hugely negative impact on your culture, and it is important to think carefully about how you can buffer against some of that impact. Healthy culture can be hard to create and easy to lose.  

Of course people who access your services, stakeholders and people who care about your purpose also need to be considered. This comes back directly to reflecting on your purpose. Why do you exist? Why do people care? For organizations that serve people directly, there is also a huge responsibility to the people relying on those services.

Questions to ask about the pressure you are facing as it relates to people you are responsible to

Here are some questions to consider:

  • How might each option we are considering impact the people who work here? Is there anyone who is likely to be directly impacted by any backlash from any option? How might we mitigate any negative impacts?
  • How do people who work here feel about the decisions the organization is weighing? How can we know how people are feeling if many are staying silent? 
  • What support can we offer anyone on our team who is upset or negatively impacted by our decision? 
  • How might each option we are considering impact the people who access our services or our ability to deliver those services?
  • How might each option impact our stakeholders? 
  • How will we address any concerns or upset from service users or stakeholders?
  • What is our responsibility to the larger community, the particular issue we are making a decision about, etc? Go back to your purpose if you feel lost on this one. 
  • What information do we need to provide (internally and externally) to make sure people understand the thought that has gone into our decision?

What if the fear is still there?

Hopefully when you have considered these questions, it will become clearer what decision would feel aligned (enough) with your purpose and the people you are responsible to. 

But as with most decisions, there is no way to please everyone. I guarantee there will be people unhappy with you no matter what you do. 

In some situations that can feel threatening, and it is very easy to get frozen in fear, or waffle back and forth, even after you have done the hard work of aligning with your purpose. 

Being a leader can be scary

Knowing what you should do as an organization does not necessarily make it easier for the person or people who have to ultimately hold the responsibility for it.

While you may know it is important for you to step into your leadership role and take care of the organization, you are still a person. People internally and externally may be angry with you personally. There may be consequences with major stakeholders, even threats to your job or relationships. 

Sometimes your personal values don’t feel aligned with the decisions you know you need to make as the leader of an organization. It is very hard to act when we know we will be held responsible for something we don’t totally believe in (more on this later).

So even after you have gotten through the organizational fear, there is still the hurdle of your own personal feelings to get through. 

Here are some ways to support yourself in the face of fear

Connect with people who support and inspire you as a leader

Sometimes when the fear is big, it’s hard to separate our personal needs from the role of leader. In these moments, I find it very helpful to connect with mentors or other support people who understand the challenges of leadership, and who support me to gently challenge myself to be brave. Is there someone in your life who you could talk with who would support the need to step into the role of leader, while also empathizing with your fear and reservations? If you aren’t sure who that might be, this is support that a therapist or coach or spiritual guide is often able to provide.

Or maybe there is someone who is particularly inspiring to you in their ability to lead in crisis. How can you connect to their experience? Have they written about it? Can you talk with them? If it is a well-known historical figure, there might be movies, biographies or other recordings. How did they get through the fear? What can you learn from their experience?

Make an accurate assessment of the risks

The risks of stepping into leadership in these moments can be real, but they are usually not as big as we think they are. It can be very helpful to clarify for yourself what real risks you might be facing, and how might your aversion to risk be amplifying the sense of risk. 

How can you assess what is a real risk, how likely it is, how bad it would be if it happened, and what is just your fear telling you there is a risk? 

You can start by asking yourself some questions. If you are concerned the fear will make these questions hard to answer realistically, it can be helpful to do this in conversation with someone who is a bit more removed from the situation.

Questions might include:

  • If I try to put the voice of fear aside for a moment, what would be the worst thing that would realistically happen to me if I take responsibility for this decision? 
  • How likely is the worst case scenario?
  • If the worst case scenario is not that likely, what is more likely to actually happen?
  • What would be the most likely impact on me, my loved ones, my organization, my team, or anyone else if that worst case scenario happened?
  • What would be the most likely impact on me, my loved ones, my organization, my team, or anyone else if the more likely scenario happened?
  • How might I be able to address or mitigate some of those impacts of either scenario? 
  • What would be the worst thing that would realistically happen if I don’t take responsibility for this decision? 
  • What resources (internal or external) do I have that could offer me support to make this choice? 

Take care of the fear

And yet after all of this reflection and connecting with yourself and people who care about you, sometimes it still comes down to how scary it can be to take a risk. 

Sometimes, if I have done a risk assessment and the level of risk seems manageable, but I am still afraid to take action, then I know it is time to take care of my fear. 

This might be a great moment to seek wise counsel or care from one of the people who really supports you. It’s ok to ask for help to soothe the fear. 

You may also be able to give yourself wise counsel. I try to really hear and understand what the fear is telling me. I listen with empathy and support for the part of me that is afraid. I might acknowledge that the fear is just trying to protect me, and express appreciation for that care. I may also gently explain to the part of me that is afraid that it is ok. “I have looked at the risk, and it’s not going to be as bad as you are afraid of. Here are the things we can do to take care of ourselves, and here are the ways it will feel so much better to have done the right thing.”

But what if I am deeply opposed to the decision that best aligns with the organization’s purpose? 

Sometimes we know what we need to do in our role as a leader to be aligned with our purpose and the people we are responsible to, but on a personal level, as an individual, it feels totally misaligned with our values. 

These are the hardest situations. Not only do we have to get through the fear, but it feels deeply wrong. In these moments we may need to ask ourselves hard questions. Am I the right person to be leading this organization right now? Do I care enough about what we do to be able to accept being out of alignment with myself? Is it time for me to make a change, either for my own wellbeing or the wellbeing of the organization? 

Of course not everyone has the privilege of leaving their job for something more aligned. For many people, there might not be that many workplaces that feel truly in sync with our values. 

In the case that there is nowhere better to go, or that you care enough about the purpose of the organization to be able to live with some misalignment, then comes the hard work of differentiation and compartmentalization. Sometimes when we are in demanding leadership roles, it is easy to over-identify with work, and that is when the misalignment between what you feel is right and what you have to do to lead the organization can be devastating.  

But you as a person are not your role. People will always see you and judge you based on your role, but you can build your own sense of who you are outside of that. You have your own values and beliefs that have nothing to do with your organization. You have family and friends and community who care about you aside from your role at work. This can be a balm in these moments. Let yourself deepen your sense of who you are as a person outside of your work role.

Courage means taking action even when there is fear

And finally, the reality is that courage is not the absence of fear. It is about making hard choices even though we are afraid. All of these practices I have shared are ways to build your emotional agility to be able to feel the discomfort of fear and still step into your role. 

These are some of the hardest moments as a leader, and some of the most important.