June 17, 2020
Our world is currently at a crossroads of crises with the COVID-19 pandemic and the struggle for racial justice. These two crises are interrelated: both are a public health crisis, and both disproportionately impact communities of color.
Our webinar featured prominent leaders from the public and private sectors who have led organizations, initiatives, campaigns, programs and investigations during critical times of global and national crisis, including the Boston Marathon Bombing investigation, Hurricane Sandy, the H1N1 pandemic, the BP oil spill, racial injustice protests and the response to them, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
We were joined by:
- Sheena Wright, president & CEO of United Way of New York City, who launched the COVID-19 Community Fund with support from the NFL and Starbucks
- Edward Davis, founder and CEO of The Edward Davis Company and former police commissioner of the Boston Police Department, who led the Boston Marathon bombing investigation and has worked with major corporations and Massachusetts state agencies to reopen the state following COVID-19 shutdowns
- Juliette Kayyem, professor and faculty chair of Homeland Security and Global Health Projects at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, who worked on the H1N1 pandemic and the BP oil spill in the Gulf
- Richard Serino, former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), former chief of Boston EMS and distinguished senior fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative
- Lamell McMorris, founder and CEO of Phase2 Consulting, current board member of the National Action Network and the National Urban League, former executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King III, who recently advised Verizon on their $10 million gift to prominent civil rights organizations
Our panelists discussed how to move beyond words into actions and shared the following insights into what it takes to be an efficient, effective and respected leader during times of crises.
Learn to Delegate and Lead with Honesty, Empathy and Agility
No one leader is going to have all the answers. Great leaders ask a lot of questions, ask people to jump in and work to find the best information from the best sources. They also understand the importance, especially in this moment in time, of honesty and authenticity in sharing what they do and don’t know. Leaders must also be agile, because we can’t ever know what the future is going to bring. Being too rigid will prevent leaders from being able to adapt, to turn on a dime, to cut through bureaucracy and make good decisions on valid data as the situation evolves.
Great leaders must also acknowledge the losses and subsequent challenges that their community and their teams face. Almost every other day, video footage surfaces of an unarmed Black person being killed by the police. We’re facing mounting trauma and stress from the pandemic. Leaders must honor and acknowledge the pain in their communities.
Successful communications amid these crisis conditions hinge on the ability to clearly and succinctly summarize the way a response is to be operationalized. Audiences need to know what each next step looks like. Agility is key here as well – it means pivoting to ensure efficient communication regardless of the circumstance, as we’ve seen good leaders do during the COVID-19 pandemic by taking their communications virtual. How we translate the technical side of our response is what generates hope.
For corporate America, the easy reaction to crises is often to throw money at the problem, but this watershed moment requires more. There are things that need to be done which don’t involve money and resources. One way for corporate America to move the needle is to look inwards at their company’s implicit biases in hiring and staffing practices. There are definitely people within these organizations who deserve the opportunity to step up. Until we look internally, we can’t fix anything externally.
Engage the Corporate, Nonprofit and Government Community
The challenges that are and have been negatively impacting our communities for generations are all interconnected. This means that there isn’t one agency or nonprofit that has a silver bullet to solve a particular issue; there are deep injustices that need to be tackled. Solving these systematic and global issues requires a coordinated effort by a collective network of government agencies, nonprofits and corporations. By creating this network and establishing a level of accountability and connectivity, leaders can accelerate change together.
Listen to Your Community
Great leaders invite those who would historically be left out of high-level conversations to the table. They engage people from their community that are stepping up, taking initiative and dispelling myths, regardless of their background. When we bring different folks together, they offer different ways to look at problems and new ways to find solutions. This is how we create true vision, by speaking, thinking, planning and communicating broadly to reach and engage everyone.
When we listen to and engage with our community, we create the opportunity for hope. By listening to what the community has to say and working together to develop clear direction, we can bring everyone together around that vision. Offering expertise, conceding with humility about what we don’t know, and openly discussing what we can do and what our community can do. A great leader empowers others, showing them that they too have the capacity to be a hero.
Look to Great Leaders Before You
Draw inspiration from those who have led well through crises before. For example, Former Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick deftly handled the Boston Marathon bombing by letting the professionals do their job while staying level and calm during a heightened situation. London Breed, the Mayor of San Francisco, was early to respond to the threat of coronavirus because she listened to members of her community who were better informed about the potential of an outbreak. Melvin Carter, the Mayor of St. Paul, and Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Mayor of Atlanta, have also served their cities well during the COVID-19 pandemic by being logical and concise in their communications. And finally, Governor Cuomo of New York has shown great leadership, transparency, empathy and effective communication and authenticity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stretch Outside Your Comfort Zone
Most importantly, we must remember that when we stretch ourselves outside our comfort zone, step up and lean into the most pressing issues, we can take our words and turn them into actions, making lasting change for our community.