An op-ed from NOD President Carol Glazer
When stepping into the role of a new manager or leader of an organization, there is always a big learning curve.
With that in mind, I want to pass along the thoughts of someone who assumed her first leadership role at age 55. That’s pretty late in a career to learn about leadership. Some of the lessons I picked up were painful because I learned them the hard way—by making mistakes and then picking myself up afterwards. Doing things wrong before I figured out how to do them right.
Let’s start with the most important challenges facing leaders today, whether in the for-profit or social sector. (My experience comes from the latter.)
We as leaders need to recognize that in many respects, America is hurting.
In these difficult times it’s easy to feel discouraged. Disappointment, anger and disenchantment are understandable — in some cases reasonable — responses to the challenges we face.
Whether it’s the aftermath of COVID, economic uncertainty, civil unrest, a heightened sense of inequality in our society, we and our colleagues are experiencing trauma.
Today, a third of all workers will face mental health issues, double the number pre-pandemic.
Add to that the fact that 45% of people under age 40 have a negative view of democracy and capitalism.
What does all this mean for us as leaders? Quite simply, our people need us more than ever. And our empathy has never been more important.
We have to tell our staff that it’s OK to not be OK. We have to think about resilience, the capacity to sustain the blows that come with the daily experience of trauma. We have to approach our work with empathy, generosity, hope and love.
That’s right, I’m talking about leadership qualities that include hope and love. These are two small words that have enormous implications: for our businesses, our communities and our future. This is a big lesson I have learned.
We tend to take hope for granted. We hope our favorite team will win the game. We hope for great vacation weather. We hope we get a great deal when we buy a new car.
But hope is an important steppingstone to resilience, and researchers have found that hope is associated with all kinds of positive outcomes.
Having hope in the face of adversity encourages more engagement in life and problem solving. It’s not a passive feeling but an active ingredient in our wellbeing and the way we interact with the world.
I have spent most of my career trying to build a more just society that includes and values all of us. Most recently I’ve been trying to make the world a better place for the one in four Americans that is disabled.
We are shattering fears, misconceptions and lowered expectations of people with disabilities.
In my youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with a strong sense that if we worked at it, we could create massive political and social change, my generation of activists won huge gains for women’s rights, civil rights, voting rights and ending a war we didn’t believe in.
We were strong, we were unified and we were resilient—filled with hope and optimism. We learned from history that the greatest threat we face is not extreme inequities, nor bitter political divisions, nor an environmental crisis, nor the results of any one election. We understood that according to Darren Walker, one of my heroes and president of the Ford Foundation, “hope is the oxygen that fuels our democracy.”
We know that democracy requires work and when hope leaves, a democratic society will atrophy.
And then there’s love.
My generation of activists also believed in adherence to a common creed that all of us are created equal. Insistence on the God-given dignity of every human being. A belief that we are all part of a unified movement to make a more compassionate, kind, just and gentle world.
We believed in the value of love and caring for our fellow humans. We showed one another empathy and compassion. We valued personal sacrifice, and we valued one another, in common cause.
A quote comes to mind from another one of my heroes, Bobby Kennedy, as he addressed a crowd on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. He said, quoting the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Kennedy then delivered one of his best-remembered remarks: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country.”
They make me consider how things have changed in our workplaces. When I was moving up in the business world, being a good leader meant being competitive, tough as nails and not letting down your guard around co-workers.
But those days are over. Those leadership values are no longer relevant, dog eat dog has been replaced by empathy. In my personal experience, leading with empathy has made my organization not only more resilient and collaborative, but more productive.
But our powers for hope, love and empathy are constantly being tested. We as leaders must affirm the conviction that love will conquer hate and hope will conquer fear. And as change agents, we must remember that progress is not measured by a straight line. Incremental steps are important and praiseworthy. That’s what makes a good leader.