You’ve (probably) got this

There’s a real-time reckoning of how governments have performed against the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even leaders who have gotten a temporary rally-around-the-leader approval boost are getting scrutinized (and rightly so). This should escalate with the tense and unimaginably complex decisions they have ahead of them – about opening up, about tamping down outbreaks, about dealing with systemic issues, about coping with the economic implications.

And that kind of assessment is coming for the rest of us, even if we’ve avoided it so far. That includes not-for-profit and association leadership – who got things (mostly) right, who got things (somewhat) wrong? All your stakeholders – members, sponsors, partners, collaborators – are watching you (when they aren’t worried about themselves).

Which probably seems pretty scary sometimes.

How can we get it right?

The sense that there are going to be wrong answers makes decision-making daunting for the leadership, at the best of times. The prospect of being held accountable under these circumstances would understandably send a lot of senior leaders diving under the duvet. No matter what they do, there will be critiques after the fact. So what we need to talk about right now is: what does a good decision look like in a pandemic?

The answer is, of course, it looks like it does any other time. Even if that’s harder to see through the intensity and bleary-eyed fatigue.

Which is:

  • You start with the vision and mission and values. Those are your north star.
  • You try to find some way to consider what people not in the (virtual) room might think, or want, or value. At least consider other perspectives, but actually go get some if you can.
  • … however, when time is of the essence and resources are in short supply, you work with the data and information you have. You think critically about it, you recognize its shortcomings. And you understand that in the end you will have to use interpretation and judgement. We never make decisions with perfect information. That struggle is particularly acute right now, but it’s always there.
  • Have a good decision-making conversation, regardless of the technology you choose to use to do it virtually. Entertain doubts. Listen to nay-sayers. Don’t assume the loudest person in the room is right. Don’t let silence = consent.

Still have to know what “right” is…

Decision-makers can’t be assessed on some impossible yardstick of perfection. The assessment of leadership is that you made a decision through a reasonable process, reaching a conclusion that is defensible given what you knew at the time, taking the appropriate things into account. In the middle of an ongoing crisis, it would be great to feel like you had a crystal ball, but it’s just not standard-issue equipment. But it’s important to remember that being right in hindsight is an aspirational goal, not a hard measure.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still set metrics:

  • What are you expecting will happen? Test some predictions.
  • What do you need? Have a bead on what’s absolutely critical.
  • What external or internal factors are, for you, like the oil gauge in a car? (Remember driving?) Keep an eye on them to see if something is going wrong, not right.

…and you’ve got to be kind

(Or so says Kurt Vonnegut.) And I’d agree. I’d suggest a bit of radical empathy. Maybe, at a time like this, in all the roles we play, we can try to:

  • Recognize that decisions are being made – by others as well as ourselves – quickly, and without a very clear roadmap of the future
  • Actually say out loud that decisions are hard, that leadership is tough, especially now. Start out a board or executive committee or management meeting thanking everyone for their work.
  • Note the signs in ourselves of decision fatigue and do what we can to pace ourselves.

If you’d like to discuss how I can help you think all of this through, including a no-charge consultation conversation, please get in touch.

Photo by Steven Wright on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.