Pressing reset to focus on people

June 1, 2020 - 12:00am -- Living City

Pressing reset to focus on people
What we’re learning about leadership in times of the Covid-19 crisis

By Jim Funk

How do we all go through a crisis

as disruptive as a pandemic and into a new and better future?

This question needs to be asked by each one of us on a personal level and in relationship to our family, workplace and communities; just as importantly, it must be asked on the collective level of local through national government.

While not the only style of leadership, the model I’d like to offer for our reflection is called “holistic leadership.” Especially in difficult times, here are three best practices of effective leaders that truly help:

  1. Stay informed and communicate with your people frequently and transparently.
  2. Act with competence and empathy for people in your care; seek to know what they are going through and what they need.
  3. Know what you want to happen and consider how people will be affected after the crisis.

Although these are not the only practices needed, holistic leaders know how important it is to focus on people. How do leaders develop this focus and perform these practices well? In too many leadership models and programs, traditional leadership competence has been about behavior — what the leader is capable of doing.

That approach describes desired actions and possible desired outcomes, but it overlooks the character traits and capabilities that are crucial for guiding those actions. A more complete model of leadership competence goes beyond actions to describe who the leader is as a person, which is what gives the leader a focus on people and how they are impacted.

What is holistic leadership?

Holistic leaders know how to integrate their character and values into their leadership. They bring their whole selves to their leadership role — body, mind and spirit. Thus, they also see those they lead as whole persons, not just skillsets to fill a job. They understand their team members’ needs and respect them as people. This awareness informs the way they lead, both in normal times and through crises. Their leadership is truly person-centered.

During the current pandemic there have been various noteworthy examples of person-centered responses on different levels and from varied venues. Here are some I personally encountered or have noted: 

1. In a Zoom meeting of a global consultancy, Consulus, which I attended with my colleagues, I was particularly struck by comments made by Carlos Xavier, country director for Brazil. His thoughts reflected a true concern for people during the present crisis, and the idea of becoming a better version of oneself by serving others.

“We know that we are all interconnected and interdependent. The spread of coronavirus makes this even more evident. When something invisible to human eyes becomes so threatening, it may be time to reflect on what is visible and needs to be valued. The needs of the people around us are perfectly visible, but we often prefer to ignore them. The pain of the other can be perceived without microscopes, but we don’t want to feel it or help to alleviate it.

“Yet if we try to find solutions, perhaps the ‘virus’ of goodness, of unity, can contaminate and infect us, to make us become better than we are today.”

2. An environmental consulting firm located in Indianapolis, Mundell & Associates, made the decision to give its cleaning staff a month’s salary in advance, while the building was temporarily closed due to the pandemic. They were told not to worry about cleaning the building, just to take care of themselves. Mundell also provided financial help to churches in their neighborhood whose resources to help the poor in their communities were dwindling.

3. Across the globe in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced in a news conference: “We acknowledge New Zealanders who are reliant on wage subsidies, are taking pay cuts, and losing their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 global pandemic. Today, I can confirm that I myself and government ministers and public service chief executives will take a 20% pay cut for the next six months.” She knew that every available resource to help others counts, and she wanted to demonstrate that through her leadership, as well as show solidarity to those whose income is disrupted during this time.

Balancing economic issues with human life and safety

How does a country, state or community decide when businesses, organizations and facilities should re-open? If done prematurely, re-opening will increase personal contact and potentially subject more people — including those more vulnerable — to contracting the virus.

Holistic leaders don’t think of this question solely in terms of a cost-benefit financial analysis; nor are they so rigid to say that the economy should remain closed in all 50 states until every trace of the virus is gone. Rather, they consider the impact on people given the various scenarios that could play out.

Human life is to be protected as much as possible, while consideration must be given to the flourishing of people in terms of their financial needs. People must be able to maintain their health, eat, take care of others who may be sick and pay housing and other costs.

That is where the holistic leadership characteristic of “balance” and “risk management” comes into play. We should be able to consider all the relevant scientific data, discern prayerfully and thoughtfully, consult experts as needed and make a decision that promotes human life and the common good.

What about the future?

A crisis is by definition an opportunity, not only a problem to be solved. Today we have the unique situation of a giant “pause” in the world. Many activities are cancelled, certain non-essential work is put aside, and priorities have shifted toward the care of others.

The key question to consider in this space of pause is: when we push the reset button, what do we want our world and our future to be like? What changes do we need to make to help ensure that that future becomes a reality?

I invite you to consider the following reflection questions based on Catholic social teaching:

1. Has the world failed to respect the dignity of human persons? How can we restore authentic respect for the dignity and life of all human beings?

2. Has the common good been put aside for more immediate financial gain? Where and how should that be realigned?

3. Are there inequities in people’s lives which either harm or withhold the flourishing of each individual and community? How can we address them?

4. Have we rashly spoken about and treated people with different world views, political affiliations and religious beliefs in ways that have divided people against one another? How can we better collaborate and involve people with different perspectives and from all walks of life in policy decision-making?

5. Do we waste time on things that don’t really matter? How could we realign our priorities to be more purpose-driven, willing to improve ourselves and help bring people together?

These are very theoretical questions, and we may feel that there is little we can do to tackle issues that loom so large. So, here is the more challenging reflection question:

What will I do in the role I have at work, or what activities could I engage in within my family and community, to generate the “reset” that I envision? What two or three things will I commit to do differently, do more of or do less of when things get back to normal?

Spending some of your time during this giant pause reflecting on these questions will pay dividends for yourself and for those within your sphere of influence. As a result, you can help create a more united world, one in which people and communities will truly flourish.

- Jim Funk is currently a member of the Economy of Communion North American Association Commission. He is Global Head of Leadership Transformation at Consulus, and its Global Chairman.

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