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January 20, 2022
Coronavirus Means Nonprofit Leaders Need to Be Flexible
By Claudia Lach

Claudia Lach
Claudia Lach
Adaptive leadership will be key in determining how nonprofits get through the coronavirus crisis – to deliver the best possible outcomes for their organizations, clients, and communities in the short term and shape their ability to thrive in the long term.

Many nonprofit leaders already have had to make critical decisions – to ensure the safety of clients and employees, to cancel important events that have been in the works for many months, to disrupt operations that keep their nonprofits functioning smoothly day-to-day.

An emerging consensus among public health experts suggests the coronavirus crisis will last for weeks, and likely months. Nonprofit leaders may find the following suggestions useful.

Adopt a Combination of Leadership Styles

The complexity of this situation requires adaptability and decisiveness. There is a lot of pressure to get enough information and make decisions in a timely manner. Simultaneously, leaders need to be empathetic with the stress and anxiety people may feel.

Although directive leaders, those who rely on issuing directives, may not be the most successful in the long run, this leadership style can be very effective in a moment of crisis when people need precise commands and when non-compliance can result in serious problems.

At the same time, a more visionary style may help. Visionary leaders engage people to follow them because vision can provide clear information and direction. This style also exhibits self-confidence and empathy.

A third style that can prove very useful is the affiliative style of leadership, which puts people first. Employees want to feel that they matter and that their safety is important. The nature of this pandemic hits a primal response. The affiliative leader is empathetic in a way that resonates at the personal level.

Remain Flexible

Flexibility—the ability to alter direction in light of new information—is a valuable trait, but poses challenges. Employees and others ordinarily find it disconcerting when organizational leaders rapidly change policy, as it shifts the ground under them, leading them to question how they themselves should act. It's vital therefore for leaders in a crisis to convey that things can, and likely will, change. Leaders can allay potential confusion by emphasizing that everyone in the organization needs to row in the same direction, but that the cross currents of the crisis will likely cause direction to change.

Covid-19, the disease caused by a new virus, is by definition novel, which means there is no previous learning experience on which to base decisions. This requires leaders to be flexible and adaptable to the new environment, prioritizing safety concerns and the organization’s well-being.

As importantly, effective leadership during a crisis includes empowering others to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Working outside the usual ways of acting can significantly and positively enable organizations to respond to novel situations while remaining true to their mission.

Keep Communicating

In times of uncertainty, people need transparent, honest, and timely information. It is the leader's role to ensure a constant flow of clear information as events unfold. Leaders need to immediately communicate with staff when decisions are made, especially if they impact their work responsibilities; that can alleviate a sense of uncertainty.

Few things will undermine the credibility of leaders more than inadequate, inaccurate, or lack of timely communication. Long after the crisis has passed, leaders will be remembered and judged by how well they informed, reassured, and supported their key constituencies.

Pay Attention to Relationships

Nonprofit leaders need to be constantly attentive to critical allies: board members, funders, and opinion leaders. During an existential crisis—and the coronavirus may threaten the continued existence of any number of nonprofits—organizational leaders will have their hands full with day-to-day operations. Still, they should periodically update their boards, primary benefactors and funders, and others who influence the organization on what is happening and how the nonprofit is responding.

If, for example, funding streams could be threatened by the coronavirus crisis, especially as public leaders impose conditions over which the nonprofit has no control, it's best to advise key people about this potentiality #147; and how the organization might need to respond. Then, if the threat does emerge, leaders can focus on implementing their Plan B instead of bringing allies up to speed.

Take Care of Yourself

A crisis tests leaders’ emotional intelligence qualities. How they manage their own stress and emotions. How they adapt to the new environment and new obstacles and respond to them. How they take initiative to overcome challenges. How they relate to others. How effective they are at leading people in a new direction.

To keep everything in tune, leaders need to take care of themselves. As the airlines advise, put your own oxygen mask first and then help others. Don't check emails, social media, or the news before going to sleep. Get enough sleep. Maintain a balanced diet. Get exercise. Make time to do things just for yourself.

Claudia Lach, principal of Lach Training & Consulting, an organizational development consultant and leadership coach, works with leaders, teams, and organizations to reach their next stage with clarity and commitment. Email her at or call 781-860-9782.
March 2020
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