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The Hardest Leadership Decisions You’ve Ever Faced

This month, we’ll steer clear of high-minded theory and get right to practical advice for social-sector leaders trying to captain ships through the dark, stormy seas of this pandemic. We’re by no means leadership experts. But Mario is a longtime student of crisis leadership and has been forced to navigate—as a CEO, director, advisor, investor, and donor—through many different periods of turmoil. Sometimes he was successful. Sometimes he screwed up. Here’s what he learned from both.

Lesson 1: Lead with Passion for Mission.

You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to pretend you’re fearless. But you do have to show in every way that you care deeply about the people you serve and won’t let them down. Several governors have been offering daily master classes in this kind of fire-in-the-belly leadership, including Mike DeWine and Andrew Cuomo. Like all the heroes of classic crisis-leadership studies (e.g., Ernest Shackleton, Golda Meir, Frederick Douglass), these governors have made decisions that will get second-guessed with 20/20 hindsight, but history will look very kindly on the ways they brought forth their whole selves—brains, heart, and soul—and rallied those around them. The young people who will probably get labeled Gen C are getting big doses of these role models, and that gives us hope for the future of public service.

Lesson 2: Come Together Around Purpose.

Help your colleagues connect their individual roles with the mission of the organization. Mario is seeing this first-hand at the Cleveland Clinic, which he serves as a director. Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic, the Cleveland Clinic’s CEO, has been true to mission in marshaling all the Clinic’s resources to fight the crisis. He leads by example, keeps stakeholders informed, and supports Clinic caregivers—nurses and doctors on the front lines as well as those working behind the scenes to build out more beds, secure personal protective equipment, and support those distributing masks throughout the community. A related example comes from New York’s Montefiore Hospital, the subject of an outstanding profile by CBS News. Are the caregivers scared? Of course. But being on the frontlines is their calling, and saving lives is their reward. How can you come together or rally around this same connection to purpose in your work?

Lesson 3: Be Clear About People’s Jobs.

During a crisis, every single word you share with your teams will be interpreted through the filter of “What does that mean for me? Am I safe?” So skip the “corporate speak.” Be human, open, and honest. If you aren’t, people will see right through you. If you’re in the fortunate position to be able to reassure your staff that their positions and compensation are safe, tell them. If you’re not, don’t leave people twisting in the wind. You owe them as much time as possible to prepare and plan. If you’re cutting pay, imposing unpaid leave, or paring benefits, let them know how long these measures will last. If you’re laying folks off, do it with respect for those affected, help them transition, and do all the layoffs at the same time. And keep in mind that all those who are left are watching how you handle this.

Lesson 4: Survival > Strategy.

In times as serious as these, cut out any fancy stuff and suspend long-range thinking—at least until some certainty returns. Focus on the here and now. And don’t delay making difficult decisions, such as which services to cut back—like hospitals had to do when they suspended all non-essential procedures and surgeries, which for larger health centers resulted in losses of millions of dollars a day. Make sure you have the resources you need, and if you don’t have them, do what it takes to find them. (That’s another way to show your staff members you have their backs.) Make calls on which operating and capital expenses to hold, defer, or cut. Most of all, home in on your most valuable players, the ones you know will persevere, adapt, and find solutions and workarounds to problems you didn’t know you would ever have. And ensure they fully embrace the your “here and now, get it done” mindset to fight the crisis head on.

After the software company Mario helped build merged with another company, the new board brought in a seasoned CEO to run the enterprise, and Mario played a supporting role. About six months in, a key business unit was in trouble, and Mario offered to return to an operating role to help turn the unit around. The CEO was surprised but said, “Why not?” About a month in, a longtime colleague asked Mario, “What the hell happened to all your strategic thinking?!” He responded, “This boat’s sinking. We have to batten down the hatches and plug the holes. Once we stop taking on water and are safely floating again, we can worry about where we’re going and how we’ll get there!”

Lesson 5: Adapt in Real Time.

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During normal times, great leaders focus on improving customer experience, quality, and cost-effectiveness, while fostering learning and continuous improvement. During a crisis, innovation and adaptation go real time. We’ve been following countless news stories about the many ways in which caregivers have been creative, real-time problem solvers during this crisis. At the Cleveland Clinic, doctors came up with a way for a ventilator meant for one patient to be shared by two patients, effectively doubling ventilator capacity. In a different health system, a caregiver fabricated a plastic box that gave much-needed protection to anyone intubating a sick patient. Another discovered that “proning,” the simple practice of turning patients flat on their stomachs, would improve patients’ respiration by getting more oxygen into their blood. How are you empowering such thoughtful triage? Are you giving staff the opportunity and support to be more adaptive and responsive, while still being safe and reliable?

We have so much admiration and empathy for those of you facing the toughest leadership decisions of your lives. We know the uncertainties feel overwhelming at times. We know you’re losing sleep. Hang in there. With courage and humanity, we’ll get through this!


With empathy for the extreme challenges of crisis leadership,

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell


Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap Ambassadors Community.


Updates From Around the Leap Community

In “A transformative moment for philanthropy,” McKinsey’s Tracy Nowski, Maisie O’Flanagan, and Lynn Taliento provide concise guidance for maintaining the positive momentum that resulted from foundations stepping up quickly to provide emergency COVID funding (at least $10.3B to date). They make a good case that we all need to reduce the burden for our grantees, accelerate giving (despite what’s happened to endowments), partner with other donors, address the glaring inequities in our own backyards, and help governments build their capacity for smarter giving and more-effective service delivery.

Bridgespan and Echoing Green’s new report, Racial Equity and Philanthropy: Disparities in Funding for Leaders of Color Leave Impact on the Table, is a must-read for every donor appalled by the inequities laid bare by COVID and eager to be part of the solution. The report pulls back the curtain on the disadvantages leaders of color face when trying to compete for dollars with well-connected white peers. Because of its timely findings, the report earned strong coverage in the New York Times. Kingmakers of Oakland CEO Chris Chatmon told the New York Times, “I realized white leaders would ask for far more without the same amount of experience. Folks of color, we would ask for far less even though we had a proven track record.”

If you missed the Leap Ambassadors Community and Candid’s well-attended webinar on “The Secrets to Effective Governance” earlier this month, you can now watch it at your leisure. The webinar featured great insights from Sam Cobbs (Tipping Point Community), Alexa Cortes Culwell (Open Impact), Beth Kanter (trainer and author), and Amy Sample Ward (NTEN) on how CEOs can work with their boards to raise their performance.

Kudos to veteran philanthropic advisor Melinda Tuan for her report Measuring and Maximizing the Results of Your Philanthropy, aimed at individual donors looking to make a difference at a time when dollars are short and demand is stratospheric. She does a great job of answering these difficult questions: Why is it important to measure and maximize the results of your philanthropy? What does it mean to measure and maximize the results of your philanthropy? How is measuring and maximizing results in philanthropy different from measuring and maximizing results in business?

Speaking of Melinda, she recently shared that the Fund for Shared Insight is asking funders to nominate direct-service grantees for awards aimed at helping them build their capacity for listening to and learning from those they serve. Winners will receive a $30,000 two-year grant ($15K from the nominating funder matched by $15K from Shared Insight).

In his personal capacity, Hewlett Program Director Daniel Stid has just launched a new blog called The Art of Association, which draws its name from a famous quotation by Alexis de Tocqueville. Daniel is like E.F. Hutton to us: When he talks, we listen. We’re eager to hear his ongoing insights on how we can strengthen our democracy at a time of unprecedented threat.


Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

May 29 — Online
COVID-19 Funder Response” live discussion; Exponent Philanthropy

June 2 — Online
Overcoming the Racial Bias in Funding” webinar; SSIR

June 2 — Online
Outcomes Thinking and Management: Shifting Focus from Activities to Impact” training; Grantspace by Candid

June 11 — Online
Cultivating Donors in a Time of Crisis” webinar; GrantSpace by Candid