My great privilege in life is no longer needing to run the day-to-day operations of any organization. After many years of being ultimately responsible for critical decisions, I now advise and help the people bearing this responsibility in the organizations I’m committed to. I’m delighted to be able to contribute to many companies and non-profits, but four, in particular, are close to my heart.
My joy and burden right now is to care deeply and feel especially responsible for two companies and two non-profits: Atomic Object, a software development consultancy; Mader Mill, a pallet sawmill; Grand Rapids HQ, a runaway and homeless youth drop-in center; and Trinity Mission Church.
Having read the scientific predictions for the coronavirus pandemic—and hearing what even the White House finally acknowledges—brings home the reality of hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S.
This is a national-level load of loss and grief entirely beyond my 58 years of life experience. And that’s not even considering what happens when the coronavirus sweeps through places in the world where daily life is a struggle to begin with. That overflows my grief and sympathy buffers so quickly it hardly registers.
So I pray for the people I know only abstractly who will be terribly hurt by coronavirus, and I work on the things I can impact.
Today, I spent my time helping my organizations apply for governmental support to make it through what now looks like it might be an economic depression. Hearing about project and order cancellations we were counting on. Worrying about donor generosity when so many people are facing job losses and uncertainty. Wondering how this pandemic will fundamentally change our business models.
Tonight, with the reality of existential threats in my face, countless texts, Slack messages, and emails, three weeks of working from home, endless Zoom meetings, canceled lunches, cheery but socially distant greetings on my dog walks, bad news on business and the pandemic, the chickens I’d been swatting away came home to roost. I was sad. I was bummed. I was scared.
I got to thinking about the leadership teams of my organizations. These incredibly talented, dedicated, caring people! How despite all they do, how they work and sacrifice, no matter how smart they are, or how they hustle, what lies in front of them is out of their control. I worry about the consequences of events beyond their control, and how that will make them feel about themselves as leaders.
What I know, having managed through a few tough times in 20 years, is that this is an unprecedented challenge, and I couldn’t have better colleagues and friends to face it with.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that we—all the organizations I care about—are facing existential threats.
But when I step back and ask myself what the purpose of each organization is, and whether that purpose matters today, and will matter tomorrow, I see something else. The obvious purposes of the organizations I’m deeply a part of range from custom software development, making pallet cut stock, helping homeless youth, and building disciples of Jesus.
Will the world need these things in 2021 and beyond? No doubt.
Looking a little deeper into the purpose of these organizations I see a common core: being a source of fulfillment for employees and a force for good in the community. That gives me confidence in these crazy, tough, threatening times. Confidence that the organizations I care about will survive. That their leadership will adapt as necessary, making hard decisions, keeping their eyes on the long-term, acting in a fashion consistent with their purpose and values, and ultimately, coming through this awful time to fulfill their various visions.
Do we have the leadership to get to 2021? No doubt.
Mike, Shawn, Mary, Scott, Shandra, Ken—all I see in the leadership of my organizations is care, creativity, grit, brains, capacity, and commitment.
Finding myself at an emotional low point after a long day of work, I turned to dark chocolate pudding, red wine, and my favorite musical artists. Here are some of the things my personal therapy session reminded me of.
With these leaders, and our purpose, the crazy situation we’re in today looks to me:
- Never worse, but never better
- Taylor Swift , Wonderland
Because, to a person, these leaders look at their responsibility like this:
- Whatever it takes
‘Cause I love the adrenaline in my veins
I do whatever it takes
- Imagine Dragons, Whatever it Takes
Even if some of my organizations have to temporarily scale their operations down—retreating from previous accomplishments, impact, revenue, or profitability—I’m confident we’ll handle that transition with integrity, and that we’ll be delivering on our purpose and mission in years to come, being the best we can be at what we do and growing as a result of it. Our core strategy will remain:
- Great, not big.
Perhaps strangely, I take heart from the book of Ecclesiastes. This isn’t the first virus or economic collapse humanity has survived:
- What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
- Ecclesiastes 1:9
To my colleagues and friends bearing the day-to-day brunt of the pandemic’s impact on our organizations, I see you living this, and admire you so much for it:
- I don’t give up I won’t back down
Goodbye worries no time to doubt
I feel the power, I won’t be afraid
Fear won’t stop me, I don’t break
I was made for this
- Carrollton, Made for This
Finally, to all of these talented leaders, I think back to our first meeting and think:
- All I can say is it was enchanting to meet you
- Taylor Swift, Enchanted
And at the end of this hard day and long night, I feel positive and excited again, confident and ready to continue to help and guide us through these cataclysmic times.
I wrote everything above last night, finishing well past midnight. I think writing did a few things for me:
- let me consider and express gratitude,
- focused me on our purpose and the long-term,
- and put me in a world (my own words) that I can control.
It helped lift my spirits. I slept great.
Yummy things, my favorite music, and writing are PPE for the role I currently have.
When I read it through this morning I paused at the bald admission of being sad and scared. Aren’t leaders supposed to show confidence and optimism? Was it wrong to share my true feelings in a blog post? Was I letting people down or potentially damaging morale?
Ultimately I decided, no, I was going to leave it like I wrote it. After all, anyone who doesn’t have some sadness and fear right now isn’t paying attention to the world around them.
Leadership isn’t about never feeling sad or afraid, it’s about managing those feelings so they don’t take you out of the game.
- A Co-CEO Approach to Founder Succession - September 29, 2020
- Founder Transition – My Final Job at Atomic - September 9, 2020
- Leadership in a Time of Pandemic - April 3, 2020
- Software Product Development in a Time of Pandemic - March 16, 2020
- Eleven unquestioned assumptions of business – and why they’re wrong - March 3, 2020