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April 13, 2020

Fostering Self-Leadership and Positivity in a Time of Crisis

Ellen Winiarczyk is the academic director and faculty for the Nonprofit Leadership graduate program at University College at the University of Denver.

Handling crisis isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Most of us avoid crisis in our lives as much as we can possibly control. One of my students reminded me that in her lifespan, crisis was a given — from 9/11 to economic downturn, her generation has dealt with a lot of crisis as a “new norm.”

You probably know that some folks really are pre-disposed to dealing with crises. These are our friends that probably go into police, fire, ambulance, or emergency room work. Feeling comfortable in crisis takes practice, but if you are not the one in the crisis, sometimes that fact makes dealing with crisis easier.

In leadership, we examine a leader’s ability to deal with risk. Is your pre-disposition more risk averse, or more comfortable with taking risk? This is a continuum, rather than an either/or proposition. While we can’t control crisis, we can become more comfortable with risk, or at least learn how to manage our need for control in a time of high risk, or crisis.  

Years ago as an Outward Bound course director and instructor, I learned early I could deal with crisis with a certain degree of calmness. I was always a positive person thinking of solutions rather than problems, and knew I could be comfortable with ambiguity. I had developed a healthy relationship to taking risks as an outdoor educator. However, I’ll never forget that first backcountry broken leg! I remember feeling panic, and then calm as I realized I had tools around me to help me deal with the situation. In my calm space, I assessed the policies and processes in my instructor’s manual that could guide me. I had a whole team of students in our patrol to help with the many details. This sense of self-direction (using the tools around me) helped me to lead in a time of crisis.

So, how can you cultivate self-leadership and direction during this time of significant change and ambiguousness? How can you keep or develop positivity in this unprecedented time? I offer these 5 steps to all nonprofit leaders at every level of an organization. Whether you’ve been furloughed, laid off, are staffing a now virtual volunteer center, or are a senior leader, perhaps one of these ideas can lift your spirits and positively impact your way forward in a virtual work world and lifestyle.

  1. Self-Care. Now and into the future is the time to take care of yourself. I’ve surprised some students when I share my values in a leadership class that valuing myself is often first in my top three personal values. I learned it from a very wise social worker many years ago, if you don’t take care of yourself, you really are not your best self with your family, work, or mental/physical self.
    For self-care, sleep, exercise, and healthy food are basic. But also social time (using video conferencing) and managing online time (not too much!). Facebook and Instagram are fun, but I try to only check once or twice a day. We have had virtual happy/social hours, dinner with friends, scheduled cooking time, and game time all virtually!
  2. Know your passion. If you need to be outside, be there safely. Or fill your immediate electronic world with your favorite images or places you wish to travel! We’ve been binging on Beecham House (PBS) based in India, and I’ve got images of the Taj Mahal, Golden Palace, the Himalaya, and Karakorum as images on my computer screen. Read a book about the outdoors or volunteer virtually! Drive by nursing homes with a “WE LOVE YOU” sign. There are many ways to reach out to meet your passions. 
  3. Be an active learner. Learning is fun and you can do it solo, with a friend/partner, or a small group. Whether you’ve been meaning to learn Excel better, or Photoshop, or a social media tool, just do it. I’ve got my ukulele out that my friend Brian gave to me after we attended a hilarious workshop at a conference last year.
    There are oodles of free webinars for nonprofits, for leaders, for anyone interested in learning. Whether it’s a professional learning (check out the University of Denver’s Center for Professional Development offering a free online course on leading teams virtually) or a fun thing to learn (e.g., drawing, yoga, or writing, etc. like free online lifelong learning through the Enrichment Program) you won’t regret the hour or two you spend daily or weekly learning something new. Professionally is it time to learn project management? Or nonprofit finance? If you’re lacking motivation, do it with a friend, or colleague. But create a routine!
  4. Spend time with people who uplift you (on the phone, walking 6’ apart, or via video chat). We are strongly influenced by the people whom we hang out with. Maybe there’s someone you’ve wanted to network with? Reach out and set up a call or FaceTime with them. Construct some questions that will engage both of you.
    If you are on the job market, now is the time to up your LinkedIn game and spend some time with people in your field commenting on their posts, adding your own post, and asking for a call or video conference with professionals you would like to get to know.
  5. To bring out the positivity when you’re down, identify three people who bring positivity to you or the world. Surround yourself with them (virtually, of course). Be realistic with your own sadness, grief, or overwhelmed feelings, but then move forward into a more uplifting environment. I go outside and listen to the happy nesting birds around. Or find a fun video to watch. Avoid the news, negative posts on social media, and people who are more gloom and doom or less positive (at least limit the time you spend in their company).

I hope this helps you in your journey through this time of upending change. Take good care. Reach out to me on LinkedIn.

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