Leadership in a Permanent Crisis: Top Three Takeaways from the NGO Futures Inaugural Workshop

Why is it that even when we know change is important, it is so hard? And how do we change not just ourselves, but a whole institution or a whole sector? U.S. NGOs are facing significant political, economic, environmental, and technological shifts greater than our sector has ever experienced simultaneously. Meaningful and successful efforts by U.S. NGOs to resolve development and humanitarian relief challenges are at risk. While catalyzing technical solutions is important, it is not enough. We must break the habits that may be automating outdated thoughts and actions.

Time to call in the experts. Successful response to emerging global complexities and changing funding streams demands effective change management and adaptive leadership. To tackle these challenges, InterAction now holds c-suite workshops focused on personal and organizational adaptability, to help find new ways of thinking. We recently held our inaugural meeting, focusing on leadership in a permanent crisis, and here are my top three takeaways:

  1. Change our vantage point to get a different perspective – especially during long periods of stressful change. Think about this metaphor: If we had a balcony at the top of our home that could oversee everything inside, and yet we typically operate from some room in the middle of the house, and during a long crisis we retreat to the basement -- there is little opportunity to see the big picture. From the limited vantage points within the house, we look for the fastest way out or we slide into old habits. But we have a choice. We can instead get up onto the balcony to get an overarching view and give ourselves a chance, through refreshed perspective, to powerfully evolve. This is not just an intellectual exercise – it has real-life uses regarding how we adapt a more intentional mindset and change our vantage point to get a fresh perspective.
  2. Curate our toolbox. It is critical for leadership to consider the following questions to rethink the path forward in long-term crisis. What is my core essential perspective or way of being and operating that I want to keep - both in business and in how I / my team / my organization work? What may have served my organization before but is now expendable? What is emerging that we want to cultivate?
  3. Anticipate resistance based on disproportionate perception of loss. To be willing to change, we must perceive the value of something new to be greater than the loss of something we are currently doing. In technical challenges, known solutions tend to work and can be replicated. In adaptive challenges, the processes are less clear and solutions require new ways of thinking. The feeling each of us experiences with something new and unpredictable can make it harder to give up known practices. We give loss of something we are currently doing a higher value than it might merit and inherently create resistance. If you notice resistance to change within your team, know that miscalculations of how great of a loss change is may be at play.

We are not robots, we are humans. We need to be forgiving of ourselves and aware of the challenges that others are experiencing as we adapt to change. Thankfully the science of human psychology and behavior explores the conundrum that comes with radical change and can help move us forward intentionally, letting go of the old and - after assessing from ‘our balcony’ - adopting new, less comfortable, ways forward.

For more on InterAction’s NGO Futures and c-suite adaptive leadership efforts, contact Deborah Willig, Director of NGO Futures, dwillig@interaction.org