The 3 Commandments: Simple Rules for Complex Times
Certain phrases tend to become so cliché that we should stop using them. In this category, I submit: uncertain times. There must have been a federal law that no corporate or nonprofit communication could fail to include it in 2020. But beyond the fatigue factor, the phrase doesn’t even make sense. Were there ever certain times? Was there ever an era in which any given moment, let alone the future, was certain to us? Or were there just times in which we had more of an illusion of certainty?
No, what really distinguishes this COVID-19 era (and hopefully soon the post-COVID-19 era) is not uncertainty, but complexity. Everything is and continues to be in flux. The pandemic situation is changing; the government is changing; the economy is changing; and depending on how the government responds, this year might be either a lifeline or a deepening crisis. And as for nonprofit institutions that have spent the past year radically transforming themselves for the pandemic, they are not going to magically spring back into their former shapes. The need for adaptation and creativity will only continue and get bigger, and it’s impossible to predict how all these moving parts will change each other over time.
When I was in graduate school, we learned a lot of models for managing change. There’s the ADKAR model, Kotter’s eight steps, McKinsey’s 7-S, Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief (which can apply to organizations) and many more. Models like this offer a road map and an organizing system for managing change. They help us try to understand what’s happening now and anticipate what’s coming next.
At Leading Edge, we value models like these. We’ve studied them, we’ve recommended them to organizations, and we’ve used them ourselves. But these change management frameworks work best when you’re looking at a period of change that can be at least vaguely defined — a policy change, a merger, a leadership transition, a rebrand, etc. When you find yourself picking your organization back up from being run over by 2020, they don’t seem to match the moment.
Here’s the paradox: In simpler times, a complex framework is helpful, but in complex times, simplicity is key. When our reality is changing at a normal (and dare I say predictable) pace, we can map it out with some level of detail to help us understand the environment and the players — but in complex and quickly-changing circumstances, trying to create a detailed map will become the equivalent of putting on blinders. It’s a surefire way to miss vital features of the shifting landscape around you. In complex times when navigating constant uncertainty, identifying a few simple principles to act as our North Star can be valuable in guiding our response no matter what changes lie ahead.
In that spirit, here are three bedrock principles I’ve been thinking about recently as candidates for the only rules that can meet this moment. I like to call them the three commandments.
1. Thou Shalt Be Kind
Kindness is never one size fits all, but it is all important. There isn’t any kind of change that will make it inappropriate, and every difficulty you face heightens the need for it.
That’s easy to know in principle, but in practice, we all have countless subconscious assumptions about who doesn’t really count as someone toward whom kindness is a priority. Maybe for some people, it’s service workers or other people assigned a low status in society; maybe for others, it’s coworkers or family members whom we take for granted.
For many of us, it’s often hardest to be kind to ourselves. But at times like this, it is crucial to be kind to yourself. So, be kind. Be understanding. Allow yourself room to fail, and give yourself a break when you need it (and don’t feel guilty about it). Give this kind of leeway to yourself, and it will be easier to give it to others. Strive to make kindness an intentional daily practice.
2. Thou Shalt Be Flexible
Natural selection changes life forms under conditions of stress or scarcity. When the environment changes, you have to change.
As the pandemic began, a lot of workplaces stressed the importance of flexibility, and that was wonderful. But some leaders and managers may have thought about flexibility in too shallow a way. Shallow flexibility is when you make plans, rules and procedures that are every bit as specific and defined as before, but take an attitude of “it’s OK if someone can’t meet those expectations.” The danger of this facile kind of flexibility is that it can easily lead to either mediocrity (we get used to failing to meet our own standards, and the failures expand) or dishonest inflexibility (we meet our standard, but we’re actually not flexible; we just pretend we are).
True flexibility is being willing to ask, “What are my goals at this moment, and what are the best ways to reach them?” That might mean big shifts in programming, big shifts in operations or big shifts in your team’s expectations and workflows. This is why the "Reopening Our Workspaces Playbook" encourages organizations not only to “resume” but to “redream” how they work.
The transformation to a truly flexible mindset can hurt; every change is a loss, and letting go of things that we used to feel were important takes humility. It may also mean a lot of discomfort for organizations, leadership teams and individuals. But the ship has sailed on escaping change; we have to ride these currents.
3. Thou Shalt Be Honest
Without getting mired in specifics or controversies, I think it’s safe to say that some of the biggest mistakes and failures of leadership during the past year — whether from politicians, public health experts, journalists or others — have involved failing to tell people the truth, even when those truths are painful. Since the pandemic has changed a lot, we’ve heard many leaders in our sector ask: How honest is too honest? How can you be honest and transparent about bad news without causing organization-wide panic? What if things you were honest about yesterday are no longer true today? No one can answer hard questions like these in advance (there are no talking points to be created here). But what we can do is to be honest with ourselves and with our teams about what we know, what we don’t know and how we’re dealing or planning to deal with it.
Honesty makes us vulnerable and uncomfortable. We want to lead our teams toward positive outcomes, and sometimes that makes it tempting to put every narrative through a positive filter. But clarity and honesty are empowering. When we help our colleagues see the challenges they may face, we give them the gift of ability to prepare. By being willing to embrace our own perceived vulnerability in being honest, we lessen the true vulnerability of our team members who are no longer flying blind. And, of course, when we’re willing to be honest about difficult truths, we build and maintain our credibility and make it more likely that our future positive truths will be received with trust.
So there you have them — the three commandments. They won’t guide us through the coming uncertainties — nothing can. But they can help remind us what’s really important as we do the inescapable work of finding our own way. And at the moment, they’re about the only principles I can think of that I’d be comfortable carving in stone.
Alena Akselrod is the senior program director of Leading Edge, supporting and enhancing the Jewish nonprofit field’s approach to leadership, talent and workplace culture. Alena grew up in Brooklyn after emigrating from the Former Soviet Union in the mid-90s. Her passion for working with youth propelled her into a career working with Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant families at a community center in South Brooklyn.
She grew her career to encompass a robust marketing, community organizing, organizational change management and culture change portfolio, but her true love will always be facilitating identity and leadership programs, as well as creating new entry points into Jewish life for the RSJ community.
Alena holds an MBA in nonprofit management and an MA in Jewish professional leadership from Brandeis University. She is an MBTI certified practitioner, a proud Wexner Graduate Fellow & Davidson Scholar, and a JCCA Merrin Teen Professional Fellow.