By Lynda Mansson, Director General, MAVA Foundation

The last two years were times of turbulence not seen before in our lifetimes. Staff at non-profits are suffering from exhaustion, burnout, uncertainty, and to some extent fear of what is coming around the corner. Funding can be even more insecure than usual and carrying out the mission of the organization even more challenging.

Leaders of organizations facing uncertainty need to communicate openly and transparently about the real situation, while providing the steadiness that many staff now desperately need. At the same time, these leaders  – being human – also have feelings about what is going on and may themselves be facing some of the same exhaustion and burnout.

And this can cause additional stress for leaders. At MAVA we have seen countless examples across our portfolio of partners. One CEO I spoke to talked about how she was struggling to support her staff when she was struggling herself. This dilemma typifies the difficulty in juggling the multiple hats a CEO wears.

I recently read an article that alarmed me called ‘The New Rules of CEO Behavior’ which stated that ‘A CEO needs to present the best version of themselves in every single interaction they have’. While this was not specifically about the pandemic, it reinforces what I view as the old school notion of the leader needing to present a perfect face to stakeholders and is actually more damaging than helpful.

So how does a leader remain authentic and yet provide the steadiness that others may need? This is a fundamental paradox of authentic leadership. Being authentic means showing your human side, sharing how you are feeling and exposing your own vulnerability.

And yet, how to do that while projecting confidence, keeping an eye on the future and keeping the ship afloat throughout turbulent times? Isn’t showing vulnerability likely to lead to the opposite outcome a leader might want for the team? Will a leader sharing his or her own doubts with staff elicit a response of ‘hey – you’re supposed to be the one in charge here’?

For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, when we had little reliable information and growing anxiety as things unfolded, I, as most other heads of organizations, had to put in place the rules that would keep my team safe. Simply being CEO does not make you all-seeing and all-knowing. I had to make decisions that seemed optimal given the information at hand and then sometimes those decisions had to be adapted based on new information.

Confidently stating that there was one right decision in this context not only would have been untrue, but any confidence that approach might have created would have been severely undermined as those decisions had to be updated along the way. Honestly stating that we were dealing with many unknowns and would have to learn and adapt along the way hopefully created an understanding of the need to do the best we can in imperfect circumstances.

Create a pattern of authenticity

So what can we do about this paradox? Well the first is to ensure that as a leader, all along the way, you are leading authentically so there is not an expectation of one person being the ‘strong one’ that must remain that way at all times. I have often experienced very positive reactions to displays of vulnerability. This builds trust. This builds engagement. This helps everyone remember that leaders are people too and not emotion-less machines with all the answers. And it creates an environment where perhaps everyone isn’t only looking to the leader for the solution.

Find the right balance

Also, there is a balance to be found. Sharing your uncertainty can be positive. Excessively fretting or complaining will backfire and put more burden on staff. Seeking the right balance of being real about what you are thinking and feeling without oversharing is likely to bring the best results.

Rely on a network of peers

Each individual needs to find a way to practice self-care – an expression a bit overused these days, but still relevant. Being a CEO is a lonely job. Over the period of the pandemic (and before!) I was in regular contact with other heads of foundations, sharing notes on our respective approaches and decisions regarding our own staff and our partners. There is an old saying that ‘a burden shared is a burden halved.’ Not only did talking to peers help me shape MAVA’s approach, it was an opportunity to share the burden and pressure of making good decisions.

Likewise during this period, MAVA asked Common Purpose (one of our partners on MAVA Leaders for Nature Academy & Programme) to run online peer support groups called Leadership Forums for heads of non-profits (and others for technical staff). Feedback from participants was that it was a relief to be able to share their problems with others that can understand and may be experiencing the same thing. Having a group of peers to talk to provides a way of getting support from others and can reduce the feeling of loneliness or pressure.

If you don’t have the benefit of a group organized for you, it is easy to set up your own group of peers for mutual support. Best is to have this in place in calmer times so it can really serve you well in turbulent times.

Leading through uncertainty is challenging and paradoxical. How are you simultaneously taking care of yourself and helping others?