Strong leaders see opportunities in COVID-19

Today’s environment is like a “sci-fi nightmare” because of COVID-19, said one nonprofit leader at Wipfli’s National Conference Tuesday during a virtual session on the challenges and opportunities in nonprofit leadership.

But session leaders Tammy Jelinek and Steve Lipton, both principals at Wipfli, encouraged attendees to embrace and evolve during the turmoil of COVID-19.

“This is not the biggest crisis we have faced, it’s the biggest opportunity,” Lipton said. “Changing your mindset helps you go forward. We have an opportunity to go backward or to accelerate changes that were already coming.”

In many ways, they said, the turmoil caused by COVID-19 accelerated changes that were coming – not caused them. 

“How many people had a global pandemic and social unrest in their 2020 strategic plans?” Lipton asked. “Plans aren’t perfect. Leaders have to be ready for changes that come hard and fast and in unexpected ways.”

He cited remote work and online collaboration as two trends that were inevitably coming, but fast-tracked when most states shut down earlier this year.

Leadership plays an important role in how well teams accept change. Leaders must find creative ways to deal with difficult situations and keep employees engaged, Lipton said.

They also must embrace new measures of productivity and performance. For example, in today’s business environment, what you create is more valuable than where you sit or how many hours you work.

According to Lipton, great leaders foster seven qualities: vision, courage, integrity, humility, strategic thinking, focus and collaboration.

He encouraged attendees to be brave in different ways. “Try things that might not succeed. Have difficult conversations. Listen, observe and admit when you’re wrong.

“Be brave enough to disagree with someone and share your thinking,” he said. “And know that it’s okay to stop a strategy when it isn’t working.”

Instead of thinking of leadership as a monumental, world-changing job, Lipton encouraged attendees to aim for moments that make a difference – what he called “lollipop moments” based on Drew Dudley’s TEDxToronto talk.

Maintaining a positive focus is just as important, they said.  “You can visit pity city, but you can’t move in,” Jelinek said, quoting a mentor.

“Stay focused on what you can do to help your community every day. If you maintain that positive focus, people will follow you,” Lipton said.  “Embrace the change that’s been hoisted upon us. You can create new ways to serve your community and use your leadership power to create opportunities for your community, people and organization.”

About Wipfli’s National Conference

Join nonprofit leaders from around the country at Wipfli’s National Training conference. Virtual sessions continue through October 13. In-person sessions are scheduled to start October 11.

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