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Leadership in a time of Crisis: Introduction (I)

This morning an article was posted on the website, Axios, pointing out that CEO’s from across the nation are meeting with the White House and “in private conversations and pleas to President Trump, are warning of economic catastrophe if American doesn’t begin planning for a phased return to work as soon as May.”

One line in particular drove home the dilemma of the article to me:

“Several are debating going public with this concern, but fear the optics and timing look discordant.”

There’s something moving and profound in that sentence that anybody who bears responsibility for a group of people can relate to. It has triggered in me a desire to reflect out loud (that is, in a blog) on the burdens of leadership in a time of crisis.

In the coming days, I intend to reflect for a few minutes on leadership from a number of different perspectives. That being the case, I feel I need to both explain my qualifications and qualify them.

I am the president of a small not-for-profit with about a dozen employees which also works with a varying number of 1099’s (subcontractors – people who teach or write or perform some other service, often on our platforms, and always with a common sense of purpose). CiRCE Institute was incorporated as a not for profit corporation in 2003 and I have been the president since then.

My background is somewhat unique (as is the leader of any organization!) in that I grew up with a deep respect for business, especially small business, as one of the great means by which an indiviudal or a team can make a profound contribution to the well-being of the community. For example, they provide food, jobs, entertainment, and solace in thousands of different ways. And they do it well because if they don’t, they don’t survive.

On the other hand, I inherited and cherish a high regard for education, and that especially in the more traditional sense of an education that is not oriented toward practical, real-world success (pragmatism), but toward simply becoming human.

Consequently, I value great art, great literature, and great music “for their own sake”, but I also value a great business model and a great balance sheet for the deep benefits they provide to the business and, through the business, to the community.

I do not have very much formal business schooling: a few accounting classes sums it up. But I have been able to find solid business minds and am learning to listen to them more and more attentively.

As for my broader beliefs and politics, I’m not a socialist or a capitalist, though I deeply value the well-being of society (I prefer community, if you want to get semantic) and I honor both private property and the beauties of a market that is as free as possible.

I am not an ideologue or an ideologist. I am a man who wants to lead his organization well in the time and place where it is planted.

And today that time and place is under threat.

CiRCE is a research institute that provides consulting and resources for classical educators and that is where the bridge takes place. At the heart of a classical education is the ability to think, to make decisions, and to communicate. For thousands of years, that was the focus of their training, and they found that covered pretty much everything.

After all, what else do we do?

To read Julius Caesar is to get a master class in high-stakes decision making. To read Cicero is to get a master class in communicating. To read Homer is to get a master class in thinking, decision making, and communicating.

Many, many people are reading the news every day in order to confirm the opinions they carried into their readings. Others are reading for the sake of research, so they can know what is going on. Some are reading in order to make decisions for themselves and/or their household, such as whether they should buy a mask, whether they should go shopping, what they can fix around the house, where they can find toilet paper (will this become known as the TP Virus?).

A leader has to approach research differently. He has to be receptive to actual facts regardless of his preconceived opinions, because the well-being of his team depends on responding to reality and not on wishful thinking. She can’t do it for FOMO. They can’t put themselves or even their households above those they serve.

There’s more: he has to make deeply consequential decisions today for which he does not have adequate information and on which he will, on the one hand be pressured by the anxious to make the decision they prefer and, on the other hand, be judged for the decision he himself made.

She has to balance what the experts in medicine are telling her with what the economists and business leaders are telling her. They have to return to their first principles and examine their boundary conditions, to remember the lines they cannot cross as a man or woman making consequential decisions.

And he has no choice but to consider “the optics and timing,” because that will affect how people regard his business going forward.

How he decides need not be an ideology or a self-serving pragmatism (though it can, of course, become all that). It could mean jobs for his team. It could mean the end of her dreams. It could harm his community when he can no longer provide his service to them.

One trouble leaders encounter is that, over the last century or so, we have systematically reduced the acceptable terms of discussion and therefore thought. While we are taught in school that to write well we should “brainstorm,” as business leaders we know that letting our thoughts flow to the surface is a quick way to end our careers.

And now we are confronted with a crisis. Now we have to think. Now we have to make decisions. Now we have to communicate those decisions. And some of those decisions are going to be very difficult to make.

The sentence I quoted above ended with an important word, one I’m going to pick up tomorrow.

Discordant. What does music have to do with decision making?

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