The Importance of Courageous Leadership

By Tracy Wareing Evans    August 18, 2020

By now, I hope you have seen the launch of APHSA’s Leadership Corner designed to spark inspiration and innovation. It is in the spirit of this new series that I share some of my own reflections on the importance of leadership—drawn from insights of our inaugural speaker, Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School. Earlier this year, I finished reading her book on courageous leadership—and one highly relevant to our current time: Forged In Crisis: The Power of Leadership in Turbulent Times. In this book, Koehn tells the story of five historical figures1 and what made them impactful in critical moments in history.

While I took dozens of lessons away from this book, there are a couple of insights that have come into full view as we collectively navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions. Health and human services leaders across the country are exhibiting what it takes to lead in turbulent times.

Dr. Koehn’s Lesson 1: When a challenging moment arises that demands leadership and attention, the covenant that courageous leaders have already made with themselves to “always be in the game” automatically kicks in. There is no pondering about whether you can do it or mapping out an exact pathway; you jump in and do. All of the leaders Dr. Koehn highlighted acted on this covenant time and time again during the course of their lives.

Over the past several months, I’ve witnessed countless members and partners within our network lean into the challenge without hesitation because it’s exactly what is needed for the good of all of us now and into the future, even if the solutions are themselves not yet clear or easy to attain. And they have done so with grace and humility—recognizing the importance of modeling for others through their own behavior—both as to what is said and what is done. Simple things like physically being present in an office because some of the front-line staff are essential workers who are required to be there (even though executive leaders could work from home), taking the time to routinely check in on staff, recognizing their contributions and their sacrifices; and leaving agendas at the door to partner in highly innovative and impactful ways with sister agencies, businesses, and community leaders for the good of us all.

It is worth noting that leaders in our field have moved forward in this way while simultaneously dealing with the personal impacts of the pandemic in their own lives—such as supporting the educational needs of their children while working from home or managing the impact of spouses and adult children furloughed from their jobs. I’ve spoken to leaders who have personally lost loved ones to the disease and had to navigate an incredibly difficult personal time for themselves and their families while staying fully in the fight for their agency and community.

Courageous leaders help create pathways forward for all of us, no matter the stakes, because they believe in something bigger than themselves.

Dr. Koehn’s Lesson 2: Courageous leaders have the ability to paint a picture of what will happen after the crisis—the ability to create hope for the future and help people see past not only the turbulent moment but the ambiguity that comes with it.

Of course, leaders in human services deal with ambiguity all the time—it’s one of those timeless factors of a complex system that comes with the job. What is also clear is that ambiguity becomes exponential in a crisis. In turbulent times, highly effective leaders draw on their internal compass to navigate to the north star. At a time when people turn to the leader in the organization for answers, courageous leaders are also willing to be vulnerable, expressing what they don’t know. They set the new course by taking the first steps, working with their teams and partners to surmount initial barriers, and then moving on hurdle by hurdle, all the while igniting in those around them the desire to solve problems together.

At APHSA, we’ve been struck by the ways in which leaders in the field have met people where they are—focusing first on the basics before turning to strategies for the future. In the early weeks of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, we saw entire human services systems: (1) shift from on-site to remote work; (2) activate service delivery through online systems never designed to be used that robustly; and (3) and expand policymakers’ understanding of who is part of the essential workforce in order to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to child welfare workers and other staff required to enter people’s homes. These were foundational barriers to overcome—and key for organizations’ ability to meet the immediate needs of people and communities in order to reimagine a future where we emerge stronger.

As Dr. Koehn notes, courageous leaders also know what is imperative for a leader to directly address in these moments while giving what is urgent to others on the team to do. We have seen this in our own team at APHSA, as many of our senior leaders have drawn on the depth of our bench to get the job done, maximizing our output and impact in a time of high member demand and bringing an all-hands-on-deck approach to co-create solutions.

More recently, we’ve witnessed leaders shift their focus to the longer term, recognizing the reality that we are in for a marathon, not a sprint, and helping “frame the stakes” for the future.  Even with all the noise and stress around all of us, health and human services leaders are creating hope for a better future by painting a picture of what can be and helping staff see past the turbulent moment. Exercising keen observation and reflection of what’s around them—such as the structural inequities laid bare by COVID-19 and calls for racial justice—leaders across the country are calling on all of us to push ourselves to act now on what we have long advocated for: systems that work for all people.

At APHSA, we are inspired and humbled to work alongside so many state, local, and community-based leaders who, as Dr. Koehn writes, are the leaders we need at this moment. We also take heed of Dr. Koehn’s observation that leaders must also attend to self-care, taking time to feed and water ourselves, even if only briefly, so that we can continue to give our best selves to our common cause. We hope you’ll tune in to our Leadership Corner series as a way for us to give back something to all of you for your leadership every day.

We welcome your stories of leadership, impact, and resiliency so we can share them with the world. If you have a story to share, please contact Jessica Garon.

Learn more and register for the APHSA Leadership Corner series here.

1 The five figures covered in this historical narrative are polar explorer Ernest Shackleton; President Abraham Lincoln; abolitionist Frederick Douglas; Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and environmental crusader, Rachel Carson. Forged in Crisis, by Nancy Koehn (2017).

About the Author

Tracy Wareing Evans (full bio)

President and CEO
American Public Human Services Association

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