I was 18 months into my first executive director position and had experienced significant success. We paid off our line of credit, made some necessary repairs to our facility, and managed to end the year with a very healthy six-figure surplus. But as the end of the year approached, a wave of panic grew as I anticipated the next year.
I wondered “What if this was the best year the organization could possibly have? How could any year possibly be better than this one?” In addition to these thoughts, the organization was experiencing a major transition: two new board co-chairs would start in January and our mortgage was due in May with a $375,000 balloon payment.
I attribute most of my fear to being a first-time executive director, which is a lonely job. There is only one of you in the organization – and you have no peers. The board is above you in the hierarchy of leadership but all staff report to you. I came to realize that it is not uncommon for first-time executive directors to feel anxious, isolated, and overwhelmed during their first 18 months.
Though now I can laugh at how shadows in the dark felt like scary monsters appearing only at night, it was for me a real sense of fear at the time. While I’m not proud of this, I panicked. I called the new board chairs (Rhonda and Ray) the last week in December and said I wasn’t the right person to lead the organization anymore and needed to resign.
While my reaction was based on fear of the unknown and false insecurities, Rhonda and Ray quite possibly saved my career. They told me not to make a hasty decision and asked for a face-to-face meeting.
The day of the meeting, they assured me of their support but made it clear that fear in the face of uncertainty was not acceptable from a leader. They explained those following a leader look to see how she responds. If she can remain calm and confident in chaos, they remain calm and confident. If the leader panics, they panic.
The meeting ended with my commitment to being confident in leading the organization through uncertainty, and with assurance from the board co-chairs that another resignation would be accepted and the organization would move forward without me.
We moved confidently into the new year, creating thoughtful plans for dealing with life’s uncertainty. We built alliances and welcomed supporters to manage and navigate the difficult waters ahead. Looking back, we actually had a better year than the prior one! We paid off the organization’s mortgage when the balloon payment was due, brought paid membership to its highest level, and raised funds to hire additional staff.
It is inevitable, leaders will have doubts and fears, but the true test of a leader is how they handle uncertainty. While it is important not to sugarcoat the real challenges presented by uncertainty, it is equally important to present a plan for addressing these challenges with a sense of calm determination. The leader’s calm and confident demeanor will be recognized throughout the organization and invite others to face uncertainty with confidence.
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