Leading With Soul In Times Of Crisis

I live in Calgary, Alberta.  Calgary is oil country. We watch the price of a barrel of oil closely. When the price of oil goes down to any significant degree this city ends up in a crisis.  The rest of the country knows oil has gone down because it is cheaper to fill their gas tank. But in Calgary, people lose their jobs. Over the last six months the price of oil has dropped by about 50%.

LeavingThat isn’t pleasant, but a city that bases its existence on the price of a commodity knows that these things happen.  People here are usually less attached to their companies than to their profession.  People know that the jobs will reappear as the price of oil rises. Nonetheless, the mood of the city shifts dramatically and there is a lot of talk about bad news and the lack of opportunity.

This current oil price crisis has me thinking about the basic nature of corporations, as the decisions made by them are at the heart of this cycle of boom and bust.  It got me wondering if organizations have a heart or soul – my conclusion is no they don’t.

I don’t want this to sound critical, so please bare with me as I explain my thinking. What I mean by this is that an organization has a mission and a vision that transcends individuality. It forms a system unto itself, and a part of any system is a desire to continue to exist.  A company’s vital signs aren’t measured by the health or vitality of its employees, but by its balance sheet and its profitability.  This isn’t decided by the organization, it is decided by the rules of business in general – stock markets, banks and partners all make decisions based on traditional measures of financial health. When economic conditions demand, the organization responds in order to survive and continue to produce economic value – including providing jobs for the remaining people.

Does that sound depressing to you?

It did to me. I was having a hard time getting my head around thinking of companies as soulless until I brought one other element into my thinking:  organizations can’t continue to exist without being full of human beings to keep it alive. That is what matters most about the caring and soulfulness of an organization and how it responds in times of crisis.

What an amazing paradox! An organization is soulless by design, intent upon surviving without regard to human needs, yet it is populated by many soulful beings looking for answers in times of distress.

For those that have been through the trials of workforce reductions, you know the true challenge.  It can be easy to do the math about what the organization can afford and what it needs to reduce.  When we talk of reductions it isn’t personal … it’s just business.

In a great culture, there is an understanding of another paradox here.  The leadership team knows that it isn’t personal, that it is necessary to make these changes in order to ensure the continuing health of the organization.  But they make it personal in any event.

A great culture realizes that behind every “FTE” (full-time equivalent) that is let go there is  a human soul, and quite likely family members that will be deeply affected as well.  It also realizes that there is a need to protect the greater community as well.  Those that are let go in fact contribute to the health of the organization and protect the jobs of those that remain, and for that they deserve to be honored.

A truly great culture knows how to care for both sides of the chasm – those who have departed and those that remain. As leaders it is up to us to remember why this is so important:

  • Anyone being let go does not want to feel like an FTE.  They are human, with human feelings, and they want to be acknowledged that they are in pain.
  • Anyone who remains with the organization will notice how departures are handled.  If handled soulfully, they in turn feel safer and valued.  If not, they know the feeling of being an FTE rather than feeling the warmth of a human relationship.  They learn that only they truly care about their own well-being and start to act accordingly.
  • Leadership in times of crisis defines trust. At the same time, leaders are human too, and it can be painful to think in terms of humans instead of FTE.  As leaders, do we first understand that what we need to do is required for the health of the organization, and then give ourselves permission to feel compassion for the pain of those who we must let go?

I think this last idea is the most critical – do we have the strength to feel the pain of those who are leaving and do everything we can to support them through it?  There is certainly a role that culture plays in this, but in the end it comes down to the heart of each leader. Do we have the compassion?

For those that answer yes, you’ve probably found your calling as a leader.

Published by

Ian Munro @ leadingessentially.com

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

6 thoughts on “Leading With Soul In Times Of Crisis

  1. It can be despairing as a leader to be so empathetic that you feel the pain of departing employees, knowing that the vital health of the whole organization must be put first.
    This post compassionately describes that difficult space of a soulful leader.

  2. Letting people go, downsizing is not a fun thing to do and I like how you point out that a leader should recognize the pain it causes and do all they can for the person they are letting go. I learned a few years back the truth about organizations when I realized that the organization that I loved and was loyal to, could never be loyal to me. I read once that an organization personified is like a sociopath. Wow aren’t I the downer today?

    On another note, it concerns me how dependent we are on the price of oil, a commodity that will dry up in several decades all together. What happens then? Does Calgary become a ghost town with tumbleweeds blowing down Stephen Avenue. Ok, so maybe I’m being a little dramatic. 🙂
    Diana xo

  3. I too agree, your last question is the most important. Can we care, and still make hard choices for the better of the whole. Or, is it the whole?

    I often wonder, how we came to the decision what makes a good ROI. Are employees let go because there’s no work, and therefore the organization doesn’t want to pay them, or are they let go because the market demands we maintain an acceptable level of ROI for our stock to retain its value for investors. Is that truly for the betterment of the whole?

    Because people in a corporation can decide, instead of a 15% ROI let’s ride this downturn out and be satisfied with a 3% until it’s over — except, there’s this other entity called, The Stock Market. We have to earn better ROI’s because our investors won’t be happy if it drops. So, let’s cut people and satisfy our investors need for more.

    I was talking with a woman in the mental health sector last night and she told me that already, they are seeing more people suffering depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts.

    I also know of another oil company that does not lay off during downturns. They offer unpaid sabbaticals and redeploy, cut down on contractors, but they do not lay off – and never have. There values are based on riding out downturns by honouring the relationships within their organization.

    I’m not sure the corporation and its lack of, or evidence of, soul is at play. I also think it is bigger than management teams. As with many things, it is our expectations as a society, our focus on ‘more’ that propels the decision-making in times of crisis. Our belief, there’s only one way to deliver ROI and that’s to trim the bottomline of people, inhibits us from asking the bigger question of “Is there another way?”

    And, because “we” (the bigger we of society) base our expectations on the souless qualities of money, earnings reports and bottom-line forecasting, we live in the constant reactive gyrations of the impact of economic/political ups and downs on our ROIs.

    Whew! So now I’ll get off my soap box — thanks for the thought provoking post Ian.

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