Leading Through Crisis

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In one of the most stirring presidential inaugural addresses, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.” He continued: “This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.”

These words, uttered in the midst of the Great Depression, come to mind during this time of crisis. We all felt debilitated by the horrific news emerging from Israel, and yet we knew that the Orthodox Union had an important role to play in supporting our brothers and sisters in Israel and here in the U.S. Our first instinct was that of President Roosevelt, courage and action, and that’s exactly where we moved. We jumped into a myriad of meaningful projects that would help those in need. Almost overnight, the many departments of the OU pivoted to focus on this crisis. It was beautiful, but something was amiss.

We quickly realized we were moving too quickly, almost breathlessly, reacting rather than being proactive, with courage and emotion overwhelming our days and nights. What should be our approach for the months ahead? What were our priorities? What were the strategies and tactics we would use to achieve these goals?

It is well-known that if a Torah scroll is missing a letter, it is invalid. Not only a full letter, but even if it is missing a portion of a letter, the Torah cannot be used. Less well-known is if the scribe failed to leave the appropriate space between sections, that too can invalidate a Torah. There is an important lesson here: it is not only the content that is critical; taking a break, pausing to regroup, to analyze and to plan ahead, is equally integral.

That’s exactly what we did. We established a team, a place where we can gather to plan, and in that room, I called together a small team of leaders within our organization. We prepared a memo with a vision that was relevant to the short-term crisis but also incorporated our long-term goals. Together, we established core strategies and empowered individuals to lead them forward.

Pausing allowed us to reorient, to double-check that the initiatives we jumped on in the hours after Simchat Torah were aligned with our overarching goals. Coming together as a team also forced us to think critically about how to maintain our many other critical services and projects and to balance them with some of the immediate needs.

It’s also worth noting that times of crisis are often emotionally charged, especially one like this. We all have family in Israel, we are all overwhelmed by the images we’re seeing, and this can easily lead to more tension in one’s workspace. Comments that would otherwise be ignored in such an environment can be taken personally. In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Melody Wilding wrote:

“When you take something personally, your brain thinks you’re under attack. It perceives the situation as a threat to your competence, social standing, or even your sense of belonging within a group. This activates the amygdala and sends your fear response skyrocketing. You may feel hurt, defensive, anxious, or even angry. While these emotions are natural and valid the key is to “ride the wave” — to experience them without letting them define you or dictate your actions.”

Ignoring our feelings is never healthy. She therefore suggests recognizing the emotion that you are experiencing and detaching yourself from it. Recognizing what it is you are feeling but reminding yourself that it does not define you. She also points out that these stressful situations can build immunity to future stressors. Allowing ourselves to experience uncomfortable emotions puts us in a better position to lessen fear and avoidance in the future.

Yes, courage and acting quickly are critical in leading an organization during a time of crisis. One cannot allow oneself to be overwhelmed and debilitated by the news. But the pause is equally important and ensures that the courage and action are well directed. The pause also ensures that we are not being swept up in the intense emotions of the moment.

I look forward to getting back to the many projects we had planned for these months ahead. But for now, much of our attention is needed to assist our brothers and sisters in Israel. We will continue to forge forward with courage, with wisdom, and with the occasional pause, to ensure that our efforts continue to make a difference.

May there be peace in Israel and may this crisis come to a quick end with the geula shleima bimehera beyameinu.