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  • Writer's pictureSherry P. Johnson

Leading Through Crisis

When it comes to crisis leadership, the archetype of the first responder holds a special place in the hearts of many. But I've always been more fascinated by "The Fixer." Remember Wolf from Pulp Fiction? Or "Mr." Kate Kaplan from The Blacklist? Who can forget Olivia Pope from Scandal? Sure, they perform emergency care at times, but they also clean up the scene. They bury the evidence. Their greatest power lies in thinking of every possible scenario that might arise in order to control the chaos. Moreover, they not only re-stabilize a chaotic situation; they erase it from memory.

Think of the power these characters hold, particularly in American culture. Fixers project toughness, show neither hesitation nor disgust, and they're loyal to their client—whoever that may be at that moment. But what would it take for a human to behave in this way consistently and sustainably? Dissociation? A trauma-soaked brain and body? Sociopathy? And why are we so attracted to them?

…And what does this have to do with civic and nonprofit leadership?

Look around. Our leaders have been asked to be Fixers for at least two years; some since 2015 or even further back. We've been asking them to take in all kinds of trauma—from COVID-19 illness and death, to the latest victims of a degraded justice system, to rising homelessness and gun violence, to the boom-and-bust cycle that has come to characterize racial reconciliation work, to applying for yet another grant that denigrates their values, to denying funding for programs that honor them.

And make no mistake; some of our leaders are really good at leading with integrity in crisis mode. These are folks who consistently cultivate a community of care, practice self-regulation, and draw on mental health resources to make it through with their souls intact. These gifted Crisis Leaders step in and take charge fast to stabilize the situation. But they know when it's time to step back and rest. They're also skilled at creating boundaries around their power, so they don't overstep when it's time to lead in other ways.

But many more leaders can falter in crisis--largely along two divergent paths. On the one hand are leaders who can flex into this leadership orientation for a while, but they don't have the healthy interdependence in community or enough awareness of their own needs. They disguise their needs, even to themselves, to keep pushing. But they eventually break down. At the least, they stop taking initiative. At worst, they suffer a mental or physical health crisis after skillfully bottling up their own needs for too long.

On the other path are our Fixers, who may be American heroic archetypes, but who forget themselves in their own efficacy. Their toughness becomes their identity, with the human systemic needs around them becoming merely background noise to establishing and maintaining a useful order. These character traits can hold our imaginations and our organizations in thrall for a long time—after all, Fixers can take it all. Everything "just works." Sure, more and more things get classified as a crisis so they can step in to fix things. But if we just let them direct everything, we don't have to have long, painful conversations or come to consensus. Bonus: Our meetings get shorter!

Never mind that exclusion starts to take root…that emotional needs are gaslit, ignored, or mocked…or that we lose our ability to challenge anything the Fixer decides is necessary.

All of us know gifted Crisis Leaders who remain effective and humane. But let us never forget that this gift comes at great cost and holds great responsibility. No other leadership orientation demands as much accountability and self-knowledge.

How about you? Are you at home in crisis? And if so, do you know when it's time to step back? Are you able to refrain from seeing the world through this lens--from manufacturing crises to stay in control? Take the Leadership Orientation Quiz to explore and know yourself more.

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