On top of our individual concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, we are inundated with good and bad information, helpful tips, fake news, political sniping and unfounded scary rumors. We are staying home and doing what the CDC and health officials recommend. And we are afraid.
We crave “leadership of frankness and vigor,” and yet that attribute may seem in short supply today, although there are occasional glimpses. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressed that phrase in his first inaugural speech in March 1933 in the depth of the Great Depression:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
We expect leaders to lead. We will follow leaders who are frank and through vigorous action show that they care about us. We will support those leaders and we will do the right things. We need leaders who communicate reassurance and offer light in an ever-darkening world. As we face unthinkable conditions, that may seem difficult right now. However, it is imperative that leaders speak realistically and frankly, while remembering to be positive and appropriately hopeful.
Whether you are the leader of a family, a community organization, a corporation, a nonprofit or a government, your job is to convey leadership through actions and the words you choose. You need to make hard decisions, be honest in your communications, and all the while “be careful not to scare the hell out of people,” as Dinesh Paliwal, President and CEO of Harman International, told Wall Street Journal.
This is particularly important in the funeral and cremation professions. In a recent webinar coordinated by webCemeteries.com, industry leaders reminded participants about the pivotal societal role that funeral professionals play in serving families. They note that in times of war, terrorist attacks, economic depressions and recessions, and now global pandemic, funeral advisors are called upon to comfort families in what is already an extremely stressful time.
At this time of crisis, funeral profession leaders say it is imperative to adhere to the values and principles of service to families that have always driven the funeral profession. Address your fears and the fears of families. Establish rapport and build the trust that families need at the time of a loved one’s death. Reassure families you will be with them and then live up to that promise, even if you must rely on videoconferencing instead of face-to-face meetings, and photographs and virtual tours of your properties, instead of in-person visits.
Adapt, and demonstrate caring responsibility in the worst of times, they say.
Frank, Vigorous Leaders in History
History’s strongest leaders have led us honestly and communicated their commitment eloquently in times of crisis.
President Abraham Lincoln, who saw seven Southern states secede between November 6, 1860, the day he was elected, and his inauguration March 4, 1861, appealed to Americans’ “better angels,” as he worked to prevent our nation from tearing further apart. Lincoln ended his inaugural address by saying:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
President Ronald Reagan spoke directly about the importance of honesty and openness on January 28, 1986, the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded before the eyes of millions worldwide who watched it on TV. He reminded our nation and the world of an undaunted commitment to science. He spoke of hope.
I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don't hide our space program. We don't keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we wouldn't change it for a minute.
We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.
South African President Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary and political prisoner who became the first democratically elected president of South Africa and its first black president, spoke directly of fear.
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
Leaders in the funeral and cremation professions can address their own fears, then help fill the emotional tanks of colleagues, families and friends, offering a beacon of hope.
Words that Echo Eerily Today
Perhaps the leadership and words of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, provide the most apt instruction for today’s COVID-19 pandemic. During the Crimean War, between 1853 to 1856, more soldiers were dying from infections than from battle injuries. Nightingale and her team of nurses reduced the death count by two thirds by improving the unsanitary conditions at a British hospital.
“Wise and humane management of the patient is the best safeguard against infection,” Nightingale said.
Even more illuminating today are these words from this “Lady with the Lamp” who said,
“How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.”
Communications with frankness and vigor, indeed.
Be safe. Help others to move past the fear. Be that inspirational leader.
This post is excerpted from Kathy Schaeffer Consulting, LLC blog post of the same name. You can read the original and more post and leadership, professional development, and public relations on their publicly available blog: http://www.ksapr.com/ksa-blog.
Current circumstances impel us to design creative solutions and offer new options. There is no playbook—only your ongoing commitment to promote connection and healthy grief for the families you serve. Thank you for making the extra effort and please stay safe and healthy.
Some leadership resources to grow your skills:
Kathy Schaeffer, principal of Kathy Schaeffer Consulting, LLC (KSC), has run her own public relations firm for 25 years, helping clients win in the “court of public opinion.” Kathy helps nonprofit, association and corporate clients build public awareness, generate public support, mend reputations and navigate crises. She advises leaders on messaging and communicating in the public arena – whether the environment is positive or fraught with crisis, opposition or political sensitivity. Kathy’s services include strategic communications counsel, messaging, community support-building, writing, and media and presentation training. A lifelong Chicagoan, Kathy founded her firm in downtown Chicago in 1994, advising clients in an array of areas, including health care, economic development, tax policy, education and philanthropy. She and her team earned numerous accolades and awards, including the prestigious Platinum Award from the Publicity Club of Chicago. Kathy now splits her time between Michigan and Illinois..