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Don’t Let Uncertainty Get You Down

A Letter from Executive Director Diana Spencer

Dear Friends,

One thing that is certain in this uncertain world: No one is immune from the COVID situation today. Some people are vigilant in protecting themselves and others. Some people do not see a severe threat. Either way, our country is at a pivotal point in history where every decision we make matters more than ever. It is life and death.

Well over 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed; nearly 4,000,000 people have lost jobs permanently; in the nonprofit sector, organizations are overrun by their clients’ needs or without any clients at all. People who have run out of unemployment benefits and grace periods have vanished, dispersed into shelters, perhaps, or family garages or to locations far away.

Philanthropic giving in the United States tops $400 billion. Federal dollars for social services is $8 trillion. And still, uncertainty reigns. How will we recover from such a brutal experience?

In this issue of the News, we cover a management tool called scenario planning, as practiced by a leading consulting firm, The Alford Group. As CEO Brenda Asare explains, scenario planning helps leaders formulate responses to potential changes, and it is a crucial tool these days. But to be positive, any tool, any leadership, must rest on a set of principles that won’t be violated in the midst of uncertainty. At the Fund, we subscribe to six principles, and we often advise future leaders to answer the question, “Where is your North Star?” Otherwise, a planning tool, absent any firm purpose or value, could well misdirect an organization—let it get swept along by situational concerns.

This brings me to the annual McGowan Symposium on Business Leadership & Ethics, the cornerstone event of our McGowan Fellows Program, a scholarship program that offers 10 MBA students from top-tier institutions full tuition, plus a multi-channel experience in leadership training. The fall symposium convenes experts to discuss challenges leaders face as they try to lead with ethical, principle-based decision-making in our uncertain world. Like every other event of our time, ours was virtual, underscoring the uncertainty we all face today. Our timely topics this year: “Social Influence in Cyberspace” and “Doing Well by Doing Good.”

Can principled leadership training help society today? We believe passionately in this training and in the leaders we’ve helped develop. A couple of examples: Nicole Chin Bell (Booth, University of Chicago, 2016), who leads projects for the Boston Consulting Group, which uses the lens of total societal impact in its work for clients and Nikki Tyler (Kellogg, Northwestern University, 2013), who serves on the U.S. Agency for International Development’s COVID task force. This year’s class includes an emergency physician who hopes to use her MBA to improve healthcare and an executive VP of a nonprofit who has interned at Nike, an interesting intersection. In the next year, they’ll articulate their own social identities, their values, their strengths, and their weaknesses as leaders. Ideally, they’ll emerge with the ability and motivation to make decisions after assessing the implications for people, the community, environment, and the company.

We recognize that, in this light, decision-making becomes more complex, not less. It’s also true that uncertainty could cloud these assessments, but as leaders of the Business Roundtable announced last year in their “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” companies should serve not only their shareholders, but also deliver value to their customers, invest in employees, deal fairly with suppliers, and support the communities in which they operate. Uncertainty is a complicating factor, but not an excuse to forgo this thinking.

These are tough times. They call for innovative thought and the ability to pivot. But they also call for our leaders—those who are newly minted and those with decades in hand—to hold on to purpose and principle, to “live their North Star.” I’m impressed by the leadership I see in some businesses and many organizations, and I am encouraged that philanthropy, businesses, and educational institutions will work more closely together, addressing the needs and investing in sustainable solutions for our communities.

How will we recover from this brutal experience? Through principled leadership.