How to Lead Through a Crisis with Steve Patty of Dialogues in Action

Episode 1: September 24, 2020 | The Public Space

Steve Patty, Founder of Dialogues in Action, joins Lilisa to discuss three key actions leaders can take to guide their teams through a crisis.

Show Notes and Resources

Effective leadership is crucial to successfully navigating a crisis, but what does it look like in practice? Steve Patty shares tangible steps every leader can take to not only weather a crisis, but also grow through it. Steve is a teacher, consultant, author, and conference speaker. Through his consulting firm, Dialogues in Action, he helps people and organizations evaluate their impact, expand their influence through leadership, and develop strategies to move their mission forward.

In this episode:

  • Productive ways to view a crisis (1:38)
  • Opportunities presented by difficulties (3:07)
  • How leaders tend to react to crisis (7:01)
  • What leaders should do in a crisis (11:34)
  • The importance of support structures (15:39)
  • Three key actionable steps for leaders to take (16:55)

Additional resources:

About Our Guest

Steve Patty, Ph.D. is the founder of Dialogues In Action. He has been helping leaders and organizations develop programs, evaluate impact, and design strategy for 20 years, working on the strategy of organizations such as Oregon Food Bank, Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington, and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

Steve has consulted in leadership development and impact evaluation for national organizations such as the YMCA of the USA and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, international organizations like MEND Central and Josiah Venture, and regional organizations like the nonprofit sector Labor Management Partnership of British Columbia.

He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and has been trained at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His expertise lies in design of education and training, strategy and program development, and impact evaluation and measurement. He is a published author and frequent public speaker.


Lilisa Hall: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Public Space, a podcast from the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. The Public Space is where thought leaders share strategic ideas and solutions that spark positive change in civil society. I'm Lilisa Hall, Membership, Communications, and Advancement Director for the Nonprofit Association of Oregon, and I'm excited to share that this is our first episode.

In this podcast, I'll be connecting with experts from across the nonprofit sector and beyond to talk about the changing ideas, opportunities, and issues that affect our communities. Each conversation will offer tangible steps that nonprofit organizations, supporters, and partners can take to better our communities.

Today's conversation is about leading during a crisis. How do leaders successfully navigate difficult times? And more importantly, how should they? Steve Patty, Founder and Leadership Consultant at Dialogues In Action, joins me to discuss tangible ways to effectively lead and motivate during a crisis. Steve has been helping leaders and organizations design strategy, develop programs, and evaluate impact for more than 20 years in the Pacific Northwest, nationally, and internationally. Steve, thank you so much for joining me today.

Steve Patty: [00:01:27] You're welcome Lilisa.

Lilisa Hall: [00:01:29] Let's dive right into the first question. Steve, how should we view a crisis in relation to leadership, as well as personal and professional growth?

Steve Patty: [00:01:38] Well, crises are, are so hard on leaders, aren't they? It disrupts, by definition, a crisis disrupts so much, so the strategy that was so clear at one point is often interrupted by a crisis, and momentum is often hindered by a crisis. So, it's so easy for leaders to be discouraged - maybe even feeling some despair in the midst of crisis. And I know a lot of leaders who have been experiencing that and feeling that pretty deeply, and I have experienced that as well during these times and moments. But I've been intrigued by that, that statement that many of us have heard time and again: "never let a good crisis go to waste." Which, I think, is attributed to Rahm Emanuel, but may go all the way back to Winston Churchill.

And, there's something about that statement has been really helpful for me and for others. It implies at least two different things: that there is, there's an opportunity in a crisis and that there's some possibility - you can actually accomplish something during a crisis that you can't accomplish at any other time, and there's as a window of opportunity that opens and it probably will close at the end of a crisis. And then it also implies that it's possible to waste it - to be fearful or to be filled with anxiety or to just be inattentive, or to hunker down into survival mode, and then survive a crisis, but waste the opportunity of a crisis.

And so I think if we, as leaders, can wrap our heads around the possibility of a crisis, that really helps us to be able to navigate these stormy waters in a way that is more productive. I'm reminded also by a quote by Jean Piaget, who is a genetic epistemologist, one of the early thought leaders and seminal theorists in the area of human development. And he said, "Disequilibration is the engine of growth."

Disequilibration - so something's equilibrated - it's stable, it's at a stasis. It's, you know, it's calm, things are going as planned, but the disruption of that, he says, is actually the engine for growth. So, I think that's germane to each of us personally, as leaders, that there's some opportunity in the disruption of it all, even though it's unwelcomed and nothing that we would have chosen for our lives. But there might be some possibility for us to step into growing areas in our own leadership because the crisis reveals vulnerabilities within us. It reveals things that have  - in our own leadership that are less mature than we had assumed that they were. And so we have the opportunity to kind of step into that and move forward and be courageous about our own growth and development.

And I think organizationally, as well, it provides some opportunity to do some things that are really helpful for an organization. So we've been talking to leaders over the past number of months, we've been telling them that you have at least three different categories of opportunity. You've got an opportunity to rethink your strategy, to evolve it, to make it even better than it was before.

And this crisis is pressing on you to do that and to kind of rethink, reenvision, redesign, evolve how you interact with your strategy. It also gives you an opportunity to fix some chronic and preexisting issues. And many of us, for years, have known of things we should have given attention to and then we'd just been too busy. There's too much on our plate,  we're running too hard, and a crisis like this uncovers that and lays it bare in front of us. And so while things are up in the air, and disruption's all around us, you know, the hood's up and we're tinkering with the engine, this would be a great time to address some of those chronic issues that have been nagging at us for a while.

I think, also, it gives us the opportunity, organizationally, to grow our leadership, to grow partners, to develop people...that people are attentive in ways right now that they aren't typically. Maybe they - they're caring - the care of people has been animated in ways that, perhaps, was dormant prior to the crisis.

And so this also is an opportunity for us to engage people in different, new, fresh kinds of ways that might actually develop them, develop partners, and mobilize people to push forward and advance the cause and the mission that we're shouldering and we hold so dear. In the face of all of the anxiety that we, as leaders, experience in the middle of a crisis - to think that there's some opportunity both personally, as well as organizationally, I think is a productive way to try to approach leadership during this time.

Lilisa Hall: [00:06:30] I love the "disruption is the engine of growth." That is a concept that, I think, just helps us figure out how a crisis can be an opportunity that we can leverage, so thanks for that. Okay, let's move on to the next question, Steve. So, share with us how people and particularly leaders generally operate in a crisis. What do they tend to do and why?

Steve Patty: [00:07:01] That's a fascinating question, I think, and I was actually talking with one of my mentors yesterday about this. She lives in Chicago and was part of my dissertation committee, and now, is a retired Dean from a university, and I've been touching base with her pretty regularly because I just need a sounding board during these times too.

And we were reflecting on how politicians are responding during times of crisis. She, in Chicago, and me, here in Portland. And we were reflecting how politicians tend to be kind of inactive or stay the course of how they were going prior to the crisis or they panic. And we had illustrations and both of those, both from Chicago and in our area.

And I have a great deal of empathy - it must be extraordinarily difficult to be a politician during this day and age. And I think it's extraordinarily difficult just to be a leader during this day and age, and I think that is the tendency for each one of us, as well. We tend to either double down on our current strategies - and there are all kinds of reasons why we do that, where we have a clear strategic plan, we have resources that are allocated certain ways, we have personnel that we've hired, and they have portfolios of responsibility that are all aligned with how things were going and how we thought they would go during 2020.

So we just continued to press forward  on that and have a hard time adjusting to that. The other tendency, I think, is to just throw ideas at problems - to panic a little bit. And we do that for a variety of really understandable reasons, too. We want to do something, we feel like we need to do something, and so we tend to cast around and just start throwing ideas at the issues that we're facing. And neither of those, I think, are helpful responses to crisis. I think we actually do need to evolve and adapt and not just double down on current strategies, no matter how good they looked, four or five or six months ago.

And I think we have to be more deliberate and intentional about how to respond and not  just throwing ideas or throwing solutions that are ill-conceived or fully worked through. Just along that line, of my good friends, at the start of the pandemic, encouraged me to watch that movie Apollo 13, which is the Hollywood rendition of the Apollo mission to the moon that ran into trouble.

They stirred the oxygen tanks and it blew a hole in the side of the spacecraft, and you know, the Hollywood rendition, it's Tom Hanks, of course it's Tom Hanks, who calls back to Houston and basically says, "Houston, we have a problem." And then the next scene is the mission control in Houston just erupting in pandemonium, and people are scrambling around trying to figure out what to do, and the person in charge calms them all down and says something like, "Okay everyone, work the problem. Don't make things worse by just guessing." And that that little phrase has been sticking in my mind over the past number of months, you know, we have to actually work the problem. We can't make things worse by just guessing by just throwing problem...throwing solutions at the issue.

And so, I think that takes some discipline, it takes some with some stability, it takes some process for leaders, and it takes a great deal of courage to be able to, you know, to actually work the growing edge of what needs to happen within a team, or an organization, in order to be able to evolve during this time. I think there are probably two different categories of responsibilities: one is just to provide some stabilization. That happens  pretty quickly, you know, you don't have much time to put out the fire, but the other kind of work is the work of adaptation. And, as we've interacted with leaders, we see them navigating the stabilization part of this fairly well, but the adaptation work, which is the really evolutionary work that needs to happen is...that's more difficult and it requires more presence and discipline to be able to work through.

Lilisa Hall: [00:11:19] Great. I took a couple of things from that, Steve. You know, work the problem - that's sort of a major one. And then, that we need to be deliberate and intentional about how we respond. So what should people and leaders do in a crisis, Steve?

Steve Patty: [00:11:34] Well, I've used the word adaptation a few times so far, and that's the word that has been in my mind mostly during these times. And I think that it's an idea that's really productive for people to think through. And when I say adaptation, I'm not thinking of a casual definition of adaptation. This is something like, let's just, you know, let's outlast this, you know, we can adapt, we can make it through or let's design a workaround and put everything online, and then we'll take it back off of line when, when we get past something like this pandemic. But adaptation in a biological sense, you know, in evolutionary biology - if we take that as an analogy - is the change that a species needs to navigate in order to be able to thrive in a changing environment. And for any adaptation to be successful, we know it has to have three different characteristics:  an adaptation preserves what's brilliant for the species.

And so, when we think about a leader or an organization going through adaptation, it's something different than just pivoting. You can pivot and try something totally new, but you can leave what has been serving you well so far and head off into space that is, you know, outside of your lane or in areas where there's other people, you know, doing wonderful things in those areas and it would just clog up that field. So, it preserves what's brilliant. And then, secondly, you let go of what no longer serves your organization's best purposes, or, you know, if it's evolutionary biology, this species of best purpose. So, you have to let go of some DNA that no longer works.

Part of that is because of the changing environment around you - so often it's a letting go of dependencies, or let letting go of a single way of doing something, or letting go of a limited view of the work. So, a letting go - a discarding of something. And then, thirdly, of an adoption, or embracing, or development of new DNA arrangements that help the species thrive.

Those three steps we've found to be helpful for organizations to know: what's brilliant that you need to preserve about your DNA? What do you have to let go of now that we are heading into kind of a new experience in the world around us? And then, what do we need to develop that is new and beyond our current competence? So, it moves us past that which we are good at right now and into frontiers for us.

So, what that means for a leader, individually, then - for personhood of a leader - is to be able to really wrestle with those evolutionary challenges. So, we have to renegotiate our relationship with incompetence. So, we've been so good at so many things and we're settled in that, but we actually have to be willing to experiment at the edge of our incompetence and just renegotiate our relationship with that and then avail ourselves to productive disequilibrium. So, actually embrace disequilibrium and let it do its work on us. And I don't mean to say that in a trite kind of way, like, you know, we've all heard the saying "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," and I disagree with that statement.

You could experience something that doesn't kill you and that can really mess you up for quite some time. So, it's not just the experience of stress or discomfort, it's how you respond to the experience of stress or discomfort that actually makes you grow and change. So, it's not just making it through, but it's availing yourself to the work that needs to be done, prompted by, or instigated through, discomfort that allows, over time, you to grow and develop. And then, I think this requires for a leader also to nurture one's heart in the middle of it as well. Because it's easy to get discouraged and to despair and to lose vision and to lose some hope, but to create support structures around you to be able to keep going productively.

And, in my mind, those support structures, or at least personally, that you need two different things: you need allies, so people who are, who will think with you and work with you and process things with you, and then you need confidants as well. Confidants that you can share the craziness that's in your head, as, you know, as you're wrestle with things and  worry, you know, and have anxiety, just to give you personal support, not just strategic support during it all.

So those are some of the things I think leaders need to do in the midst of crisis that help them actually grow and develop, take the opportunity, and not just outlast it or make it through.

Lilisa Hall: [00:16:17] That's great, Steve, and I really like your thought process and your guidance on wanting to make sure that people take a step back and focus on themselves as well as the work they have to do in order to lead organizations and people because if you don't self-care, then it's even more challenging to be able to lead and motivate people to do great things and navigate during a crisis. So with that, what are the three key actionable steps that all of us, and particularly nonprofit leaders, can take to manage and navigate a crisis successfully?

Steve Patty: [00:16:55] Three key, actionable steps - I have so many thoughts here. Let me mention a couple: one,  I think it's important, as an action item, for leaders to do their own personal work of growing and developing as they engage in doing strategic work for the organization and growing and developing.  Something about stepping into, leaning into, courageously embracing the things that are being revealed during this time personally for leaders that puts leaders in a really good frame of mind and taking a good posture to do this for their organizations and their teams, too. It shows up authentically - you have empathy for people struggling. You understand what people have to lose in order to be able to gain the...what can be gained during this time.

And so, I would encourage leaders to pay attention to what is behind the curtain in their own hearts and in their own minds as they wrestle with these issues of "How do I respond?" You know? So what's happening to me as I am being impatient with others, whereas I'm worried about survival more than loving people in my community, when I'm protective of my own dignity over protecting other people's dignities. Those kinds of things that are stirred up through times of stress. To really watch those, pay attention to those, and then start working on those. And that, I think that really helps organizationally, strategically, the whole thing move forward. So, that's one thing I would say.

Second would be to, as you mentioned earlier, to do the hard work. So, solutions don't typically, we've observed, just come out of the blue, you know, the heavens don't part and you get a voice of epiphany speaking to you about what needs to happen or what the possibilities are. Often it's just plodding away over time, doing the right kinds of work. So, not just the easy work, not just the low hanging fruit, or the stopgaps, or the quick wins, the things that people are clamoring for around you, but to really think, "how do we evolve our organization or our work such that we can have an amplified impact into the future?" And I think holding the potential for that in our minds is a really important thing, but doing the work requires discipline to work that through.

And then maybe, thirdly, to create a holding environment for you and your team. So, holding environment, you think, what will it take for us to stick with that work? I have this picture in my head of a...of what a pressure cooker does when it cooks food. The heat agitates the molecules and the molecules start expanding and wanting to escape the container. But, if the agitated molecules escape the container, then the cooking doesn't happen. So, the pressure cooker locks it in.

And we have plenty of heat right now in our lives. There's all kinds of things that are agitating - really wonderful, productive things - but agitation is uncomfortable. We want to escape that, so what will it take to kind of lock us in to the work? And that's, I think people, some processes, some accountability, and those help us stay with the hard work of adaptation over time and keep us from getting distracted.

So, to create that holding environment - so, people to talk to, those who might be advisors for the process.  As I mentioned earlier, confidants to be able to just process what it is that's going through our heads and our hearts in the moments. And I think that gets us to a place where we can then think about the potential for the future.

I've been struck by a quote from Frederick Buechner, who once wrote, "Vocation is where your greatest passion meets the world's greatest need." And I think this happens for organizations, you know. They have passion about certain kinds of things. Then they find their work in that intersection between their passion and the world's greatest needs.

And these days, the world's greatest needs are just, oh, they're expanding, they're changing, they're shifting, which means that our vocation, our work, really needs to shift as well. And there's possibility that we might have an expanded impact, more broad, deeper, more profound than we could have ever imagined, if we interact with it in ways that are productive.

Lilisa Hall: [00:21:30] Yeah. Well, thanks, Steve, for that, and coincidentally, I used my pressure cooker yesterday making some curry, so that analogy that you just described just...I was thinking about what I was doing yesterday afternoon. Thank you so much, Steve. Really appreciate you sharing your expertise with us.

Thank you for tuning into The Public Space. In times of crises, we are faced with significant challenges and huge uncertainties. Things are changing rapidly that we don't have control over, and having great leaders who are there to guide, motivate, and mobilize people to positive action is key to coming out the other side successfully. My hope is that this conversation resonated with you. Maybe it sparked an idea, made you stop and think, encouraged you to make a change, or even take a bold action. To find out more about the work that Steve and his team do, check out

The Public Space is a podcast from the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. NAO is the statewide nonprofit membership organization representing and supporting charitable nonprofits of all sizes, geographic locations, and missions across Oregon. Visit and sign up for our newsletter for more information about membership resources and our great network.

The Public Space is produced by NAO's Brad Ramos with help from Anna McClain.


The Public Space is brought to you by the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. NAO strives to connect, improve, and advance all nonprofits to help build a thriving and vital Oregon. Subscribe to The Public Space wherever you get your podcasts.

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