Rosie the RiviterSome leaders are making significant changes in how they think and act since COVID-19 turned the world upside down. This client’s story highlights lessons for many of us.

When she was ten years old Sonia’s family immigrated to the United States from the Middle East. They had little money and spoke little English. With help from their community and from supportive agencies, they settled and thrived.

Sonia graduated from a top school on a scholarship. Inspired by the groups that helped her family, she grew to become the chief fundraiser for a large global humanitarian agency. Her tireless work with benefactors and the Board of Trustees led to a substantial increase in their endowment fund.

A few months ago, her organization sponsored a leadership development program. I helped Sonia understand the feedback she received from a 360-degree assessment instrument. On one hand, she received glowing praise about her tenacity and smarts. Yet she also learned that her direct reports felt intimidated by her authoritative presence. And despite working with her for years, they felt they didn’t really know her. Her peers respected her track record but wished she would contribute more in Cabinet meetings.

Feedback Can Pinch

Sonia was upset with the feedback. She defended her successes raising money, and how she had learned the hard way to not let her guard down. She said that she ‘knew her place’ with her peers and with the President, questioning why she needed to contribute more to Cabinet meetings. Sonia seemed disinclined to take the feedback further.

So, I was surprised a week later when Sonia called to discuss how she could improve. On our call, she described her family’s strong work ethic and their belief in the power of education. She also discussed her culture’s respect of elders and adherence to traditional gender roles. She even shared her feelings of rejection as a minority student at an Ivy League university.

Sonia told me she wanted to be more open with her team, and to speak up more at Cabinet meetings, but it didn’t come naturally.

To accomplish her goals Sonia had to confront some core ‘commandments’ that were contributing to her behavior. These included ‘thou shalt not be emotionally vulnerable at work,’ and ‘thou shalt not disrespect your elders (especially men).’ Our coaching conversations revolved around how she could reduce the grip these commandments held over her.

And then our coaching was interrupted by the scourge of COVID-19. The health catastrophe rapidly became a fiscal emergency as the crisis revealed the Organization’s fragile finances. Budgets were slashed; half of Sonia’s hand-selected team was furloughed.

It Takes Courage to Grow

In the past, Sonia might have solely focused on maintaining funding during a fiscal crisis. Yet when we connected, she asserted that she was also taking the 360 feedback to heart.

Sonia said that she was holding twice-weekly virtual check-ins with her team. During these meetings she provided updates, but more importantly, she shared personal concerns about her family and her native country and grieved the absence of furloughed team members. She exposed sides of herself that she hadn’t revealed before. This led others to share their own anxieties and created space for more innovative approaches to fundraising during the crisis.

She also connected with furloughed team members to help keep their spirits up. Sonia vowed to continue these practices when they returned to a more normal time.

But Sonia was proudest of her performance in a contentious video conference Cabinet meeting. After hesitating, she openly disagreed with the President’s cuts to the upcoming fiscal year’s budget. She proposed an alternative solution, which was supported by the Chief Financial Officer. The President agreed to study the new plan.

Sonia said it was a bit less intimidating to confront the President in a virtual meeting, and that it helped build her confidence for the future. One of her peers later congratulated her for speaking up and joked that she must have really heard the feedback she received.

Sonia has started challenging her beliefs about vulnerability and about speaking ‘truth to power,’ which takes a lot of courage. It is inspiring to see her transformation shine through the darkness of the pandemic.

Sonia isn’t the only leader developing and growing through the crisis. If you know someone who has experienced significant personal development as a leader, please contact me at I’d love to share their story too.