Former America250 CEO Joe Daniels on the New Pressures of Leading in a Post-Pandemic World
It’s a brave new world out there when it comes to organizational leadership. Gone are the days of the screaming boss with the rolled-up sleeves and the take-no-prisoners attitude. People don’t want to work like that anymore — and they don’t. The pandemic, the great accelerator of existing change, created a whole new set of rules for leaders that were ushered in quickly and could have profound effects on how businesses and other entities exist both in the economy and in society writ large.
Joe Daniels, the former CEO of America250 who previously held the same position at The National September 11 Memorial & Museum as well as The National Medal of Honor Museum, has lived and worked through the changes of the last two decades, some of which have been welcome, others that have created challenges.
Joseph Daniels, former CEO of the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, who led the project, said that one of the most demanding changes for his particular leadership style was maintaining a degree of connectivity and culture during a period when many people were distancing from each other.
“The biggest problem that I had with my leadership style, which really emphasizes a lot of individual and group interaction at the memorial, was not being together,” Joe Daniels says of the changes in working conditions during the initial pandemic period. “I had a lot of formal meetings with different levels of the organization, but a lot of it was walking the halls. And because we had built up both professional and social bonds, me dropping by was not an uncommon experience. The amount that I would learn in these casual but professional contexts was incredibly valuable. I mean, meeting with people who are on the construction team or in finance, me dropping in and spending 20 minutes listening to what they’re working on, I leave there learning a ton more. They leave there feeling extremely respected because I’m listening [to them] a lot.”
Joseph Daniels’ CEO instincts are spot on. Studies found that roughly one-third of all employees felt disconnected from their organization’s leadership during the pandemic, fueled chiefly by a lack of the very interactions Daniels mentions above.
The change has been drastic enough that Joe Daniels says that he wasn’t sure if, given today’s office and work dynamics, the completion of the 9/11 project would have in fact been on schedule.
“The pandemic made that huge part of my ability to connect with my employees extremely difficult because in Zoom interaction, all they see of you is what they’re seeing through these video calls,” Daniels observes. “So to the extent that it was important, it is important to me to build individual relationships and try to provide inspiration in a way that feels authentic. Being in-person is kind of, at least for me, a prerequisite for that.”
These sorts of interactions aren’t just about how the leader feels, of course. As Daniels who has sat in the CEO seat for much of his career can attest, the pressures put upon leaders have a way of trickling down. For Daniels, someone who cares deeply for meaningful interactions and not just transactional encounters, that created some issues.
Daniels shares that in his previous position at the National Medal of Honor Museum, he hired several people from his previous endeavors who he knew and trusted. But the lack of time spent with other hires led Daniels to believe he was leaning too much on those he knew.
“There is a natural tendency that is overly indexed to go to them because I already have that bond, because it’s really difficult to create that bond with new people that I can’t see and I can’t interact with outside of the office, which isn’t good for team morale overall,” former CEO Joseph Daniels says.
What isn’t acceptable in the workplace is constantly changing. As referenced above, fewer people are forced to deal with a screaming boss anymore. Motivation by fear is out (thankfully), and people want to work for — and with — people they respect and who respect them.
For Daniels, who at this point in his career has been the CEO of several formidable organizations, this is a good thing, as it plays to his strengths. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t augmentations to be made.
Daniels referenced the popular political drama The West Wing, a television show that was not only on the public mind, but also, for many, served as sort of a “this is how things could/should be” with regard to office interactions.
Smart, witty banter coupled with genuine affection and care was how it was perceived at the time.
But as Daniels points out, even a show as revered as The West Wing is subject to the changes and progression of society.
“The amount of personal interaction, the dialogue that these colleagues are having with each other, with subordinates, first of all, a bunch of it, I actually look back and it feels a little sexist,” he says in retrospect. “That needs to be part of the calculus now.”
And that goes to the heart of how Daniels wants to lead, both as the head of an organization and as a citizen of this country.
For the leaders that succeed, change is a part of the job. Whether other business, political, and social leaders are able to follow Daniels’ lead in adjusting to that change will go a long way in determining the success of those organizations.
“It’s all about America one way or the other,” says Daniels. “And not in a fireworks and flyover type of way, but in really bringing the incredible diversity and specialness of what it means to be an American together — patriotic philanthropy, people wanting to help America achieve its highest ideals. It’s really alive and well out there. And that’s been the market or the space that I like to operate in.”