The New Playbook
for Executive Leaders
Today’s CEO

CEO to CEO: Leadership Lessons From a Year of Crisis

In this article:
Candid thoughts from 10 CEOs who answered the question: What did 2020 teach you about leadership that you wish you'd known before?

Association CEOs are seasoned leaders who may sometimes feel like they’ve seen it all. But most will admit they haven’t, and last year was proof of that. With the COVID-19 pandemic entering its second year—and with the light at the end of the tunnel brightening—we asked CEOs to reflect on what the experience of leading through crisis has taught them. Here’s what they told us.


Jim Anderson, CAE

President and CEO, California Society of Association Executives

COVID forced clear thinking and quick decisions. I’ve learned that we can move boldly, be inclusive, and garner strong board support. I’ve learned that associations can (and should) adapt much more quickly than they have historically. We’re learning so much—making good decisions and a few mistakes—and the result is moving forward and building a new, strong foundation for the future.


Sheri Sesay-Tuffour, Ph.D., CAE

CEO, Pediatric Nursing Certification Board

Never underestimate the power of human connection. The world-changing, paradigm-shifting developments of 2020 landed us all in uncharted territory. I relied on my training and past experiences to maintain trust, responsiveness, and open dialogue in my organization amid a pandemic, protests over racial injustice, and political tension. While these skills were important for harnessing my team’s creativity and strengthening our resilience, I witnessed the ability of empathy and humanity to collectively heal and instill hope for a new tomorrow.


Danny Langfield

CEO, National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association

2020 brought me an all-new perspective on staff working from home and how effective it could be. It’s like we all were forced to run this bizarre management experiment: “Hey, how about we send everyone home for eight months and see how they do working remotely? Sound good?” No, no, that would not have sounded good—or sane. But our hands were forced, so we did it, and many of us have found it to be shockingly effective. Remote work policies across the globe will likely never be the same.


Johnnie White, MBA, CMP, CAE

CEO/Executive Vice President, American Society of Appraisers

2020 has taught me that we can be more agile, and it is OK to push the limits. With the right leadership, this shift can take place among all stakeholders in an association, including staff, members, and volunteer leadership.


Randall Moore

CEO, American Association of Nurse Anesthetists

Leadership in crisis, particularly a crisis of this magnitude and duration, will undoubtedly drain you. It’s imperative that leaders focus, with intentionality, on their physical and psychological well-being. Resilience and self-compassion are not luxuries; they’re essential elements of great leadership.


Lynne McNees

President, International SPA Association

We are all doing the best we can, and no amount of planning can prepare you for all the what-if scenarios. Surround yourself with people who challenge every assumption and are willing to reimagine the possibilities. One thing we know for sure is that things will remain very different after 2020.


Rafi Mohammed

CEO, Manitoba Dental Association

As CEO, you need to be prepared for many different situations that may or may not happen. During the past year, I learned:

  • A leadership strategy for work teams needs to be in place, especially for catastrophic events.
  • Flexible work schedules for employees enable an organization to pivot seamlessly to offsite management.
  • Wellness services for employees—and engaging employees to address their work and family issues—are critically important.
  • Communications should present a strong message of calmness and confidence in a time of crisis. Leaders need to be positive and share a new vision of what the organization and its members’ profession can be after the crisis has passed.


Wade Koehler, CAE

Executive Director, Foodservice Consultants Society International–The Americas Division

This year taught me to be a better listener to my employees and members. It made me appreciate and embrace the family nature of associations through listening, supporting, and embracing change.


Robert Jay Malone

Executive Director, History of Science Society

I learned that ongoing board orientation is critical for a healthy organization. Pandemics place stress tests on societies, and making sure that everyone is clear regarding the separation of duties and how the pieces work together will help your group survive that test.


Megan Levin

Executive Director, Refrigerated Foods Association

For me, 2020 has emphasized the need for judicious optimism. While staying informed and realistic regarding this global pandemic, I’ve learned that effective leaders convey a sense of reassurance and calm that ripples through their organization and helps pull groups together and enable them to make sound decisions. I’ve learned that a bright outlook is not a weakness and should not be misconstrued as quixotic, but rather as a quiet strength that helps teams weather storms.

Julie Shoop

Julie Shoop is the Editor-in-Chief of Associations Now.

More from Today’s CEO

View Lead2021
In a year that tested everyone’s mettle, the most successful leaders not only steered their organizations through daunting challenges. They also led by example with empathy, self-care, and attention to mental health—including their own.
Spontaneity, empathy, and reading the (virtual) room have helped CEOs keep their teams engaged and connected during an unpredictable year that separated colleagues and posed management challenges, but also offered insights into new ways of working and leading.
The past year forced association executives into challenges and decisions they may not have been ready for, and the crises of 2020 will have long-term impacts. As 2021 dawns, the most important skills that CEOs can cultivate are the ones they’ll need to excel as change leaders.