Most leaders, regardless of how talented, will eventually face an issue that challenges them to their core. It’s inevitable.
Being courted by organizations can be delightful. The “honeymoon” period after obtaining a new position may stoke leaders’ egos. Hosting Christmas parties and conducting routine staff meetings might enhance a leader’s self-esteem. But dealing with problems is when leaders prove their mettle.
I vividly remember my first major leadership role. I was the new pastor at a church that had been declining in attendance and giving for seven years. The previous pastor had been unable to stop the church’s descent. Here I was, a fresh seminary graduate ready to lead the congregation forward. Then a former church member asked to have lunch with me. He had been a long-time influential leader in the past. He was well-versed in every scandal and skeleton-filled closet in my congregation. He took the next four hours to inform me of numerous problems of which I had been blissfully unaware. When I returned home, my wife was alarmed at how pale I was. I felt physically sick.
Four years later, I was called to be the president of a seminary. I began my tenure as the youngest employee on the entire staff. My first day on the job, I attempted to make coffee in the commercial coffee machine and proceeded to drench myself as water spewed everywhere. I soon discovered that most of the faculty had vocally urged the trustees to reconsider hiring me, as they were certain I would lead the school straight into oblivion.
Thirteen years later, I became the president of Blackaby Ministries International. It was founded by my father, but as he aged, so had his ministry. The staff were godly and loyal, but they were clearly incapable of taking the organization into the future. Furthermore, one of my first endeavors was to minister to Christian CEOs alongside my father. I’ll never forget those early sessions. At the close of one meeting, I asked a CEO what time his flight departed for home. He smiled and replied, “When I get there.” This was the first discipleship I had ever done where participants arrived in corporate jets! Another man mentioned that earlier that week he had convened a breakfast meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, a lunch meeting in Istanbul, and a dinner meeting in Barcelona. I quickly realized I was entirely out of my league.
In each of the above instances, I was struck with the same insight: I desperately needed to grow! I was inadequate for the task at hand. I wasn’t yet the man or the leader that people needed me to be. But I also was greatly relieved to come to a powerful, life-changing realization. It seemed self-apparent, yet it revolutionized how I led and lived. I could always grow.
Personal growth became my secret weapon. Though I wasn’t yet the leader I needed to be, I could become him. I could learn. I could read. I could meet with other leaders and grow with them. I could reflect honestly on how I was leading and examine my results. I could make course corrections and necessary adjustments. I didn’t have to stay in a rut, especially if it was unproductive.
There is no way that leaders can prepare for every challenge they may face. Most leaders had no prior training on facing worldwide pandemics like Covid-19. Many of today’s issues such as cancel culture, transgenderism, and a politicized society have created many challenges for leaders that would have been unimaginable in earlier decades. Few could have foreseen such tectonic shifts in society. The church, businesses, politics, and every sphere of human life must find ways to adapt to these new realities.
Some leaders have simply opted out. Many have given up trying to lead and have succumbed merely to being led. Others have suffered all manner of stress-related issues. Now is certainly not an easy time to lead! But it is a most necessary time.
There are no easy answers for today’s leaders. However, there are some tried-and-true anchors to which you can tether your leadership.
First, keep growing. You are not yet the leader your organization needs you to be in this perilous time. But you can be. Do your homework (And no, that does not merely mean watching the news every evening). Read books and articles. Learn what other leaders are doing. Join a group of like-minded professionals who are learning together. I work with a group of CEOs of high-level companies. It has been great to watch them sharing best practices and what they have learned from science, law, management, and their walk with God. They have provided sounding boards for those who were navigating their way through uncharted territory. Many of these leaders will come out of this period stronger, wiser, and more successful than ever before.
Second, focus on what matters. In times of crisis, people are easily distracted. They often zero in on symptoms rather than root causes. They concentrate on issues and forget people. They fixate on problems and miss opportunities. A crisis is not the time to jettison values. It is a time to turn to them for guidance. The reality is that your organization most likely will weather the storm, if worse for wear. You don’t want to be filled with regrets at how you led because you lost sight of what mattered.
Third, stay healthy. Leaders are of little value to their organization if they are weary, unhealthy, and stressed. Crises often demand greater effort and time from leaders. Nevertheless, leaders cannot sacrifice their health if they are to lead long term. Leaders must strive to build rest and rejuvenation into their schedule, if even in small amounts. They must cling to their sense of humor, even in the darkest moments. This is a great time to lean into families for emotional support, not to neglect them.
Fourth, lean into God. Over the last two years I have heard many leaders cite Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding.” Crises remind leaders that their knowledge and experience are limited. They cannot possibly know everything. But God does. And he stands prepared to guide those who seek his counsel. I have heard from many business and church leaders who shared how they sought God’s wisdom during Covid-19, and they were led to lead their organizations to do things that were unprecedented. Nevertheless, God blessed their efforts and strengthened or saved their organization. God’s ways are not our ways (Is. 55:8-9). Covid-19 has powerfully reminded us that our best thinking is sometimes inadequate. There is never a bad time to turn to God!
Fifth, be agile. Leaders have always required flexibility to adapt, but never more so than now. As the pandemic dragged on, I watched many church and business leaders grow discouraged because they could not do what had always worked in the past. Many grew weary of constantly having to change. But agility has become a non-negotiable for today’s leaders. Leaders cannot afford to tie themselves to methods that are no longer working. If a program or approach ceases to be effective, it must be cast aside. Too much damage can be sustained by holding on too long to unfruitful activities.
Agility means more than merely casting aside outdated approaches. It also includes quickly discovering and implementing new methods that are effective in the current environment. I have watched this phenomenon across numerous industries and fields of endeavor. While some organizations are hunkering down to wait out the pandemic, others are capturing market share. There are most certainly opportunities to be had. While many churches are suffering a 30% or more loss in attendance from pre-Covid days, some congregations are experiencing record baptisms and growth. While some businesses are teetering toward bankruptcy, others in the same industry are experiencing record profits.
This is not a time for organizations to be top heavy with bureaucracy. Approval for new and creative ideas ought to be streamlined. People should be rewarded for innovative problem solving. Young leaders should be promoted into management positions. Organizations with aging leaders will typically have a more difficult time coming up with fresh, creative answers to their problems.
Problems aren’t new. Leaders have been tackling them throughout history. The size, scope, and sophistication of today’s problems is unprecedented. New problems often require fresh perspectives. But history has proven that problems, even difficult ones, can be overcome if leaders grow. You may not yet be all the leader your organization needs you to be. But you can be.