How to Lead Through Daily and Unpredictable Change

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Before the virus crisis, we already thought we were leading through rapid and unexpected change.  But now we are called upon to lead through local, national, and global change that is unprecedented. Often with information that is “accurate” one day, we discover through more study and information, it was not.  

So, no surprise. You are leading through unprecedented worldwide change.

Take a moment and re-read that last line.

Unprecedented worldwide change. 

If it feels challenging, it’s only because it is challenging.  Then how does this translate into your smaller “world,” whether you lead people in a rural, suburban, or even urban location…and include the world in which your missionaries live!

The question becomes, how do you lead through daily and unpredictable change? How do you lead through this kind of change when you’ve never been down this road before, and frankly…neither has anyone else?

While the points in this post relate to the virus crisis, I’ll share some principles that can help you lead through daily, unpredictable change in almost any situation.

1. To Help Others Work Through Their Emotions, Work Through Yours First.

It is proven some personality types can navigate through change better than others; most people’s emotions are all over the place; shock, unbelief, anxiety, denial, depression at the most, and discouragement at the least. So are yours.

While the statement is true, the only thing constant is change.  Change can be challenging at the best of times.

As I write this, educators are still trying to figure out whether or not to open schools or what it would look like if they did and then to plan for worse case scenarios one, two, and three.  Can you just imagine the working parent and how they would, could, should handle all this?  This kind of massive disruptions triggers so many emotions in people and in you—including disbelief—that making time to work through it all is essential…for you and them.

For every leader, that’s difficult though, because you likely spend most of your time helping other people, finding “reliable” information, making decisions, and then rethinking everything the next day when new information is unloaded. In addition, you’re probably putting in 12-18-hour days with just trying to keep up with what you decided on yesterday.

This raises the question: How exactly are you working through all this?

Just because a crisis is not a time to take a sabbatical or spend a week alone in the woods contemplating how you really feel doesn’t mean you can’t work through your emotions daily.

In fact, according to Scripture, doing so will make you a better leader and help you make better decisions.

Here are some things you can do to make sure you’re processing decisions:

    • Make time to sleep. A fatigued leader is an ineffective leader. Rest can re-set you physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
    • Pray and meditate in Scripture. Begin every day with some time to reflect, pray, and even meditate on Scripture. Turn your problems over to God. This will refresh you and clear your head.
    • Eat better. Isn’t this sounding like something you already know? So just do it.
    • Take time to exercise. Even a 20-minute run or a brisk walk in fresh air will help.
    • Phone a friend you know will listen. In a crisis, you need people who don’t need anything from you. Do it today.
    • Devote more time to your family. They need your leadership and friendship too, as much as your church or company does.  If you don’t help them, your crisis will even be greater!
    • Put some distance from crisis management.  Doing so will help you make far better decisions. Not every crisis can be solved by you immediately.  Right?

It’s a given: If you don’t control your emotions, your emotions will control you.

2. Act Sooner, Than Later

When public safety is at risk, which by every account it seems to be, the best leaders are the first to act, not the last.

The “Well, the President, Governor, Mayor, Health Officials said we could gather under [a certain number of people], so we’re allowing [name that number] at a time,” isn’t likely the wisest route, particularly when things are literally changing hourly.

You want to be on the right side of Scripture on this one, protecting rather than risking, helping rather than hanging on. Aren’t that what shepherds are supposed to do for the sheep of His pasture?

Do you remember when Apple pulled out of SXSW about a week before it was canceled? It made its workers work remotely early on in the process. And it announced the closure of most of its stores long before the government mandated it.

Barring any conspiracy issues, it’s hard to know why they’ve been early leaders; it’s likely either because they have information most of us don’t or really great intuition. Being ahead of the curve isn’t bad when public safety is involved.

The reasons for being the last one still hosting events/making everyone come into the office/keeping things open often aren’t that great. Dig a little deeper, and underneath you may find stubbornness, denial, fear (of decline or lack of money), or selfishness. In other words, a sea of motivations that put your own interests ahead of the public interests. 

Some leaders play “we have faith” or “God over government” or something similar.  Hiding or flaunting our freedom are not the extremes that leaders should want for the people they are to shepherd.

I appreciate how Life Church, North Point, Mecklenburg Community Church, and many others canceled their in-person weekend experiences ahead of government directives.

Even when things began to open up, causing the surge in the numbers of infected people, North Point (a congregation of over 30,000 ) publicly stated they have stopped all in-person meetings large or small (including watch parties) and moved to virtual groups and gatherings…having a sense of excitement and anticipation of what the Lord will do in new ways to reach more people for Christ!

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

So, what about those who think this is all overblown or a massive overreaction to media or government over-reach?

What can be worse, overreaction, or delayed reaction?

‘What have you got to lose by acting sooner than later?’ is a troubling question, but less troubling than, ‘What have you got to lose by acting later?’

What you lose if you’re wrong about that is far greater than what you gain if you’re right.

It’s as simple as that.

Remember, faith can work both ways too!

You deal with the pain now, or you potentially experience far more pain later. It’s your decision.

3. Change Imposed from the Outside Isn’t Always Fixed by Motivation Alone

You can’t motivate your way out of a crisis like this.

You have to lead your way through it.  After all, we are called leaders for a reason.

Making the leadership challenge more intense is the fact that the change we’re experiencing is externally imposed change (often daily and unpredictable), not internally driven change.

For simple example. It’s one thing to decide you want to lose 20 lbs. and making the lifestyle changes to do it, or launch a new location, or build a building, or major ministry (all of which are internally driven change). Sure, that’s difficult.

But it’s another thing entirely to have someone change your kitchen, restock your pantry and order you to drop 20 pounds in six weeks, order you to open a location or to raise money for a new facility. That’s all externally-imposed change—it wasn’t your decision.

When change is externally imposed, you lose freedom, choice, and control. That’s what makes it so difficult.

When you lead internally motivated change, you set the

    • motivation
    • agenda
    • timeline
    • budget

With externally driven change, you control none of that, including control over the outcome.

COVID-19, and the radical changes it is causing on the world and daily life, are externally driven changes. You didn’t ask for any of this. But you have to lead through it anyway.

This leaves a lot of people and leaders panicking. Many of us, after all, are control freaks. Go ahead, say that out loud!

There’s no easy answer, but simply being aware of the undercurrents in play can help you understand what you’re dealing with and why you and others feel the way you feel.

The best way to lead internally driven is to focus on motivation…the why behind the what. (Think about how great you’ll feel after! How you will actually become a more effective leader!)

Motivation still matters when change is externally driven. But a significant part of your job in leading externally driven change isn’t motivation; it’s clarification.

People are confused. They don’t know what’s happening. They need a spokesperson they can trust. A leader who knows what’s best and acts.

In other words, people are looking for someone who can help reliably interpret and clarify events and lead them into a better future.

I’ve seen a lot of leaders miss that during this virus crisis because they’re still focused on motivation.

I’ve heard a lot of: God has this. This is no big deal. We’re bigger than this. We can make it. While this is true, it can cause leaders to lose credibility because they’ve failed to communicate the situation accurately and clearly.

While it’s extremely difficult to get reliable and accurate information, and while some government decisions may be under or overreactions to the problem, the crisis we’re facing is both real and deep.  Often those in government positions are still at the mercy of the information they are given…and it changes daily and unpredictably for them too. And still, the crisis exists and is sobering.

On a very factual level, the stock market is very volatile, borders are closing – opening-closing, airports and cities are madhouses or ghost towns, businesses are struggling at best or failing, people are struggling, freedom and mobility is dwindling to war-time levels, states are closing and quarantining between one another, and of course, people are sick and dying… a lot of them.

You can’t motivate your way out of a crisis like this.

You have to lead your way through it.

4. Evaluate Your Motives

Take an honest look at your motives.  Then let Scripture guide you.

Consider what change(s) need to adopt.

A crisis doesn’t always make you a great leader, but it does reveal who you really are, and often you may not like what you see. I’m regularly disappointed by my first inner response.

But you don’t have to act on your first inner response, which is where effective leadership begins.

So, to deal with that, evaluate your motives.

You’ll find things like:

    • Fear and faith
    • Denial, delay, and acceptance
    • Selfishness and sacrifice

With careful reflection, evaluation, and wise counsel to help you, you can choose the latter, not the former.

5. Both Ideal and Real Comprise Effective Leadership

The clutter online often misses the point.

Arguing whether this is right or wrong or real or not is beside the point. It’s all happening right now, and you can’t avoid it.

Many leaders seem to be gravitating toward either the cruel reality or some unrealistic ideal, the latter of which includes denial (this is so overblown people!) Actually… it’s not.

Effective leadership comprise both the ideal and real.

The wisest leaders will embrace what Jim Collins calls the Stockdale paradox.

During the Vietnam war, Jim Stockdale was an American general captured and imprisoned. For seven years, he was detained and tortured.

Stockdale said the first people to die in captivity were the optimists, who kept thinking things would get better quickly, and they’d be released. “They died of a broken heart,” Stockdale said.

Instead, Stockdale argued, the key to survival was to combine what was real and ideal, so there would be hope. Stockdale stated:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–-which you can never afford to lose–-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Your job in crisis leadership is exactly that!

Supported by the best information you can get, be relentlessly honest about the situation facing you, and yet never lose faith in the Lord that things will get better in the end.

As one church leader wrote, crisis leadership falls apart when leaders embrace the extremes: pessimists only see the real, and naive optimists only see the ideal.

Effective Christian leaders see both…
because change is almost daily and always unpredictable!

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Written by Stan Ponz
Dr. Stan Ponz is founder and president of Make It Clear Ministries (a national ministry that began in 1973 to help people take the Gospel and the Word of God into every person's world!). Stan also serves as President of Clarity Christian College. and is married to his high school sweetheart Carol, who led him to the Lord in 1966.