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Providing Leadership in Turbulent Times

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“It is a dreadful thing to come into the Presidency this way, but it would be a far worse thing to be morbid about it. Here is the task, and I have got to do it to the best of my ability; and that is all there is about it.”—President Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter to a friend after President McKinley’s death

Perhaps the greatest challenge in leading through a crisis is the speed at which a leader must make decisions. In the crisis formed by COVID-19, for instance, those in a position of leadership are having information coming at us on an almost hourly basis. Sometimes new information contradicts the old. Sometimes it supersedes. Sometimes it is unverified. Sometimes it is helpful, sometimes a distraction, sometimes tragic news. Always it represents a need to make decisions and provide leadership. 

It is times like these when I’m so thankful for the leadership of the Holy Spirit in my life and for the promise of James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” I think I’ve prayed that verse almost every day of my life for the past thirty-plus years. But I have been praying it with a special dependence on God these past few weeks. 

One of the ways that God sometimes gives us wisdom is through the example of those who have navigated turbulent times in the past. In this vein of help, I’ve been enjoying the book Leadership in Turbulent Times by the Pulitzer Prize winner, Doris Kearns Goodwin. 

The book’s twelve chapters explore four of our American presidents and the challenges they faced in growing through adversity and providing leadership during pivotal points in our nation’s history. 

In particular, the chapter “Crisis Management,” on Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership through the coal strike of 1902, had sixteen good thoughts for these times. Here is a brief summary of them:

1. Calculate risks. Resolve every doubt in favor of inaction vs. action. Where we do not have the clear direction of God and full knowledge of facts, we should be cautious. 

2. Secure a reliable understanding of the facts, causes, and conditions of the situation. Opinions abound right now. Seek out credible sources of information, and do your best to understand the big picture, including the underlying causes and reliable indicators of measurement.

3. Listen; remain uncommitted in early stages. Don’t rush to judgment or commit to a course of action you may regret. 

4. Use history for perspective. In determining his actions during the coal strike, Roosevelt not only studied the history that built to that moment, but he also studied past leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln, and used their responses as perspective for his own. We can do the same in looking back to moments in history such as the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and even further back to past leaders through great plagues in Europe. Especially, we can look to Christian leaders in the past who have navigated through crises. 

5. Be ready for reversals and unraveling of plans. Prepare, plan, and proceed. But don’t be caught off guard when a new piece of information surfaces today that unravels everything you planned last week. 

6. Reevaluate options. Be ready to adapt. Knowing the situation is constantly shifting, be flexible, aware, and ready.

7. Be visible; cultivate support. Now is not the time to simply retreat into office work. Leaders must be reaching out to others at this time, reassuring them and providing real leadership. 

8. Clear the deck to focus on the one main issue. Don’t spin your wheels trying to run a thousand directions right now. Clarify what you, as the leader, must provide—and put all of your energy into providing that leadership. 

9. Assemble a crisis management team. Ask for the help of a few reliable and wise people. Having a smaller group allows you to quickly communicate decisions to those who will help you carry them out. 

10. Frame the narrative. On a national level, President Trump is working to frame a narrative of hope and American spirit through daily press briefings. On a church level, you can frame a narrative that your church family will not receive through the usual sources of media and social media. Stay in touch with them, emphasizing trust in God and the importance of prayer. Also, let your church family know of the decisions you are making to protect the church family through the service venues you have chosen as well as the care—physical and spiritual—you are committed to providing for your members and community. 

11. Keep temper in control. Nothing good is accomplished by ranting against the situation or the people or factors that have led to it. 

12. Document progress and lessons. Things that seem so clear to you in the moment will fade over time, especially as continuing information and decisions keep coming. So record for yourself the moments of clarity that God gives you, and keep a record of the lessons He is teaching you.

13. Find diversions. Get sleep and exercise, but also look for other mental stimuli. Perhaps it is reading on history, such I did by reading this particular book. Perhaps it is gardening or having a family game night. 

14. Be ready with different strategies. When one plan of direction is no longer available, be ready to shift to another. 

15. Share credit for resolution. Ultimately, we want to give glory to God. But remember also to give credit to those who came alongside and helped implement successful strategies along the way. In our current situation, I have been so grateful for our staff in the church, college, and school ministries who have shifted major events and programs to online venues in a short period of time. Their diligence and sacrificial labor have helped our church family and students. 

16. Leave a record of events for the future. In time to come, you—and perhaps those who come behind you—will want to be able to look back at what happened, what decisions were made, and how God worked through the crisis.

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