Change in Crisis

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How leaders can instill hope and loyalty in those they lead by Sam Chand

Everyone is tired. Everyone is confused. Everyone is stressed. Since the spring of 2020, leaders in every organization and at every level have suffered from enormous stress. It’s a fact that we minimize at our peril.

After several months of lockdowns, openings, more lockdowns, reopenings and countless (often conflicting and confusing) updates about the virus, masks and the promise of vaccines, I held a video conference with eighty-seven leaders of the largest churches in Europe. They were from all parts of the European Union. I assumed that their experience was similar to what I’d heard from leaders in the United States and around the world. Just a few minutes into our call, I said, “I know your heart is heavy, your brain is fried, you’re exhausted and you’re frazzled by all the new and rapidly changing challenges during the pandemic.”

Instantly, all of the heads in the little boxes on my computer screen nodded. In the environment of the call, I had given them permission to be honest about their mental stress and their physical exhaustion. They hadn’t felt they could take off their mask of invincibility around the people on their teams, but they felt safe with me and each other.

As we talked, they had another insight: if they were that stressed and tired, the people on their teams felt even worse. As the primary leaders of their organizations, they had options. They could, at least to some degree, protect their bandwidth by saying “no” to some demands and requests, but the people on their teams had far less flexibility. They were under the gun to respond to the leader’s immediate decisions about media, information technology, facilities and programming—and for those who work in the business world, sales, production, research and development and online marketing. On top of that, these team members were expected to get results even as the situation changed from day to day…and sometimes from hour to hour.

If the leader’s stress level was at seven, the people on the team were at nine. The eighty-seven leaders on our call suddenly understood why everyone—people on their teams, their spouses, kids and themselves—had hair-trigger reactions to seemingly insignificant events and walked around with a toxic mixture of anxiety, sadness and resentment because things were changing so much and so fast all around them.

Leading Change

Leaders—the primary executives and all of those who lead throughout our organizations—are change agents who anticipate the need to make shifts and bold decisions. They are change leaders who help their people take steps forward. The problem, as I’ve pointed out, is that many of us are exhausted mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, and those we lead are weighed down by uncertainty, grief, anxiety, polarization and a nagging suspicion that their leaders (that’s us) in every walk of life don’t really know what’s going on. Virtual meetings have saved businesses and jobs, but the lack of meaningful contact is like getting tiny sips of water every so often in a desert: we’re staying alive, but we’re still thirsty and unsatisfied. More than ever, our organizations and our people need us to give them three essential ingredients: clear direction, empathy and a sense of hope. Without them, the effects of pandemic-induced stress will continue to erode vision, joy and creativity. But with them, people can learn and grow from this difficult and extended season of uncertainty.

The Important Questions

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of news, which is mostly bad news and warnings that things will get even worse! If we’re not careful, we’ll either become reactive without thinking—which causes our people to doubt our wisdom—or we’ll become passive and sullen, which invites them to look somewhere else for direction. Even after we are on the other side, the damage of the past year and a half will stay with us. In the continuing uncertainty, leaders need to ask five crucial questions:

1. What should we start?

For some, it’s inconceivable to make plans to start something new as they cope with tragedy and loss, but great leaders know that down times (in the market and the community) offer incredible opportunities to those who are wise and nimble.

2. What should we stop?

We realize that at least some of the meetings, programs, and events we planned in “normal” times don’t fit any longer. We’ll be wasting our time and resources if we insist on continuing them.

3. What should we suspend until later?

Some activities will be appropriate later, but not now. We need to triage our plans to focus on those that will make the biggest difference in the short term.

4. What needs to be sustained at all costs?

Organizational values cannot be sacrificed in any way. The what, how, and when may change, but the purpose and values remain the organization’s guiding light.

5. What will accelerate our speed of growth?

In a sustained crisis, people in the community and potential customers are looking for organizations that can adapt to the changing environment, speak to their emotional needs as well as their physical needs and offer services and products they desperately want. The churches and businesses that see these opportunities will grow…and the others will falter and perhaps die.

These are important questions when things are going well; they’re crucial when we face times of uncertainty, strain and doubt.

Flexible…and Quick

A crisis brings out the worst or the best in people—and sometimes the worst and the best in the same person! Some crater under the strain, but others become more creative, more affirming of those who contribute, more patient with those who are struggling and more willing to take bold risks. Leaders who adjust their plans to support their employees earn enormous reservoirs of trust and respect. For instance, when a fast-food chain had to close with no foreseeable date to open again, management avoided layoffs by partnering with a health and wellness company that needed help with a spike in online orders.

In a crisis, careful, detailed, vetted planning is no longer an option. The risk isn’t making a bad decision; it’s making no decision. An article in McKinsey Quarterly observes that organizations that remain too bureaucratic, slow and focused on profits more than people are falling behind. It explains:

Inertia is clearly riskier than action right now, so companies are mobilizing to address the immediate threat in ways they may have struggled to when taking on more abstract challenges, such as digital technology, automation, and artificial intelligence (all of which still loom). Bold experiments and new ways of working are now everyone’s business. Will the new mindsets become behaviors that stick? We don’t know. Did it take a pandemic for organizations to focus on change that matters? Too soon to say. Still, as one leader we spoke with puts it, “How can we ever tell ourselves again that we can’t be faster? We have proved that we can. We’re not going back.”

In times like these, any factors that have masked the true nature of management are stripped away, and the true organizational identity is revealed. Pastors and business leaders have a golden opportunity to show that their values are more than lip service about integrity, compassion and unity. Character is taken for granted or overlooked in the good times, but it’s plainly evident when the chips are down and people are struggling. People look into their leader’s eyes and listen for the tone of voice that says, “We’ll get through this, and we’ll do it together. You can count on me, and we can count on each other.”

In times of uncertainty, minds wander, vision wanes and action diminishes—unless leaders encourage their people to do something that makes a difference every day. It may not be huge, but showing compassion and taking definitive action to help someone gives employees a sense that they’re having an impact—because they are.

A word that I’ve heard again and again in the pandemic is pivot. The organization was going in a certain direction, but the crisis forced the leaders to change course and to change on the spur of the moment. A company that owns and manages a chain of theaters suddenly went from showing blockbusters to locking their doors. But the CEO didn’t give up. In two days, management retrained 1,000 employees to work in the burgeoning retail grocery business. Do you think the theater employees feel valued by their leaders? I’m sure their loyalty has never been higher.

The bureaucracies and systems that worked well enough in normal times must be adapted for extraordinary seasons. Large meetings with lots of research and slow decision-making doesn’t work in crises. Companies and churches are forming smaller teams and giving them more authority to act. Will they make some decisions they regret? Of course, but they’ll show their constituents they’re actively involved in meeting needs. And some segments of the organization that were ancillary before the pandemic, such as IT, are now vitally important to enable leaders to connect with members and customers. In other words, the organizational chart is being completely revamped.

As organizations become more flexible and adapt more quickly, leaders will be able to identify their outstanding team members, the ones who rise to the challenge with a blend of creativity, talent, optimism and tenacity. These are the people who lead the way into the future, the ones who capture the moment and turn chaos into opportunities. A McKinsey & Company regular article entitled “The Shortlist” advises leaders to become flexible and quick. The risk, the author asserts, is that when the worst of the crisis is past, leaders will be tempted to go back to “business as usual.”

Now, as the world feels its way toward recovery, the risk is that inertia will set in, along with a longing for a return to the operating style of earlier days. In our conversations with CEOs, we are struck by stories of how some young middle managers are defying the problems and frustrations of this difficult period. Only by advancing new cadres of adaptive, resilient leaders, as well as a middle bench fluent in technology that cuts across silos, will companies be able to work with the speed and impact necessary. Time for some battlefield promotions.

Indeed. Battlefield promotions are given because people exhibit courage, skill and exemplary leadership in the heat of the moment—exactly the qualities leaders are looking for in their people right now.

This article was extracted from issue 3 of Thrive Today! Magazine (Fall 2021). Learn how to get your copy of Thrive Magazine by visiting us here.