Leadership Lessons along the journey: Crisis

Crisis:  Allender says, “Crisis has a way of sneaking up and biting you from behind.  It exposes either your lack of preparation or the foolishness of your presumption of security.” [1] I have certainly found that to be true in my journey of leadership.  Crisis actually originates from a Greek word meaning “to sift or separate.”

During my first years as a national leader, I often felt like a first year medical student in an emergency trauma unit–every time we opened another curtain, there was another patient bleeding out!  The crises came fast, hard and varied; they began their “sifting” and “separating” work in five crucial areas:

Blame versus brokenness.  Leadership is ultimately about character and growing in maturity.  In my journey, I read Cloud’s book, Integrity.[2]  He defines integrity as the courage to meet the demands of reality and shares this metaphor:  If you ask Mr. Boeing to build an airplane, he will ask you its’ purpose.  The character of the plane then is designed to fly at a certain velocity or altitude or carry a certain load.  If the plane exceeds the designed specs, the plane shakes and screws begin to rattle.  Before becoming a National Director, I was flying comfortably.  Suddenly, I found myself carrying a greater load, flying faster and higher than I had ever gone.  My screws began to rattle.  The natural tendency was to blame others and the organization for the problems.  I finally realized when I began to blame God that something was seriously wrong.   I realized that the problem was not in anyone else or the organization; I was the problem.  I had not developed the character or leadership capacity to fly at this new level and carry this heavier weight.  The crisis had sifted and exposed me.  Once brokenness replaced blame, my world changed overnight. This leads to the second area.

Cowardice versus courage.   The truth about me was “out”, but the freeing part was that I no longer something to prove. I had no leader image to manage.  It was a strange paradox for my brokenness to morph into courage.  I had been driven by the need to impress people and earn their approval.  I wanted to prove that I was a good leader and could solve problems and turn things around.  Despite much experience and success in the past for building high performance teams and growing the organization, the crises exposed my inadequacies and reminded me that I was not in control.  I am not God nor designed to have His powers.  But, with this realization came the confidence that God was with me and He would make me adequate for the task.  My professor says one of the jobs of a leader is to disappoint people at a rate they can withstand.[3]  Without courage, it is hard to disappoint people, to push decisions down the chain, to help them develop through difficult experiences and simply be there for them (more on this in the next area), to focus on more important and less tactical issues and to face into conflicts with those difficult conversations. Without courage, I want to be Mr. Nice Guy.

Competence versus compassion.  Much of what happens in crises sifts and separates at the core of our identity.  Consider the metaphor of a pencil. The principle identity of a pencil is to write.  It is only when we make a mistake that there is hopefully enough eraser on the other end to correct the error.  I was like a pencil in that as a leader I had an identity; I wanted to make a mark, be useful and practical.  I wanted to be competent.  It is only when I make a mistake that the eraser, the compassion and love for people would be put to use.  Nouwen challenges me that compassion should become my identity.[4]  I am still working on that.  Luke 6:36 reminds me to be compassionate, as my Father is compassionate.  God’s identity is revealed in the proclamation of Jesus’ name before His birth: He will be called Immanuel-God with us.  To be compassionate requires being present with people, being incarnational.  A 360 degree feedback revealed that constant crises and the desire to be competent left many in my organization feeling abandoned and alone.  I had to confess my lack of compassion and love.

Pride versus humility.  Past success can often be a barrier to future success.  My wife and I had been very successful in our previous role.  Now we were national leaders.  The crises began to sift pride out of my life.  As I have metabolized the leadership experiences of the last five years as a national director, I look back and see I had no intentional proactive learning plan when I started out.  I believe humility is the first step to being a lifelong learner. I don’t want to be too hard on myself because the learning curve was so steep.  But my learning was limited to learning about the problems and how to solve them.  Next time around I would add learning from others as well as learning with them.[5]  Simply learning about leads to pride and a false sense of being the expert/answer man.  Learning from and learning with others grows out of a heart humility; Plus, the collaboration creates alliances and fosters better decision making.

Convenience versus conviction.  When crises come fast, hard and often, leaders are tempted to make snap decisions based on convenience and ease, rather than decisions based on convictions of integrity and values.  I admire my wife who has always been alongside me in the battle and encouraged me to do the right thing.  She is an example of high integrity and decisions based on values.  This crisis is often revealed in the manner a leader deals with finances.  It is easy to slip in a personal receipt in an organizational reimbursement. After all, it’s only a few bucks!  Is that all our character and integrity is worth?  Our non-profit relies on donations.  Almost all of those have specific designations.  There is temptation to use money for however the leaders decide because it is easier and more convenient rather than the conviction to honor the integrity of those designations.  It is easier and more convenient to have a meal on the company rather than pay for it out of our own pocket.

Over the past five years as national leaders, we faced many crises.  Our boss, Layo often prayed for courage for us and our team.  I now understand better why he did that.  In crisis, a leader needs courage to be broken rather than blame, to make decisions based on conviction rather than convenience and ease, to develop a strong core identity of compassion rather than competence and to humbly learn from and with others.

Next stop along the leadership journey is complexity.

What has a recent crisis revealed about you?

[1] Allender, D. (2006) Leading with a limp. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press.

[2] Cloud, H. (2006).  Integrity: The character to meet the demands of reality.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

[3] Wheeler, R. (2011)  Leading Across Cultures class.  His blog is http://raywheeler.wordpress.com/

[4] Nouwen, H. (1982). Compassion: A reflection on the Christian life. New York: Doubleday

[5] Watkins, D. (2003). The first 90 days: Critical success strategies for new leaders at all levels. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.

About Steve Morgan

I work in Global Leadership Development with my wife, Terry. We have been married for 36 years and have 4 grown children. I have a Masters in Global Leadership together through Azusa Pacific University. I generally write about 5 “L’s: Living Well, Loving Deeply, Learning Continuously, Leading Courageously, and Leaving a Legacy. I occasionally write about Laughing Loudly. Subscribe on the right side to receive an email whenever there is a new post. I invite you to leave your comments so we can dialogue on the various topics and learn from each other. If you are new to the site, you might start with looking at some of the top posts or doing a search on the right sidebar for one of the 5 “L’s” that interest you. Or you can view the blog archives for topics. Photo Credit: sarahjoellephotography.com
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2 Responses to Leadership Lessons along the journey: Crisis

  1. terry morgan says:

    Great summary of how crisis tests character. Your character is stronger and more defined than ever because you did not give up!

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