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Leadership in Tough Times
What difference can great leadership make in times of trouble? World Vision interviewed experts to find out.

What difference can great leadership make in times of turmoil or crisis? We went to the experts to find out!

“We live in one of those historic moments when the forces of rapid change, and the social crises that accompany them, cry out for maturity and informed judgment. A recurring theme is the need for clearer understanding of the problems and effective leadership to address them” (Lawrence Matthews, Leadership: Hope for Family and Church).

Scott Cochrane (SC) is the Executive Director of The Leadership Centre, Willow Creek Canada, an organization working to envision, equip, and encourage Christian leaders to build prevailing local churches.

World Watch: What difference can great leadership make in times of crisis?

SC: Leaders set the ‘emotional temperature’ of a situation. Often when crisis strikes, people wonder, ‘just how bad is the situation?’ They’ll take their cue from the demeanor, resolve, and steadfastness of the leader. This can’t be simply a ‘don’t worry, be happy’ type of leadership. Leaders who effectively lead through a crisis must be able to say with integrity and conviction:

“We’ll make it…I’ve been through something like this before.”

“We’ll make it…There’s a team of wise counselors helping me chart the course.”

“We’ll make it…There is a plan.”

“We’ll make it…We serve a great God who has promised never to leave us nor forsake us.”

What makes a great leader?

SC: If I had to start anywhere it would be with a phrase that appears contradictory. It’s what I call ‘humble strength.’ The leaders whom I would call truly ‘great’ have had a genuine humility that allows them to be seen as vulnerable, aware of their limitations, and need of wise counsel. They carry a humility that causes them to rely on God in every area of their lives. Great leaders also carry a quiet strength that allows them to rally people towards an objective, and to make the tough decisions necessary to move forward.

Can you give some examples of great leaders who rose to the occasion during tough times?

SC: One of my biblical ‘heroes’ is Nehemiah; a leader faced with the daunting challenge to rebuild the ruined walls of Jerusalem. Against formidable odds, Nehemiah humbled himself before God, then demonstrated the humble strength required to lead the people in warding off enemy attacks while rebuilding the city. In all history this still stands as one of the great examples of outstanding leadership in tough times.

What are some of the specific challenges of trying to lead during tough times?

SC: When times are tough leaders often face the depletion of two vital commodities; resources and morale, and the two are often linked. Leaders may first of all discover that they simply don’t have the necessary tools at their disposal to get the job done. In today’s economic climate, this can include financial resources, and it can also result in a depletion of human resources.

Secondly, tough times can cause shoulders to sag. People lose hope, and leaders can have a much harder time trying to motivate people to ‘stay the course.’ The Bible says, “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). When difficult circumstances cause people to lose hope, it’s as if their dreams have died. For a leader, this sense of despair in people represents a great challenge.

What is the best way to handle those challenges?

SC: I believe the starting place for a leader is always ‘on his or her knees,’ seeking God’s wisdom and guidance. Next, leaders face reality. Faced with tough times, leaders don’t ‘sugar coat’ the situation, or seek to downplay the size   of the challenge with ‘happy talk.’ Leaders gather the facts and define the problem.

They seek wise counsel. The Bible says “Where there is no guidance the people fall, but in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Proverbs 11:14). In the face of tough times, leaders do this instinctively. Having charted a plan of action, leaders keep the people on course by relentlessly communicating the plan, and obsessively casting vision regarding the destination.

What about leadership development?

SC: The Bible says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Leaders embrace this truth to their core. They recognize that alongside such proven leadership development tools as great books and conferences, it’s vital to be around other leaders. Nothing can replace the leadership impact of sitting across from another leader and being able to express your challenges and share learnings.

Dr. Carson Pue is president of Arrow Leadership Ministries. He is recognized as a leader of leaders, and is known through his speaking at ministry leadership conferences, published articles and radio commentaries.

What difference can great leadership make in times of crisis?

CP: Leaders are important at any time in the life of an organization, church or ministry, but where great leadership really shows its worth is in a time of crisis. Without a leader, in a time of crisis there is a sense of overall panic and despair. And it really takes God raising up a leader to give order to that. I often think of how Scripture talks about ‘the evil one’ as the author of chaos. So bringing a godly perspective through a strong leader in a time like this makes all the difference.

What are the characteristics of great leaders who have risen to the occasion?

CP: Leaders who have to step up to the plate during tough times must have the technical skills behind them to do so. They have to be people of character. And they need to have good people skills.

They need an ability to conceptualize a different ending, to be able to say, ‘here’s another way that we could approach this.’ Some leaders get paralyzed in times of crisis because they only know one way to do things, but great leaders have the ability to be abstract thinkers; to think outside the box.

What are some of the challenges of trying to lead during tough times?

CP: There are three things that typically keep leaders up at night: fog, fatigue and flirtations. By fog, I mean when you’re just not sure what to do. Your head is foggy, you can’t see clearly. Fog is often a result of fatigue, and fatigue makes cowards of us all. ‘Flirtations’ illustrates that during difficult times, some leaders begin to flirt with ideas that have nothing to do with the solutions. They dabble with things that might be wildly off their mission. I tell leaders, accept your current circumstances. Take responsibility for the things you can control, and take action quickly.

What is the best way to handle such challenges?

CP: First, focus on your vision. Get clarity. What has God called you or your organization to do? Second, sharpen your core competencies. Keep innovating and moving forward.

Third, hire good people. During a downturn there are often lots of good people available on the job market. Look at areas of deprivation in your organization, and watch for good people.

Fourth, guard your cash flow. Tighten up the reporting structure, get cash flow reports weekly rather than monthly or quarterly as you might do in good times.

Fifth, engage your staff and seek out their ideas. This is the time to turn to the team and say, ‘how are we going to work this out?’ Next, be willing to make the hard choices.

There’s no way to avoid making tough choices during tough times. Look at things to eliminate that really aren’t part of your mission. And realize that as a leader, you need to be the first to sacrifice. Be grateful to your donors, supporters, colleagues and other kingdom workers. We should thank God several times a day that He’s in control of all this. Remain calm. Manage your own knowledge in terms of your own ministry or organization and situation and don’t flip out into new areas. Don’t become reactive. Finally, keep a sense of humour. There are very few things in life that we cannot laugh about.

What do great leaders need to do to ensure they have the resources to lead well when times get tough?

CP: A leader needs to commit to lifelong learning. If you’re leading, you’re learning. And if you’re not learning, then you’re not leading, in my opinion. Many people get into a leadership role and feel like they’ve arrived. But that’s like a death-blow to leadership success. The best learners are lifelong learners.

Great Christian leaders

Time magazine quotes philosopher Mortimer Adler as saying, “The good leader must have ethos, pathos and logos.” The ethos is his moral character, the source of his ability to persuade. The pathos is his ability to touch feelings, to move people emotionally. The logos is his ability to give solid reasons for an action, to move people intellectually.”

“The crowd doesn’t recognize a leader until he is gone; then they build a monument for him with the stones they threw at him in life” (J. Oswald Sanders).

These great Christian leaders displayed all three, as they led through good times and bad, inspiring those who followed them.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, theologian and author Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a central figure in the Protestant church’s struggle against Nazism. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the centre of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. He organized and led its underground seminary.

Bonhoeffer had been taught not to “resist the powers that be,” but he came to believe that to do so was sometimes the right choice. In 1939 his brother-in-law introduced him to a group planning the overthrow of Hitler, and he made significant contributions to their work.

He was arrested in 1943 and imprisoned in Berlin. Following the failure of an attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944, Bonhoeffer was sent first to Buchenwald and then to Schoenberg Prison. He was hanged in 1945, less than a week before the Allies reached the camp.

Sources: University of Waterloo and Anglican Resources

Tommy Douglas: Voted by Canadians as “Greatest Canadian” of all time, Baptist minister, former Premier of Saskatchewan, and social policy innovator Tommy Douglas is known as Canada’s “Father of Medicare.” He began his political career in 1935 when he was elected as an MP in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, or CCF.

In 1944, Douglas and the CCF formed the first socialist government in North America, with a clear mandate to turn his party’s electoral platform, the Program for Saskatchewan, into legislation. It was a combination of humanitarian idealism, courage, and Douglas’ vision of the Gospel in action, that allowed for the transformation of the relatively poor, remote and agrarian province of Saskatchewan into Canada’s leader in progressive social policy.

Elected to five terms, Douglas introduced Saskatchewan residents to car insurance, labour reforms and universal Medicare. He was elected to the leadership of the newly formed national New Democratic Party in 1961, a role he held until he stepped down in 1971. He died of cancer in 1986.

Sources: Greatest Top Ten and Tommy Douglas

Billy Graham: America’s leading religious revivalist, evangelist Billy Graham has preached the Gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history—nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories. Hundreds of millions more have been reached through television, video, film, and webcasts.

Since the 1949 Los Angeles crusade that vaulted Graham into the public eye and to international prominence, he has led hundreds of thousands of individuals to make personal decisions to live for Christ, which is the main thrust of his ministry. He is regularly listed by the Gallup organization as one of the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World.” And as TIME magazine would note, “Transcending doctrine and denomination, he served as the nation’s spiritual counselor and made America safe for public testimonies of faith.”

Sources: Time and Billy Graham

Martin Luther King Jr.: Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. was elected president of the U.S. Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide leadership for the burgeoning civil rights movement, in 1957.

Over the next 11 years, he traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action. In these years, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama that caught the attention of the entire world, providing what he called a coalition of conscience. He planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of African Americans as voters and directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, ‘l Have a Dream.’

He was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times. He became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks, but also a world figure. He received the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35, and was assassinated at the age of 39.

Source: Nobel Prize Laureates

Mother Teresa: Formerly a high school teacher in Calcutta, the Roman Catholic nun who would become known to the world as simply, ‘Mother Teresa,’ left the confines of the classroom in 1948 to devote herself to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of that city.

Two years later, she founded her own order, “The Missionaries of Charity,” whose primary task was to love and care for those persons nobody was prepared to look after. In 1965 the Society became an International Religious Family, which today works all over the world providing help to the poorest of the poor. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Six years after her death in 1997, she was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

Sources: Nobel Prize Laureates and Mother Teresa

Desmond Tutu: As the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (from 1978 to 1985), Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu denounced the apartheid system and led a formidable crusade in support of justice and racial conciliation.

It was in this position that he came to world prominence, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. Later, he became a key mediator in that nation’s difficult transition toward democracy. After the country’s first multi-racial elections in 1994, President Mandela appointed Archbishop Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, investigating the human rights violations of the previous 34 years. Tutu repeatedly counseled forgiveness and cooperation, rather than revenge for past injustice.

Sources: Desmond Tutu and Nobel Prize Laureates

Top tips for leading through tough times

“If you could deliver your best advice for leading through tough times, what advice would you give?” We put that question to five Canadians who provide leadership to leaders. Here’s what they had to say:

“Love and truth form a good leader; sound leadership is founded on loving integrity” (Proverbs 20:28, MSG).

Karen Hamilton (The Rev. Dr.) is General Secretary of The Canadian Council of Churches, the largest ecumenical body in Canada. She says:

1. Maintain perspective. Take a deep breath before diving in to any particular challenge. We are in terribly tough and challenging times, but we’ve been in tough and challenging times before and we will be again.

2. Stay engaged in the issues of our broader culture. Understand what’s happening politically, socially, and economically in our country and in our world. Leadership is not separate from any of those dynamics in our society. It means being engaged.

3. Deal with tough situations with flexibility, creativity, adaptability and great audacity. Don’t panic or get discouraged, but sit with a situation for a while and, in consultation with your colleagues, think, ‘Is there some other way? How can we do things differently? Is there anything we need to rethink?’ Having limited resources can actually help you to be more creative, flexible, and audacious.

4. Never, ever say “that’s not how we used to do things.” That will kill any great idea. When times are more difficult, setting aside the way things used to happen and thinking outside the box is key.

Don Posterski is research professor and R.J. Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership (Interim) at Tyndale Centre for Leadership. Don says:

“Times are never tougher than when the threat of death is imminent. And when Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s tested competence guided his crippled aircraft into the Hudson River without loss of life, his leadership soared.

Communication is another necessary leadership virtue when the pressure is on. Fear is a part of tough times. Leaders understand the disabling impact of anxiety on their people, and they respond with carefully crafted messages that ring true—even if the news has undesired consequences.

Tough times are complex. Ordinary action is seldom adequate. Wise leaders know their limits. They seek counsel from members of their team and others they trust. Really gifted leaders understand that just working harder is not enough to win the day. They get creative. Tough times leaders walk boldly down unknown pathways. And without giving people a lot of direction, they look around and observe others following their lead.

Don Page is Senior Fellow at Trinity Western University, where he founded the Masters of Arts in Leadership program. His book, Effective Team Leadership: Learning to Lead through Relationships, will be published later this year by Power to Change Ministries. Don advises:

1. Never lose sight of your personal and organization’s mission when making decisions in tough times.

2. Remember that as a leader you do not need to have all of the answers yourself, but you do need to know what questions to ask and where to go to get the answers.

3. Focus on what you can control and change.

4. Follow the examples of others who survived in tough times, (e.g., Daniel 2:14-19). Daniel spoke with wisdom and tact—and did four things: he sought the facts in the situation, he verified the timeline for producing results, he consulted with his friends, and he prayed. In the counsel of many there is wisdom.

Lynn Smith is Director of Leader Development for NextLEVEL Leadership. Lynn says:

As Christian leaders we must remember:

  • God is not caught off guard by the economic realities we face.
  • Nothing that happens to us can separate us from the love of God.
  • Adversity can be a true blessing, causing us to re-evaluate our priorities and seek a deeper relationship with God, to receive wisdom, security, direction.
  • We are called to care for one another and especially in tough times we have the choice of either hoarding or sharing, of becoming protectionist or collaborative.

It is possible in an economic downturn that God is calling us to a change of direction. It is absolutely certain that God is calling us to shift the focus of our security from our pocketbook to our heart relationship with God. Be honest, real and open. Trust is so very important at all times, but is absolutely crucial in difficult times. Inviting followers into the process of finding solutions is crucial.

Finally, recognize that reduced income can be a gift. It offers an incentive to re-establish core values (both personal and organizational) and refine activities, practices and processes.

Walter C. Wright, Jr., is executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership in Pasadena, California. Previous to this, he was, for 12 years, president and professor of Leadership at Regent College. Walter says:

1. Don’t waste a good crisis. A crisis provides an accepted disruption that creates space for leaders to sharpen their management. Things that have been put off, decisions that have been avoided, confrontations that have been feared can be addressed within the holding space of crisis.

2. Invest in leadership development now. It is precisely when people must be laid off and budgets must be trimmed that leaders need strengthened emotional/relational competencies with which to manage the ambiguity and insecurity.

3. Invest in employee development and retention now. Tough times create insecurity and fear among the employees. If some are laid off, everyone responds emotionally. Organizations who want to weather the tough times will develop those employees that they want to ensure will be there on the other side of the crisis.

Leadership development opportunities

Good leaders never stop learning and growing. That way, they’re equipped and prepared to lead through difficult days when they arise. If you’re looking for a new challenge, consider one of these opportunities for leadership development:

“As weather shapes mountains, so problems make leaders” (Warren Bennis).

Arrow Leadership offers leadership development in two streams: for emerging leaders (ages 25–40 years) and for executive leaders (based on positional leadership). For more information, The Tyndale Centre for Leadership equips Christian leaders for ministry and service both in congregations and in public life. Leadership seminars, graduate studies, staff leadership training,

Trinity Western University offers a Master of Arts in Leadership, and a Graduate Certificate in Leadership.

Regent College is offering a summer course, “Dynamics of Church Leadership,” with Rod Wilson, May 11–15, 2009.

13th Annual Wharton Leadership Conference: “Leading in a Dynamic and Unpredictable World,” June 16, 2009 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

For further reading

Some great books to consider adding to your library!

“The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on” (Walter Lippmann).

Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs, by Bill Hybels. Zondervan, 2008. Courageous Leadership, by Bill Hybels. Zondervan, 2009. Crucibles of Leadership, by Robert J. Thomas. Harvard Business Publishing Corporation, 2008.

Leadership That Works: Hope and Direction for Church and Parachurch Leaders in Today’s Complex World, by Leith Anderson. Bethany House, 1999.

Leadership When the Heat Is On: 24 Lessons in High Performance Management, by Danny Cox and John Hoover. McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Masters of Change: How Great Leaders in Every Age Thrived in Turbulent Times, by William M. Boast and Benjamin Martin. Executive Excellence Publishing, 1997.

Never Give Up: 7 Principles for Leading in Tough Times, by Scott Dickson and Mark Littleton. Barbour Publishing, 2004.

Global resources

The Centre for Creative Leadership offers forums, podcasts, webinars and articles on leading through crisis and change.

“The New Testament continues to be the best resource on leadership that I have found” (Bishop Victoria Matthews).

Free, monthly leadership e-letter from Arrow Leadership.

The Journal of Leadership Education—an international, refereed journal that serves scholars and professional practitioners engaged in leadership education.

The Journal of Biblical Perspectives in Leadership (JBPL)—a refereed scholarly journal that aims to provide a forum for international research and exploration of leadership studies focused on the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

The Leadership Quarterly—an international journal of political, social and behavioural science.

Leadership Review—a peer-reviewed journal from the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College, (Claremont, CA) for academics and practitioners in the field of leadership.

Leadership lessons from Jesus

Leaders lead. Even when faced with the toughest of times. And eventually, every good leader goes through tough times. Jesus—the greatest of all leaders—spent His entire earthly ministry in the midst of “tough times.” The Jews were living under Roman occupation, looking for a Messiah who would vanquish their enemies and bring about peace. Into this tempest and atmosphere of desperate expectation came Christ. He could have come riding a warhorse brandishing a spear. Instead, He sat atop a humble donkey, and preached the radical message of ‘love your enemies.’ There is much to be learned—not only from Jesus’ words and His actions—but from the kind of leadership He modeled.

How did He lead? Jesus:

  • knew His purpose and set out to accomplish it (see Luke 4:14-21)
  • didn’t allow Himself to be sidetracked from accomplishing
  • His mission (see Matthew 15:21-28)
  • cast a big vision for His followers (see Mark 1:14-19)
  • knew when it was appropriate to delegate (see Luke 9:1-6)
  • encouraged others to adopt a “big picture” view (see Matthew 6)
  • sought not to be served, but to serve (see John 13:1-17)
  • prioritized prayer and time alone with God to recharge (see Mark 1:35)
  • stayed calm in the midst of the storm (see Luke 8:22-25)
  • never abandoned His followers (see Matthew 28:16-20)

World Vision resources

Responding Church Leaders Network—This is a network for church leaders who are interested in receiving resources to lead their congregations in responding to issues of poverty and social justice. Click here to learn more and to sign up for this unique opportunity.

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers” (Ralph Nadar).

Responding Church Leaders Forum—There are many inescapable issues facing the Church today. The Responding Church Leaders Forum is an opportunity to become better equipped to respond to them. Come hear respected authorities address these issues and discuss with your colleagues how the Church can respond. Click here for upcoming Forum dates and locations near you.

Especially for young leaders:

Youth Empowered is a dynamic, one-day leadership conference that heads across Canada each February. Sign up here: Get Involved/Youth-Action-Zone

Learn about our cross Canada youth leadership retreats and sign up for Shift, our youth email on global issues. Each issue keeps you updated on big global events, explores big issues and offers practical ways for youth to make an impact. Get Involved/Youth-Action-Zone Retreat Program

Originally published in World Watch, March/April 2009.




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