If you’ve been a leader for any length of time you know that it’s not always smooth sailing and blue skies. Unfortunate things happen along the way. It’s not what happens to us as leaders, but how we respond to what happens to us and those we lead that makes all the difference. Carey Nieuwhof shares some insight on three ways leaders respond to a crisis.

Guest post by Carey Nieuwhof

So, you never signed up to lead through a crisis.

And yet, here you are leading in the midst of one. And if you’re not leading through one right now, I can assure you that you will be soon. Our interconnected and complex world means the future of leadership will probably be a never-ending litany of crises and disruptions.

To be sure, crisis doesn’t create your leadership style, instead, it reveals and amplifies what was already there.

Doing some reflection and getting some feedback from the people close to you cannot only help you realize what kind of leader you are, but can help you move into a more preferred mode of operation.

What makes for great leadership during a crisis and what makes for less admirable leadership?

For reasons I share below, I really believe the future belongs to agile leaders.

The good news is, you can change categories when you change your approach.

Here are the 3 kinds of leaders you see in a crisis.

1. Frozen Leaders

Sadly, I’ve already seen this reaction too many times.

Some leaders just aren’t ready for disruption, and when their methods get challenged, they freeze. They just don’t know what to do.

When churches’ physical locations were shut down, restaurants ordered closed, and industries shuttered, frozen leaders called it a day before the day was even over.

For some leaders, a threat to the method kills the mission. There wasn’t even a fight.

I’m not being unsympathetic here. Change is hard for everyone.

Frozen leaders are usually leaders who mistake the method for the mission. The way we do church is church. The way we do business is our business.

Frozen leaders can’t see that the mission is food, the method was a restaurant.

They can’t see that the mission is sharing the Gospel, the method was in-person gatherings.

What’s felt so frightening over the last while is that the methods we’ve used for decades (centuries) collapsed before our eyes. The mission hasn’t.

The thought bubble of the frozen leader sounds like this:

  • I can’t believe this is happening.
  • All of this is out of my control.
  • Nobody can recover from this.
  • Everyone else is affected in the same way. There’s really nothing I can do.
  • Organizations and leaders with more resources can handle this. We can’t.
  • Nobody prepared me for this.
  • We are so far behind we can’t possibly catch up.

When you drill down on it, frozen leaders focus on what they can’t control, not on what they can control.

And the hardest news? It’s almost a guarantee that frozen leaders won’t make it through the crisis.  They’ll be the first to go under. They can’t adapt, and as a result, they’re highly unlikely to survive.

In a crisis, confusing the methods with the mission is a fatal mistake.

The model is temporary, but the mission is eternal. But frozen leaders can’t see that. They can only see the obstacles, and as a result, miss the opportunities.

2. Hesitant Leaders

The second kind of leader is a hesitant leader. Hesitant leaders aren’t frozen leaders, but they haven’t got all the characteristics of agile leaders.

Hesitant leaders change, but they’re more likely to only change as little as they have to.

On the one hand, they don’t want to stay frozen…they realize the world has changed and they’re ready to adapt, but their adaptation has limits.

Hesitant leaders try to make as few changes as possible.

They likely had a model that worked just fine before the disruption. While they realize that it’s broken, they’re anxious to get into a predictable system as soon as possible.

The challenge in a crisis is that predictable is often suboptimal. When things change daily in a crisis but your approach doesn’t, static and predictable methods don’t advance your mission. They undermine it.

In non-crisis conditions, your methods may have a 6 month to five-year shelf life.  In a crisis, your methods can expire in minutes or days.

Which is the problem with the hesitant leader. They only partially embrace change. Then, they hesitate.

The thought bubble of a hesitant leader sounds like this:

  • When will things go back to normal?
  • We’ve already made a bunch of changes and so let’s lock-in for a while.
  • Do we have to pivot again? Really?
  • Can’t we just do this for a little longer?
  • Look, I know that idea might be a good one, but let’s just keep things the way they are right now. We need some stability.
  • The results we’re getting now are good enough. We’re surviving. Other’s aren’t.

Some hesitant leaders may survive the crisis. Perhaps many will.

The downside of inflexibility, though, is that refusal to change now triggers the necessity for deeper change later.

Sub-optimal responses today can lead to even deeper problems in the new normal, whenever that comes.

Leaders who hesitate to make deep change now will have far more to recover from down the road

3. Agile Leaders

The best kind of leadership style in a crisis is agile leadership.

Agile leadership is flexible leadership, the ability to pivot and change not just once, but as often as changing conditions warrant.

In a crisis, agility is ability. Flexibility is a superpower.

The reason agility is so important is that a crisis means there are no clear answers and no immediate end in sight. Which is exactly why it’s called a crisis, not a problem. Problems can be solved. Crises have to be managed. Daily.

Agile leaders aren’t opportunistic, but they do realize that crises produce opportunities to innovate and even grow.

The thought bubble of an agile leader sounds like this:

  • Our mission is too important to let this crisis kill it.
  • That method isn’t working, let’s try a new one.
  • Okay, we’ve done that for a few weeks. What if we tried it this way to see if it’s even more effective?
  • Things have changed again. What does this make possible?
  • Anyone have another perspective that can help us move forward?
  • What are other people doing that’s making a difference? How can we learn from them?
  • What do we need to to do now that will help us advance our mission?
  • How are we going to get to the new normal stronger and better? Let’s do that then.

Notice that the agile leader doesn’t have all the answers. He or she is simply committed to continually asking questions. The frozen leader makes statements. The hesitant leader asks a few, then stops.

In many ways, the agile leader is the opposite of the frozen leader. Agile leaders focus on what they can control, not on what they can’t.

Which is why they thrive.

In a crisis, you’re going to sacrifice something. Too many leaders sacrifice the mission in the name of finding predictable methods. Agile leaders are willing to continually sacrifice methods to advance the mission.

My hope and prayer is that you and your team will lead through a crisis with agility.

If you do, you’ll not only survive the crisis, you and the people you lead may thrive.