Feel Like 2021 Has Been Harder Than 2020 On You As A Leader? You’re Right. Here’s Why.

If you’re thinking 2021 is a harder year to lead through than 2020 was, you’re right.

I think for many leaders—especially church leaders—this year has been even more difficult than last year, despite how excruciating 2020 was.

2020 was brutal. As hard as 2020 was, it wasn’t just a global pandemic that made things tough. Racial injustice, rioting, political division, and the loss of life as we knew it compounded to produce a tougher year than any of us have had to lead through in our lifetime.

And that’s not even mentioning the personal cost. Many leaders suffered personally as well, or saw people they loved struggle or die.

If you’re like me—and most leaders—you thought we’d be approaching some semblance of normalcy by now, or that at least the tensions would have largely resolved.

We’re far from that. Which is making 2021 for many leaders even harder than 2020 was.

While there are no easy solutions, sometimes just naming the problem and identifying the reason for your frustration can help.

While there are more, here are five reasons leaders feel even more frustrated than they did a year ago.

1. The Crisis Has Moved From Acute To Chronic

It’s one thing to lead in a crisis situation for a few months or a year. But at this point, you’ve been leading under extreme conditions for 18 months.

A recent Deloitte study shows that 82% of executives now leave work every day feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted. No wonder…it’s been a haul.

In some places in the world, lockdown continues. But even in areas where things are fully reopened with no restrictions, the landscape is so different than it was just two years ago.

People aren’t flooding back to church or some businesses like they used to. Long-time members or clients have left. Others promise they’ll be back someday, but won’t say when.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is hardly over, and while some progress has been made, racial justice is far from resolved.

And we didn’t all unite around a central message: divisions are either static or have grown deeper.

When a crisis moves from acute to chronic, you need a whole new strategy—for your organization, but also for you.

2. You’re Facing a Fresh Set of New Challenges

In addition, we’ve recently added a global supply chain problem, inflation and other bizarre things the status quo keeps throwing at us into the mix.

It’s a highly unstable environment. Although at the end of 2020, I shared 7 reasons I thought 2021 would be challenging, but even then I didn’t think it would be this challenging.

The employment market is also shifting rapidly. While reports vary, it seems like there is a Great Resignation happening as people quit their jobs, with an estimated 25-40% of people making some kind of move.

The talent war that defined 2019 is back with a vengeance, and with more people more connected technologically and able to work remotely, it means people are seeing their options more clearly than ever before.

As you know (and here comes a flicker of hope), new challenges equal new opportunities.  In the same way, if you’re willing to embrace a hybrid workplace, if you pay decently, and if you have a great culture, you can likely attract and keep great talent.

3. The Criticism Isn’t Stopping

For the most part, everyone was unified about a course of action around the pandemic for the first month or two. None of us had been through this before.

But months in, the pandemic became not just political, but partisan. The dominos started to fall from there.

Suddenly, you’re leading in a climate where everything you do—or don’t do—is too much, not enough or not quite right.

And everyone is happy to let you know it.

Adding to the frustration is that you’re incredibly accessible. When I was researching my new book, At Your Best, which is about productivity, I counted up the number of inboxes I had where people could message me. I have eleven.

You probably have a lot too.

This means everywhere you look, someone is telling you to do something different.

Add to that broken personal relationships, family tension over differing viewpoints and long-time supporters who have walked away, the criticism and relational strain gets heavy fast.

Sadly, none of that appears to be letting up any time soon.

So what do you do?

Well, I’ve decided not to read all my inboxes, focusing instead on communication with the people closest to me (many of whom have helpful feedback, even if it feels like criticism sometimes). I also skim the comments on my channel rather than do a deep dive into them (my team monitors them as well). It’s just too much for one soul.

I also restrain my intake of news to the most essential and mute or unfollow accounts that are consistently inflammatory.

Choosing your inputs as a leader helps your create better outputs.

And…this is huge…you have to surround yourself with a few people who tell you the truth and keep you encouraged. That’s a rare combination, but it’s worth finding and nurturing.

4. There’s No Easy Solution In Sight

This may be the most disheartening, but it’s important to name.

Normally we can endure things if we know there’s a solution coming or an end to the pain soon.

A key challenge of 2021: there’s no easy solution in sight—to anything.

A recent Barna survey that polled pastors revealed that only 10% of church leaders strongly agree that they have a clear vision for where their church will be in the next five years. 

I’m a huge believer in vision, but I appreciate the honesty of the responses.

When things are this uncertain, it’s hard to know where you’ll be in five months, let alone five years.

So what do you do?

When the future is unclear, focus on the mission and flex with the methods.

We are in all likelihood in a season where new methods will be needed to give new life to the mission.

In this kind of environment, agility and flexibility are superpowers.

5. Your Unsustainable Pace Has Caught Up With You

Perhaps the hardest aspect of the prolonged crisis is your pace: honestly, your current pace is likely unsustainable.

My favourite metaphor for leaders in 2020 was this: we all thought we were running a marathon. Just when we thought we were finished, someone handed us a bike and bathing suit.

Then 2021 revealed that it’s not a triathlon, it’s an Ironman.

Here’s the challenge, leaders: if you don’t declare a finish line, your body will. It’s called burnout, and you’re likely closer than you think.

The way to solve the problem of living at an unsustainable pace is not to take more time off. The solution for an unsustainable pace is to find a sustainable pace.

I have a brand new Masterclass that can show you how to lead at a sustainable pace. It’s free when you pre-order my new book, At Your Best. But only for a limited time.

What Are You Facing?

Naming the problem can help you solve the problem.

What else are you facing? Help us name some of the other dynamics.

We’re in this together.

Feel Like 2021 Has Been Harder Than 2020 On You As A Leader? You’re Right. Here’s Why.


  1. Barry Wong on September 3, 2021 at 1:56 pm

    Well done, Carey. Thanks for the insight.

  2. Mark on August 31, 2021 at 5:41 am

    Many people are trying to figure out who is on which side. Some are worked beyond the breaking point since 2020 worked so many people to that point. Yes, corporate profits improved even when everyone had to work remotely. That year was a one-off since people could do nothing but work. Now that people can do things, in some countries, people want to take off, relax, and change jobs. It is tragic that public health became partisan, and some people aren’t grateful for the vaccine which was available to the public in only 1 year after the pandemic started. The vaccine worked until some people wouldn’t or weren’t forced to get it and then got sick and brought the healthcare system to the brink. This upset a lot of people who have been in self imposed lockdown going on 2 years.
    Yet, leaders had positions of power and could affect direction of organisations. Now while some had pressure from their managers, those who had no one above them did not listen or talk to anyone except their few favourites. Those at the bottom could not offer any input out of fear of being fired. This pushed people to just grin and bear it and leave when they could. Yes, some complained and leaders lost a lot of (street) credibility, but they brought a lot of this on themselves. Few organisations ever talk or listen to the bottom or voices of reason. With unilateral decisions comes sole responsibility.

  3. Shona Stirling on August 30, 2021 at 4:56 pm

    I lead a small (at least it was!) mental health charity based in Glasgow, Scotland, which is almost buckling under the amount of requests for support. We could fill our therapy sessions twice over. Thank you for this blog! It makes such a lot of sense. We’ve been talking about this as a staff team and trying to be together in it all. I’m going to share this with the rest of the team, hoping that there are elements which will resound with them too. Again…thank you!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.