How to Lead Through Rapid, Unexpected Change (Responding to COVID-19)

No surprise here, but you are leading through unprecedented global change.

Just stop for a minute. Re-read that first line.

Unprecedented global change. 

If it feels challenging, it’s only because it is challenging.

The question becomes how do you do it? How do you lead through change when you’ve never been down this road before, and frankly…neither has anyone else?

This is part of a Crisis Leadership series to help leaders navigate the pandemic.

Here are the other (free) resources you can access (the list will keep growing):

5 Ways The Current Crisis is Accelerating The Arrival of the Future Church

Crisis Leadership, Christian Leadership and the Corona Virus

8 Ways to Lead in the New Digital Default Church

My Top 7 Rules for Leading a Digital Team

8 Early Tips for Producing Digital Content During the Current Crisis

3 Simple Ways To Make Sure You Don’t Break In the Crisis

Why Motivation Alone Won’t Get Your People (or You) Through This Crisis

In this post, I’ll share some principles that can help you lead through rapid, unexpected change.

1.  Motivation alone doesn’t work on externally-imposed change 

You can’t motivate your way out of a crisis like this.

You have to lead your way through it.

Making the leadership challenge more intense is the fact that the change we’re experiencing is externally-imposed change, not internally-driven change.

Quick example. It’s one thing to decide you want to lose 20 lbs and making the lifestyle changes to do it, or launch a new location, or build a building (all of which are internally-driven change). Sure, that’s difficult.

But it’s another thing entirely to have someone change your kitchen, restock your pantry and order you to drop 20 pounds in six weeks, order you to open a location or to raise money for a new facility. That’s all externally-imposed change—it wasn’t your decision.

When change is externally-imposed, you lose freedom, choice and control. That’s what makes it so difficult.

When you lead internally-motivated change, you set the



and agenda.

With externally-driven change, you control none of that, including control over the outcome.

COVID-19, and the radical changes it has wrought on the world and daily life, are externally-driven changes. You didn’t ask for any of this. But you have to lead through it anyway.

COVID-19, and the radical changes it has wrought on the world and daily life, are externally-driven changes. You didn't ask for any of this. But you have to lead through it anyway. Click To Tweet

Which leaves a lot of people and leaders panicking. Many of us, after all, are control freaks. Let’s just name that out loud.

I’m not writing about this because there’s an easy answer, but simply being aware of the dynamics in play can help you understand what you’re dealing with and why you and others feel the way you feel.

The best way to lead internally-driven is to focus on motivation…the why behind the what. (Think about how great you’ll feel after! Imagine what we can accomplish together!)

When change is externally-driven, motivation still matters, but a significant part of your job in leading externally-driven change isn’t motivation, it’s interpretation.

People are confused. They don’t know what’s happening. They need a source they can trust. A leader who knows what’s best and acts.

In other words, people are looking for someone who can help reliably interpret events and lead them into a better future.

I’ve seen a lot of leaders miss that in the last week because they’re still focused on motivation.

I’ve heard a lot of: Come on, you’ve got this. God has this. This is no big deal. We’re bigger than this. Nothing bad’s going to happen.

In the process, those leaders lose credibility because they’ve failed to interpret the situation accurately.

While it’s extremely difficult to get reliable and accurate information, and while some government decisions may be under or overreactions to the problem, the crisis we’re facing is both real and deep.

On a very factual level, the stock market has tanked, borders are closing, airports and cities are madhouses or ghost towns, businesses are struggling, people are struggling, freedom and mobility is dwindling to war-time levels, and of course, people are sick and dying.

You can’t motivate your way out of a crisis like this.

You have to lead your way through it.

You can't motivate your way out of a crisis like COVID-19. You have to lead your way through it. Click To Tweet

2. Great leadership embraces both the real and the ideal

Most of the noise online misses the point.

Arguing whether this is right or wrong or could have played out differently is beside the point. It’s all happening right now, and you can’t avoid it.

And many leaders are gravitating toward either the brutal real or some unrealistic ideal, the latter of which includes denial (this is so overblown people! Well…no, it’s not.)

Great leadership embraces both the real and the ideal.

Great leadership embraces both the real and the ideal. Click To Tweet

The wisest leaders will embrace what Jim Collins calls the Stockdale paradox.

Jim Stockdale was an American general captured and imprisoned during the Vietnam war. He was held and tortured for seven years.

Stockdale said the first people to die in captivity were the optimists, who kept thinking things would get better quickly and they’d be released. “They died of a broken heart,” Stockdale said.

Intead, Stockdale argued, the key to survival was to combine realism and hope.  In Stockdale’s words:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–-which you can never afford to lose–-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

That essentially is your job in crisis leadership.

Based on the best information you can get (see Point 3, here), be ruthlessly honest about the situation facing you, and never lose faith that things will get better in the end.

Crisis leadership falls apart when leaders embrace the extremes: pessimists only see the real, and naive optimists only see the ideal.

Crisis leadership falls apart when leaders embrace the extremes: pessimists who only see the real, and naive optimists who only see the ideal. Click To Tweet

3. Be the first to change, not the last

When public safety is at risk, which by every account it seems to be, the best leaders act sooner rather than later.

Ideally, you want to be ahead of the government on this one to protect the people you lead, not the last.

The “Well, the Governor/President?Prime Minister said we could gather under 250 so we’re allowing 250 at a time,” isn’t likely the wisest route, particularly when things are literally changing hourly.

You want to be on the right side of history on this one, protecting rather than risking, helping rather than hanging on.

When public safety is at risk, which by every account it seems to be, the best leaders act sooner rather than later. Click To Tweet

Apple has been an interesting company to watch. It pulled out of SXSW about a week before it was canceled. It made its workers move to remote work early on in the process. And it announced the closure of most of its stores long before the government mandated it (which at the time of publication, the government hasn’t yet in North America. But that’s likely coming very soon.).

While it’s hard to know why they’ve been early leaders, it’s likely either because they have information most of us don’t or really great intuition. Being ahead of the curve is where you want to be when public safety is involved.

The reasons for being the last one still hosting events/making everyone come into the office/keeping things open often aren’t that great. Dig a little deeper, and underneath you may find stubbornness, denial, fear (of decline or lack of money) or selfishness. In other words, a sea of motivations that put your own interests ahead of the public interests.

I love how Life.Church, North Point, Mecklenburg Community Church and many others canceled their in-person weekend experiences ahead of government directives, as we did. In addition, overnight last night, our church stopped all in-person meetings large or small (including watch parties) and moved to virtual groups and gatherings.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.

In Canada, the CEOs of the thirty largest businesses called on all businesses to act in the public interest and put community health first by embracing social distancing and remote work before the government requires it. You can read their open letter here.

Think that’s extreme?

Louis Vuitton, the French luxury good manufacturer, is switching its cosmetics and perfume division into producing free hand sanitizer for use in France, where it’s in desperately short supply.

And in England, Boris Johnson is asking car makers and certain manufacturers to switch to ventilator production, which appears to be the main problem in this pandemic—not nearly enough machines to help the people who are falling ill.

These are almost war-time level measures. And even the US in in a state of national emergency.

So what about those who think this is all overblown or a massive overreaction?

If you’re worried about overreaction, delayed reaction may be a bigger problem.

If you're worried about overreaction to COVID-19, delayed reaction may be a bigger problem. Click To Tweet

From Josh Barro, the business columnist for New York Magazine:

Justin Lessler, the Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist, noted a way in which this epidemic tricks people into panicking when it’s too late.

“If people are only going to start taking the actions they should when they start to see a lot of people dying around them, it’s already too late,” he says.

When you combine the substantial period from infection to death with exponential growth in infections, the number of deaths you see around you is likely far lower than the number of deaths you are about to see.

The people who stand to die within the next 30 days may not even be very sick yet. And when they get very sick, the hospitals may be overwhelmed and ill-prepared to respond. This is the corner Italy backed itself into. We might be headed there, too.

‘What have you got to lose by going first?’ is a haunting question, but less haunting than, ‘What have you got to lose by going last?’

What you lose if you’re wrong about that is far greater than what you gain if you’re right. It’s as simple as that.

You absorb the pain now, or you potentially absorb far more pain later. You choose.

How to Lead Through Rapid, Unexpected Change (Responding to COVID-19) Click To Tweet

4. Sift Through Your Motives

So, what change do you need to adopt?

Let an honest look at your motives guide you.

A crisis reveals who you really are, and often you may not like what you see. I’m regularly disappointed by my first instincts.

But you don’t have to act on your first instincts, which is where real leadership comes in.

So, to deal with that, sift your motives.

You’ll find things like:

Selfishness and sacrifice

Denial and acceptance

Hoarding and preparedness

Fear and faith

Some careful reflection and wise counsel should help you choose the latter, not the former.

A crisis reveals who you really are, and often you may not like what you see. Click To Tweet

5. Process Your Emotions as You Help Others Process Theirs

People are in shock, denial and mourning. So are you.

Change is challenging at the best of times.

This kind of massive disruptions triggers so many emotions in people and in you—including disbelief—that making time to process it all is essential.

People are in shock, denial and mourning. Leaders, so are you. Click To Tweet

As a leader, that’s hard though because you likely spend most of your time helping other people, finding reliable information, making decisions and then rethinking everything. In addition, you’re probably putting in 12-18 hour days.

Which raises the question: How exactly are you processing all this?

Just because a crisis is not a time to take a sabbatical or spend a week in a cabin contemplating how you really feel doesn’t mean you can’t process your emotions daily.

In fact, doing so will make you a better leader and help you make better decisions.

A tired leader is an ineffective leader. Click To Tweet

Here are some things you can do to make sure you’re processing decisions:

  • Get some sleep. A tired leader is an ineffective leader. Your body and brain need rest.
  • Pray and meditate. Start every day with some time to reflect, pray and even meditate on scripture and surrender the problems you have to God.
  • Get some exercise. Even a 20 minute run or a brisk walk will help.
  • Eat better. Yep, this is sounding a lot like what you already know. But just do it.
  • Call a friend you can talk to. In a crisis, you need people who don’t need anything from you. Call a friend.
  • Spend at least some time with your family. They need your leadership and friendship too, as much as your church or company does.

Creating some distance from crisis management will help you make far better decisions. When in doubt, revert to #1 and 2. They are force multipliers.

If you don’t control your emotions, your emotions will control you.

If you don't control your emotions, your emotions will control you. Click To Tweet

How To Lead Through Crisis: A FREE Course

The world is experiencing a series of unprecedented challenges, and you’re leading in the midst of it all.

I’ve got a brand new online, on-demand course, called How To Lead Through Crisisthat can help you lead your team, your church and yourself through the massive disruption.

The course is the gift from me and my team to you and leaders everywhere. In light of everything that’s going on, we decided to make it available 100% free.

Inside How To Lead Through Crisis, you’ll learn how to: 

  • Cultivate a non-anxious presence that inspires confidence and trust.
  • Care for yourself so the crisis doesn’t break you.
  • Master the art of fast-paced, clear decision making. 
  • Gather and interpret the most reliable data that will advance your mission
  • Advance digitally to scale past physical barriers and grow your outreach.
  • Lead your team and congregation remotely

While no one has all the answers in a crisis this big, in the course, I share the mindsets, habits, tools and strategies that I believe will help you lead through crisis to get you and the people you lead to a new (and better) future. 

You can enroll and get instant access for you and your team here.

What Are You Learning?

I’ll continue to provide new, free resources to help leaders through the crisis. To make sure you have the latest, scroll down and sign up via email. Then you’ll be fully up to date.

In the meantime, what are you learning about leading in rapid change?

What’s helped you? Leave a comment!

How to Lead Through Rapid, Unexpected Change (Responding to COVID-19)


  1. John Lenhart on March 21, 2020 at 7:10 am

    Having a non-contradictory causal definition of “Leadership” has helped me intentionally lead through this situation and intentionally train others to lead.

    Carey Nieuwhof, What is YOUR definition of “Leadership”?

  2. Pyn Shabong on March 20, 2020 at 11:41 am

    This is really very helpful for such a time like this. Thanks

  3. Mark on March 18, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    Carey, this is helpful. Thanks for all of your perspective and shared processing in these times. One of the ways I am encouraging my coaching clients to avoid over reacting or under reacting is to
    1. Identify their Resources
    2. Identify their Needs
    3. Identify the Obstacles.

    Then Model extremes of over reacting and under reacting in their context. Realizing that they should land in the middle with resilience and service in mind.

    • whatsapp sniffer on March 19, 2020 at 6:33 am

      But the scientists recently have said that the outbreak will lead to many more problems. As we already know market is all set to crash and hit recession. Social distancing is one fine way to stop it.

  4. Matt Geeze on March 18, 2020 at 8:29 am

    Carey, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this post. You put into words so much of what I’ve been feeling and frustrated with these past few days. Point 3, especially. I’ve seen so many around me take it “day by day” and use Scripture (“Let tomorrow worry about itself; sufficient is the day of its own trouble”) to justify waiting on the government to force churches/businesses to close, rather than staying ahead of the curve. Sharing this. Thank you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 18, 2020 at 8:59 am

      Thanks for sharing!

      So glad to help in these crazy times.

  5. nicolae butoiu on March 17, 2020 at 11:23 am

    Dear Carey the Grace of God combined with your love for Him and He’s own enabled you to hear well the Tuning Fork and to reverberate accordingly! Thank Heaven and You and I pray that we’ll be faithful in following the light in times like these! Be blessed as you are a blessing for many !

  6. Dan Emmert on March 17, 2020 at 10:19 am

    I am a 71 year old chaplain working for a non profit agency. I work in adult services with people with mental health / brain health challenges. I meet in small groups for chapel, Bible study, visitation at their homes and classes that hopefully compliment their recovery process. If I cancel classes or don’t visit in their group homes, they will still be living together. A third program is a drop-in center and I teach two classes a week in that setting.
    I don’t have to work as a semi retired pastor. I am struggling with what is selfish, what is leadership and what is realistic. I know the idealistic is to say, they need me and my spiritual counsel and I should just keep going. Remote interaction is not set up technologically. Direct care staff will need to keep reporting to work. I am not essential I that sense, but I believe my presence has made a difference. Any suggestions. Dan Emmert on March 17, 2020
    Happy St. Patrick’s day.

    • Dan Hettinger on March 17, 2020 at 11:26 pm


      I’m in the same boat in many ways. I’m 66 and a Chaplain at a Behavioral Health Hospital (the only Chaplain). My name is even Dan.

      For now, I’m taking all the normal precautions, washing my hands constantly, etc, and I keep doing rounds.

      Sometimes our calling puts us in harms way like a fireman, police officer, soldier, etc. It is not that we try to be a hero, but we go where the need is.

      It also does not mean we take actions that increase the risk–policemen wear bullet proof vests, fireman wear protective helmets, coats and boots, soldiers are armed, etc. We take every precaution including prayer.

      The staff is very important to me too. They are taking risks.

      By some standards we are non essential. But if I’m not there, at this point, nobody else will be God’s representative to the staff and patients.

      I pray God keep us safe in every way.

  7. Valerie Leonard on March 17, 2020 at 5:49 am

    This is great! I will be doing a webinar tomorrow on how nonprofits can continue to operate during the era of coronovirus. May I have your permission to put a copy of this article in a workbook and/or share the link? Please advise.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 17, 2020 at 6:21 am

      Hi Valerie. Great to hear from you. Thanks for asking for permission. You may…just a link back to the original article/site here. Thanks!

  8. Joe on March 16, 2020 at 7:22 pm

    Great words, great thoughts. Process, love, process, love.

  9. Aaron Bartlett on March 16, 2020 at 2:16 pm

    Thanks, Carrie,
    You’re a gem. Side note, I love seeing the way our team (at my church) has instantly come together in such an amalgamate way. Everyone is playing to their strengths and picking up the slack whenever needed. It’s an infectious environment (pun too soon??). It’s always wonderful to see churches across the continent taking measures to protect their communities while still providing support like groceries for the elderly and community with one another (virtual) to offer grace and peace to each other at this time.

    • Aaron Bartlett on March 16, 2020 at 2:29 pm

      Whoops apologies Carey*

  10. Andrea Goslee on March 16, 2020 at 10:08 am

    I just wanted you to know that your posts these last few days have been so helpful and inspiring. I’m encouraged to take the lead instead of holding back waiting for others to make decisions. Thank you!

  11. Jane R. on March 16, 2020 at 9:53 am

    Your leadership is inspiring in the midst of this cultural revolution. Taking each of your points to heart today. We are now in a position to use the very tools we not so long ago considered to be socially isolating to bring people together in new ways. We have a unique opportunity to share God’s love through our digital leadership in ways we could not have imagined just a month ago. (Doing a crash course learning zoom today!) Thanks for you posts.

  12. Frank N Koob on March 16, 2020 at 7:36 am

    I have been retired from Ministry, but still help out and try to do works of justice and mercy. Your advice is so great. I wish I had your guidance 30 years ago, but soda with the rest of us, don’t we? I passed your free posts on at times when I feel they are relevant to an individual who can use the Practical ideas hand change of perspective.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 16, 2020 at 7:50 am

      Thanks Frank!

  13. Mark on March 16, 2020 at 6:27 am

    Thanks for helping us engage in the most effective and fruitful Kingdom leadership we possibly can in these unprecedented days.
    Question:. We’re a church of approximately 600 in avg. Worship attendance (including all ages). Our leadership is contemplating what it would look like to set up many, many smaller venues in homes with designated leaders to gather for prayer, worship, watch the live stream (which thankfully we have had set up for some time and is excellent quality), and possible even share brunch type food together.
    What are you hearing and what would your experience tell you about whether or not this is a wise move? Thanks so much!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 16, 2020 at 7:47 am

      Mark, thanks for asking. I think that’s short term thinking. Social distancing (google it) means you shouldn’t come within 6 feet of others. As of yesterday, we suspended ALL in person gatherings. The more research I do and the more health care officials I talk to (obviously, I have limited access and information like any ordinary leader would) the more concerned I get. I would just shut it all down now and move to virtual. If I’m wrong, you’ve lost almost nothing. If I’m right, then you’ve helped immensely in fighting the transmission of COVID-19.

      Also, communal food ideas is a bad one when it comes to contagious diseases. We’ve stopped all that personally last week.

      • Mark on March 16, 2020 at 7:50 am

        Thanks for your incredibly quick reply! We will be gathering our leadership staff on zoom this morning for our weekly meeting and will share your perspective. Grateful

  14. Cozy Dixon on March 16, 2020 at 5:34 am

    Perfect timing to receive these encouraging words. Many thanks !

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 16, 2020 at 6:20 am

      Thanks so much Cozy!

  15. Adam Mitchell-Baker on March 16, 2020 at 5:25 am

    Great article! Really helpful for thinking through how to respond well with clarity, compassion and creativity!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 16, 2020 at 6:20 am

      Thank you Adam. And hopefully, urgency!

  16. Robert Kwabena Andoh on March 16, 2020 at 4:19 am


    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 16, 2020 at 4:37 am

      Thanks Robert. These are extremely challenging times.

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