A Surprisingly Accurate Way to See If Your Church or Organization Will Flounder After the Pandemic

So, any idea whether your church or business will grow after the pandemic?

Will things spring back to pre-COVID levels? Or will you struggle for years to come?

With so much still up in the air, you might think that question is unanswerable.

Well, yes and no.

To be fair, nobody knows exactly how it will go. We could be for a much longer haul than anyone wants. Not to mention the likely instability of the post-pandemic era ahead.

But the question is answerable at much deeper level, because the difference in attitude between leaders who flourish and leaders who flounder predict the future in a surprisingly accurate way.

One of my favorite leadership books is Jim Collins’ How the Mighty Fall,  written after the Great Recession about formerly iconic companies that ended up failing. (Here’s a more complete list of my top leadership book recommendations.)

With the global crisis causing most of us to entertain thoughts and strategies we’ve never embraced before, I find Collins’ insights as compelling today as they were a dozen years ago. Collins’ observations are based on extensive research. Hence, the accuracy.

The principles I’m sharing in this post are taken from Collins’ book and  they serve as both a solid predictor and warning about the kind of organizations and leaders who will thrive in the post-pandemic world and those who won’t.

Quick side note: I first heard about the book when it first came out in 2009 from a mentor who asked me whether I could possibly be setting myself up for failure based on Collin’s insight.

Those are never fun questions to hear…but my friend was right. His correction saved me and the people I was leading a hundred heartbreaks and possible failure.

Yes, the insights are a bit of a gut-punch, but the kind of gut-punch, as I discovered, that ultimately helps.

So with that in mind, here are five signs you’ll flounder, not flourish after the pandemic.

1. You’re Pretty Certain Everything Will Spring Back To Past Levels Because the Rules Don’t Apply to You

Collin’s first sign of failure is something he calls ‘the hubris of success’.

Maybe you were highly successful before COVID. Or, even if you wouldn’t call yourself highly successful, you had a system figured out that kept everything running just fine. Good enough, in other words.

Collins says that’s exactly the trap successful leaders fall into.

Hubris will get you believing your success is deserved rather than something that was fortuitous, fleeting, grace or happened against the odds.

As a result, you’ve stopped learning and growing because you’ve got this figured out and people come to you for answers…so, of course things will snap back in your favor.

Sure, you’ve read that 1 in 5 church-going adults left the church in 2020, but you think your current numbers are solid enough and your number are higher than your friends’ or peers’ numbers. So you’re good.

The rules don’t apply to you, you tell yourself.

And of course, the rules never apply to you until they do.

Pride born of past success is the first sign you won’t see success in the future.

2. You’re Obsessed With Growth

Collins calls the second marker you’re heading for a fall “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” It surfs off the entitlement mentality that the hubris of success brings, and leaders who fall prey to this get hyper-focused on growth.

Collins highlights one pharmaceutical company whose CEO said publicly that they were totally focused on growth as their #1 business objective—not on product breakthroughs, drug development, scientific excellence, not R&D or even increasing productivity.

Growth, Collins points out, is usually a by-product of other things.

It’s not that growth is a bad thing. The problem is the undisciplined pursuit of more. More for more’s sake is the issue, or as Collins puts it, addiction to scale is the problem.

When growth is undisciplined, leaders become ready to sacrifice principles, people and integrity to grow.

You’ll reopen to satisfy your ego and thirst for growth rather than do what’s right (I outlined the idiot’s guide to reopening here).

Look, this one hits me hard personally. I love it when things grow. I hate it when things stagnate or decline.

But I’ve already realized that my desire to grow at all costs ultimately sets everyone up to fail. That by focusing on the fundamentals (these days for me, it’s helping people thrive in life and leadership), far more can be accomplished over the long haul than by simply finding growth hacks that will bring temporary wins.

Here’s the irony: Leaders who are obsessed with growth often face futures filled with decline.

3. You’re Amplifying The Positive and Discounting the Negative

Look, we’re all trying to stay encouraged. I posted about things to be genuinely encouraged about here.

But here’s the challenge: you can’t motivate your way out of a crisis like this. As hard as it is, you have to lead your way through it.

Collins calls Stage 3 of how the mighty fall “denial of risk and peril.”

In this stage, leaders amplify the positive and discount the negative—you discount or explain away the negative data rather than presume something is wrong with your organization or leadership.

In other words, leaders highlight and amplify external praise and data that favor their viewpoint, pointing out the positive and eliminating the negative.

Truth-tellers get dismissed or punished in this stage and team debate grinds to a halt. The leader only allows opinions he or she likes to come forward.

Finally, almost all the factors associated with the challenges get blamed on external forces or other people.

It’s not us, it’s the pandemic.

The real challenge is the economy…

The statistics lie…that’s not what’s happening

Look, as soon as government lifts the lockdowns everything gets solved

If you want to know what discounting the negative looks like in real life, scroll through the comments on this post. This stage is rampant in a lot of churches and organizations right now.

Leaders who can’t handle the truth get angry…and that’s not healthy for anyone.

If you amplify the positive and discount the negative, you’re likely to run into far more negative in the future.

4. You Think You’ve Discovered A Silver Bullet

As the slide down into failure accelerates, meany leaders find themselves grasping for salvation.

In this stage you find yourself announcing that you’ve discovered a silver bullet solution that will change everything. Or if you haven’t found a silver bullet, you’re searching for one, and trust me, that will turn everything around.

Collins points out that when things start to slide in organizations, leaders grasp at straws, making big dramatic moves that they claim will be game changing or truly innovative.

Another tell tale sign is the hype around the silver bullet or new strategy…hype that isn’t predicated on results but instead precedes results.

Think of “this is going to change everything” or “we’ve totally got this figured out” kind of language, before you’ve really done anything.

This is a particular trap for visionary leaders. Just because you think one thing will change everything doesn’t mean it will.

You might push back and say well isn’t game changing innovation required?

Absolutely.

But real innovation is usually more nuanced, deliberate and comprehensive than the grasping-at-straws desperation you get to when you desire growth at any cost but your strategy doesn’t match.

One additional sign that you’re falling prey to this trap is that as soon as your silver bullet doesn’t work, you grow angry, cynical and start flailing in a new (even opposite) direction out of panic a desperation.

What the team needs in a time like this is calm, deliberate action that moves toward a new direction.

5. You’re Capitulating to Irrelevance or Death

A year into the global crisis, some leaders already find themselves at this stage: capitulation to irrelevance or death.

Maybe you haven’t said anything out loud, but you kind of sense in your spirit that it’s over. That it will never be the same. Or that you don’t have the skills to take things into the future.

Collins makes the argument that it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to move yourself out of this stage.

If you think it’s over, it probably is. After all, the vision of the leader determines the vision of the team.

I agree with Collins (and Les McKeown, who argues a similar point), that this is a very difficult stage to pull out of, but perhaps it’s not impossible.

The remedy, is to go back through points 1-4 and reverse the action.

Stop assuming things will bounce back, or that the rules don’t apply to you, and humbly work with the entire team to develop a new strategy.

Get over your insecurity and obsession with growth and focus on the fundamentals that bring growth.

Welcome truth tellers and embrace the reality that without deep and systemic change, it may not go well.

Stop looking for silver bullets and embrace calm, deliberate action that moves toward a new direction.

If you find that difficult (and it is difficult), ask yourself this simple question: five years from now, what will you wish you had done?

Now go do it.

As you know, innovation (real innovation at least) beats capitulation.

Any Insights?

As I indicated, this post is a bit of a gut-punch. But over a decade ago, it was exactly the gut punch I needed and I’ve occasionally needed since.

Embracing hard truths like these pave the way to a much better future.

I encourage you to read Collin’s book as it gives a much more detailed insight than this 1500 word post does, but I hope this helps.

Curious—any other signs you see that might indicate struggle or decline is ahead in the post-pandemic world?

I’d love to hear your insights in the comments below.

Any idea whether your church or business grow after the pandemic? Based on Jim Collin's iconic insights, here are 5 signs you'll flounder after the pandemic.

17 Comments

  1. Georg Plank on February 3, 2021 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks Carey, this accurate summary will help me in an online seminar with 30 church leaders from Tirol, Austria, this Saturday. They`re struggling but have a hard time accepting the situation. So we`ll start with point one!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 5, 2021 at 6:00 am

      Georg I hope it goes well. Always wanted to go to Austria. Praying for a great time together and one of the marks of great leadership is accepting reality but never losing hope.

      • Andaza on February 5, 2021 at 6:28 am

        That is exactly it. Accepting reality but NEVER loosing HOPE. Forgive my capitalization but I could not help it. As the scripture puts it “Hope which does not disappoint” eh?

  2. Scott on February 1, 2021 at 9:37 pm

    Good points. And keep in mind that it’s God who gives the growth. I Cor 3:7

  3. Walter Swaim on February 1, 2021 at 6:32 pm

    “You’re Obsessed With Growth” – this was worth the whole article.

    I am a small church pastor and am just shooting to get us healthy again (no pun intended) – to abide in Him and let the fruit come, and fruit that remains.

  4. Marvin on February 1, 2021 at 5:35 pm

    I’m a mainline pastor, and 40 years of membership declines has helped curb the hubris! 🙂 I’ll get to work on the other four points.

  5. Brian on February 1, 2021 at 11:59 am

    Thanks for sharing. I needed to read this today. I appreciate your work!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 1, 2021 at 1:21 pm

      Thanks so much Brian!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 1, 2021 at 6:24 pm

      Glad to help!

  6. Sarah on February 1, 2021 at 9:57 am

    YES, YES, YES! As someone who has been considered a “staple” in the church, this article hits the nail on the head. Nobody is asking us laity! Lowly volunteers. We can’t have vision or insight. We have to follow the leader and stay in line! I’ve been scorched by my leadership this past year and in my brokenness, I feel God has shown me the root of the problem.

    Spiritual AND emotional immaturity. We have put people in leadership that “have godly character” (in action and behaviour maybe….for now), and have not taken how they react to challenge into account.

    Codes, policies, and covenant forms protect the leadership from the stone cold truth. Accountability is smoke and mirrors. Leaders dismiss anything that doesn’t suit their narrative and their vision. It’s become a dictatorship, and it only goes downhill from there. The stage is set for atrocities to occur, in the name of moving the Kingdom of God forward.

    It all stems back to emotional immaturity. Unresolved trauma. These people need a counselor, and I don’t say that in spite. In the famous words of a movie quote I cannot remember, “You want the truth?! You can’t handle the truth!”

    *cue frustrated church volunteers*
    *send help*

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 1, 2021 at 1:21 pm

      I hope so many leaders read your comment. You’re not alone in your experience. A bit extreme…but the tendencies are not isolated.

    • Penny on February 3, 2021 at 11:05 am

      Liked reading your post and I am empathetic to your position. May I humbly suggest that you take a look at something I encountered many years ago on this journey. I blessed to be part of a study based on the findings of, “Healthy Congregations,” and now an organization based in Ohio that reflects on the psychology of Bowen’s Family System Theory findings. It has saved the way I view and handle congregational situations many times. Check it out, and may God bless you on your journey now and ahead.

  7. Mike on January 31, 2021 at 2:39 pm

    Great insights! I especially like the part about growth obsession. In America, we seem to closely correlate success with growth, frequently at all costs. I’ve been involved with tech corporations and large churches that stop seeing people as people and treat them as cogs to fulfill a vision. I really appreciate that the next generation seems more concerned with sustainability over growth. Valuing quality over quantity.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 1, 2021 at 5:38 am

      Thanks Mike. It’s true, isn’t it? The next generation sees through the charade.

      • ANDAZA HEZEKIAH on February 1, 2021 at 11:04 am

        I think one of the things we should be thankful for at all times is that God is still in charge and is working in the next generation even where we may be failing and faltering. There is hope. He is always at work bringing us a fresh reminder that we may have all these systems and methods but at the end of the day He owns it all and will do what is needed. We do have a responsibility to cry out for and handoff to the next generation but where we fail He is always at work. Lord help us do what we must and turn our eyes from the distractions that abound.

    • ANDAZA HEZEKIAH on February 1, 2021 at 10:59 am

      This obsession sadly is not limited to America alone. I think America is louder and has a platform for the world to see. Humans are flawed everywhere. I would agree though that this could be more of a problem on this side of the planet than some others.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on February 1, 2021 at 1:19 pm

        A lot of truth in that Andaza.

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