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The 3 Kinds of Leaders You See In A Crisis

kinds of leaders

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

And yet, here you are leading in the midst of one.

What’s inevitable is that you and the people you lead are learning in real-time what your style of crisis leadership is.

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.

Crisis doesn't create your leadership style, instead, it reveals and amplifies what was already there. Click To Tweet

This post is part of a series on leadership and the current global crisis:

Crisis Leadership, Christian Leadership and the Corona Virus

How to Lead Through Rapid, Unexpected Change

8 Ways to Lead in the New Digital Default Church

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

My Top 7 Rules for Leading a Digital Team

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

8 Early Tips for Producing Digital Content During the Current Crisis

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

I’ve also produced a free course on crisis leadership called How to Lead Through Crisis: Strategies for Navigation Rapid and Unexpected Change

You can get instant access to the course here. It’s 100% free.

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 get shut down, restaurants are ordered closed and industries shuttered, frozen leaders called it a day before the day is 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 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. Click To Tweet

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.

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

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 5-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.

In non-crisis conditions, your methods may have a 6 month to 5-year shelf life. In a crisis, your methods can expire in minutes or days. Click To Tweet

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.

Static and predictable methods don't advance your mission in a crisis. They undermine it. Click To Tweet

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.

In a crisis, agility is ability. Flexibility is a superpower. Click To Tweet

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 this crisis with agility.

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

How To Lead Through Crisis: A NEW 100% FREE Course

The world is experiencing a series of unprecedented challenges. How do you lead well through it? 

If you want some detailed free help, 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 kinds of Leadership Do You See?

Any thoughts on the styles of leadership you’re seeing? Any further thoughts on frozen, hesitant or agile leadership?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

The 3 Kinds of Leaders You See In A Crisis

11 Comments

  1. Tim Anderson on April 21, 2020 at 4:32 am

    Great post Carey! You epitomize agility of leadership. I appreciate your insight and mission over the methodology mentality.

  2. Justin on April 6, 2020 at 5:55 pm

    Great, as always Carey!
    I wonder if there are one or two other archetypes that might emerge.
    One I’m thinking of is the perhaps an ‘Opportunistic/Ego leader’, who uses the shift for to avoid some conflict decision, to justify wholesale change, or try something wacky/self-aggrandizing that others are not yet on board with etc. As an Australian, not much is sacred, so I think the challenge is to not to be agile, but to bring my team with me on that journey. Maybe that’s another one – the roller-coaster leader, changing strategy, platform, and format daily.
    I’m hoping when this is all over there is a bunch we have learnt about mobility and connectivity that we can take forward. If nothing else, maybe we’ll discover that mid-week bible study isn’t so hard if you’re at work/have sick kids/interstate.
    Thanks for your continual input, It’s always helpful.

  3. Juno Smalley on April 6, 2020 at 4:29 pm

    I’m receiving tons of material about leading in crisis… So I’m about to start ignoring it all…

  4. Dan Collins on April 6, 2020 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks so much, I see myself waver between hesitant and agile, depends on how I manage personal stress it seems. Really really like this post.
    Oh, and I think under frozen leaders, the words can and can’t may be switched accidentally. It reads, “When you drill down on it, frozen leaders focus on what they can control, not on what they can’t control.” Did you mean, “When you drill down on it, frozen leaders focus on what they can’t control, not on what they can control” ?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 7, 2020 at 1:40 pm

      Good catch! It’s been changed.

  5. Vicky on April 6, 2020 at 8:04 am

    Thanks Carey! Enlightening.

    I have a question: What did the writer of Hebrews mean when he charged that Christians were not to give up meeting as some were in the habit of doing? Was that not a timeless principle? I understand lockdown is necessary for such a time but are we now to discard gatherings and go completely digital post-lockdown?

  6. Brian McMichan on April 3, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    The BASIC requirement for any GOOD Christian leader is …… and read 1 John 4:17 ……”As He (Christ Jesus) is so are we in this world!” ……. You too can be led ALWAYS by the Holy Spirit!

    So, as Christ Jesus strongly insisted (John 3:3) “You MUST be born again. (Your earthly/flesh leadings are to be DEAD so that you receive the HOLY SPIRIT …… as Christ Jesus was on earth, so are Christian leaders to be! ……. You are to be as 2 Cor 5:17 states “A NEW CREATION” ….. otherwise it is the flesh (influenced by Satan) that continues to influence & deceive the people in MAN’S WAYS.

    Read Rom 8:13 ….. If (because) you live according to the dictates of the flesh … YOU WILL SURELY DIE … BUT if through the power of the Holy Spirit you are (habitually) putting to death the evil deeds prompted by the body you shall live forever. …… WHY? Rom 8:13 FOR ALL WHO ARE LED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT ARE SONS OF GOD.

    So, ALL who wish to live forever (with Father and Lord Jesus) must follow Jesus’ example … be baptised – taking that step of faith (as He was … “baptismo” (Greek) to immerse) fully under the water to wash away the “old man” and receive the Holy Spirit and your cleaned spirit (which Christ Jesus achieved on the cross – (Luke 4:18-19, John 19:30).

    Because so many people who “profess to be Christians” (have NOT been baptised as Jesus set the example) are able to be led/deceived/controlled by Satan …. read 2 Thess 2:3-4.

    John 3:16 says ….. WHOSOEVER believes, WILL NOT perish, but have eternal life …… so, BELIEVE and OBEY the instructions Christ Jesus has given. ….. THEN you will be a LIGHT (Christ Jesus in you) to show others and repel ALL DARKNESS (Evil/Satan).

    We are to be VESSELS on earth for Father to use ….. a Christian is CHRIST-IN …. keep having a consciousness of that …. and frequently read Gal 2:20 ….. and GIVE THANKS!

  7. Justin Klatt on April 3, 2020 at 9:01 am

    So good, agility is the key! Great post Carey. It has been hard to see other churches and Pastors I know NOT want to change or only want to change enough to get through 6 weeks of disruption but then plan on “GOING BACK TO NORMAL”, instead of realizing that digital CHURCH COMMUNITY is what people want to move to in the long run anyway, not walking into a church building ever sunday morning. Every time I hear, “Yeah we are going to do zoom services for a few weeks, or until we can go back to normal.” I cringe… we don’t want to “Go back to Normal” – “Normal” is not the church of ACTS. OK Done, preaching now. So I took over your post. You are the man!

    • Brian on April 3, 2020 at 10:21 am

      I echo this worry. Call me crazy, but I was excited to get “forced” into learning online worship (In-person worked fine, so we never had the compelling reason to do a full-on online experience). I worry that when the crisis ends, what will we learn from these online experiences that will keep going…or even better…that will influence and improve how we do things “in person”? Guessing we’ll all find out together…

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 3, 2020 at 2:26 pm

      I hear you. It’s hard to go back to normal when normal changed. Thanks for the encouragement.

      • Craig Sweeney on April 3, 2020 at 5:28 pm

        Nailed it! I have seen all 3 and understand the WHY of all 3 responses of leaders. My choice is to be the agile leader. God has people by the heart right now… let’s step into the moment not run from it. Carey your wisdom is so encouraging. Your helping a out of eager leaders think the right thoughts and ask the right questions. Thank you!

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