Even on Zoom I could see the weariness on the pastor’s face. Leading a large congregation in Florida, a state hit hard by the pandemic, had taken a toll. Who would have imagined “canceling” Easter? It had also created a deep division among the congregants. Add the increasing number of infections in Florida, a cratering economy, protests against racial injustice, and the intractable polarities of church members with strikingly diverse political perspectives, and it is no wonder the temperature in his congregation had reached a boiling point.
He was feeling the pressure of it. His inbox was filled with people taking different sides, staking claims, bringing pressure, and demanding action in vastly conflicting directions.
Living in the pastor’s current space between aspired values and fallible human intention is a scenario that probably sounds familiar to leaders of theological schools. When do we get back to regular classes — or do we at all? How do we fulfill our aspirations to be a healthy organizational community when people are socially distancing? How do we help our employees who have children at home doing remote learning when what we need now is a more efficient workforce? How many cost-cutting measures to save the institution will eventually cause it to bleed out and die? What do we “mandate” and when do we let staff, faculty, and students use their best judgment?
These are all common challenges for leaders of organizations, but since March, many leaders have learned that internal resistance is a more formidable hurdle than external challenges. As hard as it is to manage extraordinary circumstances, it is the internal recalcitrance to new ideas, the division and distrust, the conflict and even outright sabotage of our best intentions that make leaders want to pull the covers over their heads and come out some time after 2023.
When the only constant about change is that it is accelerating, when the only thing we can predict is that disruption will continue, and when people are growing cynical and resistant to our leadership because we can’t offer a guaranteed plan for success, what can we do to lead well?
Acknowledge — publicly — that there is no well-worn path. For this moment, in completely uncharted territory, there is no playbook. There are no best practices. There are no experts. There is no surefire solution for a situation that none of us were prepared for. This is the hard truth about the many great challenges we are now facing.
Recognize that even when there is no path, your institution still needs to move forward. Amid uncertainty, you can’t stand still waiting until you are certain. Even though you have no guarantee of success, no guarantee even that the next decision will be the best one, you still have to move torward fulfilling your mission — and get your people to go with you.
How do you do that?
Lead the learning. The philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “In times of great change, learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.”
Learn as we go. We need to wade in, check our assumptions, and experiment our way into the future, one insight at a time, even if we were not trained to do this. We need to be more like artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs than scholars, teachers, and administrators. This is vastly different from publishing a perfectly prepared paper in a peer-reviewed journal or preparing a long-range strategic plan. It’s literally pushing our very rough drafts of plans out into the field and inviting others to make them better with us. It’s humbling, it is nerve-racking, and it makes you feel very vulnerable. It means we will make mistakes, publicly, and we will come under fire from those who don’t trust us because we express information we learned today that contradicts what we said yesterday. But it is the only way forward.
Invite the center to listen to the edges. Some years ago, I heard a very entrepreneurial leader say, “The future is here, it’s just on the margins.” As a young leader of color who often found himself marginalized in conversations with established leaders, he began to recognize that the conversations he and his peers were having resonated much more with those open to a changing world than those trying to cling to the old order. This same insight was expressed by Franciscan Father Richard Rohr in his pamphlet “The Eight Core Principles.” In it, he writes, “Practical truth is more likely found at the bottom and the edges than at the top or the center of most groups, institutions, and cultures.” In times of deep disruption, one of the limitations of institutional leaders is that they just keep talking to the small circle of people who share the same perspectives and experiences as theirs. When leaders open the conversation and listen to voices that have been previously marginalized or who have experience in other arenas, contexts or adjacent fields, new perspectives emerge that generate possibilities previously unseen.
Strengthen relationships to increase resilience. One of my coaching clients once told me, “Tod, I’m pretty sure I can learn to lead change. I’m just not sure I can survive it.” That comment, and dozens like it from literally hundreds of organizational leaders, inspired me to write a book on leadership resilience. One of the key principles I discovered in my research was that the vulnerability of leadership requires the security of many relationships. To be sure, none of these relationships can be sycophantic. They all must be the kinds of trusted confidants who can speak truth to power, engage in candid discussion, and wrestle with the painful decisions and the possibility of problematic results.
Leaders taking a group through a season of deep disruption need partners, mentors, and friends. They need relationships with trusted allies who will lock arms and join the work. They need coaches, therapists, advisers, and spiritual directors who will offer mentoring to role and soul. And they also need people who care more about the leader as a person than they care about the leader’s success at leading the mission. In times of great change, a good board of directors can function as all four.
When the internal resistance is at its highest, when the inbox is on fire, resilient leaders keep opening doors, keep learning, keep listening, and keep themselves surrounded by as many partners, mentors, and friends as possible.