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June 11, 2020
September 26, 2023

Leading Teams Through Crises

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
— Philippians 2:3-4 ESV

When we talk about Christian leadership, we look to Jesus, specifically, His example of servant leadership. He did not lord His authority over others; He served, washing feet, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick. We also turn to Paul, who teaches us that Christians ought to “count others more significant” than themselves.

Those concepts of servanthood and humility are laudable—we strive for them—but we may sometimes wonder how to practice them in our lives. Supervisors and small group leaders, for instance, need to provide direction to their teams. How can they do that humbly and in service of their people? And, how can they lead through humble service when faced with a crisis like a pandemic?

A number of recent articles from firms like Deloitte and McKinsey offer thoughts on the subject. But if you look beneath the five-step plans, some principles begin to surface. Here, we look at three of those principles, considering how our faith can inform them or be the foundation of them. We also explore how those principles can be applied in everyday circumstances for the good of our teams.

Lead with Purpose

Eric J. McNulty and Leonard Marcus, authors of You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most and contributors at Harvard Business Review, note that crises—such as the one we find ourselves in today—require both leadership and management. Management deals with the day-to-day priorities of the team, ensuring things get done well and on time. Leadership addresses the future. It looks past the urgent concerns of the day and prepares for what’s next.

The problem, McNulty and Marcus say, is that crises tend to overwhelm any future planning. Everyone gets sucked into the immediate and pressing now. The loss of vision is understandable, but weathering crises means holding to the shared vision and mission. For ministries and workplaces, this can look like reorienting people toward the future and reminding them of their purpose. In more informal contexts, such as small groups, the path forward looks similar. Providing the group with vision for the future, even if it’s an uncertain future, helps people stay connected to the group and its reason for existence.

A few practical ways to lead your team with purpose include daily check-ins, preferably over video so that people benefit from a form of face-to-face interaction. Another is planning for the future. Set a time to brainstorm strategies (ministry or workplace) or Bible studies (small groups). During this time, remind people of why they do the work they do, whether that’s the work of leading kids, drafting business proposals, writing curriculum, managing timesheets, etc. or the work of joining with and participating in a small group community.

Jesus did this frequently with His disciples. He would tell them what He was about, what His work was. In John 4:34, for instance, Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Jesus knew His why, and it shaped His entire life. In sharing that why with His disciples, Jesus gave them a permanent aim, one that existed regardless of His physical presence.

Lead with Compassion

Many of us are working from home these days, but we’re not all working from home in the same way. Some of us are alone in our homes, minus the cat that saunters through every video call. Others of us have spouses and kids and, although school has ended for the 2019-2020 year, are dancing between work and family all day, every day. Still others of us have embraced the work-from-home lifestyle, finding ourselves capable of turning off work at a sane hour each weekday. Others of us have discovered the opposite. We work more hours than ever before, perhaps in an attempt to control the uncontrollable.

All that to say, each of us reacts to change differently, even in the best of circumstances. Change is hard. Good leaders recognize this reality, and lead through it with care and compassion. They connect with their teams, reminding them it’s okay to be human. We are human, after all.

In practical terms, leading with compassion looks like grace. We give grace to ourselves—not to be trite, but these times are unprecedented and none of us have lived through them before—and we give grace to our team members. We also listen. We ask about each other’s mental and emotional well-being. Doing that might be uncomfortable for some of us, but as Alain Hunkins at Business Insider puts it, “You don’t need to be a trained psychologist. You need to be an empathic human.” That means listening more than we speak and acknowledging there is no “right” response to the pandemic. We’re all at a loss right now. The leader who admits that is a leader the team trusts and follows.

We see this in Jesus, who often asked people, “What do you want?” Sometimes He listened and acted in accordance with the person’s wishes. For example, He healed the blind men, because they told Him they wanted to see. Other times, He listened and led, as when He was asked to give James and John seats of authority. James and John didn’t rebel at being told “no”; rather, they continued trusting and following Jesus, the One who listened to them and answered their questions, even the ones we might think are foolish.

Lead with Hope

The research firm Gallup reports teams want trust, compassion, stability, and hope from their leaders. We already examined compassion, which can build the team’s trust; now, let’s explore hope. Gallup says hope is critical, for we need to “believe the future will be better than our disrupted, socially distant, fearful present.” The firm found three items helpful to instilling hope in teams: goals, enthusiasm, and ideas.

Gallup’s data underscores their research findings, but we have another reason to accept their results—the gospel. If goals give team members objects that direct their time and efforts, we have the best object. We have Jesus, who is our hope. If a leader’s enthusiasm motivates the team, then we, as Christians, ought to be the most enthusiastic. We have the best story, for it contains the best news. And if ideas encourage team members to engage their minds, then we have an endless fount of ideas, for our God is the Creator and Author of Creativity.

Concerning practical applications, leading with hope requires communication. It might, in fact, even mean over-communication. Karissa Sachs, Vice President of Digital Strategy and Talent Acquisition at Kforce, says overcommunication can be helpful in our newly remote world since “we aren’t able to have quick follow-up conversations at our desks.” Over-communicating clarifies next steps and gives people the confidence to move forward. Leading with hope also involves information. Don’t shy away from uncertainty or harsh realities. But don’t dwell in them, either.

Rather, be a leader of “hopeful realism” as our West Congregation Pastor Ross Lester says. We, as Christians, have a gritty hope. Our hope can endure all things because it is secure in Christ. The author of Hebrews likens it to having an “anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). And what does an anchor do? It keeps us steady, afloat, when storms arise.

Leading a team well, in and out of a pandemic, requires humility. While that humility looks different for every leader, it begins with a consideration of the people on our teams. It is then lived out by leading with purpose, leading with compassion, and leading with hope. If we can give our people vision, show them Christlike compassion, and remain hopeful in crises, we can end up with teams that flourish.

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Erin Feldman
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Austin Stone Institute