Leadership in Times of Crisis

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On December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, collapsed, plunging many to their death. Investigation showed that the bridge was carrying far more weight than it was built to carry. That’s because cars and trucks weighed more in the ‘60s than they did in 1928 when the bridge was built. Unable to bear up under the weight of current vehicles, the Silver Bridge came apart.

This sparked widespread concern about our country’s infrastructure and underscored the importance of bridges to our domestic life. Indeed, so much of what we do depends on them.

Using the Silver Bridge incident as an illustration, Dr. James Earl Massey wrote the following in a 1994 Christianity Today article: “Every leader is a bridge, connecting people with meanings, relationships, and opportunities. So much of what is possible for people depends upon bridge-persons.”

The need for “bridge-persons” has never been greater than in this moment in history. As I write this column in mid-April, the coronavirus outbreak continues to take its toll in ways not seen in modern times. Conditions in New York City are grave enough to necessitate the conversion of a well-known convention center into a hospital. Playgrounds, parks, airports, and pews are empty. Living rooms are now classrooms and offices. Trucks in hospital parking lots are makeshift morgues.

The resulting fear and anxiety is understandable. People are grieving the loss of livelihood and loved ones, especially those whose loved ones died alone in quarantine and won’t get a proper burial.

But most unsettling about this pandemic is the feeling of naked uncertainty that it thrusts upon us — its unknowns, the questions it evokes: When is this going to be over? What will be the eventual economic fallout, not just nationally but for us personally? And what will normal look like when we get there?

There are no answers. There’s no playbook for COVID-19. It’s like walking in the dark. However, dark times underscore the importance of leadership, which brings us back to where we started. And considering that so much depends on it, it’s safe to say that every crisis is a leadership opportunity.


Qualities of good leaders

The Silver Bridge illustration begs this personal introspection: Is my leadership strong enough to bear up under the weight of the present crisis? Such times test our leadership, separating the genuine from the pretenders.

In his book, The Motive, Patrick Lencioni asserts that leaders lead either for the rewards (the prize they get for their hard work) or for the responsibilities (the joy of loving and serving others). Not surprisingly, it is the latter that bears up under the weight of a crisis. Such a leader brings their influence to bear upon the situation at hand, all for the joy of serving others.

Consider some of the things such leaders do best.

They provide clarity. Confusion and uncertainty are typical in times of crisis. The leader’s responsibility is to provide clarity. This doesn’t mean coming up with answers; in crisis there are usually no answers. Rather, this is about clarifying the big picture, connecting people to a vision of life beyond the crisis. In Church Unique, Will Mancini writes, “To lead by rallying people around a better future, albeit unknown, requires clarity first.”

The best biblical example is Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). When skeptical onlookers misconstrued the Spirit’s work, Peter rose to the occasion and provided clarity, so much so that three thousand people were converted!

The importance of clarity plays out on our TV screens daily as the pandemic continues. The graver the situation, the more clarity is needed, and those who provide it best are most respected and admired.

They demonstrate moral courage. More than mere bravery, this is the capacity to do what’s right for the right reason in the face of difficult circumstances. It is developed over time through building trust, character, and integrity.

Classic examples of moral courage are Joshua summoning two-plus million weary wilderness wanderers to cross over into Canaan (Joshua 1:10, 11) and Nehemiah rallying a nation to rise up and rebuild her broken walls (Nehemiah 2:17-20). These happened at pivotal moments in Israel’s history.

They think creatively. In our fast-paced technological world, the one constant is change, and leaders who make the greatest difference are those who adapt to change through creativity and innovation. As the outcomes of the pandemic already show, there’s no way around it.

The best example of creative thinking in Scripture is Jesus. He was a master communicator because He was masterfully creative. To get His point across, He told stories, drew in the sand, held up a Roman coin, and sat an infant on His lap. No wonder He changed the world.

They give care. People don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care. Among the reasons we admire the apostle Paul is the care he exuded for those under his leadership. Near the end of his life, in recalling some of the things he suffered, Paul highlighted “the care of all the churches” (KJV) as the greatest burden of his ministry (2 Corinthians 11:24-28).

Paul’s capacity for caring reminds us of the caregivers on the frontlines so frequently highlighted these days. When life is on the line, leaders give care.

They communicate hope. In his book Hope Again, Chuck Swindoll writes, “Hope is a wonderful gift from God, a source of strength and courage in the face of life’s harshest trials.” The fact is that hope is scarce in times of crisis, unless leaders communicate it.

Everyone is a leader because in some way, everyone is impacting those within their sphere of influence. Leadership is never more critical than during times of crisis, and the crisis has never been greater than at present. The question is, will your leadership hold up under its weight?

Whaid Rose

Whaid Rose, former president of the General Conference, is dean of the Artios Center for Vibrant Leadership and pastors the Newton, NC CoG7. He and his wife, Marjolene, live in Denver, NC.