Leading in anxious and uncertain times

We are indeed in anxious and uncertain times. Perhaps the most chaotic and destabilizing times we have experienced in decades. The closest I can remember in my lifetime are the days and weeks following 9/11. It felt then as though the ground was shifting beneath my feet, that the world had destabilized and become chaotic.

Flights were cancelled for weeks. The financial markets went haywire. Security heightened around our borders. There was so much unknown. Was this a singular strike? Is anywhere safe? My child was only seven at the time, what kind of world had we created for this next generation? I remember being rocked to my core. Awakening at night and being unable to go back to sleep. Just a few weeks later we took our first flight and many people thought we were crazy, especially since we were flying to Portland, Maine, the point of entry for several of the hijackers.

I do remember finding solace in my pastoral leaders, who brought a sense of calm and non-anxious presence for many in our congregation who were losing jobs amid volatile economic conditions impacting many industries.

I also found it in the Scripture. Psalm 77 was of particular comfort:

Will the Lord reject forever?

Will he never show his favor again?

Has his unfailing love vanished forever?

Has his promise failed for all time?

Has God forgotten to be merciful?

Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:

the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;

yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

I will consider all your works

and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

Your ways, God, are holy.

What god is as great as our God?

You are the God who performs miracles;

you display your power among the peoples.

With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,

the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.  Psalm 77:7-15

God is present in the disaster and he can be trusted. He is calm in the midst of the uncertainty. We can remember his deeds of the past and be confident he is in the midst of all of this.

I  remember a picture that went viral just three days after 9/11 of President George W. Bush with a bull horn and his arm around the NYFD fire chief. Whatever you think about President Bush politically, in that moment he represented a true non-anxious presence. He was clear, congruent, and well-defined. In a VUCA season, he calmed the nation.

Today, my newsfeed is blowing up, like yours, with reports of cancellations, quarantines, and other radical measures to control a pandemic. And we have not yet even begun to comprehend the economic implications of all of this.

While no one leader or even group of leaders can stop this virus from profoundly impacting our nation and world, it has been discouraging to watch many of our national leaders contribute to the anxiety, rather than calm it. It seems that politics and self-interest are driving leadership decision making, not the best interests of our nation and its people.

That does not mean that well-defined, non-anxious leaders are not out there, I believe they are everywhere. They are working on the front lines in health care and local government offices, in churches, schools and businesses-large and small. Making hard decisions. Presenting realistic and helpful support to their people in the face of a dynamic situation. So much unknown. We can only take next steps, and work with what emerges.

To borrow a quote from Jim Collins, who described this as “Level 5 Leadership” where both deep humility and fierce resolve were core character attributes, (my paraphrase)

“Positional office hardly guarantees Level 5 leadership, in fact it is often a challenge to look at highly visible leaders and feel confident that they are indeed humble and resolved. Rather look down and around in organizations and in the community and you will see them everywhere—on the shop floor, coaching the baseball team, running the PTA and beyond.”

In the most volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world most of us have ever experienced, it will be necessary for many of us to step up into this kind of leadership in new ways.

Andy Crouch, in his recent essay, Love in the Time of Corona, says it this way:

“A leader’s responsibility, as circumstances around us change, is to speak, live, and make decisions in such a way that the horizons of possibility move towards shalom, flourishing for everyone in our sphere of influence, especially the vulnerable.”

This is the picture of the well-defined, humble but courageous leaders we need right now, the ones we want to follow in uncertain and anxious times. With every decision, every communication, every move you make, you are choosing for calm or anxiety in the immediate culture you can influence.

Jesus did not promise us a trouble free life, at the end of John 16, he said:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Love our neighbors well, be wise and prudent, stay in community. And when you encounter high anxiety around you, be the well-defined leader needed in that moment. For in a minute, an hour, a day, a week, sometime very soon, you will need a leader to be that for you.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at tamimpartners.com.

Topics: Christian Life, Pastoral Care

About the Author

Lisa Slayton serves as the founding partner and CEO of Tamim Partners. She has more than 20 years of experience in the marketplace in sales and marketing and senior management roles as well as ministry leadership experience. She developed and implemented all strategic initiatives and provided operational oversight for the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation. Additionally, Lisa provides executive leadership for business development and donor relationships and evaluates and develops new initiatives and partnerships that advance the mission and vision of the foundation. Lisa has designed and launched the Leaders Collaborative and delivered organizational development consulting, training, and coaching services to organizations such as Bombardier TTS, NetHealth, CTR Systems, Akina, Prominent, ABC Anesthesia, Light of Life, and WabTec as well as a number of local congregations. She has also served as volunteer women’s ministry director and as a board elder at New Community Church in Wexford, Pennsylvania. She attends New City Church in downtown Pittsburgh.