On Sunday, May 2, 2010, the biggest flood in our state’s history hit Nashville. We received more rain on that single day than we’ve ever received in the entire month of May in recorded weather history.
It wasn’t long until our rivers and streams were leaving their banks and cutting a destructive path throughout the entire city. Sunday evening I started to see images on the television that took my breath away. It was clear hundreds of businesses and thousands of homes would be severely damaged if not destroyed.
I’ve always been a student of leadership. I’ve read leadership books since I was in college. I’ve attended leadership conferences for years. I’ve surrounded myself with great leaders who mentor me.
But nothing—I repeat, nothing—helps you grow in leadership more than being put in situations where other people are dependent on your leadership. There’s an Old English proverb that says, “A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner.”
I had the wonderful and humbling experience during the Nashville flood of leading Cross Point Church to the front lines of flood relief here in Nashville. In doing so, there were several lessons about leading through crisis that will forever be burned into my memory.
While your organization may not currently be in crisis, it’s just a matter of time. Developing a plan for how you will respond is crucial. I honestly had rehearsed situations like this hundreds of times in my head.
I learned four leadership lessons from this crisis:
- Embrace crisis. The words of the local weatherman, “Folks prepare for what is now the 1,000 year flood,” will be locked into my memory for a lifetime. As I sat there paralyzed by his words and the images I was watching, I felt God whisper to me, “Pete, this is a once in a thousand year opportunity for Cross Point Church and the body of Christ in Nashville to step up and make a difference.”
As leaders we have to realize that the crises our organizations face are actually opportunities. It’s an opportunity for change. It’s an opportunity to see whose really with you. It’s an opportunity for creativity to be birthed. Nearly every crisis contains within itself the seeds of opportunity.
In Leadership Is an Art, Max DePree writes, “The leader’s first job is to define reality.” For some reason as leaders, we’re often tempted to think if we ignore the crisis it might just go away. However, denying reality has destroyed more leaders than incompetence ever could.
Crisis is inevitable. So don’t fear it, run from it, or ignore it. Embrace it.
- Respond quickly. The Sunday night of the flood I instantly got on the phone with our Executive Director, Jenni Catron, and started to plan our response to the biggest crisis our city has had or will probably ever experience in the life of our church.
Over the next week more than 2,000 volunteers from Cross Point would descend on our city in the name of Christ bringing hope, help, grace and love. We would tear out drywall, insulation, carpet and other flooring in an attempt to give homeowners a jump start on flood relief and would eventually save the homeowners of Nashville well over 3 million dollars in clean-up expenses.
In crisis, people are waiting for a leader to step up and fearlessly face the challenge head on. Because we responded quickly in a matter of days we had churches and organizations from around the country sending us volunteers and funding to help continue our efforts.
- Invite collective wisdom. Here’s a little secret. When Jenni and I made the call and asked for volunteers to show up on Monday morning at 9:00am, we had no plan. I had never led flood relief. I didn’t know what tools we needed or how we would assimilate volunteers or how we would assign projects.
Three days into our relief we had a highly effective system for our flood relief, but it didn’t start that way.
I immediately got on the phone and talked with other leaders who had led through similar crises who gave me outstanding advice. I helped gather the brightest minds in our church organization so they could do what they do best.
In a crisis, many leaders want to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They go into isolation, and think they can solve all the problem themselves. A good dose of humility and collaboration will serve you well while leading through crisis.
If you want solutions, you need to be quiet every chance you get. If you will stay quiet long enough, you will start to hear some creative brilliance rise to the top.
- Be willing to sacrifice first. Before asking others to sacrifice, first be willing to sacrifice yourself. If there are sacrifices to be made—and there will be—then leaders have to step up and make the greatest sacrifices themselves.
Everyone is watching to see what the leaders do, especially in crisis. Will they stay true to their values? Will they look for an easy way out, or confront the crisis in a straightforward manner?
I still have so much to learn about the in’s and out’s of leadership, but what I’m sure of today more than ever before is that your leadership will not be defined by how you do when the sea is smooth; rather, it will be defined by how you respond when the waves are crashing in. Leading through your Plan B is not only inevitable, it is necessary.