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26 Jul '11

Leadership in Crisis

Posted by T.J. Addington in conflict, courage, crisis management, Healthy leaders
Unfortunately, every ministry finds itself in a crisis mode from time to time. How leaders lead in times of crisis either gives them added credibility or causes them to lose credibility. Here are some critical elements of crisis management.

First, be utterly transparent as to why the crisis has occurred. As I wrote in a recent blog, spin management does not work because people have the ability to sense whether the explanation is the real story which goes to honesty, openness and the credibility of leaders. I once listened to a leader explain why his ministry had lost a great deal of money in a certain year leading to a financial crisis. He spiritualized the situation rather than simply telling the truth that there had been some bad management and he lost credibility in the eyes of many. Rule one is come clean and while you may take some short term shots, you will be better off in the long run.

The issue of total honesty is important. Many ministry leaders complicate a crisis by not being transparent about the crisis. Transparency creates trust even where mistakes have been made. Lack of transparency creates mistrust which further erodes the leader's ability to lead. If mistakes have been made and leaders are honest about it, people will forgive. If mistakes have been made and leaders try to hide them, people will lose confidence. 


I cannot stress the importance of transparent honesty on the part of leaders enough. Think of the corporations that have tried to deal with their public problems without being transparent - it does not work and causes all kinds of additional problems. Be transparent, take your lumps if necessary but don't tell untruths or color the truth. It does not work and will cause further damage. Falsehoods under any guise cause damage to an organization while truth brought into the light can bring healing. This takes leaders who are courageous enough to speak truth even when it is hard.


One of the results of not coming clean in crisis is that people are left confused. Some know that the story does not add up. Others want to believe their leaders explanation even if it is not totally trustworthy. If on the other hand, leaders are totally transparent, there is little confusion. Truth brings clarity while dishonesty under any guise brings confusion. It is the way of truth and falsehoods.


Honesty and transparency reflect humility on the part of leaders while spin control and dishonesty reflect pride on the part of leaders. People intuitively understand which they are getting and humility breeds respect while pride breeds cynicism.

Second, tell people how you are going to deal with the crisis in clear, unambiguous language. If hard things need to be done, give it to people straight. Stability for them is knowing that someone has a plan and that they are being let in on the plan. Generally there are not more than a handful of key actions that must be taken in a crisis so concentrate on those and leave ancillary things aside.

Third, give people forums where they can talk to leaders so that their issues are clarified and they can share their own perspectives. Leaders need to hear what others have to say and they often know more than leaders think they know (or want them to know). Everyone in a congregation or organization is a stakeholder so after leaders have been forthcoming and laid out a plan, give people a chance to clarify, respond and speak. The only ground rules are that there are no personal attacks or hidden agendas.

Fourth, find some common commitments that the whole group can commit to in order to weather the crisis. If the crisis is financial, there should be financial commitments. If it is spiritual, there should be spiritual commitments. If it is a result of leadership mistakes there should be leadership commitments. The commitments should reflect the reality of the reasons for the crisis and an organization wide response to it. This is possible only if leaders have been upfront initially.


Crisis is the ultimate test of leadership courage. All too often, leaders fail the test because they want to protect themselves. When leaders do what I have outlined above they gain credibility even if they have made mistakes along the way. People respect honesty and despise dishonesty.