Recalibrate! Leading in Precarious Times
by Ed Noot, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
As I write this Link article (late March, 2020) the covid-19 virus is beginning to spread uncontrollably across North America. It has ravaged China and Europe, and is expected to spread around the world. When this story first broke as a new virus spreading in Wuhan, China, few of us could have imagined the impact it would have on our lives. This pandemic has turned the world as we know it upside down and has created immense amounts of stress, anxiety and despair.
As a very young baby boomer I can attest to the fact that my generation, and all those that have followed, have lived a somewhat charmed life. My parents experienced the great depression, World War II and Cold War. My grandparents experienced the ‘war to end all wars’. But me? As a young child I was aware of the threat of a nuclear holocaust, but by my formative years, treaties were being signed and the cold war was thawing. We’ve had some economic ups and downs, periods of high interest rates and incidents of terrorism—but on the whole life has been stable and positive.
When you examine the stories of biblical leaders, it is amazing how many of them led during precarious times. Joseph led though a great famine; Moses led his people out of centuries of slavery; Samson, Gideon, Deborah and David all led through times of conflict and war. Daniel, Nehemiah and Ezra led during the time of exile, while Peter, Paul and Timothy all led under the threat of persecution. Precarious times are not uncommon in the biblical narrative and repeatedly God raises up leaders, “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).
Lovers in a Dangerous Time
In his 1984 hit single, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” Canadian folk singer legend Bruce Cockburn explores the interface of love and hope juxtaposed with anxiety and despair. Cockburn fans speculate that the ‘dangerous times’ refer to the threat of nuclear holocaust or the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis of the day. Although Cockburn enjoyed some success with this song, it was popularized by the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies in 1991.
The song explores the mysterious interplay of conflicting emotions when we live in uncertain times:
Don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by
You never get to stop and open your eyes
One day you’re waiting for the sky to fall
The next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all
Cockburn masterfully weaves profound theological truth into his lyrics, noting that in dangerous times the
Spirits open to the
thrust of grace
Never a breath you can
afford to waste
He doesn’t shy away from the complexity, pain, and struggle that comes with dangerous times:
But nothing worth having comes without
some kind of fight
Got to kick at the darkness
’til it bleeds daylight
So how do we recalibrate our leadership after our society has been upended? How do we lead in precarious times? I’m suggesting four key areas of focus that will maintain our leadership during precarious times.
1. Remain mission focused. Your Christian school has a distinct mission that has been supported for many years and now you need to embody that mission in a new reality. Help your staff, students, and parents know that you’ll continue to focus on meeting your mission to produce graduates who meet the qualities you’ve articulated in your student graduate profile. Stay on message and keep your community on message. Remember that you are the spiritual leader of your school. Find new and creative ways to maintain this aspect of leadership. As you lean heavily on God yourself, offer your community calm, wise counsel that helps them see the bigger picture, engenders deep hope, and nurtures their faith.
2. Take the long view. In precarious times it can be tempting to demonstrate strong, decisive leadership by taking quick action. While critical decisions do need to be made, they should be made in the context of the long view. As leaders (both administrative and board) your task is to position your school for long-term mission sustainability; living through times of ambiguity and uncertainty are part of that journey. Spend time with the Old Testament prophets—they were masters of taking the long view!
3. Heighten executive function and reimagine relational leadership. Precarious times call for strong executive function. Communication must be mission focused, consistent, and clear. Financial adjustments must be made and long-term financial planning must continue. Marketing plans and donor relations need to be adjusted but maintained. And governance needs to be supported in its primary task of focusing on long-term mission sustainability. While heightened executive function is critical, we need to reimagine what relational leadership involves in a time of social distancing. Our schools are community oriented and we need to lead creatively to maintain the strong connection of students, staff, parents, and board to our core community. Together with your leadership team, get creative so that you can support physical distancing without creating social isolation.
4. Champion justice and mercy. An insidious consequence of precarious times is rampant individualism. People naturally ‘turtle’ to focus on care and protection of self and family. The hoarding and price gouging we’ve witnessed are ugly reminders of the natural outcome of insidious individualism. Leaders can be a prophetic voice to remind Christian communities of the call to justice and mercy (Micah 6:8, et al). Insightful leaders will recognize the openings to a “thrust of grace,” remembering the vulnerable and marginalized who are at increased risk during times of social upheaval.
Challenging times? Indeed. You were called to leadership for such a time as this. The road we are on is not what we expected, so recalibrate your leadership to lead well in precarious times. May God bless you as you “kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.”