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Leading Through Frightening Times


I’ve often said there are no two consecutive good days in the life of a leader. It’s a statement designed to get people’s attention, and it usually does—I often have a lot of people wanting to follow up with me after I’ve shared it during a teaching.

What it boils down to is this: the more you grow in leadership, the more challenging and difficult the decisions you face. Those decisions often involve things with immediate or concrete solutions, but sometimes, they involve things that aren’t as cut and dry.

Sometimes, you have to lead your people through uncertainty. And as a leader, that means you have to be the rock in frightening times.

Over my decades of leadership experience, through organizations large and small, I’ve encountered my fair share of frightening times, either for the organization itself or for the world at large. Let me be the first to tell you, leaders feel fear too. We’re not bulletproof; we’re human like everyone else. But leaders also understand that they have a higher expectation of them, a responsibility to the people the lead.

As my friend Mark Cole says, “It’s okay to feel fear. It’s not okay to make your people carry it.”

Over the last several days, fear has been at the forefront of many a news story. Whether we’re talking about the sudden stock market plunge or the coronavirus or the upcoming election season, the uncertainty of life has intruded into our active thinking and frightened many people. I know we’re dealing with some of those fears in our own organization, and chances are you’re dealing with them as well.

So how should we lead in frightening times?

Be a visible presence. When times are challenging, leaders need to be seen and felt. It’s not the time to retreat and try to figure things out behind closed doors; your people are looking for someone who can calm their fears with a reassuring look or a friendly hand. You must put yourself forward as someone that people can talk to or turn to when their fear seems overwhelming. It may mean you accomplish little else for a time, but it will be exactly what your people need.Acknowledge the fear, but don’t empower it. Max Dupree said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality—that means acknowledging what’s really going on around us. WE cannot lead through frightening times if we’re unwilling to acknowledge that people are scared, or that the situation itself is frightful. But we can never leave our people stuck in that fear because that only gives the fear greater power in their minds and hearts. Place the fear in the right context and communicate your belief that better days are ahead.Paint a brighter picture. Part of how you get people to believe that better days are ahead is by painting that picture for them. When things are frightening, the world seems small and dark; to counteract that, you must paint a picture that’s bigger and brighter. We must point beyond the fear to a brighter day, to remind people of what the Psalmist said: “Nights of crying your eyes out give way to days of laughter.” Leaders must communicate to their people the hope on the other side of the fear.Be cautious with predictions, but generous with hope. When you’re trying to help your people look beyond the fear, be wary of trying to predict exactly how things will work out. The simple truth is you don’t know, and that’s okay. Your people don’t expect you to see the future—they just expect you to help them get there, and that’s where being generous with hope comes in. If you’re still pushing toward the next, still reaching for the brighter day beyond the clouds, that gives them the energy they need to make it another day. In the end, they’ll remember you helped them find their way more than they’ll remember the way itself. They’ll recall your presence more than your prescience.

The unique challenge of leadership is making today work for tomorrow, especially when today seems to threaten that there won’t be a tomorrow. But the only way there won’t be a tomorrow is if we give into the fear today.

Leader, your people are looking to you to help them find the security and strength that will allow hope to take root in their life. It’s a significant ask, but one that you’re capable of, if you’ll stay visible, present, realistic, and hopeful.

In all my years of leading, I know this for sure: fear never lasts unless you feed it. As a leader, it’s your job to starve fear by feeding people hope and showing them a better picture of what’s ahead. Give your people the hope they need to hold on.

We may cry today, but there’s joy coming our way tomorrow. By John Maxwell