Leading Through Rapid, Unexpected Change

by Carey Nieuwhof

Leading Through Rapid, Unexpected Change

No surprise here, but you are leading through unprecedented global change.

Just stop for a minute. Re-read that first line.

Unprecedented global change. 

If it feels challenging, it’s only because it is challenging.

The question becomes how do you do it? 

In this post, I’ll share some principles that can help you lead through rapid, unexpected change.


You can’t motivate your way out of a crisis like this.

You have to lead your way through it.

Making the leadership challenge more intense is the fact that the change we’re experiencing is externally-imposed change, not internally-driven change.

Quick example. It’s one thing to decide you want to lose 20 lbs and making the lifestyle changes to do it, or launch a new location, or build a building (all of which are internally-driven change). Sure, that’s difficult.

But it’s another thing entirely to have someone change your kitchen, restock your pantry and order you to drop 20 pounds in six weeks, order you to open a location or to raise money for a new facility. That’s all externally-imposed change—it wasn’t your decision.

When change is externally-imposed, you lose freedom, choice and control. That’s what makes it so difficult.

When you lead internally-motivated change, you set the



and agenda.

With externally-driven change, you control none of that, including control over the outcome.

COVID-19, and the radical changes it has wrought on the world and daily life, are externally-driven changes. You didn’t ask for any of this. But you have to lead through it anyway.

Which leaves a lot of people and leaders panicking. Many of us, after all, are control freaks. Let’s just name that out loud.

I’m not writing about this because there’s an easy answer, but simply being aware of the dynamics in play can help you understand what you’re dealing with and why you and others feel the way you feel.

The best way to lead internally-driven is to focus on motivation…the why behind the what. (Think about how great you’ll feel after! Imagine what we can accomplish together!)

When change is externally-driven, motivation still matters, but a significant part of your job in leading externally-driven change isn’t motivation, it’s interpretation.

People are confused. They don’t know what’s happening. They need a source they can trust. A leader who knows what’s best and acts.

In other words, people are looking for someone who can help reliably interpret events and lead them into a better future.

I’ve seen a lot of leaders miss that in the last week because they’re still focused on motivation.

I’ve heard a lot of: Come on, you’ve got this. God has this. This is no big deal. We’re bigger than this. Nothing bad’s going to happen.

In the process, those leaders lose credibility because they’ve failed to interpret the situation accurately.

While it’s extremely difficult to get reliable and accurate information, and while some government decisions may be under or overreactions to the problem, the crisis we’re facing is both real and deep.

On a very factual level, the stock market has tanked, borders are closing, airports and cities are madhouses or ghost towns, businesses are struggling, people are struggling, freedom and mobility is dwindling to war-time levels, and of course, people are sick and dying.

You can’t motivate your way out of a crisis like this.

You have to lead your way through it.


Most of the noise online misses the point.

Arguing whether this is right or wrong or could have played out differently is beside the point. It’s all happening right now, and you can’t avoid it.

And many leaders are gravitating toward either the brutal real or some unrealistic ideal, the latter of which includes denial (this is so overblown people! Well…no, it’s not.)

Great leadership embraces both the real and the ideal.

The wisest leaders will embrace what Jim Collins calls the Stockdale paradox.

Jim Stockdale was an American general captured and imprisoned during the Vietnam war. He was held and tortured for seven years.

Stockdale said the first people to die in captivity were the optimists, who kept thinking things would get better quickly and they’d be released. “They died of a broken heart,” Stockdale said.

Intead, Stockdale argued, the key to survival was to combine realism and hope.  In Stockdale’s words:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–-which you can never afford to lose–-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

That essentially is your job in crisis leadership.

Based on the best information you can get (see Point 3, here), be ruthlessly honest about the situation facing you, and never lose faith that things will get better in the end.

Crisis leadership falls apart when leaders embrace the extremes: pessimists only see the real, and naive optimists only see the ideal.


When public safety is at risk, which by every account it seems to be, the best leaders act sooner rather than later.

Ideally, you want to be ahead of the government on this one to protect the people you lead, not the last.

The “Well, the Governor/President?Prime Minister said we could gather under 250 so we’re allowing 250 at a time,” isn’t likely the wisest route, particularly when things are literally changing hourly.

You want to be on the right side of history on this one, protecting rather than risking, helping rather than hanging on.

Apple has been an interesting company to watch. It pulled out of SXSW about a week before it was canceled. It made its workers move to remote work early on in the process. And it announced the closure of most of its stores long before the government mandated it (which at the time of publication, the government hasn’t yet in North America. But that’s likely coming very soon.).

While it’s hard to know why they’ve been early leaders, it’s likely either because they have information most of us don’t or really great intuition. Being ahead of the curve is where you want to be when public safety is involved.

The reasons for being the last one still hosting events/making everyone come into the office/keeping things open often aren’t that great. Dig a little deeper, and underneath you may find stubbornness, denial, fear (of decline or lack of money) or selfishness. In other words, a sea of motivations that put your own interests ahead of the public interests.

I love how Life.Church, North Point, Mecklenburg Community Church and many others canceled their in-person weekend experiences ahead of government directives, as we did. In addition, overnight last night, our church stopped all in-person meetings large or small (including watch parties) and moved to virtual groups and gatherings.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.

In Canada, the CEOs of the thirty largest businesses called on all businesses to act in the public interest and put community health first by embracing social distancing and remote work before the government requires it. You can read their open letter here.

Think that’s extreme?

Louis Vuitton, the French luxury good manufacturer, is switching its cosmetics and perfume division into producing free hand sanitizer for use in France, where it’s in desperately short supply.

And in England, Boris Johnson is asking car makers and certain manufacturers to switch to ventilator production, which appears to be the main problem in this pandemic—not nearly enough machines to help the people who are falling ill.

These are almost war-time level measures. And even the US in in a state of national emergency.

So what about those who think this is all overblown or a massive overreaction?

If you’re worried about overreaction, delayed reaction may be a bigger problem.

From Josh Barro, the business columnist for New York Magazine:

Justin Lessler, the Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist, noted a way in which this epidemic tricks people into panicking when it’s too late.

“If people are only going to start taking the actions they should when they start to see a lot of people dying around them, it’s already too late,” he says.

When you combine the substantial period from infection to death with exponential growth in infections, the number of deaths you see around you is likely far lower than the number of deaths you are about to see.

The people who stand to die within the next 30 days may not even be very sick yet. And when they get very sick, the hospitals may be overwhelmed and ill-prepared to respond. This is the corner Italy backed itself into. We might be headed there, too.

‘What have you got to lose by going first?’ is a haunting question, but less haunting than, ‘What have you got to lose by going last?’

What you lose if you’re wrong about that is far greater than what you gain if you’re right. It’s as simple as that.

You absorb the pain now, or you potentially absorb far more pain later. You choose.


So, what change do you need to adopt?

Let an honest look at your motives guide you.

A crisis reveals who you really are, and often you may not like what you see. I’m regularly disappointed by my first instincts.

But you don’t have to act on your first instincts, which is where real leadership comes in.

So, to deal with that, sift your motives.

You’ll find things like:

Selfishness and sacrifice

Denial and acceptance

Hoarding and preparedness

Fear and faith

Some careful reflection and wise counsel should help you choose the latter, not the former.


People are in shock, denial and mourning. So are you.

Change is challenging at the best of times.

This kind of massive disruptions triggers so many emotions in people and in you—including disbelief—that making time to process it all is essential.

As a leader, that’s hard though because you likely spend most of your time helping other people, finding reliable information, making decisions and then rethinking everything. In addition, you’re probably putting in 12-18 hour days.

Which raises the question: How exactly are you processing all this?

Just because a crisis is not a time to take a sabbatical or spend a week in a cabin contemplating how you really feel doesn’t mean you can’t process your emotions daily.

In fact, doing so will make you a better leader and help you make better decisions.

A tired leader is an ineffective leader.CLICK TO TWEET

Here are some things you can do to make sure you’re processing decisions:

  • Get some sleep. A tired leader is an ineffective leader. Your body and brain need rest.
  • Pray and meditate. Start every day with some time to reflect, pray and even meditate on scripture and surrender the problems you have to God.
  • Get some exercise. Even a 20 minute run or a brisk walk will help.
  • Eat better. Yep, this is sounding a lot like what you already know. But just do it.
  • Call a friend you can talk to. In a crisis, you need people who don’t need anything from you. Call a friend.
  • Spend at least some time with your family. They need your leadership and friendship too, as much as your church or company does.

Creating some distance from crisis management will help you make far better decisions. When in doubt, revert to #1 and 2. They are force multipliers.

If you don’t control your emotions, your emotions will control you.

 www.careynieuwhof.com. Used by permission.

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