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Crisis Leadership: Errors to Avoid

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

Virus destroys all parishioner records! Recently purchased property discovered to have been former toxic waste dump! Parish burned down to the ground – arson suspected! Pastoral assistant has affair with married prominent parishioner! Parish bookkeeper revealed to have stolen $400,000 over the past 20 years! Multi-million dollar lawsuit filed against the parish! Nearby river floods and fills ground floor level of the church facility! These and many other crises have occurred within the last few years in Orthodox parishes of North America. During the life course of a parish, many crises are likely to occur.

What are errors leaders commonly make during a crisis?

Error #1: Failure to plan.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration but there is truth in the saying, “A plan is nothing; planning is everything.” The most frightful and common error leaders make is to have no plan before, during, or even after a crisis occurs. Parish leadership is behind the curve, not ahead of it. Leaders never emerge from reactive mode and fail to move into proactive mode. Fear and confusion react. It is wisdom that acts.

During a crisis, a leader must align three critical strategic elements: the goals, the people, and the resources. The goals define the “What” – that is, the specific outcomes and objectives of the crisis response. The people define the “Who” – getting the right people in the right positions with the right actions. The resources define the “How” that the leaders will use as they apply all the various tangible and intangible resources available to them to meet the goals. Without such a solid, strategic alignment between the goals, people, and resources, crisis leadership responses are at best futile and at worst disastrous.

Error #2: Failure to determine and follow protocol.

An effective crisis response can quickly crumble through breakdowns in what under normal circumstances would be an effective leadership protocol. When the stress and pressure of a crisis hits, something as simple as a basic “Call Down List” of who to call, what is their responsibility and how to reach them (cell number, email, text) is critically important.

Error #3: Failure to be visible, present and attentive.

A leader can only be in one place at one time. Yet leaders who hide or appear removed from the crisis negate their perceived and expected leadership actions. In a parish crisis visibility must be delivered during and after the crisis in a number of areas: hierarchs and/or their representative, governance (especially the parish council chairperson), staff, specific parishioners who may be involved in the crisis, the general parish membership, professional assistance (attorneys, CPAs, chemical dependency interventionists, etc.) service agencies (insurance agents, medical, police, fire, etc.) and local or national media.

Error #4: Failure to listen and comprehend.

A vital skill leaders must utilize during a crisis is comprehensive listening. They must set aside their egos and be willing to listen to all parties involved. Only through engaged listening can a leader build the right environment of openness, trust, and professionalism necessary to navigate everyone through the crisis. Even the simple act of taking notes (or even assigning a full-time scribe) is an invaluable listening tool that helps a leader assemble and digest information and the potentially powerful ideas of all involved.

Error #5: Failure to effectively communicate.

Human communication failures are all too frequent during a crisis. Unclear goals, misunderstood instructions, poor delegation, incomplete feedback systems – lack of decision-making – these are the core communication failures within most crisis situations. Leaders must therefore continually focus on crafting and sending clear, unambiguous communications with minimal error for misinterpretation by others whose involvement is essential to effective management of the crisis.

Error #6: Failure to try new things.

The nature of a crisis requires that leaders be open and willing to change quickly, to embrace new ways of problem solving never before utilized. Inordinate fear can paralyze initiative and precipitate regressive thinking. Far too often in the midst of crisis, well-meaning leaders fall back on familiar but limited procedures. Leaders must innovate to surmount encumbrances.

Error #7: Failure to give up control.

It is only natural for leaders to assume control over a crisis, and in fact, they should. The problem is when a leader refuses to give up enough control necessary to effectively navigate the crisis. In times of crisis, leaders must create an environment that moves beyond delegation to empowerment (giving people the information, support and authority to act).

Error #8: Failure to act.

Indecision stymies a response teams’ enthusiasm, motivation, and commitment to resolve the crisis. Leaders must therefore have the confidence to make the call and do the right thing. Parish councils and parishioners want their leaders to show confidence. Action requires courage and the willingness to act upon one’s convictions. With a solid plan, surrounded by an informed and ready crisis team, leaders are far more likely to take the right action at the right time for the right reasons.

Error #9: Failure to lead.

A crisis demands leadership – real leadership. No one can perfectly “manage” a crisis – there are often too many variables. Only through real leadership (making tough choices while under extreme pressure) will a parish pass through a major crisis with minimal damage. Failure to act allows the crisis to become the driver and the leaders to become the passengers.

Error #10: Failure to assess the outcome.

Most people just want to get through a crisis and forget about it. A crisis outcome assessment is a focused, well-structured, and comprehensive analysis that includes an examination of causes, original goals and objectives, actions taken, leadership decisions and adjustments made, successes and failures, and perhaps most important, lessons learned to apply to the future.

Summary: The ten errors above are best addressed through three essential crisis leadership competencies:

1) Envisioning – leading from strategy;

2) Engagement – leading through people;

3) Executing – leading for transformational results.


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