Leadership and Faith in Anxious Times: Chris Clarke

Maclaurin Chapel and NZ Christians in Science. Chris is currently Executive Director of Arrow Leadership and CEO of Wilberforce FoundationView Chris’ Wilberforce profile HERE. Introduction:I used to be a DHB CEO – we were magnificent in a crisis – we all rallied around, mucked in, professional demarcations were forgotten, and in a strange way we all […]

Maclaurin Chapel and NZ Christians in Science.

Chris is currently Executive Director of Arrow Leadership and CEO of Wilberforce Foundation
View Chris’ Wilberforce profile HERE.

I used to be a DHB CEO – we were magnificent in a crisis – we all rallied around, mucked in, professional demarcations were forgotten, and in a strange way we all came alive and rediscovered what it was like to be a professional. In a strange way morale was never better!
Similarly when I was doing disaster recovery work for World Vision – the work was intense and overwhelming but immensely satisfying. We had a deep sense that this was what God had called us to do.
You see the crisis was not the problem; it was what happened next. That was when the anxiety set in.
I do not want to minimise the hard work of a crisis – but we’ve trained for it, imagined it and studied it. But:

  • most hospital complaints relate to long term chronic conditions;
  • most humanitarian issues occur in the aftermath of the initial relief stage

This talk is in two parts:
Leading an organisation through anxious times
Leading oneself through anxious times

Part One: Leading an Organisation Through Anxious Times

First job of the leader – ‘Define reality’
Max De Pree in ‘Leadership is an Art’ writes ‘the first responsibility of the leader is to define reality’. Writers (eg Frankl) reflecting on their prisoner of war or concentration camp confinements comment that ‘the optimists die first’ – ie those unwilling to confront the reality that they will not be home for Christmas.

Are we living in Anxious Times?

  • Undoubtedly – the UN described COVID 19 as ‘worse crisis since WW2’
  • Changing the way we shop, we relate to each other, we worship, we do business, our perceptions, attitudes, role of Government, in what we place our trust etc
  • COVID is both an acute as well as a chronic condition – it will leave permanent societal scars – likely to exacerbate existing tensions, demarcations and further nurture an insidious tribalism
  • Significant increase in inequalities – COVID compounded a housing crisis
  • To complicate matters – 2nd pandemic – far more severe and will carry a much higher rate of mortality – pandemic of anxiety.

Two particular challenges for Christians:
– avoid temptation to over spiritualise the crisis and/or
– minimise the long term implications because God cares for us– our optimism may undo us all

Very challenging for the leader – your community wants to return to life as normal and want you to lead them there, while you know you must not. This was the experience of Christchurch post the earthquakes. A number of church leaders experienced people saying to them “look everything else around me has changed, pleased can’t we just keep church the same as it always was?”
I can recall at least one personal experience where, reluctantly at first, I faced up to the brutal realities of my situation and recognised I probably would not survive the crisis in my then role – ‘wartime PMs seldom make good peace time PMs’ but I could limit the damage to the organisation and protect my staff – I found that strangely empowering. I was able to find meaning in the crisis – key to building personal resilience.

Second job of the leader is to embody hope
Not a cheerful optimism but a gritty, felt deep within your bones that Jesus is Lord. It is reflected in the posture of the leader eg:

  • Constancy of attitude, values and behaviour
  • A sense of calmness and quiet confidence (eg PM Adern “Are you scared PM?” “No, I have a plan”)
  • Sanctity of the mundane – keeping up your normal organisational practices – don’t hide in your virtual office
  • Hope is embodied in story telling – constantly reminding staff/volunteers etc that we’ve got this – “remember when …” and “we will get through this as we have before”.

3. Challenge ‘Group Think’
Group think well known phenomena when organisations under crisis (especially leadership teams) instinctively we collectivise against a perceived common enemy:

  • Tribalise – them versus us/outsiders versus insiders
  • Group harmony becomes more important than asking the hard questions, self-reflection, good listening and reflecting on the critique of others

In anxious times, curb that reflex to protect at all costs. Never is it more important to ask the searching questions and to reject platitudes.

4. Master your own Emotions early
Life looks very different in August 2021 than it did in January 2020– plans, campaigns, hopes and aspirations have been trashed. Most of us will be experiencing some form of grief – especially as many of us have given our life to our ministry/mahi – often at great personal cost to ourselves and our families.
Acknowledge those emotions, but get over it fast! Tricky balance – you must not come across as cold or heartless, but it’s an abuse of the power you have if you create an environment where the team are having to manage your emotional climate.
You can’t emote on your colleagues. Yes you must give voice to those emotions – but do it with a trusted few, outside of work and/or with your spiritual director. Not a good time to crowd source those emotions.
At the same time – very important that you create a safe environment for your staff to emote.
Be very alert to PTSD in your staff and also in yourself.

5. The Leadership Style that has made you successful is unlikely to be up to the challenges ahead.

  • This is why wartime PMs do not make good peace time PMs eg Churchill
  • 3 archetypal leadership images/tropes in Scripture: the King/Queen, The Prophet, The Priest
  • Only Christ modelled all three – see all three on display in Holy Week:
  • Rides into Jerusalem on a Donkey: – Servant King
  • Clears out the Temple: – Prophet
  • Ministers to the thief on the cross: – Pastor/Priest
  • most of us are ‘goodish’ at one and OK at a second. No one but Jesus does all three equally well
  • At Hawke’s Bay – I was primarily appointed for my pastoral/prophetic skills. HB was emerging from a divisive campaign between Napier and Hastings re. site of the new hospital. Also needed someone who could lead a conversation re. future direction of health services.
  • When the crisis came – what the organisation needed most was a King not a pastor/prophet. I had to change my whole leadership approach
  • Think through what your church/organisation needs right now:
  • If you are the leader – only you can be the King/Queen – it is expected of you. There is only one CEO.
  • Who is your pastor in the team?
  • Who is your prophet in your team?
  • PM Jacinda Adern recognised her role is to be the Queen– watch how this is showing up:
  • Directive, strong use of the ‘I’
  • Appealing to the greater good,
  • Assuring NZers we can do this,
  • Empathetic but not pastoral.
  • She is deliberately not showing us any of her vulnerability.
  • She is taking advice (listening to the experts/science)
  • She is taking the tough decisions (eg declaration of Level 4, challenges of the boarder, replacing David Clark).
  • Leaders are actors – we perform a particular role on a very public stage:
  • Others are reliant on us performing our roles well – so they know when and what lines they are responsible for delivering
  • Depart from the script at our peril (if you do warn the team first!)
  • Audience has high expectations on us and are projecting many of their own needs/inadequacies on to us
  • Danger we will play to the applause of the audience. This is not a time for popularity
  • Decide what leader is going to turn up today (King/Queen, Prophet, Priest) – it is an important conversation for you to have with your team – to help them think through what roles they might play
  • I suspect most of us in the faith based for purpose world are more comfortable playing the role of Prophet/Priest – so it is a big switch to play a different role – but there can only be one King/Queen in an organisation
  • learn through observation – maybe ask WWJD? – What Would Jacinda Do?!

6. Attend to the Spiritual Needs of Your Team:
As a faith based leader and especially if you are leading a faith based organisation, the number one risk facing your organisation is not financial, it is failing to discern the heart and mind of God. Remember the organisation is the Lord’s, it’s a reflection of his mission to restore a broken world.
Critical that you move from top/tailing meetings in prayer to a much deeper spiritual accountability where everything is soaked in prayer, spending time in the word and in worship. Work on developing your team’s spiritual quotient (SQ) . How can you expect your team to be discerning God’s call if they are not in active relationship with him in their personal lives
NB – as a team you have a responsibility to each other to maintain/enhance your own personal devotions – how can we be seeking to discern God’s call for our organisation if we are not first in personal communion with him?
In a marketplace or ‘secular’ context – the spiritual needs of your team and the wider organisation are no less important, although the tools you have to play with are considerably reduced. Never underestimate the power as a leader of simply acknowledging to your organisation that you value diverse spiritualities and wish to create the space for people to bring their full selves to work, whilst respecting the spiritualities of others.

7. Watch Team behaviours very closely
Typically things are pretty good in the immediate crisis – ‘we are all in this together’, ‘we can beat this’, ‘we’re the team of 5 million’
But wait for ‘winter’ – the crisis continues, anxiety sets in, revenue is down, morale is low etc. Watch especially for passive aggressive behaviours:

  • Bad manners
  • Stop Listening
  • Results slipping
  • Overly focused on process at the expense of outcomes
  • Excuses for poor performance
  • Loss of loyalty

My experience: a dysfunctional team (both within and between board and management) is the single most corrosive element in the downfall of an organisation.

8. Communications: story telling – “Remember when …”
4 key points that explain the contrasting performance of world leaders re. COVID19

  • Clarity – work on your key messages. Use directive language (drop “I think”, ‘I feel”, “consultation” etc)
  • Show empathy – this is where “we” does come in (but don’t overdo it!)
  • Appeal to staff/volunteers higher sense of purpose
  • Show people away forward – people are bewildered, confused. “We have a plan – its got 4 levels” – people got that straight away and a whole lot of anxiety disappeared.
  • Remember especially that as a leader ‘your microphone is always open’ ie you are always communicating publicly, especially your private conversations – because they carry extra weight they are the authentic you. Be very careful of the slip of the tongue.

9. Change the Decision Making horizon of your team
Tricky tension between focusing your staff on the stuff they can influence, while keeping the big picture in mind.
For most staff it is time to focus on their knitting – ie their core roles. You are asking them to do something they know and to do it to the best of their ability. (ie draughts players – just think one move ahead – what do I need to do today?)
The temptation as CEO is to focus on the urgent – the here and now – because if you don’t ‘plug the leak in the hull’ the boat will sink.
But I found that simultaneously I needed a small team focused on the big picture (chess players) – thinking multiple moves ahead creating ‘what if’ scenarios. It meant that when we finally came out of the crisis we quickly picked up pace again (and ended up doing stuff we could never have achieved but for the crisis).

10. Pay special attention to your diary
This is the time to focus where you spend your time. Your staff will be looking for a lot of reassurance – create space for that – but not at the expense of important. Clarify in your own mind “What is the most important thing my team needs from me now”.

11. Don’t dodge the hard decisions
YOU are about to fully experience the loneliness of the leader:

  • Not everyone in your team will make it – not all those who were great in business as normal are good in a crisis
  • Some staff will emerge so scarred by PTSD that they are unable to function
  • Some of them will be your friends
  • Reflecting back on 14 years as a CEO – my biggest mistake was that I allowed my ‘niceness’, ego and pastoral concerns to get in the way of making the business/people decisions that only I could make as CEO.

12. Look for the Positives
The Lord is with you and leads us through the dark valley. What were some of the positives to emerge from each crisis I have faced?

  • New leaders emerge – already within the organisation, often at the margins of the organisation – waiting for the opportunity to step up
  • Rediscover our sense of mission – both personally and corporately. Our personal Why and the Why or our organisation
  • Our walk with the Lord is strengthened – why could David write such magnificent psalms of praise – it was because he had spent the nights on the run, cold and afraid
  • We discover whether we are ‘slaves of circumstance’ or in some sense ‘captains of our soul’:
  • “Most people have, at some time or other, to stand alone and to suffer and their final shape is determined by their response to their probation. They emerge either as slaves of circumstances or in some senses captains of their soul”
  • Charles Raven (Professor of Divinity, Cambridge University 1932)

Part Two: Leading Self in Anxious Times

Reflecting back on the various ‘storms’ I have experienced I realise I got a lot wrong:
I was not bullet proof: my first visit to GP saw me placed on stress leave. I was devastated. I thought I was coping well. I thought the organisation could not cope without me, I was too important …

Recognising the dark side of my values: loyalty, easy going, optimist:

  • Confused loyalties – loyalty to the organisation/mission cf people
  • Poor boundaries – because easy going especially between board/management
  • Optimism – I dismissed the early signs of the brewing storm as irrelevant

Physically but not emotionally present with my family – I was at home for dinner (I was still helping make dinner), I was on the playing field on Saturday watching the kids – but I was not emotionally present – my thoughts were dominated by the crisis.
Overestimated the nice-guy factor:

  • I thought that decency, good humour, modesty and charm would probably get us through
  • It was never going to be enough: by all accounts David Clark is regarded as one of the nicest, smartest and approachable guys in Parliament. Not enough to compensate for a career ending move

So what helped?
Lighten Up and Lighten the Load
During one particularly long running crisis Karen (my wife) and I realised that we’d stopped laughing and having fun together. All our collective energies were going into managing our response to the crisis. We deliberately practiced ‘lightening up’ – doing fun stuff together – even if we did not feel like it at the time. Secondly we recognised that for a season we had to set aside a whole lot of stuff that we were involved in – ‘lightening the load’ – a yacht pulls in the amount of sailcloth it has running when it is in the midst of a storm.
If you do nothing else today – book your family holidays in the diary right now.

Sharing the Load with Colleagues
Can’t do this on our own – especially in a crisis. One of the most helpful things was being a member of a CEO Action Learning Set – 6 CEOs from across Australia and NZ who met regularly to joint problem solve. Over the years we formed a strong bond and I was able to talk to them about issues I could not even raise with my own immediate team. Little was off limits.

  • Helped me realise others had walked a similar path and I was not alone
  • Excellent way of testing some of the judgement calls I was needing to make
  • Stayed true friends long after the crisis

“We all had the experience but few the meaning” ; T S Elliott
Many years ago I asked a number of people I really admired “What spiritual practices do you follow?” All of them mentioned journaling. Second only to prayer, scripture and worship, I have found this the most helpful personal spiritual practice – it has helped me understand as, T S Eliot says, ‘the meaning behind the experience’.

Pay special attention to your addictive tendencies
We all have them and are deeply shamed by them – Substances and sex are what immediately come to mind
Other addictions can appear far more subtle, but are just as corrosive:

  • Fantasy
  • Fitness
  • Fashion
  • Gaming – invariably isolating

Whatever shape they take, they are ‘our thorn in the flesh’.

So we bury our shame, only for it to explode at a time when we are least capable of dealing/addressing them. It can be crippling and deeply disrupting to our relationship with colleagues, friends, family and indeed Jesus.
We all need some form of accountability arrangement – be it with our spouse, a small circle of friends or a spiritual director.

Which leads me to …
Do not be too hard on yourself – you will make mistakes
Perfection is the enemy of the good – you are making rapid decisions with inadequate information and few constants – you will get some things wrong (NB how the PM is so open about this).
It is going to hurt – especially when the mistake impacts people and those you love.
Expect to seek the forgiveness of others and learn to forgive yourself (huge topic – can only touch on it today )

“It is not the critic in the stands who counts:
not those who point out where strong people stumbled
or when the doer of the deeds could have done better.
The credit belongs to those who are actually in the arena.
Whose faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strive valiantly, who err and come short again and again;
Who know great enthusiasms;
who at best know the triumph of high achievement;
and who at worst it they fall, at least fall while daring greatly.
So that their place will never be with those cold and timid souls
who know neither victory nor defeat.” 
– T Roosevelt

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