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How do You Lead thru a Long Hard Slog?

I read a news story this past week that was meant as good news, but sure didn’t feel like it. A group of scientists predicted we might be able to beat this pandemic within two years. What? We are only 6-7 months into this thing. Two more years of this unpredictable roller coaster means we are just now entering the swampy weeds of no man’s land.

“We are no longer at the start of this pandemic marathon nor can we see the finish line. We are in the hard slog found in the middle of every long journey. Our GPS is having trouble connecting to a satellite. The gas in the tank is running low. People are tired emotionally. We are in hill country and cannot see the road beyond the next horizon. We could break over the next hill to discover a whole new vista or and endless stretch of more of the same.”

(Ted Esler, MissioNexus)

The question every leader is or needs to be asking is, “how do I lead effectively through this long hard slog?”

Let’s start with what we need to avoid. Sometimes the most important things to know when traveling unknown territory are the dangers we need to on guard against. Leading people through the uncharted, exhausting, seemingly endless middle zone of a crisis like this pandemic demands as much attention to what we don’t do as it does to what we should do. And, by the way, these lessons can apply to any major crisis or long term project.

I believe three highly seductive temptations lie in wait to derail you and your organization. They will sabotage your group health. The lies behind the these seductions have the power to wipe you out personally as well.

SEDUCTION #1: Become a Cheerleader

Cheerleading happens when an empathetic leader responds to the weight or burden their people carry by trying to cheer them up, trying to help them feel better. Cheerleading can sound like talking about the promises of Scripture without acknowledging that joy and lament travel together. It happens when a leader tries to rally the troops through the sheer force of their personal will.

Behind this cheerleading lurks the false belief that our job as leaders is to eliminate difficulty and discouragement by single-handedly obscuring the fog of reality with our banner or hope.

SEDUCTION #2: Pretend You Have the Answers

Holy cow, the seductive power of this temptation grabs us with its talons before we see it coming. People who are nervous reach out to us for answers, “Pastor, what do you think we should do? Boss, what are our next steps? How is this going to affect us?” There are dozens of ways people ask us to assuage their anxiety with answers and plans that might remove concerns about the future.

As leaders, we like looking smart. We like having answers. We dislike being in a position where we don’t have explicit answers. It feels more secure when we have plans that will guide our ship through uncharted waters. And, the seductive pull of being someone’s hero, makes it easy to pretend we know more or better than we actually do.

Behind this pretending lurks the false belief that it is possible to know enough about the present and the future to build bullet proof plans that might put everyone at ease. Worse, the ego-building nuance embedded in this belief creates a dependency on us that will ultimately undermine the mission that matters most.

SEDUCTION #3: Motivate through Fear

Leaders are always thinking about how they might motivate and mobilize people toward alignment, toward sacrifice, toward game-changing action. And, to be honest, fear is one of those levers that can be pulled to create that temporary motivation. By definition, a crisis presents plenty of fears from which to choose. Hence the great seduction. These fears display themselves everywhere you look. They don’t require a genius to sniff them out. Addressing them even makes you sound empathetic and understanding.

However, playing on people’s fears quickly becomes manipulative. Feeding people’s fears depletes their reservoir of hope rather than nurturing their capacity to thrive. Emphasizing the urgencies of a crisis wears people out right at the point when a wise leader should be working on empowering their people and their organization for the hard slog through the swampy middle ground.

Behind the temptation to motivate people by focus on the fears embedded in a crisis lurks the false belief that you can you can make sustainable progress that way. In reality you exhaust people, you rob them and your organization of joy, and you set up a vicious cycle requiring you to go back the well of fear for the next shot in the arm of motivation.

Right now we are entering the longest part of the journey in our response to this pandemic. People have depleted their initial reservoir of optimism and will power. As we prepare for the long work of the journey ahead, the first place to start is to interrupt any of these seductive responses that have crept in to your personal patterns. Eliminate these dangers and you have a foundation on which to build powerful positive responses.

So, what are those positive things we can to do make progress in a time like this? Ah, you’ll have to tune in for my next post. This Friday I will post an article outlining the flip side—proactive habits that will propel you and your organization forward.

For today, ask yourself, which of these three temptations are you most likely to be seduced by?

PS. Those of you wondered what happened to my posts last week, you didn't. My wife and I went away on vacation and decided to fully pull the plug.


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