Weekly Challenge – Leading out of COVID

Dear colleagues,

Instead of a weekly thought this week, we would like to set you a challenge. Over the next few weeks we wanted to showcase your own thoughts and experiences to the topic ‘Leading out of COVID’ (though we know many of us are still in the midst of it). Please do send your own responses to that question (however you interpret it). We’ll help you turn them into Weekly Thoughts that can be shared with this wider community…

Do send your responses to: Elaine Vitikainen elaine@ev-visuals.com

As ways to provoke your thinking you might consider questions like:

  • What have I learned about my leadership through this pandemic?
  • What do I hope to take with me and hold onto from this experience?
  • What does my leadership need to be like ‘post’-pandemic?
  • How would I reimagine my organisation to become fit for purpose in our radically changing world?

These are only questions to stimulate your thoughts, so don’t use them too prescriptively. They are not ones to structure your response around, unless you find that particularly helpful.


Rick and Elaine

‘CARER’ Leadership in a pandemic

By Rick James

Leading during a pandemic is incredibly tough. People are worried and uncertain, so their brains are reacting neurologically to a high threat response. I find this acronym CARER (from Jon Pratlett) helpful in thinking about how we might lead:

Certainty – Strive to create certainty, wherever possible – even in minor ways. “When you give people any information at all, it activates the reward networks in the brain because the brain craves information. Any kind of ambiguity, on the flipside, creates a threat response.”  

Autonomy – At a time of uncertainty, try and offer unexpected autonomy and flexibility. Even giving people the option of choosing a time for their performance review might reduce some threat!

Relatedness (Belonging) – humans are social beings. So as leaders, “if we take a genuine interest in our people, in who they are, what’s going on at home, increases empathy and understanding and encourages effectiveness in spite of the virtual environment.”

Equity – At times of uncertainty, we need a sense of fairness in how we and others are treated. Some people will be more productive virtually, others will be less (those with home-schooling or caring responsibilities for example). Watch out for a ‘crisis of fairness’. 

Recognition – Working virtually we need recognition more than ever at the moment. We need to feel appreciated and listened to. Also when giving feedback remember that people are especially sensitive right now.

As you look to the week ahead, consider what one or two things you could do differently to increase CARER amongst the people you work with.

Become tech savvy

By Rick James

With virtual teams, you need technology to connect. So to lead well today you have to become very comfortable with technology. If you are too old for technology, then you may be too old to lead in a digital age. You don’t have to become a geek, but at least work closely with one! Consciously push yourself to learn more.

You will need to learn what technology works best and use it appropriately. Some great collaborative software exists, whether Miro, Mural, or Google Jamboards. But keep your virtual meetings short and sweet. There’s plenty of research that says that after 50-minutes our brains need a break for a few minutes (and not to catch up on emails!). Otherwise people’s productivity will fall and boredom will rise. 

It is also about using the right technology to set the tone. We have an excess of technology at our disposal. Different methods like email, phone, Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp, or Slack work better for different purposes. As Ecclesiastes would say, there’s a time and a place for each mode of communication, so chose carefully how you communicate.

This week, what new technology could you learn to enhance your leadership?

A future not our own

Last week was the anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Romero, shot in the Cathedral in San Salvador in 1980, while in the midst of preaching against violence and repression. I often return to this amazing poem written for his funeral. It is a good reminder at Easter of who we are and what our contribution is.


A prayer at the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision. 

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us. 

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything. 

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. 

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. 

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

He has overcome the world

By Rick James

2021 has started badly. As I write COVID-19 is ripping its way through Southern Africa for the first time. A very close friend has just died. Jesus’ words in John 16 “In this world you will have trouble… ” feels all too true. At hard times like this I know I have to allow Jesus to finish his sentence for me “… but take heart for I have overcome the world.”

Hope does not arise from things looking positive, nor wishful thinking, nor superficial optimism. Hope starts byacknowledging the deep pain, confusion and frustrations of the current realities. Yet it does not languish there. Hope discerns and then works towards a goal. Hope is a motivation to persevere towards that goal even when we are not sure of the outcome. Hope is a virtue, not a personality type. It is a mindset that helps us to stay in the game in the face of significant adversity. 

That mindset is based, not on circumstances, but on our faith in Jesus. Faith and hope (and love) are inextricably linked. It matters where we put our faith. 

If I really knew, deep down, that Jesus has overcome the world:

• What difference would this make to the way I see my week ahead?

• What would I do differently in the light of this knowledge?

Re-considering 2020 as ‘pure joy’? Seriously?

By Rick James

2020 has certainly been an awful year for many of us. How many times have I asked myself ‘When will we get out of this?’ or ‘How can I get out of this?’ Maybe these are the wrong questions. Perhaps I should be asking ‘What can I get out of 2020?’

I often wonder what those strange verses in James 1 mean. He exhorts us to:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,  because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything”.

I don’t think this means I have to consider the trials themselves as pure joy, but if they produce perseverance and maturity then perhaps what comes out of them is net gain. Dealing with any suffering takes perseverance, preferably with the support of others around us. We may realise we cannot solve this problem, we cannot fix things. For many of us this is tough to take. And our response is almost passive, allowing God to “Let perseverance finish its good work in you”.

2020 hold the possibility of being a profound turning point in many ways. It could prove a transformational time in our personal relationship with God, in our relationships with others and in our leadership. Our dashed hopes this year may reveal what we actually put our hope in. As our idols come into the light we may be better able to let them go. 2020 can lead us to an appreciation of life, restored relations with those around us, recognising personal strengths we did not know we had and realisation of new possibilities. Such post-traumatic growth can be considered as pure joy.

Looking back on 2020 reflect on:
What has God been trying to do in me in 2020?
What is 2020 revealing about you? What idols or attachments have come into light?
What has God been trying to do through me?

Becoming a ‘non-anxious’ presence

By Rick James

2020 has locked many people, organisations and even societies into a downward spiral of anxiety. Many of the things we relied on, can no longer be taken for granted. Many of our ways of working, our programmes, our jobs and even our organisations themselves are at risk. A low-level fear is endemic. The only way to break the spiral of anxiety is the introduction of a ‘non-anxious’ presence. That is the role of leaders today.

Leadership theory agrees. When Bain and Co asked the question ‘What makes a leader inspiring?’ they concluded: “one trait matters more than any other. It is centredness: the ability to remain calm under pressure, empathise, listen deeply and remain present”. (Garton, 2017, HBR).

Not surprisingly, the Bible was there first: Colossians 3:15 says:

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

Only as we create space to allow the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts we can become the leaders – the centred, non-anxious presence – that people around us need today.

  • But how do I genuinely ‘let the peace of Christ rule in my heart? What is currently ruling?
  • This week what can I do to enable me to receive this gift of peace?

Measured on trust

By Rick James

Most metrics we use to measure leadership are misguided. Hopefully 2020 will rid of ridiculous notions that leaders should be judged on measures such as annual income raised or numbers/members attending. Otherwise, every leader will be a major failure in 2020, through no fault of their own.

It has become even more obvious in this crisis year that what really matters with leadership is whether people trust them. This is even more than the decisions they make. Trust is therefore a much better metric of leadership performance. Trust is certainly not the same as popularity, but involves judgements we make, often subconsciously, about whether: 

  1. Leaders listen well and genuinely understand others’ realities. Do people feel that leaders are ‘on their side’?
  2. In the face of such uncertainties, leaders have the courage to take difficult decisions. Are leaders willing to experiment with new initiatives, willing to try and fail and quickly adapt?
  3. Leaders are assured enough of their own identities to be open, vulnerable and OK with not having all the answers. Are leaders looking after their own spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health enough to be consistent and reliable?

While we cannot control how much people trust us, we can control our trustworthiness. 

So this week, which of these three areas can I work on to increase my trustworthiness?

Liberated from the myth of control

By Rick James

2020 feels like an Ecclesiastes moment to me. The current pandemic and its likely consequences are revealing to me how much of what I do, how much of what I desire, where I put my hope is like smoke (closer to the Hebrew word ‘hevel’ from Ecclesiastes rather than ‘vanity’ or ‘meaningless’ as some older translations put it).

Like smoke, our work and our leadership are transitory and temporary. They will not last for ever. And like smoke, they are impossible to grasp and control. The more we try, the more elusive they seem to be.

Perhaps one of my big lessons of 2020 is that we are NOT in control. That our ‘effectiveness’ is not actually in our power to manage. Despite our black and white job descriptions, our sense of responsibility, we are not masters of our own destiny, let alone the destiny of the initiatives we lead. This is quite humbling. And also quite liberating. It is not all about us. Ultimately it is God’s work and responsibility. I’m reminded of the quote from poet TS Eliot “Ours is only the trying, the rest is not our business”.

Looking ahead to this week, what big tasks await us? Since we are not in control of the outcomes, how do we invite God’s transformative presence into these situations?

Identifying blind spots and hot spots

By Rick James

My colleague, Nick Wright, developed a really interesting exercise to use with top teams when developing a strategy. When we look at ideas for future direction, who we are in relation to what we are looking into will influence what we see – and what we don’t see – how we do it and what conclusions we draw from it. This is because our subconscious assumptions, biases, filters and defence mechanisms create blind spots and hot spots.

Blind spots are what we are not thinking about. They touch on what is invisible to us. They are concerned with (un)awareness. They are created by our beliefs. They reflect the paradigms we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel mind-bending. Hot spots are what we are not talking about. They touch on what is sacred to us. They are concerned with relationships. They are created by our values. They reflect the passions we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel heart-wrenching.

This week in looking at a current issue, think about:
Blind spots: What are we assuming? What appears self-evident to us and why? How can we draw in contrasting perspectives and ideas?
Hot spots: What are we avoiding? How will we handle power dynamics and vested interests? What will we do if we feel threatened or defensive? How can we hold robust conversations that feel safe?

Good questions to explore trust in teams. Here is a good way to start sensitive, but critical, discussions within a team. First get individuals to finish the sentence:
– What I most value about this team is….
– What I would like most from this team is….
– My work would be much more productive if….
– I would have more fun at work if….
– I feel frustrated when….
– I feel really motivated when….
Then facilitate a discussion drawing on people’s different responses.