January 2002
Leadership in Times of Crisis

When the Waves are High

I have been privileged to enjoy a number of explicit leadership roles in my life. People who have a real stake in the outcome have deliberately given me authority and trusted me to use that authority well on their behalf.

The leadership role of a vestry is to remember accurately where the church community has been, to shed light on where it is now, and to discern where it needs to go and how it might get there. There must be a shared notion, regularly tested and never too precise or final, of where the far shore is. Your job as a leader of the vestry is to pilot the boat towards that often dim shore.

But what about crisis leadership? Now the waves are high, the boat is full of water and the shore is not visible at all. The anguished cry is “Who will lead us?” We might find the leadership in people from whom we explicitly expect it. Then again, we might not. Where to turn, whom to follow?

We are all familiar with how an unexpected situation can produce leaders we didn’t know we had. So, how will we recognize the leaders at such a time? More importantly, how will they recognize themselves?

Leaders are those who can see a situation clearly and act accordingly because they know who they are.

What is it that leaders must know about themselves? That all of us – individually, in small groups and in community – are vulnerable. Accepting our vulnerability and our inability to control people and events is the ground for leadership. We can shape, we can set direction and be intentional, but we can’t control. Aligning our behavior to this knowledge is deeply counter cultural, but isn’t going against the grain a special gift of the Church?

In a crisis, the first question is not “what happened?” but “who am I?” Second, “who are we?” Only with answers to the question of who you are can you respond to events instead of react to them.

Hearing the call to leadership
Leadership responds, it does not react. We are called to move forward, not to defend. To respond to a call you must first hear the call. Response has to do with seeing, noticing, paying attention to what is right in front of you. Being there, fully present at all times. It does not have to do with solving problems (reacting). It does not have to do with knowing the answers. In fact, it is crucial not to give answers when there are none, and this too is counter cultural; to act as if you have the answers when you do not prolongs a crisis by increasing anxiety. It is a common abuse of the authority and trust that has been invested in you.

Response means showing your love. You have to see around corners and through walls, and hear even the smallest insistent sound. This cannot be done if you think you know the answers, if you are certain that you know where the shore is before anybody else does. You cannot see clearly through the cataracts of your own opinions and you cannot hear well through the din of your own problem solving inner voice, either.

Showing love means caring for the human being first, attending to her, listening to him, banishing anxiety. Such love will help you lead people to the far shore.

We saw this leadership quality abundantly in Rudy Giuliani from the very first hours of the WTC attack. He was everywhere present, tireless, attending to people, telling them what he knew, being honest when he didn’t know, not hiding his grief, and throughout it reminding us that as New Yorkers we would get through this (as in our deepest hearts we already knew we would, since as humans we have to get through it). His love and attention to this city laid a strong foundation for the future.

Telling the truth
When I was six and my brother was five, we moved to England. As we flew from Los Angeles to London across the North Pole (this was 1958), he asked me if the plane would crash. I said it might and it might not. That was of course the truth. I believe in telling the truth. After being bothered by my answer for 43 years, he recently said to me “All I wanted was for you to say ‘Everything will be alright.’ That’s all.” That would have been the truth too, even if we had crashed.

Seeing what people need and helping them to get it while telling the truth is what leadership is all about. In crisis or not, that is the heart of my faith journey.

Dick Kurth is senior warden at St. Luke’s Parish in Darien, Connecticut and a managing director of Jay Gaines & Company, an executive recruiting firm in New York City. Six residents of Darien, including one St. Luke’s parishioner, were killed in the WTC attack, and he also lost a number of other friends and clients.

This article is part of the January 2002 Vestry Papers issue on Leadership in Times of Crisis