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Leading Through Frightening Times

By John C. Maxwell | March 3, 2020
Leading Through Frightening Times

I’ve often said there are no two consecutive good days in the life of a leader. It’s a statement designed to get people’s attention, and it usually does—I often have a lot of people wanting to follow up with me after I’ve shared it during a teaching. What it boils down to is this: the more you grow in leadership, the more challenging and difficult the decisions you face. Those decisions often involve things with immediate or concrete solutions, but sometimes, they involve things that aren’t as cut and dried.

Sometimes, you have to lead your people through uncertainty. And as a leader, that means you have to be the rock in frightening times.

Over my decades of leadership experience, through organizations large and small, I’ve encountered my fair share of frightening times, either for the organization itself or for the world at large. Let me be the first to tell you, leaders feel fear too. We’re not bulletproof; we’re human like everyone else. But leaders also understand that they have a higher expectation of them, a responsibility to the people they lead.

As my friend Mark Cole says, “It’s okay to feel fear. It’s not okay to make your people carry it.”

Over the last several days, fear has been at the forefront of many a news story. Whether we’re talking about the sudden stock market plunge or the coronavirus or the upcoming election season, the uncertainty of life has intruded into our active thinking and frightened many people. I know we’re dealing with some of those fears in our own organization, and chances are you’re dealing with them as well.

So how should we lead in frightening times?

  1. Be a visible presence. When times are challenging, leaders need to be seen and felt. It’s not the time to retreat and try to figure things out behind closed doors; your people are looking for someone who can calm their fears with a reassuring look or a friendly hand. You must put yourself forward as someone that people can talk to or turn to when their fear seems overwhelming. It may mean you accomplish little else for a time, but it will be exactly what your people need.
  2. Acknowledge the fear, but don’t empower it. Max Dupree said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality—that means acknowledging what’s really going on around us. WE cannot lead through frightening times if we’re unwilling to acknowledge that people are scared, or that the situation itself is frightful. But we can never leave our people stuck in that fear because that only gives the fear greater power in their minds and hearts. Place the fear in the right context and communicate your belief that better days are ahead.
  3. Paint a brighter picture. Part of how you get people to believe that better days are ahead is by painting that picture for them. When things are frightening, the world seems small and dark; to counteract that, you must paint a picture that’s bigger and brighter. We must point beyond the fear to a brighter day, to remind people of what the Psalmist said: “Nights of crying your eyes out give way to days of laughter.” Leaders must communicate to their people the hope on the other side of the fear.
  4. Be cautious with predictions, but generous with hope. When you’re trying to help your people look beyond the fear, be wary of trying to predict exactly how things will work out. The simple truth is you don’t know, and that’s okay. Your people don’t expect you to see the future—they just expect you to help them get there, and that’s where being generous with hope comes in. If you’re still pushing toward the next, still reaching for the brighter day beyond the clouds, that gives them the energy they need to make it another day. In the end, they’ll remember you helped them find their way more than they’ll remember the way itself. They’ll recall your presence more than your prescience.

The unique challenge of leadership is making today work for tomorrow, especially when today seems to threaten that there won’t be a tomorrow.

But the only way there won’t be a tomorrow is if we give into the fear today.

Leader, your people are looking to you to help them find the security and strength that will allow hope to take root in their life. It’s a significant ask, but one that you’re capable of, if you’ll stay visible, present, realistic, and hopeful.

In all my years of leading, I know this for sure: fear never lasts unless you feed it. As a leader, it’s your job to starve fear by feeding people hope and showing them a better picture of what’s ahead. Give your people the hope they need to hold on.

We may cry today, but there’s joy coming our way tomorrow.

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26 thoughts on "Leading Through Frightening Times"

  • Dan Williams says: March 3, 2020 at 12:44 pm

    Fear is not faith. It is a sin. We must trust Christ. He will lead us today tomorrow and the future

  • ARETHA says: March 3, 2020 at 3:40 pm

    Thank you so much for helping me to be a better person one day at a time. I have grown and intend
    to continue for years to come.

  • Leelo Bush PhD says: March 3, 2020 at 4:05 pm

    As a Christian life coach you are a combination of a personal pastor and leader / partner. You are the person they lean on in uncertain times. It’s really not a matter if IF times will be uncertain, it’s WHEN will they become more certain. We all need the support of someone who has traveled the path, John, your article reminds us that leaders must provide security and strength. This is the same for Christian life coaches.

  • steve sheinkopf says: March 3, 2020 at 4:10 pm

    Fear is not a sin…It is a natural human emotion. Accusing people of being sinful is at best hypocritical and at worst sinful in itself

    So much for love thy neighbor

  • Delilah Hill says: March 3, 2020 at 5:51 pm

    Fear serves to Encumber us, keeping us Worried, Anxious, Fretful, Doubtful, etc., ultimately weakening our Faith and Crippling us from Believing that we can Become who we are Destined to Be! We Overcome Fear by Exercising our Faith, Speaking the opposite of what Fear tells us and by Tapping into, Discovering and Drawing out the Greatness that is within Each and Every One of Us!

  • Jason Brooks says: March 3, 2020 at 6:33 pm

    Hi Dan–Thanks for your comment. I agree that trusting in Christ is what helps a person move forward, but I disagree with fear being a sin. Fear is an emotion–what we do as a result of the emotion, the action it produces, is what might or might not be a sin. If I fear disappointing God, and therefore obey Him, then the fear produced obedience, which is not sin. It’s helpful to give people accurate handles for these types of discussions.

  • Dan Williams says: March 3, 2020 at 8:13 pm

    I am looking at fear as not trusting God. The Bible sais to fear not. Your thought was excellent Thank you

  • Moses Lengwe says: March 3, 2020 at 9:14 pm

    Fear is not a sin but probably what is done in fear may lead to sin, why do I say so? The opposite of faith is fear . And no one can please God unless his doings are done by faith .
    Im moved by this article to help my people not to move in fear. One of the concepts i like , fear grows once it is exalted but when promising/positive confrontation strikes it starve to let go. And the bible tells us faith comes by hearing of God’s word.

  • Mike Davidson says: March 3, 2020 at 10:30 pm

    F – False
    E- Evidence
    A- Appearing
    R- Real

    Emotions are strong motivators. Like all things they were created by God. Like so many things man takes what God created and really can mess it up! Including sinful behavior or God glorifying behavior. That’s the free Will part that’s hard to understand. What a God we serve!

  • feriel bayoudh says: March 4, 2020 at 2:39 am

    From my oerspective, fear makes remain trapped in my past. Whenever i am in fear, I remember all the bad choices and decision I made in a past and led to disastrous outcomes. That makes me paralysed to take an action and move forward. If I drag this feeling on for some days I become depressed. Thank God I have learned to overcome this state of mind by praising God for the way He had brought me through and how He had transformed me to be a model and good influencer for some people in my circle of influence. Thank Dr Maxwell. I am looking forward for more insightful articles.

  • Dan Williams says: March 4, 2020 at 8:31 am

    Thank you John for a wonderful page this morning

  • Jason Brooks says: March 4, 2020 at 8:48 am

    Dan–thanks for the clarification. I can understand your perspective, and appreciate you taking the time to respond to my comment.

  • Delilah Hill says: March 4, 2020 at 9:49 am

    Good Morning Steve,

    Fear does not become a sin until we allow it to cause us to doubt Gods Word, keeping us bound, hindered & held captive. When we are prisoners of fear, its as if we are telling or showing God that we don’t believe or think He is able to perform His Word.

    For God did not give us a spirit of timidity or cowardice or fear, but [He has given us a spirit] of power and of love and of sound judgment and personal discipline [abilities that result in a calm, well-balanced mind and self-control]. 2 Timothy 1:7 AMP

    We all have fears, but we must trust God & know that He has not given us a spirit of fear & that He sometimes allows us to experience fear in the hope that it will push us to activate our faith & allow us to see that the Greatness that He has placed in us has to be drawn out & that He has equipped us with everything we need, we just have to stay connected to Him & believe.

  • Colleen says: March 7, 2020 at 10:57 am

    Love this scripture, and your elaboration of it.

  • Backlash says: March 7, 2020 at 11:47 pm

    Are we not supposed to fear god?

  • Three Words That Are Damaging Your Professional Relationships | 99 Leaders says: March 10, 2020 at 4:26 am

    […] Based on decades of leadership experience, John Maxwell shares how he is dealing with fears in his own organization. You too can put his practical approach into action. Read: Leading Through Frightening Times […]

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  • Tony Marnella says: March 21, 2020 at 2:51 pm

    Thank you John. Great post. Especially, the statement about “fear never lasts, unless you feed it.” Lots of feeding right now. Make it a great day

  • Yolanda Cruz says: March 21, 2020 at 7:38 pm

    How do you prepare yourself with self uncertainty? Do you feel there is a risk when leading in uncertain times? Considering our global situation at hand right now. I know friends and relative are still being required to show up for work while others have been permitted to work from home. One has stated that another dept. tested positive but only that dept. was shut down and she is still required to show up for work. This is shocking to me. I know a lot of business have remained open despite the social distancing order. I feel Americas main focus has always been about money more then the well being of its people. As we the president is already talking about a stimulus package although American still remains short of test kits and mask for nurses. Our generation of leaders and managers have no experience with an epidemic. Do you feel Leaders are putting money before there employees when considering the business and there obligation to it success before the well being of its employees well being. Would you change anything from your blog in relation to my comments?

  • Guy R. Schultz says: March 22, 2020 at 10:33 am

    Too we must always make it clear that our hope for a better tomorrow is beyond this world. Not all will emerge from this trial in this life but in glory. This is a hard but assured truth. Fear applied in Christ causes us to see rest in that truth come what May in this world. Use the fear as a single to hope I’m Christ all the more. Remember that many have come through even greater trials than they who have not in this world. In both instances He is faithful.

  • Dan Williams says: March 22, 2020 at 2:00 pm

    Mike I love your comment. God speed

  • Dan Williams says: March 22, 2020 at 2:04 pm

    Thank you Guy, I love your comment

  • Delilah Hill says: March 22, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    Thank you!????

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