Trust: The Essential Leadership Quality During Crisis

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When I was 14 years-old my family drove 265 miles from Whitefish, MT to Spokane, WA to see the movie Jaws. My grandparents lived near Spokane so seeing the movie wasn’t the only reason for our trip, but it’s the only part I remember. When we got to the theater there was a long line and the theater filled before we got in, so we stood in line for the next showing. It was worth it! To this day Jaws is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. One thing that made the movie scary is that you didn’t see the monster. For much of the movie Jaws was unseen, but terrifying and brutal, attacking unknowing swimmers from the murky depths.

Like the shark in Jaws, Covid-19 is an unseen killer, but unlike Jaws there’s almost no place of safety. “Stay out of the water” and Jaws won’t bite you! But nearly every landmass in the world has reported cases of the virus. As of today, April 30, 210 countries and territories have reported cases of Covid-19. The first death in the U.S. from the virus is believed to be a woman in California on February 6, 2020. Twelve weeks later, 61,867 deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 in the U.S., and 231,415 in the world.

Nothing in our lifetime has challenged leaders on the scale of this killer virus. From the President to governors and mayors and school principals, and from business owners to church pastors to moms and dads, leading through this crisis is excruciatingly difficult.

It’s difficult because we can’t see the killer and define it with precision. It’s difficult because the means of victory are more costly than anything we’ve ever experienced, and we can’t quite agree on what exactly are the proper means. It’s difficult because the solutions, we are told, will be determined by science and data, but it’s not a “pure science.” Shutting down business and church and sports and national parks and staying home in isolation is a primary tactic to fight this enemy. But the science that has determined this as our best, first tactic, creates other problems, and some of them are deadly too. Over 30 million have filed for unemployment in six weeks. Job loss and the inability to pay bills leads to depression, drug and alcohol abuse, abuse in the home, and even suicide. Businesses built over a lifetime are being destroyed. How long do we keep things shut-down, and should stay-at-home orders be applied uniformly across the country or throughout a particular state? The decisions will be determined by science and data, we are told, but who interprets the data and how best do we apply the science? And how do the scientific disciplines of medicine, social science, political and economic sciences, interact as decisions are made?

So, with these leadership difficulties identified, and they are not the only challenges, what is the most important thing a leader can do in such a crisis? Quite simply, leaders must tell the truth. Tell the truth as best as you know it and as completely as you can. Don’t “manage the truth.” Tell the truth. Distort nothing. Be fully transparent. Confess what you don’t know. State what you do you know. Don’t overstate, or understate, just tell the truth. Manipulate no one. Don’t exaggerate things, and don’t try to reassure people by minimizing the situation, either. Lament loss. Acknowledge disaster, even as you express biblical hope. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

John Barry’s outstanding book, The Great Influenza, tells the story of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people. The book is a thrilling, terrifying account of what happened then and is happening now on a smaller scale. In the Afterword to the 2018 edition Barry writes, “If there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis.” He says, “As horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create that terror … by minimizing it, by trying to reassure.” He writes further, “The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other” (pp. 460f).

Barry is right. Telling the truth, as best we know it, builds trust. Lying, hiding the truth, being dishonest with what you know and don’t know, destroys trust. And when leaders lose trust, they’ve lost the ability to lead. You’ve seen it – a brilliant and gifted person who can’t lead a country, a church, or even their own family because they’re not trusted. Nothing compensates for loss of trust.

What’s true about leadership during a mega-pandemic is true about leadership when the crisis is isolated to one family, or one church, or a large network of churches. Truth-telling, which is necessary to build trust, isn’t just vital for governments, it’s vital at all levels of leadership. Trust is the essential thing a leader must have. Thus, the crisis that is most damaging long-term is not the crisis event itself, but the erosion of trust that can destroy relationships, organizations, and the essence of society and culture.

Here is a worthy prayer: “God protect me from doing things or saying things that erode the trust that others have placed in me. God heal the wounds I inflict when my actions create distrust. God help me be a person you can trust, so that I am worthy of the trust of others.”

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