“Drew, how am I going to feed my family?”
The question haunts me to this day. It was 2013, and the U.S. government had just shut down. The year before, I had taken over as CEO of a distribution company. The company was well positioned, which is how I was able to convince many of my colleagues from the family business we had just sold to follow me to the new company.
Now, I was staring at a turnaround. We were a specialist government contractor and most of our business was indefinitely furloughed. This triggered a series of crises all hitting at once: our revenue plummeted and we were bleeding cash; a third-party partnership fell through and we were suddenly without key warehouse services.
But it’s the question from David that I will most remember. A truck driver for more than thirty years, David started working at our family business before I was even born. He was everything you would want in an employee, which is exactly why I felt the crushing weight of his question. The future was uncertain and he was looking to me as the leader to provide clarity.
Over the course of my career, I have endured several crises. The worst are the ones imposed from the outside, by forces you don’t immediately control. That is where a lot of leaders stand today in the wake of the coronavirus. Many of our businesses and teams are facing uncertainties that are wreaking havoc—to say nothing of the daily disruptions to normal life—and we don’t know when it will end.
Leadership is hard. One of our core values at Denver Institute is embracing relationships, and we believe that workplaces provide tremendous opportunities for followers of Jesus to build and strengthen meaningful ones. I have come to think that if we are doing our jobs well, we should expect that the people that God has surrounded us with will turn to us for clarity. But in crisis moments, how can we best lead?
There are no easy answers. But I have found three leadership practices to be especially helpful:
Because of the coronavirus disruption, many leaders find themselves in a paradox: time on their hands. Invest that time in being available to your team, even if virtually or over the phone. In my experience, most employees know that you can’t answer the big unknown questions. But you can listen and support them, and this brings real peace.
Crises have a way of exposing the humanity in business. When faced with our limitations, we have two options: deny or embrace. Leaders right now have a unique opportunity to show the power of embracing our finitude. Appropriate displays of vulnerability within our teams can enhance trust and ease worries.
Christians ought to be the most optimistic people on earth. After all, we believe that the end of the story has already been written—and it is quite good. We can draw from this optimism when we speak to our teams about the road that lies ahead, no matter how dire it appears. And be ready, as Peter exhorted the crisis-ridden believers in Asia minor, to “give a reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15).
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This post was published March 23, 2020
As a dually engaged theologian and business advisor, Drew straddles the worlds of faith and work. Alongside his role as VP of Leadership Partners, he is a business advisor helping clients solve challenging problems at the nexus of risk, strategy, and innovation. He has more than a decade of strategy consulting and executive leadership experience across multiple industries. His career started in the food industry, where he was the Director of Strategy for a top 50 foodservice distributor, helping lead the company through its acquisition by a top five distributor. He then became CEO and led the turnaround of a produce merchandising and distribution company. After that, he was a consultant at Clareo, helping Fortune 500 clients create new growth paths. Drew has a master of divinity degree from Denver Seminary, an MBA from Texas A&M University, and a PhD in religion from the University of Birmingham (UK). He is an adjunct professor of theology at Denver Seminary and author of the forthcoming book, Transforming Enterprise. Drew is an avid traveler (having visited nearly 40 countries) and proud fifth-generation northern Coloradoan where he lives with amazing wife and three kids.