Crises as Learning Opportunities

Wisdom and Fuel


Erika H. James and Lynn Perry Wooten are experts in organizational leadership, especially leadership through crises. They each moved into major new roles of leadership at the start of 2020: Dr. James became Dean of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Wooten became the President of Simmons University. They describe what would already be a set of daunting, exciting, high-stakes challenges in leadership positions.

“Then,” they write, “COVID-19 hit.”

I can relate (albeit on a smaller scale). The church I pastored for nearly eight years was confronting its own constellation of challenges as Fall 2019 turned to Winter 2020. I was already experiencing the reality James and Wooten describe: “A crisis will invariably test your leadership to the very limits of your abilities.”

Then COVID-19 hit.

In early 2021 I accepted a call to pastor a diverse, urban church in the heart of Boston. When I began pastoring there, the church was still not far removed from the previous Pastor’s departure; there had been about a year of the Pastor position’s being vacant; COVID-19 was still raging; and we didn’t have a building to meet in.

It seemed the congregation had experienced loss upon loss. Loss may not always be the same thing as crisis, but the congregation that had just called me had had its leadership tested “to the very limits of [its] abilities.”

We’ve stabilized since then, thanks be to God. I’m a month away from the two-year mark as Pastor there. Most if not all of us have been vaccinated, with all the boosters. We rent space in a church just a block or two away from our previous location.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t face new crises—now or lurking around the corner.

Against those backdrops, I eagerly began reading James and Wooten’s new book, The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient Than Before, recently published by Wharton School Press. (Thanks to the press for the review copy, provided with no expectation of me.)

As I started the introduction, I realized this book would be powerful and instructive for me, even if there had never been a COVID-19. But seeing how Drs. James and Wooten integrate findings from that new (and still present) global health crisis make their work especially relevant.

Without downplaying the negative disruptive potential of a crisis, they describe how crises can be opportunities:

If there’s one thing we have learned about crises in our research over the years, it is that they bring opportunities as much as they bring risks. Crises are opportunities to sharpen your leadership skills and to unearth new expertise—often in surprising places. They are also opportunities to learn—to determine which important lessons a crisis has to share and to embed those lessons in your leadership practice going forward.

There’s so much wisdom to receive and unpack here—and this is just in the Introduction! As I read these lines, here are all the opportunities a crisis brings, according to the authors:

  • Crisis brings opportunities to become a more skilled leader
  • Crisis brings opportunities to find new expertise in your organization
  • Crisis brings opportunities to discover that this new expertise could be somewhere (or with someone) you didn’t expect
  • Crisis brings opportunities to learn important lessons
  • Crisis brings opportunities to integrate these lessons into leadership in the future

I know that crises, loss, and threats all bring opportunities with them. I’ve heard this before. And I don’t disagree, but it’s a truth that—if I’m honest—I’ve had a hard time appreciating. “Consider it pure joy,” the biblical book of James says, “whenever you face trials of many kinds.” No, I consider it pure joy when I don’t have to face any trials!

But James goes on, “Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work, so that you may become mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Trials mature us. The testing of our faith forms our character, even makes us more like Jesus.

Do I like that reality? Not really. If I were God, would I try to create a set of conditions whereby people could develop perseverance without the trials? Maybe, but then again, any sentence that begins with “If I were God…” (especially when I write it) is a bad one.

I believe that Apostle James, Dr. James, and Dr. Wooten are not only right about the formative effect of crises/trials—I think they are preaching an essential life truth.

Crises are inevitable, The Prepared Leader says. Jesus said, “In this world you will have much trouble.” The Psalmist wrote, “Many are the afflictions (troubles, dangers, trials) of the righteous.”

The questions are: how will we respond to a crisis, what will we learn from it, and how will we prepare for the next one?

It’s rare the book that I want to write about after just the introduction, but The Prepared Leader has been as good as a cup of coffee with an engaging Executive Coach (or two, in this case).

Next time I’ll write about James and Wooten’s insights about why we fail to foresee crises, even when a crisis give us hints that it might be coming.

5 thoughts on “Crises as Learning Opportunities

  1. My limited experience of serving in Church leadership has taught me crises indeed are inevitable; amongst any organization composed of people there will be conflicts and fires to have to put out. From the beginning, the enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15), conflict in human relationships is par for the course.

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