Crises Are Inevitable. Why Do We Miss The Warning Signs?

Inspired by The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient Than Before, I recently wrote about the inevitability of crises in organizational settings.

The authors of the book, Erika H. James and Lynn Perry Wooten, write, “Crises are never one-off events. They happen again and again, although we never seem to expect them.”

James and Wooten wrote The Prepared Leader to help leaders prepare for crises, but why don’t we already? They write:

A crisis can feel like it hits you and your organization out of the blue. In reality, certain types of crisis can simmer in the background until the conditions are just right for disaster to materialize. These smoldering crises can be hard to predict, even if they are technically foreseeable.

Crucially, this is because these crises “are often tied to failure in organizational culture or procedures—the same failure that allows them to happen while also making them hard to see or track.” Bury sexual harassment claims, for example, and it will eventually turn into a crisis. (And, worse than whatever “crisis” befalls an organization, real people get hurt behind this stuff.)

I think of Charlie Brown and Lucy and the running football gag by Charles M. Schulz. Like a crisis that could have been avoided or at least prepared for, it gets Charlie Brown every time.

Why is this?

James and Wooten list five biases (“cognitive distortions”) that prepared leaders need to recognize—and overcome:

  1. Probability Neglect: we “underestimate the probability that something (bad) will happen to us.” They give the example of COVID-19, and how many North Americans thought it was all the way over there in China and would never reach us.
  2. Hyperbolic Discounting: it’s easier to focus on the present than the future, even if (especially if?) the problems of the future feel overwhelming.
  3. Anchoring Effect: we “tend to cleave to the first impression or understanding we form about a risk or threat.” This especially serves us poorly if we know such-and-such a person as someone who would never do that, even though they’ve just been credibly accused by multiple people. The cognitive dissonance in such cases is painful and difficult to resolve.
  4. Exponential Growth Bias: this is bias against the exponential growth that a crisis tends to have. In other words, we think situations unfold in a linear, straightforward way. They often don’t.
  5. Sunk-Cost Fallacy: “once we have settled on a course of action, and invested time, effort, and resources, it’s hard to change direction.” Once Charlie Brown is running toward that football, even though he knows Lucy is going to pull it out from under him, he still follows through and tries to kick it.

The Prepared Leader calls all of us to hold these cognitive distortions up to the light right now, because “the next crisis is already heading your way.” Or you’re in one right now. They warn readers not to “let your guard down,” which may be our default mode, especially when our biases almost hard-wire us to miss warning signs.

Is there good news here? Yes! Chapter 1 of The Prepared Leader profiles Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, and his brilliant (and seemingly lightning-fast) move to implement a “Bubble” when COVID-19 hit, so that the season could continue.

Silver’s actions remind us that we have agency, even in the midst of a crisis. In short, we should “have a learning organizational culture, with processes and protocols in place to surface and share information and to resolve any blockages in knowledge flow.”

Leaders and organizations that try to wish a crisis away (tempting as it is) won’t do much better with the next one. Examining and trying to overcome our cognitive biases is an important start.

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.

Great short read: “Help Your Team Do More Without Burning Out”

Someone refill this poor man’s coffee cup. Photo by Nubelson Fernandes on Unsplash
I found this article really helpful for my practice of leadership: Help Your Team Do More Without Burning Out, by Dr. Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg.
It’s not written from a religious perspective, but I thought it applies especially well in the body of Christ. Summary:
Earlier in our careers, speed and energy are important components. But there comes a point where you actually can’t speed up any more. You need to rely less on what you can personally achieve (your “ego-drive”) and more on what you can achieve with others (your “co-drive”). Instead of being energetic, you need to become energizing. Instead of setting the pace, you need to teach others to self-propel. Instead of delegating, you need to allow people to congregate. As you shift from proving yourself to helping others perform, your key question is not “How can I push harder?” but “Where can I let go?”
I read it in this excellent little book I’ve been benefiting from lately.

Reflection on stress, pain, growth, and… God

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

In a recent chapter of Uproar that our church’s elders read together, Peter Steinke writes, “Distress is not always an obstacle to learning. Pain can be a teacher. Real learning begins when the threat of pain emerges.”

There is the idea that our call in the church is not to shield people from pain1 but to walk with them through it.2 You may seen this described as a “ministry of presence,” “accompaniment,” or just “sitting in the mud” with someone. If we can’t make the hard stuff go away, at least we can be there.

In a similar way, an author and leadership consultant, Jack Shitama, writes:

A big mistake we make is to think we can relieve other people of their emotional pain. This does them no favors. In life, pain is an opportunity for growth. The best thing you can do for a friend is stay connected to them, go alongside them, while they deal with their own pain. They will be stronger for it.

Theologically, it helps me to remember that pain by itself does not make us stronger, but inviting the presence and power of God into our pain can transform it and actually strengthen us: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Then, with God’s help, we can ask how pain might become an opportunity to grow. We can ask how we might channel anxiety to motivate positive change.

I read an article recently called, “Stress Can Be a Good Thing If You Know How to Use It.” You can read it here. The article is good as is—I would just add that reading it as a Christian, we can also say: Stress Can Be a Good Thing (Or Turned Into a Good Thing), If We Give it to God and Allow God to Use It!


  1. as if that’s even possible!
  2. BUT… If the pain is coming from, for example, an oppressor or system of oppression, we ought to consider how we might actively stand against the source of pain.

Uproar: Why the Yankees Can’t Buy Their Way to a World Series

Credit: AP

A “system” is a process with its distinct yet interrelated parts. An organism or institution may consist of multiple systems. For example, various interlocking systems (nervous, skeletal, respiratory) make up the one human body. The human body is its own unified system with all these smaller systems working together. The church is a system full of complex humans—a system full of systems, you might say.

The Bible uses systems imagery in Romans 12: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

In a healthy human body, all the systems do their part and work together as one. In a healthy church, all the “systems” (interrelationships) work together toward unity in Christ. Peter Steinke says, “Health is a continuous process, the ongoing interplay a of multiple forces and conditions.”

This is why, for example, the New York Yankees can’t just buy their way to a World Series. They could have all the best players, on all the most expensive contracts, but if they don’t work well together as a team (“one body”), they won’t win. The Red Sox (or the Tampa Bay Rays!) will beat them every time. It’s not just about all the parts, but how the parts connect and work together as one.

Because you and your leadership do not exist in isolation, what you model as a Christian leader can ripple through the whole congregation (system). This is true of attendees who are not leaders, too. Think, for example, about how “contagious” giving can be, and how matching gifts can enact a process where people are inspired to give.

The downside to a system like the church, where patterns can be contagious, is anxiety. Anxiety is about as catchy as the omicron variant of COVID. Because the church is one body—interconnected with various systems and processes that affect each other—anxiety in one part of the church spreads and affects what is happening in another part of the church. For example, if there’s anxiety about a budget-setting process, that can spread into other parts of the church, like how we relate to each other in small groups. Or a parishioner might lose a loved one and direct the anger outward at a church leader or other member. Or this classic example: Bob has had a stressful day at work, because his boss yelled at him (because his boss fought with a spouse before work), so Bob comes home and kicks the dog. The dog isn’t legally employable, and yet the anxiety from Bob’s workplace (and Bob’s boss’s marriage) has spread to the poor pooch. Steinke refers to this as “shifting the burden” or “blame displacement,” also known as scapegoating. Systems crave stability, and sometimes the drive to release anxiety causes members to act in reactive and unhealthy ways. Anxiety is normal. It just needs to be regulated.

In his book Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke calls leaders to be a non-anxious presence: “To be a non-anxious presence,” he says, “means to acknowledge anxiety but not let it be the driver of behavior.” “Non-anxious” is the ideal, but a bit of a misnomer. Everybody has some anxiety. But good leaders strive—with God’s help!—to be at least a less-anxious presence.

Uproar, Introduction

In an “emotional system,” the emotional temperature comes from the people, and from the relationships people have, and from the culture and processes that are embedded there. An emotional system can be a congregation, a non-profit, a medical practice, a denomination, a family, or a small group.

Steinke lists some key ways that “leaders impact a system.” Then he says, “The overall health and functioning of any organization depends primarily on one or several people at the top who can exercise the above characteristics well.” He says, “Any social system—a family, workplace, or even a whole society—improves when people function less and less in reactive ways and more and more on the basis of values and beliefs sustained by clear goals.”

Uproar, chapter 1: “Living Nowhere between Two Somewheres”

Steinke writes:

Living nowhere between two somewheres has been called “the liminal experience,” the “neutral zone,” and the “transition space.” My own term is “Uproar.” Uproar is a time of dislocation; everything is “up in the air” or “at loose ends.”

We live in anxious times. And anxiety wishes to resolve itself, to be relieved. We don’t always pursue this in healthy ways. Sometimes we look for (or try to be) “rescuers,” placing unreasonable expectations on our leaders. But:

If the leader becomes anxious and forfeits calm reflection, the system is essentially leaderless. Anxiety tumbles down like loose rock dislodged from a high position. In a time of Uproar, the leader cannot be as anxious as everyone else.

The non-anxious leader should be differentiated, having a clear sense of self. They are neither overly close to others (emotionally “fused”) nor too emotionally distant (“cutoff”). Many people have stories about family members who were co-dependent or overly distant. The church is not immune to this dynamic.

Well-differentiated leaders know who they are. They find their identity in Jesus, and are not afraid to let other people be who they are, even when they disagree. Differentiated leaders do not change themselves to match other people, nor do they automatically withdraw from people or coerce them when there is disagreement.


What does this mean for leadership functioning? Either the leader becomes unengaged with others (acts rigidly, dominates, withdraws, becomes overly dogmatic) or too close (panders, seeks consensus, shifts with the wind for the sake of harmony). …In highly anxious times, people tend to tilt toward one or the other extreme in order to survive.

I’d sum it up like this:

  • Well-differentiated leaders know who they are
  • We find our identity in Jesus, and are not afraid to disagree
  • Differentiated leaders do not change themselves to match other people
  • Differentiated leaders do not withdraw from people or coerce them when there is disagreement.

We can pray that God’s peace would empower us to be a loving, non-anxious presence in our congregations.

Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times

At the church I pastor, our elders have been reading through a powerful book called Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times. It’s the final book written by Peter Steinke, whose books I’ve interacted with here and here.

Why am I leading our leaders through Uproar? Among other reasons, because anxiety confronts us at multiple levels:

  • our own individual insecurities that we don’t measure up or aren’t doing enough
  • anxieties that unwanted patterns from our family of origin will just repeat themselves in other settings
  • congregational anxieties: building space, attendance, an aging congregation, the absence of younger/newer folks, still not seeing some of our folks who attended before the pandemic
  • societal anxieties: take your pick! COVID-19, racism, inflation, Putin/Ukraine, social media, violent rhetoric from public officials

Steinke uses family systems theory to help us know how to be a non-anxious (or less anxious) presence in the midst of all these multiple anxieties. Understanding how to respond maturely and faithfully to anxiety will make us more effective leaders, not to mention better and fuller versions of ourselves.

On a personal level, family systems theory and the practice of a non-anxious presence have been powerful helps for me in pastoral ministry the past few years. I want to share with my fellow leaders what I’ve learned on my own leadership journey.

And I’d like to share those lessons, too, here at Words on the Word.

Our church’s leadership is five chapters in to Uproar, and even though it’s less church-specific than Steinke’s other works, we’ve been finding powerful applications—in a congregational setting and beyond. In the midst of life’s anxieties, family systems theory and especially the idea of being a non-anxious presence can help us build individual and organizational capacity. This is true whether we’re in conflict situations right now, or even if any of our life spheres are relatively conflict-free. In fact, it’s in conflict-free times that conversations about reducing anxiety can be most powerful—certainly easier. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I didn’t set out to do it at first, but I’m creating short study guides for the chapters we discuss, and I’ll post adaptations of those here in coming weeks. In the meantime, check out Uproar here or at your local library. Below is its full Table of Contents. Let me know in the comments if you have read or are reading this book.

Full Table of Contents



1 Living Nowhere between Two Somewheres
2 Anxious Times
3 Societal Emotional Process


4 Heads Up!
5 The Non-anxious Presence
6 Impacting the Emotional System


7 The Balancing Act
8 At the Edge
9 The People of the Charm


10 Rocking the Emotional Boat
11 We versus They
12 Staying Calm and Courageous, No Matter What