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7 Things That Vanished in 2020 That Make Leadership That Much Harder


By Carey Nieuwhof: Your head likely hasn’t stopped spinning in 2020.


Maybe on one or more occasions you’ve done what I’ve been tempted to do as well: bury your head in the sand because it’s just so discouraging to see what’s actually happening.

As much as it’s healthy to unplug for a day (or a week) to catch your breath, refresh your soul and tap into hope, ignoring reality isn’t a great long term strategy.

Leaders who ignore the culture have a hard time influencing it because they no longer understand it.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll try to put 2020 into perspective and focus on priorities for 2021, all with a goal to cutting through the clutter to help you enter 2021 strong.

To help you with that, I’ve got a brand new free resource called The 2021 Church Leader Toolkit, a 5-part collection of brand new videos and fresh PDFs you can use personally or for team study. It’s free, and it’s designed to help us all get a head start on 2021. You can get immediate access here.

In the meantime, here are 7 things that disappeared in 2020 (temporarily or perhaps for a while anyway) that are making leadership in 2021 even more tricky.

And because the news has been largely depressing, I added three things that 2020 didn’t kill. We all need to stay encouraged.

So what disappeared in 2020, making leadership that much harder? Here are 7 things.

Ignoring reality isn’t a great long term strategy.

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1. Consensus

2020 ended any dreams of achieving consensus in leadership.

No one can seem to agree on anything anymore. The hate we seem to have for each other has reached crisis levels.

While I miss civility, leading by consensus was a tough goal at the best of times.

The problem with consensus is that consensus kills courage.

Very few good, innovative ideas gain consensus before a leader acts. Instead, consensus emerges after you act, provided the decision was a good one.

Regardless, if you’re hoping to find consensus on your ideas before you lead,  at this point you’ll wait forever.

Consensus kills courage.

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2. The Returns You Get From Incremental Change

Many churches and organizations relied on incremental change to get them from year to year.

In a good year, a few changes here and there might result in 2%-5% growth, or at least stave off decline or minimize it.

When the crisis disrupted everything, any returns on incremental progress went out the window because you had to change pretty much everything.

Heading into 2021, it will be tempting to try to find ‘normal’ and lock back in for incremental gains.

That might work, but there’s a far greater chance it won’t.

Crisis is an accelerator and many of the trends that were already making incremental growth difficult have accelerated even faster.

Which shouldn’t be such a great loss anyway.

The problem with incremental change is that it delivers incremental results. And that’s not what you were hoping for anyway.

The problem with incremental change is that it delivers incremental results.

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3. Control

Most of us in leadership struggle with control to one extent or another. I do.

And even though control is both an illusion and a bad leadership strategy, there has hardly been a season where control has been more elusive.

Moving forward, instead of trying to gain control, focus on looking for new opportunities and align your mission around them.

Control won’t bring you into the future nearly as beautifully as vision and momentum will.

Control won’t bring you into the future nearly as beautifully as vision and momentum will.

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4. Easy Answers

If easy answers were falling on hard times prior to COVID (and they were), 2020 demolished the utility of easy answers.

Leadership has always been complicated, but 2020 raised it to a whole new level.

As a result, many of the approaches that might of worked for you earlier suddenly stopped.

The point?

Leadership right now really is complex. If it feels hard, it’s only because it is hard.

Knowing that can make you dig deeper, consult more broadly and experiment more widely.

All of those are good approaches in normal times. In a crisis, they’re essential.

Leadership right now really is complex. If it feels hard, it’s only because it is hard.

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5. Public Events Everyone Is  Comfortable Attending

It’s shocking to see how quickly social behaviours can change.

Watching shows and movies filmed before the pandemic with people crowded into elevators, shouting at each other or leaning on each other in exhaustion just seems so…foreign now.

Public events will definitely come back in the future, but how long it will take not just to distribute a vaccine, but to get us all comfortable rubbing shoulder with strangers and breathing the same air…well, that’s a whole other story?

The point? If your future hinges on holding large (or densely populated) public gatherings, make plans now for a gradual reentry to that space. And better yet…make supplementary and alternative plans.

If everyone rushes back and things are back to normal in minutes, you’ve lost nothing and have some prep for any future pandemic or public health emergency.

If the culture embraces a gradual ease back into crowded public gatherings (which might be the more likely scenario), then you’re ready.

6. Community

Community may not have vanished entirely, but it really took a hit in 2020.

People are lonely, and no, Zoom, FaceTime, texting, streaming and social media do not replace face to face human contact.

The challenge here for churches is that, with many people cut off from church for months or not comfortable yet returning to in-person services, people are likely forming their own notions of future community.

The need for human connection is great, but that the connection would automatically be through the church the way it used to take shape might be a stretch.

The key?

Work at cultivating community as much as you work on cultivating content in 2021. Even if digital community is your only or main option (I know, it’s not the same), it’s still something the church is helping to shape.

Culture is already highly individualistic and has been drifting to anti-institutional for decades. If you ignore community, not only do you ignore some of the core of the mission, but people will form community without your help.

Of course, people are completely free to do that, but shaped community is part of the essence of church and any tribe.

Church leaders, work at cultivating community as much as you work on cultivating content in 2021.

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7. Unity

Of all the things we lost this year, this might be the most important and most painful.

Rarely have we seemed so divided. Although unity has been eroding for years due to politics, ideology, tribalism and a profound and concerning self-righteousness (I’m talking about the church here…not just culture), 2020 saw it sink to a new low.

Unity is both a theological prerequisite (Jesus talked about it a lot, and early church worked hard to achieve it) and a practical necessity. Division destroys. Unity builds. An organization divided against itself crumbles.

Moving forward, look past masks/no masks and partisan politics and opinions for common ground. You’ll find far more common ground than you imagine.

Focusing on what unites you, not on what divides you, is not just a great way to build unity. It’s a great way to make real progress.

I wrote more about this here.

Unity is both a theological prerequisite, and a practical necessity. Division destroys. Unity builds.

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And….3 Things 2020 Didn’t Kill

Hopefully knowing what shifted this year can help you gain a footing for what you can tackle in 2021.

Naturally, though, 2020 didn’t bring all bad news. Global crises can’t kill everything.

Here are three things that are very much alive and can help propel you into 2021.

1. The Mission

When the crisis hit, a lot of methods broke, but the mission didn’t. It’s stronger than ever.

And arguably, more necessary than ever as well as people look for hope.

So how do you move your mission forward? Rethink your methods to ensure they still support your mission.

As you move into planning for 2021, hold the mission tightly and the methods loosely. In that, you’ll find the greatest opportunity.

The same crisis that broke your methods can give new life to your mission.

The same crisis that broke your methods can give new life to your mission.

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2. Hope

Sure, hope isn’t a strategy. But it is essential to the human spirit.

Somehow the idea that things can get better and will get better is the central to leadership. While the crisis threatened hope deeply, it didn’t extinguish it.

And, of course, the Gospel itself gives hope that nothing can extinguish.

The more secular culture becomes, the more it loses its mooring around hope, which opens up an even greater opportunity for the church.

Focusing on hope while you take your next steps is a great way to help move people together into the future.

3. Innovation

Many leaders are desperately trying to find (or manufacture) a sense of normal.

That’s understandable, but a better focus is to keep innovating. Aftrer all, it’s hard to go back to normal when normal disappeared.

The ‘innovation’ that happened in the crisis so far, for the most part, wasn’t really innovation. It was adaptation.

The real innovation for most churches and organizations is ahead. So as you move into 2021, ask yourself “What does this make possible?”

That’s a great way to begin a dialogue around innovation.

The future belongs to the innovators. It always does.

The future belongs to the innovators. It always does.

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What Do You See?

What made leadership harder for you in 2021?

And what are you grateful hasn’t disappeared? Scroll down and leave a comment!

If it feels like leadership is harder, it's only because it is. Here are 7 things that got harder in 2020, and what to do about them.

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