Josh Laxton on Crisis Leadership From a Christian Perspective: When Crisis Hits

Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.


According to Tim Johnson in his book, Crisis Leadership: How to Lead in Times of Crisis, Threat, and Uncertainty, there are two types of crises: incident and issue crises. Incident crises are like tornadoes, issue crises are like hurricanes.

I’ve had experience in both tornado and hurricane environments. They are both scary, nonetheless. In any case, you seek shelter in both types of turbulent storms.

In the case of tornadoes, experts say one of the best places to seek shelter is in a basement. While I’ve lived through plenty of tornado warnings, I’ve been fortunate to never have one hit my home. However, I’ve seen plenty of pictures and images from friends and news stations of the damage that tornadoes have caused.

Seeking shelter from the force of hurricane is very similar. However, if meteorologists are predicting a more powerful hurricane—like a category 4 or 5—many choose to seek shelter more inland. In other words, they leave their home and their area all together.

After the storms hit, people emerge from their basements (or bathrooms) or from their parent’s house in Georgia (where they fled), to assess the damage. After assessing the damage, they get to work cleaning up debris or fixing the damage. Typically, the severity of the storm determines the severity of work that needs to be done.

The above examples of seeking shelter, emerging from shelter, assessing the damage, and going to work cleaning debris and repairing damages from tornadoes and hurricanes gives us a great image as crisis leaders for the process we will go through (and take our organization through) when crisis hits.

Borrowing from the authors of You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most, I want to discuss how to lead your brain (yes, your brain) as well as your “Braintrust” (a.k.a. your Crisis Management Team) so that you may lead you and your organization well through a crisis.

You can see to the right a picture of the brain. The authors of You’re It have highlighted the various “rooms” that will need to be navigated well during a crisis in order to exercise good leadership.

The Basement

I’ve been in those scary situations where you see the ominous clouds hovering over the house, hear the tornado sirens going off, and hear the meteorologist on the news station saying, “If you are in this area, you are in the path of the tornado. Seek cover immediately.” In those instances, your adrenaline rises, your heart begins to beat faster, and you react by gathering your family and going to a “safe” place—like the basement.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, explains that there are two systems at work in the brain—a fast and slow one. When facing mental challenges and complex problems, people use the slow system part of their brain. However, when they face routine or survival-like issues or incidents, they tap into the fast system of their brain.

The authors of You’re It describe the two systems this way:

“The routine circuits direct the learned behaviors that you do almost automatically. This includes your rote everyday activities, from how to walk and talk to riding a bicycle…. The other fast brain subsystem—the survival circuits—propels your instinctual behaviors. These include involuntary physiological actions, such as breathing and heart beating….” (94)

When a crisis hits, people’s brains instinctively move them into survival mode. Metaphorically speaking, people descend into the “basement” as an instinct to protect themselves. Psychologist Daniel Goleman technically refers to this survival instinct as an “amygdala hijack”—the amygdala being the part of your brain that processes emotions and serves as your threat alert system.

In the descent to the basement, people typically have one of three survival instincts as they react to threats, which would include crises. They either freeze, flight, or fight.

It is important to keep this in mind when crisis hits—whether it is a gut-punch to your reputation as you read what people are saying about you or your church on twitter; whether it is a financial shortfall; or whether it is an active shooter on your organization’s premise. Your brain, as well as the brains of the people you lead, will immediately retreat into the basement by either freezing, fighting, or flighting. This is natural, as it is an instinctual reaction based upon survival.

However, good crisis leadership does not happen in the basement! The basement is too emotional, it’s too simple, it’s too binary. The authors of You’re It conclude to “Never lead, negotiate, or make major life decisions when you are in the basement. The speech or decision you make when you are in the basement is the one you are most likely to regret” (98).

In order to exercise good crisis leadership, you will need to emerge from the basement and into the next room.

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Source: Christianity Today