How to orchestrate a recovery in the wake of organizational catastrophe
In 2004, Hurricane Charley cut a devastating swath through central Florida and made a direct hit on our house. We had made the decision to ride out the storm, believing the weatherman that the worst of it would go elsewhere. He was wrong.
We watched in horror as a massive oak tree was sucked up like a giant broccoli plant and plunged into our swimming pool, barely missing the house. That blow could have utterly destroyed the house and very probably killed us. The damage was bad enough as it was.
When the howling wind stopped and the terrible night was over, the scene was a war zone. I will never forget the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I forced the front door open and crawled out to survey wreckage greater than I ever imagined.
The damage was so awful that it was disorienting. There were piles of amputated tree limbs, acres of trash from heaven knows where and the remnants of our neighbors’ houses covering our yard from front to back at the impossible depth of 7 feet or 8 feet.
I couldn’t recognize anything. It looked like Charley had picked our house up like Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz and hurled it into a garbage dump. My first thought was that the house had spun on its foundation.
Discouragement swept over us like a tsunami as we gazed out at the shattered remains of our dream. The hurricane past, the sun came out in fury, cooking the mountains of wreckage. The stench was serious, the heat was blistering and there seemed no hope of ever seeing it all right again.
Where should we go? Where would we find shelter? Where should we start to try to put it all right? And even more basically, should we even try? Maybe it just wasn’t worth the effort.
We did try. We did dig out, rebuild, start over and eventually see it all better than it was.
It is hard to imagine, even somehow strangely embarrassing to say it, but Hurricane Charley improved that house. When we subsequently sold the house and moved to Oklahoma, the buyers took possession of a gorgeous, fully restored home with perfect landscaping. I have been deeply involved in turnaround leadership for more than 20 years, but Hurricane Charley tutored me at a whole new level.
Steering an institution through a turnaround is, many think, among the most difficult of all leadership challenges. One of the important truths of physics is that, unless every element of an experiment can be duplicated, the outcome is not entirely predictable.
For that reason, lists of rules about how to successfully negotiate the aftermath of a storm can sound glib and insensitive to those who are trying to dig out. Having said that, there are nonetheless some principles that can transcend context.
The first and most important of these is to take the long-term view. When first presented with the sight of the carnage, two equal and opposite temptations will present themselves. The first is to believe it is hopeless, that the turnaround cannot happen. The other is to think it will happen quickly and easily.
Doubtless, neither is true. When the struggle to rebuild seems impossible, remind yourself that a turnaround is a process, not an event. Even the horrible storm itself, though it may seem more like an event, actually wasn’t. Every hurricane begins as a low pressure area far away off the coast of Africa.
When a church or an institution finds itself driven onto a reef, it feels like it happened in a single terrible moment. Probably, however, there were indications that things were headed in the wrong direction long before the ship actually struck the rocks.
Decisions that were made decades earlier may have set the course for disaster before anyone imagined that such a shipwreck was even possible. There may have been that one gut-wrenching crunch when the whole thing drove up on the rocks, but it was almost certainly a process getting there, and it will be a process getting free.
Discouragement will be the constant and unrelenting enemy in the process of any turnaround. When Charley filled our world with wreckage and very nearly destroyed our house, my wife and I struggled with the thought that it would never ever be right again.
Surround yourself with voices of encouragement. It is painful to realize that there are those who do not really want the attempted turnaround to succeed. This is especially true if it is a personal turnaround in your own life. I went through a particularly dark time in my life and found my need for personal encouragers immense. I also found that there were those who wanted that wreck to be terminal.
At Ziglag, David needed an immediate turnaround. The burned-out devastation of what had been the happy headquarters city of his army and their families now looked like the very place where his own men might murder him. Scripture tells us that David “encouraged himself in the Lord” (1 Sam. 30:6). Certainly, in a turnaround the encouragement of the Lord is the non‑negotiable, but some human encouragement in the mix doesn’t hurt anything either.
Second, make a realistic appraisal of what the real problem is. That may not be as easy as it sounds. I became the pastor of a megachurch that had gone virtually bankrupt. It seemed obvious (to me at least) that money would be the issue. Not so. The finances turned quickly, as did church growth.
The real problem turned out to be the internal emotional damage. The challenge of adding new growth to a deeply wounded vine proved greater than I ever imagined. The new growth happened as if we had sprayed the entire church with Miracle-Gro. But one of the emotional laws of the universe was already in effect. Hurt people hurt people.
A church full of hurt people experiencing a deluge of new people who know little and care less about the hurts of the past is an incredible emotional barrier to a turnaround. When attempting a turnaround, take the time to analyze the systems and determine where the real and perhaps hidden issue is.
Third, start. Just that. Start. When we stood in our “yard,” or rather what was left of it, on the day after Charley moved on, the task of cleaning up seemed so insurmountable as to be paralyzing. With so Herculean a task ahead, doing anything small seemed ridiculous, and there was no way to do anything big.
There was no power. I had no equipment designed for the aftermath of a hurricane. My yard rake looked pathetic in the face of absolute devastation. When the whole world you can see is covered with trash, picking up trash with your bare hands makes you feel laughable. Yet that is exactly how you begin.
I have seen the film clips of post-World War II Germany and marveled at the total annihilation left by Allied carpet bombing. City after city literally razed to the ground. Nothing left but rubble. Mountains of rubble.
Then I watch as the survivors crawl out from under those very mountains. Armed with little more than ancient handcarts and broken spades, hefting one brick at a time into overloaded wheelbarrows, they set to work to turn their devastated country around.
And turn it around they did. Today’s gleaming Germany would surely have been hard for those staggering survivors to have imagined.
Furthermore, they were not dealing just with the physical destruction. Their own mountains of guilt and fear and loss and grief lay upon them as heavily as the rubble in the streets. They had brought the Allied bombs upon themselves. And they had lost everything.
Leaderless, shattered, humiliated and resourceless, post-war Germany is a metaphor for some post-traumatic churches I’ve seen. The only hope of any kind of turnaround lay initially in the hands of beaten survivors who just started picking up bricks ... one at a time.
If you wait for the whole plan to unfold or for all the resources to arrive or for exactly the right staff to be in place, you will never start. If you allow yourself to stare at the size of the task, you will become paralyzed. Start. That is the thing at the beginning. Just start.
Fourth, while you work, look for added resources and help. For all of Germany’s determination to recover, it might have come to very little without the Marshall Plan. Those pathetic survivors needed help, and America knew that Germany and all of Europe in ashes was counterproductive to worldwide recovery. America poured billions into post-war Europe. Europe needed help, and they accepted it even from their conquerors.
Even with Hurricane Charlie still raging outside and our poor house being battered by a rain of roof-destroying, wind-hurled limbs and lumber, I called the insurance company and the roofers. Right then, in the middle of storm, in the middle of the night, I called the home office of our insurance carrier and got a case number.
The customer service agent was a bit amused. She offered for me to wait until morning and see what the damage looked like. I explained to her that in the morning thousands of her customers would be besieging them and every other carrier for help. I told her I wanted a case number in single digits, please.
I also called a roofer from out of town and asked him to see what kind of shingles he could find already in stock and order them that night. “Now?” he asked. “You want me to order shingles shipped now in the middle of the night?” I gave him the same answer: “I need a new roof. So will everyone else in central Florida when the sun comes up. Please, can you order them now?”
He did. And I had a roof and a check from my insurance company in days. My neighbor’s roof had a blue plastic sheet on it for nearly a year.
Fifth, assigning blame is an emotional waste. Who caused Hurricane Charley? Florida’s sin? The casinos? Some people think so. Maybe it was global warming? Or one political party or the other. What difference does it make?
Look at what has happened in the wake of 9/11. The initial energy to overcome and turn rubble into victory has now bogged down in lawsuits, countersuits, name calling, and an embarrassing and public game of conspiracy theories that is little short of paranoid. It has now been a decade since the cowardly attack on the World Trade Center, and there is still nothing built in its place.
Sometimes it is important to know what happened so that the same mistakes do not get made again. But the post‑traumatic impulse to lash out and whack whomever we can—and in our haste, decide who was “guilty”—is counterproductive at best and may actually get the wrong party lynched.
In fact, there may not even be a person to conveniently wear the blame. Maybe it was a theology or a way of thinking or a way of doing business or the times we live in. Maybe there is shared blame—there is usually plenty to go around. If we are going to play pin the tail on the donkey, there may even be more than one donkey.
Remember, if you step in to take over in a turnaround, you are inheriting some leaders who have just survived a calamity. They may be in shock, and that may make them unpredictable, short-tempered and above all things suspicious. A dog was hit by a car in front of our house when I was in junior high school. I rushed out to help the pitiful creature and he bit me. Enough said.
Sixth, be prepared for vast expenditures of time and energy. Like a startup, a turnaround requires energy. Cleaning up the clutter, doing triage with the wounded, deciding what and where to rebuild and doing it all at once is exhausting. The emotional expenditure of a turnaround is enervating enough. Dealing with a lot of hurt, disappointed, wounded folks coming out of a crisis is exhausting. Add in the physical, intellectual and spiritual cost and the ticket mounts up pretty fast.
When there are sleepless nights and long strenuous meetings and times where your confusion over what to do next threatens to overwhelm, the leader will blame himself first. What am I doing wrong? Am I making this turn too fast? Or perhaps too slowly. The temptation to bail will be constant. “Wait,” I say. “Wait on the Lord.” All of that is at least as normal as it gets in a turnaround.
Seventh, in the shipwreck you have inherited, it is probably confidence that has been damaged the worst. Soon after I became the president of Southeastern College (which became Southeastern University), I preached a message on Luke 5 about adventurousness, launching out into new and exciting ventures of faith.
A professor, a wonderful man, spoke to me afterward with doubt in his eyes. “This ship? This creaky old tub? When I hear you, I want to launch out. I really do. But when I think of the shape we are in and have always been in, I can’t help but wonder if it’s even possible.”
A turnaround leader must be part realist and part cheerleader. Institutional reality is not optional but essential. The board, staff and leaders of the church have to know the situation. Denial is confused with faith at great risk. But once you have reality established, confidence must be restored.
At one church where I became the pastor following a crisis, I was explaining to the board what normal churches do in certain situations. The response was thundering silence. Finally, one man said: “That’s fine, but this is not a normal church, and it never has been. Something is wrong with us.”
That is a moment when leadership has only one primary goal. The restoration of confidence. Vision, hope and clarification of purpose help. Positive, faith-building preaching helps. Joy is huge. The pastor or leader who inherits a shipwreck must absolutely exude a joyful confidence that is catching.
Teddy Roosevelt called the White House a bully pulpit. He meant that such an obvious leadership platform also makes a great place from which to preach. Likewise, the pulpit makes a bully White House.
In other words, the pulpit is obviously a great place from which to preach. It is also a nifty place from which to send out the leadership signal that the captain is on the bridge, that he is not scared, that he knows what to do in just such a crisis as this, and to say: “Hey, you guys are the greatest bunch of sailors a captain could hope for.” That is the message every day.
I officially became the president of ORU on July 1, 2009. Two months later I attended my first faculty meeting. At that meeting I told a joke in my opening remarks and afterward a veteran faculty member told me, “You can’t believe how good it felt to laugh in a faculty meeting.”
“That’s a great joke isn’t it,” I responded.
“Frankly,” he said, “I had heard it before and it wasn’t that great the first time. But it felt so good to laugh again that I didn’t care.”
Not a resounding compliment, but a wonderful reminder that one of the leadership roles in turnaround is to restore order, self-confidence and a joyful faith in the future.
ABOUT OUR GUEST EDITOR ...
Dr. Mark Rutland is the third president of Oral Roberts University (ORU) in Tulsa, Okla. He is a distinguished educator, businessman and a nationally recognized figure in Christian higher education. Trained and ordained a United Methodist pastor, he also served two major Pentecostal denominations in significant leadership positions. At the invitation of pastor Paul Walker of Mount Paran Church of God in Atlanta, Rutland preached there in tandem with Walker for two years. Requested by the Assemblies of God (A/G) to take on the pastorate of the near-failing megachurch Calvary Assembly in Orlando, Fla., he left Atlanta to pastor the church at a time when it was $16 million in debt, weeks from bankruptcy and in turmoil from a scandal. He led the church for five years, working with creditors and congregants to improve the financial picture and doubling attendance from 1,800 to 3,600. Rutland was then asked by the A/G board of directors to turn around the rapidly declining Southeastern College in Lakeland, Fla. As the president of Southeastern, he tripled enrollment, stabilized the school financially and built state-of-the art facilities. He left Southeastern to become president of ORU in 2009. Rutland also serves as president of Global Servants (globalservants.org), through which he has founded ministries in Ghana and Thailand. The House of Grace home for at-risk tribal girls in Chiang Rai, Thailand, was founded in 1988 and houses more than 100. He also teaches transformational leadership through the National Institute of Christian Leadership (drmarkrutland.com) and is the author of 13 books, which include his latest, Most Likely to Succeed.
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