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Leading Through the Stages of Transition

Editor’s Note: Dr. Chip Roper, Founder and President of the VOCA Center, was featured as a guest writer for the Winter edition of Outcomes magazine. This piece was originally published there.

You get a phone call, a text comes in, or you finally have some time to sit back and think. No matter the source, you realize that change is upon you. A growth opportunity is starting to take off, a new external challenge threatens your organization, or a critical mistake was made by a member of your team.

Ambush! You are forced to lead through transition.

When I get those notifications, my heart races, my stomach becomes a bundle of knots, and my mind races. “What should I do?” spins on repeat in my mind. “What will this mean?” echoes over and over in the background. This is leading in transition.

When thinking of the dynamic of forced or significant change, I think of the following clients:

  • Tom’s ministry sector is under intense economic pressure. He has been relentless at working to find a way forward for the future of the institution he serves. The option he and his board agreed upon is requiring massive adjustments internally and externally.

  • Carol accepted the CEO position of a static organization. Fresh research and vision have combined to bring more opportunity than she can handle. She has to transition her team to seize the moment.

  • Travis took the helm on the heels of a failed succession plan and in the midst of early COVID uncertainty. He has faced one transition after another.

Leading in Transition

Can you relate? Have you experienced an organizational shift? A personal transition? Often it feels like you’re out on an island, alone. What does it look like for Christ-centered executives to lead through transition? Using the Resilient Leadership Framework (a three pillar paradigm for executive effectiveness in the face of challenge) we will answer this question in two parts.

  1. Understand the stages of transition.

  2. Understand the effective leadership approach at each stage for yourself and your team.

The Stages of Transition

Change moves through three phases: Shock, Ripples, and Forward.

Consider the story of David ascending to the throne in 2 Samuel 1-4. The transition is precipitated by the death of his predecessor, King Saul. When the news arrives that Saul and his son Jonathan have been killed we have Shock. We read:

“Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.” (2 Sam. 1:11-12.)

After this David composed a lament – a song of remembrance and sadness. He “ordered it taught to Judah” (2 Sam. 1:18). Here he is facing the Ripples, the beginning of them at least. He is in charge, marking the moment with the community.

Finally, after an undefined period of time, David looks ahead.

In the course of time, David inquired of the Lord (2 Sam. 2:1). David is moving Forward, charting his next moves through the discipline of prayer. Using David as a model we can identify a road map for seasons when we are holding the leadership baton in transition.

Effective Leadership for Each Stage

Pillar 1: A Secure Center

In our Resilient Leadership model, effective leadership begins with the leader. The first pillar says leaders must operate from a secure center. And when you are facing the shock, start by leading yourself.

Leading through the Shock

Leading Yourself: Before you can help others, you have to “get yourself together.” This is the oxygen mask principle from every pre-flight safety briefing.

In 1 Samuel 30, David’s home village was burned to the ground. Every soldier's wife and child had been hauled off into servitude. David’s men were threatening to stone him.

Then we read: “But David found strength in the Lord his God.” (1 Sam. 30:6b)

How do we do this? Spiritual practices, quiet, reflection, prayer. To have a solid core as a leader you must have a solid foundation of intimacy with your heavenly father.

Leading Your Organization: The task is speaking about the crisis – sharing the news, debriefing the facts of what has happened. Effective leadership requires you to share the reality of what is happening with your team. Hiding a crisis or major change from the people who need to know does no one any favors.

Leading Through the Ripples
Pillar 2: Extreme Team Engagement

Then we move on to the Resilient Leadership response to the Ripples phase of transition. Pillar 2 is extreme team engagement. This focus area is about pulling your key people into a constructive conversation about what to do.

Leading Yourself: As you garner the personal resources to make progress through the challenge, you will need people in your life. This is the time to call on mentors, coaches, and your personal board of directors. The women and men who will pray and share wisdom.

Leading Your Organization: Some of the most meaningful meetings I’ve had with leadership teams have come when facing a crisis or monumental decision. Everyone knows their participation matters. Don’t hide the problem. Think of David, making everyone sit in the loss. No denial here. Get your team together early and often when facing transition or challenge. The solutions you garner will be better than if you flew solo. And shared momentum and commitment will build towards the third phase of the process.

Leading Forward
Pillar 3: Focus on Clients’ Needs

The Forward phase of transition blends with the client side of our Resilient Leadership model, Pillar 3. Executives who produce enduring results do so by focusing on the needs of those they serve–their clients. Jesus promised that whoever wants to be first among “must

be a slave of all.” (Mark 10:44).

Leading Yourself: As you lead yourself through the process, you have to be others-oriented. What impact has God called you to make? Though Resilience Leadership starts with you, it never ends with you. There is no room for toxic ego or self-serving moves in effective change.

Leading Your Organization: Help your team get back in touch with your mission using stories of impact and transformation. Help the team envision future stories of impact and transformation as you take the learnings of the crisis and turn them into even greater service to your key beneficiaries. Focusing the centeredness of Pillar 1 and the engagement of Pillar 2, Pillar 3 looks at making a greater difference beyond the walls of your organization.

God led David and his band of misfits into the center of power in Israel. It took years of constant attention to self, team, and service. God has a future for you and your organization that is being shaped by your transition leadership now. Slow down. Get centered in his wisdom. Trust your colleagues. And then move forward to whatever “next” he is providing.


Want to adopt biblical principles to win in the face of constant challenge? Schedule Dr. Chip to transform your work together with our Resilient Leadership framework. Learn more >>

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