Candid Conversations: Leadership Themes During Crisis

After a two-month break from Candid Conversations due to the COVID-19 crisis, John Maxwell and Mark Cole meet up to discuss three themes during the crisis that John has observed in the great leaders he knows.

They also talk about the role hope plays in crisis, the difference between hope and hype, and how to remain hopeful during a crisis without becoming irrelevant as a leader.

For more episodes of The John Maxwell Leadership Podcast, visit the Episodes Page. Don’t forget to subscribe so that you can receive updates on new episodes and direct links to the free bonus resources we offer for every regularly scheduled episode.


Mark Cole:           Welcome to the John Maxwell Leadership Podcast! Here is another episode of the Candid Conversation, and you all know, what that means is John Maxwell and I are sitting in the same room, and we're having a candid conversation. John, welcome to your podcast!

John Maxwell:      I love it! I love doing this with you, Mark. It's so much fun. We just interact and talk out of our lives and what's happening, and so it's so honored to have so many, literally, people join us. So, welcome to our podcast!

Mark Cole:           Hey, so we're sitting in Highlands, North Carolina. The last time you and I did a Candid Conversation was in Israel, with your friends, people that you've mentored, Chris Hodges, Kevin Myers, they're Equip board members, and that was our last and we were on the eve of coming home from Israel after living there for a month and the world was shutting down.

John Maxwell:      Yes, just in time, right? Yeah, just when everything was shutting down.

Mark Cole:           Now, you've had a lot of podcasts since then talking about Leading During Crisis, but we haven't had a Candid Conversation. And so, today what I wanted to do, what is it now? Two months later, March 13th, it's May, so two months later, I want to talk a little bit about what you're experiencing with leaders. I don't recall a time, John, I've been with you twenty years, I've been by your side for the last ten, I don't recall a time of you texting, calling, and interacting with global leaders at the rate and the amount that you're doing right now.  And so, what I'd love to do in this Candid Conversation, I'd love to talk about what are you hearing from these global leaders that you're talking to, what are the themes of leadership during this crisis?

John Maxwell:      Well, I'm glad to and of course, anybody that's with us today on Candid Conversations, if they've been listening to our podcast every Monday, they know that we've been talking about crisis leadership for some time. I think the difference is, every time I do that, I'm talking about what I'm just catching right now. Now, you're kind of saying, “Let's reflect a little bit on two months, and what are you seeing? And, what are you hearing?” I've had an opportunity to be with a lot of leaders, and there are three things that I'm hearing from leaders that I think we could pass on to all of our friends here today, and what's going to happen is when I share those three things, to be honest with you, Mark, it's going to resonate with every one of them. They're going to probably say, “I've thought that or I feel that in that process.” And I think number one is I can't remember in any crisis that I have ever been involved in or led where uncertainty was from the very beginning to the end, continual. You know, but when 9/11 happened, it was like, we were in shock for a week or two. But then we said, “Okay, now, okay, what are we going to do here? You know, we kind of got our act together, and these are the things that we're going to do.” Uncertainty continues even to this moment to be a high concern to people. They're uncertain of their jobs, they're uncertain, obviously, of health or they're uncertain of their future, “Can we go out? Should we not go out? Do we wear masks? Do we not wear a mask?” But the reality is, we're still quite uncertain about where we are heading and how the future is going to look and what the economy is going to be like, and what is our role and what is the “new normal”. Which brings me to the second observation, not only is there a high degree of uncertainty in this crisis, more than I've ever seen before, but I think that the most important thing that people are certain about this is number two, is it’s not going to be the same. And I don't hear people—I love contrast in those two side by side. Because it's almost like the uncertainty of where we are, but the certainty of is, “We don't know where we're going yet, but we know it's going to look differently, there's going to be a new normal.” And I think this is the thing, I'm so glad you're letting me do a little reflection on this, Mark, because I think this is where I could maybe help people because I think that once we are in uncertainty, which makes people feel very insecure, and then we say, “The only thing I'm certain about, it's not going to be the same as it was.” Those two thoughts are either going to help a person go forward or, to be honest with you, it's going to cause people to go backwards. And let me let me talk about that for a second. If I know that there's going to be a new normal and things aren't going to be the same, and my job's not going to be, perhaps, the same as it was and the conditions are going to be different, and how long do we wear a mask? And how long is it going to before we get there? When I realize I'm going back to something that is going to be different than what I've ever known before, that either stimulates me in a positive way and say, “Okay, I'm going to become a student of what new normal is, and I'm not going to fight it. I'm going to embrace it and see how much I can grow from it, learn from it, and take advantage of it.” Versus the person who says, “I'm not going to get to go back to my comfort zone.” And when I think I'm not going to get go back to my comfort zone, you know, there's a reason they call a comfort zone a comfort zone, because it's a comfort zone. What part of comfort zone don't we get? We love, Mark, being in a place of our life where things just kind of naturally happen, and we can be automatic in our behavior, and we don't have to get up and make adjustments. That's a comfort zone for people. Even in the business world, the reason that many businesses that becomes successful and stay successful is because they get in a comfort zone with their own success, and they lose their creativity and their hunger and everything else, and they don't keep growing and they don't keep driving. So, I think as we look at the new normal, what we know for sure is, it's not going to be what it was. The question I don't hear people asking is not, it's not about the new normal, what I ask them is, “What's going to be about the new you?” If there's going to be a new normal, there needs to be a new you. Which brings me to the third thought, and the third thought is the one I've said on the podcast about three times because it's such a great thought, but I got to go back to it and then teach off of it right now, and that is everything that you want in your life that you don't have right now, it's outside of your comfort zone, because if it was in my comfort zone, I would already have what I wanted. But it's out of my comfort zone, and I've been unwilling to be out of that comfort zone, but COVID-19 has put me out of my comfort zone. So, what I'm saying is, since we're on the outside of our comfort zone, why don't we just stay there for a while? Which means I'm not so concerned about getting back to normal; I'm getting more excited about what the new normal has been, because the new normal has a potential to be a new me, and a new me means that I'm growing and that there's life within me, and all of a sudden, I'm having to develop areas of my life for that I didn't have to develop. I'm going to have to learn a new skill, you know, one of the challenges for me during this is technology, and all the technical stuff I do, I kid you not, Mark, when I do it from my home, my greatest concern isn't what I'm going to teach when I get online? My great concern is, am I going to get online? How many times have I had to call the office? How many times have I had to call Andrew and say, “Help me out! You know, I know I'm supposed to do this and it's not happening, and you know, what does this mean? It's given me four options and I don't know which button to push.” Nobody is worse in technology than me, and I'm learning and what pleases me is I mean, every time I get on it, I've got one more step, and by the way, I am still in the Neanderthal, illiterate, cave man level. But let me just tell you, I am a little bit more advanced caveman than I was few months ago. Well, okay, you know what? This is demanding a new me. Can I tell you? I don't like technology, I didn't like full technology, you know this, I have all these wonderful technology people around me, “You want to handle that? Let me be the messenger, let me give you the content.” I don't even want—but I have no choice. I can either curse the darkness or I can turn on the light. And I could tell you if we fight the new normal, we’ll never get the new us. I'll never have a new me if I fight the new normal. So, what I'm saying is, I've got to embrace what I don't know but know that it's not going to be what I've known. I've got to embrace that right now, so that I can become the person that I've never known before either, because can I tell you something? This is a chance to reintroduce yourself to you, a new you, a better you, a bigger you, a growing you, and I don't want people to miss that. And if you don't embrace new normal, you won't have the new you and that's what I don't want them to miss. So they go together, you don't have the new normal and say, “But I’m going to fight it the rest of my life.” Can I tell you something? You fight the new normal and you'll be left behind. Because the world doesn't wait for you to agree or buy it; the world moves. And so, you either can fight it and keep getting farther behind because it's going to keep going. Or, you can join it and grow and become a better person.

Mark Cole:           You made a statement a couple of podcasts ago, I love this statement, you know, we as leaders, we have been challenging people, all of my leadership career, you've been challenging people, “Get out of the box! Get out of the box!” You know, you make another statement, I’m going to get back to the box statement in a minute, but you make another statement, it says, “Nobody likes change, the only change a leader likes is their change. That's the only change.”

John Maxwell:      “I'm in charge of it! I like that change!”

Mark Cole:           But we as leaders, we say, “Get out of the box! Get out of the box!” and you made the statement, it was brilliant, yet simple, “There is no box. There is no box to get out of.” The world has captured us leaders with uncertainty. You know, since the last time, John, we did a Candid Conversation, just in America, now we have listeners all over the world, just in America, since you and I've done a Candid Conversation, thirty million plus people are without jobs. It's staggering. You couldn't have told me that—you couldn't have told me that we were going to be here with our last kind, Candid Conversation. So as a leader, explain to me, and you caution me on this, you've been mentoring me very differently over the last two months, you said, “Mark, as leaders, you can become so optimistic that you become irrelevant.” Remember telling me that? How do we counter hope with so much despair around us without causing ourselves to become irrelevant?

John Maxwell:      Well, the one thing we can't do is just—let me tell you something, put the two words together, hope and hype. They are total opposites. If I try to hype my people as a leader, in other words, get them to feel good for the moment, this crisis isn't going away. So tomorrow they're going to feel bad again, in a book as you know, one of the things I did in April is I finished a book that I've been wanting to do on transformation called Change Your World, and in it, I talk about the difference between positive attitude thinking and hope. You know, being an optimist is just basically saying, “Well, things are going to get better.” But you aren't involved in things getting better. In other words, it's a way of thinking, but it has nothing to do with what you're doing. See, when you put hope into the picture, hope means I not only believe for the best, but I'm doing everything in my power to make it the best. So, it's not passive at all. It's totally active, it causes me to get involved. So, in this crisis, what we have to do is we have to continually give people hope, which means I'm in the game with you. I'm doing my best every day to make this the best day I possibly can, so that tomorrow is going to be set up for a, hopefully, another win, but I'm not at all denying the reality that's with that. I'm not at all denying the reality of this difficult time. It goes back to what they call the Stockdale Paradox, I don't have the story in front of me very well, I've written about it, but James Stockdale was the highest ranking of military person to be in Vietnam as a prisoner of war, and when he came—I think he was a prisoner of war for seven or eight years.

Mark Cole:           Eight years!

John Maxwell:      Eight years, okay, and when he came out of it, and being interviewed they asked about, “Define how you made it and others made it while others were prisoners of war and they died in the camp.” And he basically said, “Those who died at the camp, they had an optimism like, ‘We'll be rescued by Christmas.’ But when Christmas would come around, they weren't rescued. ‘Well, we'll be rescued you by Easter.’ Easter came around and they were rescued. ‘Well, by my birthday…’” And after about seven or eight misses, it got to them and all of a sudden, they begin to give up complete hope. Whereas Stockdale did a great—he said, “I never put that kind of thought in front of me.” He said, “I just basically had faith. I don't know how long I'll be here, but I do know I'll make it.” And that's what I love about hope here. You know, people, “How long is it going to last?” I don't know how long it’s going to last. “When’s the vaccine going to come out?” I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. But I do know this, we're going to make it. We're going to make it because we're going to do everything in our power to make it, and we're going to have faith. But that faith is an act of faith, it's not just a positive thought, or a slogan on the wall that's quite trite. Trite statements during difficult times, don't last very long. And so, as leaders, we need to be honest with our people and say, “I don't have all the answers.” In fact, I'm very humbled by the fact that this surprised me too. But it's okay. It's okay. I'm going to find the answer. And as I find them, I'm going to share them with you. Or as you find some answers you share them with me, and all of a sudden, we get on a journey together, a hope journey together that works for all of us. But just the positivity, or the declaration, or the statements like, “This is going to be over at this time.” That just creates false hope. You know, what happens is, once you pass the hope deadline, all of a sudden, you say, “Well, that didn't work.” Well, how many times do you have to say to yourself, that didn't work until you say, “I'm not going there anymore.” And that's what happens.

Mark Cole:           You know, John, we're coming out of the crisis. We're going to come out of it. It's going to happen. In fact, in America and again, we have people all over the world in different places, but in America, I mean, we're starting to re-engage. You and I are in person together today. Thank God!

John Maxwell:      Yes, we are! Oh, happy day!

Mark Cole:           It’s so good to see you! But you know what? Crisis won't go away. In fact, you and I today, you have family members that's in a personal crisis that's much bigger than the Coronavirus or even the health. We have team members that are fighting for their health right now. Fighting for their health. The Coronavirus is big, but their personal battle is staggering. And so, talk to me about—I watched you today, right now, just before we went live and recording, I watched you be present with your family in a crisis. How leaders lean in, how do we, whether it's global crisis like Coronavirus or whether it is personal crisis like, again, we're facing with some of our team members, how do leaders be present? I watch you, you're busy, but boy, you're present! You’re present!

John Maxwell:      That’s such a great question! You know, I heard Andy Stanley do a terrific talk during this crisis and he said a couple of things, he said, “Your voice is more important than your message.” And he just talked about the security of a voice that they recognize it and it brings them just your voice is more important your message, and then he said, “Your presence is more important than the presentation.” I thought it was brilliant! In fact, I texted Andy, I said, “Andy, that's just great stuff.” And I want to give him credit for that, but I believe that that's exactly what you're talking about. Being present to me, means that at any moment, wherever I am, I can move out of that to wherever you are, because remember this, when a person has a need, they think that need is the greatest need in the world. Now it is to them because it's their need. It's the old corny joke about minor surgery, major surgery, minor surgery is when it's on you and major surgery is when it’s on me. Well, in the in COVID-19, anybody that's being affected in any way, they've lost their job, to them that is the biggest crisis of all because it happened to them personally, and the person that goes out of their way to give their voice, the person that goes out of the way a lot of times it is their voice because for a long time we couldn't give anything else because we couldn't be with them, or goes out of their way to make sure their presence is known. I had this morning, had a family member on the phone, just crying and saying, “Thank you, John, because you're making something happen for me that I couldn't have made on my own. And it means the world to me because it's my own family, and I didn't know what to do, and you've taken it upon yourself to show me a path and help me to make that happen.” Well, that's what we're supposed to do. If a leader can't show up when they're needed, when the heck are they going to show up? You know, I know a whole bunch of people, in fact, one of the things I think that's happening, okay, here's another reflection that’s happened now out of COVID-19 is I think that people are finding out who the real leaders are. I mean, I think if you're running a business, you're finding out right now the people that are in the game and are making it happen and are being creative, versus the people who are kind of like they're absent and you kind of say, “Where did they go? They went into a hole somewhere.” And you're kind of finding the people that are willing to face the music and say, “Okay, things have changed, what can I do differently that'll help us and lift the load for our organization?” So, I think that crisis really helps a leader, and I think every leader that observes, will say they're surprised, because they'll have some people come forward as a leader that they would not have figured. And then they'll have some people they just thought this person I can really depend on, and then they find out during a crisis, nobody shows up. And, you know, I was talking to Jamie Blanchard one time, were playing golf, about a certain person and about their character, and he looked at me and said, “Well, I know the person well, but I haven't watched them go through a crisis.” So, he said, “I really can't vouch for their character.” And I looked at him and I said, “Jimmy, that's brilliant!” “Oh,” he said, “you never discover character until there's a crisis, then the real person comes out.” I think that's true about leadership too, so anyway, yeah, I think that text, that phone call, you know, that Zoom call, I think leaders every day have to stay out there visibly for the people to see them. They're not even looking for an answer, they're looking for a friend, and they're looking for somebody who just says, “I care for you.” That's what they're looking for.

Mark Cole:           You know, I want to spend, we’ll spend the rest of our time, and I don't want to end it on a negative note, but the question really is, is what makes a leader or what breaks a leader during difficult times? But, before you answer that, so what makes a leader or what breaks a leader during difficult times? I want to give a little context and again, we'll end it a little bit lighter than that question, perhaps, but we're in Highlands today, you and I, and we've spent time with some leaders over the last couple of days, and there's just this fog because of the length of dealing with uncertainty, or the length of not knowing what to do, and in that conversation of just this fog, and just this challenge that we all face, you started talking about this staggering dysfunction of where we are as society, or the staggering dysfunction of leadership, and even you talked a good deal about the fear that is gripping. I'd love for you to just talk a little bit about that and help us know what can make us during this time.

John Maxwell:      Well, you know, Mark, even when we're in Israel, we saw this coming. I shared with you that I felt that there were two things, that we’re going to make this crisis, a bigger crisis than what the crisis should be. Let's not minimize the crisis, let's certainly not minimize the health, the deaths, etc. So, I'm not trying to take anything away from it, but here's what I know beyond a shadow of a doubt. We already have a crisis, but it's been compounded by two things. It's been compounded by the fact we have a very dysfunctional culture today, and I saw this happening, truthfully, I saw it happening in the 90’s. I saw people who were just pretty much beginning to allow their emotions to control their decisions versus good sound thinking, controlling their decisions. I mean, you can go back in the 90’s, you can find that there were different small groups for almost every dysfunction in life, and it became quite the thing to do. And I didn't think that was bad, but I thought it was a signal, and I thought the signal was there seems to be a lot of people that have been more dysfunction today than perhaps had it twenty-five or thirty years ago, I talked to a very successful pastor, he’d been a pastor for thirty years, and I asked him during this time of dysfunction had broken out for about five years. I said, “What's it like to have pastored the same church for thirty years?” And he said, “Well, you first of all, you have to understand, I've been at the same church for thirty years, but it's not the same church.” He said, “Our name has stayed the same, our buildings have stayed the same, our location has stayed the same, but the people aren't the same.” He said, “They're not near as solid as they used to be.” And he said, “They're much more dysfunctional.” Well, what happened is, we are now in our second generation of dysfunction in our culture, which means that now we have dysfunctional leaders. Because we've had people who grew up in a dysfunctional home that had some leadership qualities about their life, so now they get to be a leader, but they carry some of that dysfunction with them. Let me tell you, what's worse than a dysfunctional follower? Is a dysfunctional leader, because now all of a sudden, instead of compounding and lifting people you can compound fear and division. And remember, dysfunction is always about me. When I'm highly dysfunctional, I get paralyzed if anything happens to me, because I think the world revolves around me instead of the fact that I'm one piece of a whole big picture of the world. And so, what's happened is I think we're in a dysfunctional culture, and I think the second thing is the fact that we've lost our way as far as values are concerned. There's no question in my mind that once you lose your values, you lose your anchor, what keeps you solid, you lose your foundation. So the fact that we've lost our way with values and we're not going to get into this, we don't have time today, but you and I know that in transformation, our transformation principles that we teach are all based upon learning good values, living those values until become more valuable to yourself and valuable to your community. So, when you've lost your values, which are the things that keep you solid, and you have embraced dysfunction, which it's all about you based on emotions, you put those two things about, “We've lost our North Star, we've lost our foundation, and we've given away to our emotions, and how does this affect me?” And kind of in a selfish immature way, and all of a sudden, we've taken a crisis and made it bigger. What happens with leaders, go back to you, because you in the beginning you said, some of the leaders, are they kind of like hitting the wall now? And here's what's happening, okay, this is going to be longer than what we can get into this conversation here, but that's what makes these Candid Conversations doggone good! Don't you think? Here's what happens, leaders see more, and they see before others see.

Leaders still don't have certainty where they're going, but let me tell you about a leader, they can only handle in action for a short period of time, then they've got to do something. Leaders have a bias for action. That goes clear back to Tom Peters and Built to Last, and you could find that through Jim Collins, leaders have a bias to action and they can only sit around the campfire singing “Kumbaya” so long until they're ready to either throw themselves in the campfire, throw the people around the camp in a campfire. Hey, smolder the campfire out, take the stones at the campfire and throw them over and cook. They got to go do something, and I think what's happening is that leaders are getting antsy now. They have a bias to action, they're saying, “Okay, we don't have all the answers, but at least we can be doing some things now. Can we not get moving again? Can we not start moving again?” And let me tell you something, people based on fear dysfunction, say, “No, I don't want to move yet.” As if not moving, will help the situation. Never has, never will. So, I think what's happened is that leaders just have got the leadership itch. Again, the action itch and they're just saying, “Can we talk about something else? Could we just have a new subject to discuss here? Could we just change scenery a little bit, so it just looks a little different?” Why do leaders lead? Because leaders move. No, you never somebody, “Well, you know, they're just a great leader, they haven't moved.” They're a great sitter! Again, by whole fun expression, you’re supposed to leave your footprints in the sands of time, not you butt prints in the sands of time. Well, leaders have been sitting on their butts for about six weeks and they're saying, “Okay, we got to go do something.” That's just the DNA of leaders. They're not being callous towards what's happening, they're just saying, “I can't be defined or defined who I am, or I can't be confined. Can't be defined and confined with what's happening.” Does that make sense?

Mark Cole:           It does, it does. You know, so you just finished in this COVID-19 pandemic, you've been able to finish a book, Change Your World. I'm so excited about it! You mentioned it earlier. You mentioned Jimmy Blanchard earlier in this podcast that says, “Crisis will be what defines leaders.” You have thirty-three thousand coaches, leaders, around the world poised to do something. And again, not to be hypey, but to be hopeful, don't you believe that the coinciding of this leadership vacuum that really is showing the dysfunction of even leaders, political leaders, business leaders, faith leaders, the dysfunction is staggering, and yet, as we start shifting and the real leader squeezed by this crisis, really stand up, your team of thirty-three thousand plus poised and ready, this book that's coming out, Change Your World, don't you believe it's our time?

John Maxwell:      It's our time! Our finest hour, you know, what do they say? The darkest hours right before the dawn. No, the finest time for leadership is right now; and what I'm thrilled about is I've seen them rise, I've seen men and women say, “I'm going to stand in the gap, and I'm going to make a difference, and I'm going to help other people get better.” And, you know, rightfully so I think the heroes of COVID-19 have been our healthcare workers. I’ll tell you, I mean, I want to raise a flag to them, I want to raise a glass to them, I want to bow before them, I want to salute them, they deserve everything. I mean, they have been on the frontlines of the battle. And I think that they have been rightfully, greatly, admired. I mean, to me, they have been the heroes because they are the ones who got in the trenches and risked their life. Saying that, I think that the next wave of heroes is going to be the leaders. The leaders who always kept hope, always said there is an answer, and the leaders who go the way, show the way because they know the way. And, I think that people are going to migrate to the real ones, and I think they're going to hear blabber from the political ones. I think our ears are weary of people that are using this for their advantage…very weary. I'm telling you, I've never been more disgusted with positional leaders who are somehow trying to position themselves as an advantage of something that's been a terrible disadvantage to so many people. And one of the things I really might—let me close this on this part, my proudest moment probably being an American was the three to four months after 9/11. I'm so proud to be American. And go to a ballgame and hear them sing, “God Bless America”, and watch political leaders hold hands and join hands of different parties from, on the steps at Congress. And it humbled us, and it brought us together. Now, let me tell you something, because of the dysfunction of culture, my greatest concern is I don't see a humility in some of the leaders that I should see, but I've seen worse than that, I'm seeing leaders trying to divide people. And instead of bringing them together, which is best for all of us, because we need each other, I see them trying to divide people so that it allows them to have a political advantage. I think that is appalling, and disgusting, and I hate that. So, I think that this is a time for leaders who mean well for all, and value all to stand up and say, “Look, this is not about us against them. This is about us, and us pulling together.” And that's my biggest prayer that we come out of this united more than divided.

Mark Cole:           Boy, so true, John, thank you, always, thank you for Candid Conversations! We may need to do a Candid Conversation every day of the week!

John Maxwell:      I think so! I think so!

Mark Cole:           Hey, thank you! Congratulations on your hundredth episode! We just recently talked about, proud to be on the team and glad to be leading in such a time as this.

John Maxwell:      Yeah and thank you for coming and being with us on our podcast! I tell you, we do it for you, and let me tell you right now, somebody says, “Is the podcast successful?” Like I got the answer. If you're doing better because you listen to us and come and part of our podcast family, you're a subscriber, if you're doing better because of us than the podcast is successful. The numbers, they take care of themselves.

Mark Cole:           That's exactly right! Thank you! Thanks for joining us today with a Candid Conversation on the Maxwell Leadership Podcast. Have a great day, everyone!

5 thoughts on “Candid Conversations: Leadership Themes During Crisis”

  1. Thank you John Maxwell, this podcast mean a lot to me the information is great,using technology this is new for me I am learning how to use you said this is the new normal we should embrace it thank you I’m looking forward to your next podcast.

  2. Thank you John and Mark for this amazing candid conversation! So many things rang true today and stepped on my toes a little.
    My biggest take away is that if I do not embrace my new normal, my world will leave me behind!

    Thank you again!

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