3 Insights From Leadership Forged in a Crisis

by | Apr 14, 2020

What will the great nonprofit leaders of today look like? What actions will they take that encourages us to look forward to a new future? Right now, all over this country, we are among nonprofit leaders being made – not born.

To truly understand what to look for in leaders during times of crisis, sometimes we need to pause and look backward.

Published in late 2017, the book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times arrived with strong reviews.  It is a book of mini-biographies of five great leaders, each an ordinary person before their defining moment: Shackleford, Lincoln, Douglas, Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson. Most we recognize as historical figures of some rank, and for most, we’ve learned something about their leadership. But we may not know much about the backgrounds that lead them to significant moments of leadership.

These five stories are of leaders made – not born. They help us recognize today’s new leaders, the ones stepping out from the shadows of good and even important work. Today, their work has required courage, creativity, persistence, and tenacity.

Three insights from leadership forged in times of crisis:

  • Exhibiting comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity, plus the ability to navigate from point to point, pivoting when necessary.
  • A willingness to learn forward, continually looking at all the information available, and the discipline to focus on what is most doable at the moment.
  • Offering both brutal honesty and credible hope.

As our minds struggle, cloistered behind the claustrophobic walls of sheltering in place, we ride waves of fear. Fear for ourselves, family and friends, the suddenly unemployed, the unschooled, unprepared and uninformed all roll over us day and night. The news follows us, bouncing from horrific images to good guy stories—all of it leaving us little time to breathe.

Right where you live, there are ordinary leaders….

They are running large and small nonprofit organizations and churches. They feel exactly like us but are finding ways to do what was unthinkable only a month ago. These leaders are unafraid to work as a team, unafraid to share leadership, unafraid to fail forward and learn fast.

Learning requires effort, something in short supply during a crisis of this nature. Nonprofit organizations and churches are learning to communicate with us differently. Unsure how to start the email, how to truly convey their reality without seeming overdone, they are hesitant to reach out.

If your email inbox looks anything like mine, you know they are trying to connect with us. Sometimes it’s just an update on how they are delivering services, just canceled their spring fundraiser event, or how their collection plate is now all online.

These are unprecedented times for donors. Learning is not just for them, but for us, as well.

How do we best support their efforts? When do we send the support – now, or later in the year when budgets are even more strained? Or is it both – now and again, later in the year?   

The learning for donors will require as much effort as that required of nonprofit organizations. We are all in the same boat and must row together.

Several nights ago, I had trouble sleeping, tossing and turning, frantically lost in a forest with wild animals all around. I’m sure it was all a result of my fears, anxieties, and growing questions. What is the next right step? What’s the most important thing I can do right now?

With the light of day, I put one foot in front of the other and set out to learn and do all that I could. I hope you did too because they are going to need us more than ever before. And as for the right step and the most important thing, I did what I could think to do next.

From point to point – just like Shackleford, Lincoln, Douglas, Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson.

Like it? Use it. Share it. Comment below.


  1. Kim

    One of your best posts Dawn. Thank you for the encouragement and honesty.

    And as for the right step and the most important thing, I did what I could think to do next.

    I know you help a lot of people.

  2. Nina Atwood

    Dawn: so well said! Thank you for sending this inspiring message to all of us.

  3. Holly Fuller

    Thank you, Dawn – “…brutal honesty and credible hope” – yes!

  4. Christina Fulsom

    Thank you, Dawn. I paused, briefly, reaching out, offering support, and waiting for those who “should” to take the next step. Not wanting to step on toes, while expecting those responsible and accountable to step up, it was finally clear that what was most important was to take the next step without them.

  5. Greg Fleck

    Thank you Dawn for sharing this insightful article. These past few weeks should cause all of us as non-profit leaders to examine our abilities to step outside of our normal way of operating.

  6. Shaune Martinez

    Thanks Dawn. These are powerful reminders. I’m so glad I ran across your blog today!

  7. DeAnna Hargrove

    Always encouraging and brutally honest… that’s why you are heard.


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