How to Lead When the Unexpected Occurs

One of the principles that 21 years in the military taught me was that a plan is usually only good until the word go. Some of the greatest challenges leaders face are navigating through roadblocks, adjusting to change, adapting to unexpected circumstances and simply staying on track when things go awry. The word ‘awry’ means “away from the expected or proper direction; amiss; wrong: Our plans went awry” (

In other words, planning is important and necessary, but it’s not necessarily the principal thing. Of course, it is true that if we fail to plan we plan to fail. I love planning. I love to map out strategies and create road maps for success. I believe that planning and strategy are critical for the success of any team or organization. However, a leader must equip his or her team to achieve success even when the plans and strategies fail or unexpected turbulence occurs.

How to lead when the unexpected occurs:

1. Clearly communicate outcomes rather than ‘how tos’. People will find it difficult to function when the unexpected happens if they are always told what to do. Leaders who communicate ‘how tos’ rather than outcomes create fear of failure and lack of initiative in their people. When plans go awry, people will freeze up, hesitate, and get stuck not knowing what to do. However, when leaders communicate what the outcome should look like, people catch a vision for the end result and creativity is sparked. One caution here. Leaders must know their expectations are realistic. I write about that here.

2. Train your team to be mission-focused. In the military we always made two things very clear before getting into the strategy, which I recommend in any leadership environment. First, present the situation as it currently is. Describe things like the current state of the environment, the challenges in front of us, our strengths and weaknesses. Second, clearly communicate the mission in such a way that it is understood by EVERYONE! No one can be left out when it comes to knowing the mission. Every person must know the end game! What is it that we are called to do and why are we doing it? A clear and concise mission that is understood by everyone will minimize the distractions of the current situation and maximize the changes that are happening. People will learn that the success of the team is about accomplishing the mission and not focusing on trying to manage the distracting circumstances.

3. Empower subordinate leaders and team members to make decisions. When subordinate leaders and team members clearly know the mission and are free to use their gifts, talents, and ideas, the mission will be accomplished. Many leaders want things done, but only if it is done their way. These leaders are stifling creativity and initiative. The key to empowering subordinate leaders and keeping them on track is to ensure they have embraced the organizational values. Values are the guides for good decision-making. Remember, a plan doesn’t always go as planned. When the plan falls apart, people must be free to use critical thinking, ingenuity, imagination, and what I call a “get-it-done” mentality.

4. Inspire everyone with a compelling vision. One question that always comes to mind when things are going haywire is this: “Is it really worth it?” “Is it worth the resources, time and energy that we’re expending?” People have to know why the mission is important and where it is ultimately taking them. In order for a compelling vision to inspire others it must touch their heart. In his famous book “Visioneering” Andy Stanley writes “Vision provides motivation. The mundane begins to matter. The details, chores, and routines of life become a worthwhile means to a planned-for end.” When plans go awry, people need to be inspired by knowing why they should continue to problem-solve and work hard to “get-it-done.”

Communicate, train, empower and inspire! These are essential elements in leading through the havoc and confusion of a plan gone awry. Keep REACHING FORWARD even in the toughest of times!

Feel free to comment and share other insights on how to lead when the unexpected occurs.


3 thoughts on “How to Lead When the Unexpected Occurs

  1. This is a great post. I lead a team spread out across the country. There is always something going on that we didn’t expect. I love this list. I also spend a lot of time building confidence … Often I find folks know just what to do, but can use some extra confidence that their judgement is right.

  2. Pingback: Inside LifeBridge » Blog Archive » Closing Out June

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