May 12, 2020

Pioneering Leaders: Taking Steps into a Post COVID-19 World


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In a post-COVID-19 world, pioneering leaders will look at the data, think about the timing, take the appropriate precautions, and then go.

Have you ever driven through the prairie during the winter?

Kind of an odd question. But on the off-chance that you have, you’ll understand what I’m about to say next:

Can you believe that people actually signed up for crossing that terrain in covered wagons?

I mean… below zero temperatures. 50-60 mph winds. Disease. Violent threats. Starvation. All of it. 

And people signed up for it. 

We called them “pioneers.” They were people – most of them quite ordinary in most respects – who looked west and… well… went.

And now, as we sail past the trails they forged going 80mph, streaming videos, eating snacks in dual climate-controlled environments with a digital display of how far we have to go and where the next Starbucks is…

We don’t even really think about them anymore.

Thus the beautifully frustrating definition of pioneers: 

Ordinary people who decide to figure out the uncertainty as they go.

A post-COVID-19 world doesn’t exist (yet). But I’ll tell you this:

The only way it’s going to exist is if some pioneering people decide that it’s going to

Here’s some hallmarks of pioneers—ordinary people who decide that they are going to figure out the uncertainty as they go:

1. They Count The Cost Before They Go.

We call pioneers “pioneers” because of where they arrived. The ones that didn’t arrive we call… well, we don’t call them anything. There were the people who did their best to assess the dangers, chart their course, plan things out, and stock up. And then there were people who “had a dream and chased after it” – only to live out their worst nightmare.

In a post-COVID-19 world, pioneering leaders will look at the data, think about the timing, take the appropriate precautions, and then go. Slowly, deliberately… but they will go. Out of their homes. Into restaurants. Back to church. Following the guidelines. Sanitizer at hand. They will count the cost before they go. And then, go.

In a post-COVID-19 world, pioneering leaders will look at the data, think about the timing, take the appropriate precautions, and then go. Share on X

2. They Favor the Practical Over the Political.

There are people who talk about how heroic the pioneers are. There are people who write about what life as a pioneer is like. There are people who predict (model?) the chances of the pioneers’ success. There are people “in favor” of the pioneers, and the people who are “against” the pioneers.

But here’s the thing about pioneers: they’re not really concerned with who supports or doesn’t support them. They’re just trying to figure out how to cross the next river, or find their next meal, are care for their sick kid, or repair their broken wheel. And if what you have to offer doesn’t practically help them, they probably don’t have a lot of time for you. Say what you want about a pioneer – but one thing you can’t say is that they aren’t practical. 

Post-COVID-19, pioneering leaders won’t be pioneering because they’re Democrats or Republicans. They won’t be reading the newspaper or listening to the news to figure out how they’re doing. They’ll just be figuring it out. Working on site. School re-entry. Responsible socializing. All of it. Figuring out how to actually, practically do it as they do it.

Post COVID-19, pioneering leaders won’t be reading the newspaper or listening to the news to figure out how they’re doing. They’ll just be figuring it out. Share on X

3. They Push for Clarity Rather Than Settle for Caution.

Be careful as you ford that river. If you choose the wrong spot, you’ll probably tip over. Maybe there’s a better place to cross. Maybe we should just stay here.” 

I’m sure it took just one dump in a cold prairie stream for them to realize the wisdom being being very cautious and careful before they put all of their earthly belongings and tools to survive in a makeshift raft. But the reality is this: you’re gonna have to ford some rivers. And you’re going to have to be really, really clear about where and how to do it.

Caution is necessary, but never sufficient. Pioneering leaders push for clarity. To create a post-COVID-19 world, pioneers won’t rush into the new norm (any more than a pioneer would rush into the river). But they won’t settle for things that are always going to be true yet never bring clarity – things like “the safest thing you can do is…” You know, it’s always true that the safest thing you can do is stay on this side of the river.

But we have to—we have to—get on the other side of this thing. And we have to get clear on when and how we’re going to do it. And we’re going to have to accept that even the best version of that clarity will simply not be as safe as what we’re doing right now

Caution is necessary, but never sufficient. Pioneering leaders push for clarity. Share on X

4. They Make Prescriptions Rather Than Rely on Platitudes.

How valuable was the phrase, “We’re all in this together” to the pioneers as they were running low on supplies out in the middle of nowhere? Or how about when someone wanted to tell them how “unprecedented” their quest was and that “life will never be the same” for them? Or those who thought the dangers ahead of them were just a “hoax?” Or the city-dwellers who thought their task was nothing other than a “irresponsible death wish?”

If I were a pioneer back then, it would’ve been hard not to roll my eyes at the next time someone waxed eloquent with platitudes that only capture a sentiment—and sometimes don’t even do a good job of that. Instead, I’d get in just about every conversation I could with other pioneers—people who are doing it or have done it. People who have some know-how. People who could tell me what it’s really like, and what they were doing—who could prescribe, not just describe.

Say what you want about pioneering leaders who will take the first steps out into post-COVID-19. Maybe you think it’s not as big of a deal as everyone’s making it into being; maybe you think that it’s far too soon to even consider taking those first steps. But I’m guessing at some point you’re gonna wanna know what they know – how they did it – because just like them, you’re going to be looking for a prescription, not a platitude.

5. They Are Willing To Be On An Island, But Don’t Prefer It.

Ah… the rugged individualism of the American west. The “one man against the wild,” one-bullet-left-but-4-bad-guys-still-out-there glory that fuels all great…

Movie scenes.

Because that’s the only place that story comes to life – in the movies.

I’m sure the pioneers found themselves on some “islands” – places and situations in which it was pretty lonely, odds-stacked-against-them, them vs. the world with everything on the line.

But I’m also sure that they caravanned with other pioneers. I’m also sure that they networked with other trappers and traders. In other words:

The best pioneers didn’t prefer the island. They were willing to deal with it if that’s what was in store for them. But they knew that they’d have a much better chance of succeeding if they did it together.

We need pioneering leaders who make decisions together rather than try and go figure it out on their own. Share on X

We need pioneering leaders who make decisions together rather than try and go figure it out on their own. We need pioneering leaders who are willing to link arms with other pioneering leaders as everyone moves towards a common goal. Leaders who will share what they’re learning, who will ask questions and listen to one another. We need pioneering leaders who, while they may not agree with everything another pioneer is doing, refuse to speak disrespectfully or disparagingly about another leader.

Because wild, post-COVID-19 “west” is a pretty tricky beast to tame. And the last thing that a pioneer needs is another pioneer second-guessing, naysaying, and sniping. 

6. They Take Calculated Risks Instead of Just Hedging Their Bets.

With the promise of opportunity the Wild West afforded, I’m sure there were those who talked a big game at the local saloon or general store. I’m sure there were people who droned on and on about what they thought about it, how they were getting ready to do it, how amazing it was going to be when they had their own land and what kind of an operation they were going to set up.

And then… you know… they just never seemed to get around to actually doing it. And every time they were asked when they were heading out, they had some reason they couldn’t. Some way out. Some way to save face that allowed them to talk hypothetically but not act in reality. When it came down to it, they weren’t going to take any real risks. They just wanted to hedge their bets.

If we’re going to get on the back side of this and not just talk about a “new normal” but actually create it, we need pioneering leaders who will take risks. Not stupid risks—calculated risks. But risks nevertheless. People who know that it’s always going to be safer to just “shelter in place” and stay home. It always will be, for anything at anytime. It’s a risk to go out your front door everyday. The question that pioneering leaders are willing to answer is this: what does that risk look like today? Tomorrow? Next week? Next month?

We need leaders who are willing to take the arrows that will inevitably come their way from all sides – arrows of “You’re not doing enough to keep everyone safe” and arrows of “You’re restricting way too much of what people can do.” Arrows of, “You’re doing this way too soon” and arrows of, “You’re waiting way too long.”

But we need pioneers who actually take the risk – not just hedge their bets.

Jesse Tink

Jesse is the Pastor of Campus Development at Prairie Lakes Church, which currently spans across six campuses in northeastern and central Iowa. He’s served in various roles including college, music, production, teaching, and senior leadership. Jesse has led teams in urban, suburban, and rural locations, from campuses of 50 to 1500. Married to Erin, they have their son, Jude, and their daughter, Ellie. He’s outside in the colder months hunting deer and turkey at their family-owned ground, and roots for the Iowa Hawkeyes and New York Yankees.

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