Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Leading through Transition: Steady Don’t Rock the Boat

Written by: on October 20, 2019


When one thinks of transition in a organization’s leadership, it is common to consider the elements surrounding the development and the people in which the transition will affect such as the remaining executive leaders and staff of that said organization. The remaining executive leadership carefully considers the necessary course of action for seeking a new leader to either replace its missing component.

At times the new recruit is brought in to fill a void in the leadership structure, and other times, he or she is brought in to tackle an organization challenge with a defined purpose and direction, and to lead a significant transformation, such as restructuring, turnaround, or the start-up of a new division[1].

The effects of the transition look the same in the corporate sector as well in the public sector, including churches. In both sectors, the newly hired leader has to get up to speed quickly, understand the organization, navigate the culture, build relationships, assess and lead new teams, and understand their own personal leadership strengths and needs in the context of this new role.[2]

For newly hired leaders in middle management, the dynamics may be quite complicated. When the new leader is a part of a restructuring or a turnaround, it is essential for the senior leadership and middle leader to have a unified direction. The complication comes into play when the senior leader’s style of leadership is one that thinks “inaction is a viable choice,”[3] and the action occurs in the realm of the middle management. Nevertheless, when senior leaders acquire the failure to launch or failure to nerve, middle leaders have to find their space while not rocking the boat. In other words, middle leaders have to find a way to do their responsibilities and leadership functions while avoiding disturbance in the leadership fabric of the organization.

The safest place for ships is in the harbor, but that’s not why ships were built. – Anonymous

Up Close and Personnel

The difficulties of leading from the middle in after a transition became a reality several years ago. While being hired to fulfill a position in which lead critical ministries of the small family orientated church and restructuring the church’s already established ministries, direction, and clarity direction from leadership was much to be desired. Informed the church was in a state of dying and needing foundational establishment of set ministries and doing the process some leaders may to “get off the bus.” One of the important factors learned through years of church planting, and church consulting is not to assume you have the answers for a church from merely observing it from the outside. Thus, instead of diving directly into restructuring the ministries immediately, an established plan had to be implemented to take time to learn the ministries, its leaders and the foundation and culture of the church.

The beginning stage of the plan set a safe pace for the ministry leaders to trust the process of the transition with new leadership. Though, the senior leadership wanted to change ministry directions, quickly ignoring the importance of the relational element of the leaders who have been with the ministry for over twenty plus years. The church was need for some change, in spite of this, the dilemma has less to do with the specificity of given problems, the nature of a particular technique, or the makeup of a given group than with the way everyone is framing the issues.[4]

The senior leader had only been hired at the church within the same year and it was his first time in such a leadership role. Later it was discovered senior leadership had experience failure to nerve and was now utilization the new position of middle leader to push forward quickly an agenda without considering the culture and relational nature of the church and the members.

When crisis situations arose in the church, the senior leader no longer had a voice nor a position of influence. Either caused by his absence or demand for respect of power, the congregation began to seek out others to walk them through life and ministry crisis. At times it was a saga unfolding in the hallways of the church, and the senior leader found himself lost in identity, purpose and focus. Counsel was no longer welcomed and he eventually resigned from ministry.

Lessons Learned

During the transition, the ability to navigate the water of leadership allowed for respect of senior authority while still walking in the character of a well-differentiated leader. The understanding that presence of leadership is essential. Presence does not reside in physical or economic strength but in the nature of his or her own being, so that even when leaders are entitled to great power by dint of their office, it is ultimately the nature of their presence that is the source of their real strength. Leaders function as the immune systems of the institutions they lead–not because they ward off enemies, but because they supply the ingredients for the systems’ integrity.[5]

Leading in and through transition takes fortitude, commitment and learning oneself amid responsibilities and positional duties. A leader leading in any capacity must be a “well-differentiated leader.

They must be:

  • Someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals
  • Someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about.
  • Someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence.
  • Someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.
  • No one does this easily, and most leaders…can improve their capacity.[6]


[1] Richard Ball, “What’s the Role of a Transitional Leader?,” Personnel Today, accessed October 17, 2019, https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/whats-the-role-of-a-transitional-leader/.

[2] Steve Wolinski, “Leadership Transitions,” Management Help (blog), November 2, 2010, https://managementhelp.org/blogs/leadership/2010/11/02/leadership-transitions/.

[3] Bill Cole, MS, MA and Rick Seaman, MBA, “When Leaders Don’t Lead: The Consequences, Causes, and Cures for Leadership Failure.,” The Mental Game Coach, accessed October 16, 2019, https://www.mentalgamecoach.com/articles/WhenLeadersDontLead.html.

[4] Edwin H. Friedman, Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 11-12.

[5] Ibid 231.

[6] Ibid 14.

About the Author

Shermika Harvey

5 responses to “Leading through Transition: Steady Don’t Rock the Boat”

  1. Thank you Shermika for highlighting the challenge of a new leader in trying to navigate through the process of change in an organization. I’m personally in a new position as the Leader in the ministry and I can relate to this challenge, the only difference is that I’m a co-founder of the ministry and I’m more familiar with the organizational dynamics. Self awareness and self differentiation in addition to discerning the emotional dynamics within the new organizational environment would be key to successfully navigating through such change process. Thank you for that reminder that a leader in any capacity needs to be a well self-differentiated Leader.

    • Shermika Harvey says:

      Wallace thank you for your comments. Yes, it is much easier to navigate of waters of leadership well leaders are aware of the culture and the DNA of a ministry. However, coming as a leader from outside under a senior leader who is also unfamiliar with the culture and DNA of his or her new acquired ministry it sometimes is a recipe for dysfunction and a leader-toxic environment.

  2. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Thanks, Shermika. Spiritual directors and supervisors always ask the question, “what has God placed in your hand?” That’s always the starting point for leadership. IT means, rather than yearn for what we don’t have, we learn to work with what we have been given to work with. Too often leaders lose track of the people they are called to lead. They hope for better of different and end up alienating themselves from the people they are called to lead and serve. I have had the privilege of leading large churches, wealthy churches, churches with political status (cathedral) and now I’m in a church with a high proportion of mental health issues, young people with autism, limited education and dysfunctional lives. Seen differently, they are a living image of the Kingdom. My role is to help them see what God sees in them. I have no plans to give them what they want, but I do have plans to love them as they are. I have to say, it’s not what I expected to be doing, but there is no greater joy than seeing the happiness on the face of a young man with cerebral palsy running our sound system and getting through the service and nothing going wrong – high fives all around, and young man feels his worth.

    • Shermika Harvey says:

      Thank you Digby for you comments and appreciate your position of leadership. I completely understand the “What’s in your hand?” Challenge. I been a leader in Level 1 and Level 5 churches and I have have had leaders would have challenged me to use the giftings and activate the call that God has place on my life. Hence, my capacity in ministry has enlarged caused me to be adaptable in any ministry assignment as a result of their guidance and challenging. However, this is speaking to the issue of following leaders who have no self-awareness and are prematurely place into senior leadership ministry roles with no guidance or experience. In this case instead of giving guidance and affirmation, when leaders came alongside him who are executing effectively as requested becoming relational and growing ministries, the leader began to feel threaten and encountered insecurity, false defeat and envy of the leaders beneath him. It becomes a very uncomfortable place trying to understand and lead while trying to help your leader avoid the pitfall of self sabotage. I wish I could say more be that’s for another blog.

      • Digby Wilkinson says:

        I completely get that. I’ve never experienced it, but have mentored people who have. It’s a lose/lose situation. Unfortunately, I have had to help staff find new ministries. The call is complicated thing, but I remind pastors that Jesus left Nazareth and the in sending the 12 and 72 Jesus told them not to hang around in places where their message could not be heard. There’s a freedom in that, but it does require a courageous faith – you guys have exhibited that courage in recent times, along with the cost.

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