How to Lead Through Imperfect Conditions

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How to Lead Through Imperfect Conditions


Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

Let’s face it, you’d love to have ideal conditions to lead in. Who wouldn’t?

And while, ideally:

Your team would be perfectly motivated to achieve the mission

No good team member would ever leave

You’d be inspired to write every day

The people you’re trying to reach would be open and receptive

You’d introduce change without any fear or pushback

All your ideas would be great ideas

Life isn’t like that. At all.

And yet it’s easy to get into a place where you’re hesitant to act, constantly frustrated and thinking of quitting because things never seem like they’re as easy as they should be.

Yet here’s what’s true: if you waiting for perfect conditions to act in leadership, you’ll wait forever.


There will never be

A surplus of amazing team members

Quite enough money

Thunderous applause every time you introduce a new idea

An absence of doubt when it’s time to pull the trigger

I feel this again and again. Whether it’s writing this blog (every post could be better), launching a new podcast episode (what am I missing that could make it better) or writing a book (I don’t know if this chapter measures up),  writing a sermon (this one isn’t as good as the last one) or hiring a team member (are we now over-staffed, understaffed???) conditions never seem ideal.

I have that even with cycling. I’m trying to hit a goal of 3500 km this year (about 2000 miles), and every day I think of going it’s a little too windy/cold/wet/hot/busy for me to hit the road.

You know the best way to hit a goal of 3500 km? Ride whether you want to or not.

Ditto with leadership. Lead whether you feel like it or not. Whether things are perfect or not.

Leaders have a bias for action and nothing produces traction like action.

The question is: how do you get there? What do you do if you’re still not sure conditions are right to act?

Here are a few things that continue to help me push through the inertia of life and leadership.

Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash


It is so easy to focus on what you can’t control in leadership.

If you let your mind go there, there’s so much you can’t control. Here’s a very partial list of the things you can’t control:

Other people

The market,

Your team

The economy

The weather

Other people’s reactions

Your boss


Other people’s actions

Honestly, the list could go on and on.

Here’s what you can control: you.

You can control your indecision, your willingness to act through fear, your response, your attitude, your determination, your willingness to try when everything else inside you wants to give up.

So many people focus on what they can’t control. Leaders focus on what they can control. Even if that’s a small list, think about what you can do, not what you can’t, and you’ll make far more progress.

You’ll also enjoy this life and leadership far more.


One of the leader’s first jobs is, as Jim Collins says, to confront the brutal facts.

I have seen way too many leaders publicly say their organization is growing when in fact it’s flat, or who pretend they’re financially healthy when they’re not.

Listen, I feel all those urges to spin, manipulate and pretend it’s better than it is. Don’t.

Leaders are dealers in hope, but we’re not dealers in deception.

An inferior (and unethical) way to lead is to tell people everything’s better than it is. “Everything’s fine. We’re doing great. I’m excited about the future.” Your best leaders can sense when there’s a gap between reality and your words. And they hate spin.

A much better way is to say “So we can see this is not our finest hour. We have our challenges. But I’m ready to move forward. We can make this far better than it is. If we all pull together, we’ll shape a much better future. Who’s ready to go?”

Be honest with yourself. Honest with God. Honest with your team.

A realistic assessment of the present creates the best basis from which to forge a better future.

Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash


This sounds like a repeat of the first point, it’s not.

You and I have both been in situations where there are 10 things we can’t do because we don’t have the money, time, or resources. It’s hard at that moment not just to call it a day.

Wise leaders look for the one or two things they can do. Then they do them.

When things are really down, ask yourself: what is the one thing I can do? There’s always something.

Then do it.

Maybe you can

Pick up the phone one more time.

Meet with the one capable lead who said she’s in.

Build your strategic plan around the one idea that survived

If you spend your days thinking about what you can’t do, you’ll do nothing.

If instead, you look for what’s possible, you’re far more likely to turn what’s possible into what’s probable. And maybe, just maybe, what’s possible will one day look like it was inevitable.

There are so many things today that seem inevitable that two decades ago seemed so unlikely: that people would share their cars (Uber, Lyft, Turo) or homes (Airbnb), or that photo sharing would replace photo printing as the primary way pictures are consumed (Instagram), or that people would have a seemingly endless capacity for creating and watching user-made videos (YouTube, Vimeo).

If you listen to the origin stories of many of these companies, most almost failed before they succeeded. But they kept focusing on what they could do, not on what they couldn’t.

Think about it.

There’s always a church planter (or transitioner) who has a thriving congregation in a city where churches don’t grow.

In every city, there are retailers who have burgeoning businesses even as most other retail dies.

Leaders…focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t.


Underneath all of this is our tendency to make excuses.

There are always reasons not to do something. It usually is too cold/wet/hot/dry/tenuous/uncertain/fragile/unclear to do what you have in your heart to do.

But great lives are never built on excuses. Right now, your excuses seem quite compelling to you. But fast forward twenty years and tell your future self and everyone else why you didn’t act, why you didn’t do what you knew you were supposed to do. In the future, your excuses won’t sound compelling. They’ll actually sound sad.

Besides, excuses are the enemy of progress. You can make excuses, or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.

So what are you going to do?

Make excuses?

Or make progress.


The bottom line moving into the future?

Leaders who learn to launch in imperfect conditions will always have something to lead. Leaders who don’t, won’t.

What helps you lead when conditions are imperfect?

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