It’s commonly understood that an extreme situation can call forth either cowardice or heroism from the very people you would least expect it. There’s nothing like a good crisis to reveal the character of the soul or an organization. When one is leading because one’s life, and the lives of others, depends on it, then perhaps the best qualities of leadership shine through. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of leadership and leadership development—strategic areas of focus for the missional church.

Clearly, leading in a life-or-death situation is different from managing in more routine, or even in crisis, circumstances. US Marine Colonel Thomas Kolditz did a unique, long-term study on the nature of leadership in precisely such conditions. In spite of the extreme nature of the research, we believe that his findings on what he calls in extremis leaders has clear relevance for those of us who are involved in leading the church through times of massive upheaval and change. His insights are important affirmations as we factor adventure and liminality in the equation of leadership in the church. They include among others, that

  • In extremis leaders are inherently motivated because of the danger of the situations in which they’re working; therefore, leaders don’t need to use conventional motivational methods or cheerleading. ...
  • In extremis leaders embrace continuous learning, typically because they and their followers need to rapidly scan their environments to determine the level of threat and danger they’re facing. . . .
  • In extremis leaders share the risk their followers face. This isn’t just grandstanding; leaders truly share—and even take on greater— risks in in extremis situations. Leaders in other environments should keep this in mind: don’t ask your followers to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.
  • In extremis leaders share a common lifestyle with their followers. . . . all leaders should consider how much they truly have in common with the rest of their organization. [For instance, the issue of highly unequal pay scales does say something about the nature of leadership.] . . .
  • Dangerous situations demand a high level of mutual trust. In extremis leaders trust their team, and they themselves can be trusted. And even if someone’s life isn’t at stake in an organization, his or her livelihood may be, so do everything you can to be trustworthy and to trust your team to do what [they are chosen] to do.
  • High-risk environments demand mutual loyalty between leader and followers. . . . Leaders should do everything they can to foster a culture of mutual loyalty.

Extrapolating from this, we can say that in situations when our lives (or organizations or careers) are at risk, general principles from standard management practice need to be sharpened and their relative degree of importance modified. First, for Kolditz, the most crucial factor for the in extremis leader is to concentrate on the external environment and learn from it what action to take, rather than focus on motivating his/her team. 

From Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, The Faith of Leap (Baker) 41.