Embrace the Chaos

For most of my life I assumed that chaos was bad. I spent a lot of time both at home and work trying to mitigate against the unpredictable, eliminate disorder and avoid any hint of upheaval on my endless quest for stability. Leadership, I thought, was about creating strong systems and robust safeguards against unwanted and unwelcome chaos.

But recently I’ve changed my mind. Leadership is never beneficial while standing still, only when moving forward, navigating a course for good through the inevitable waves of uncertainties, turmoil and trauma.

Leadership that doesn’t shy away from chaos, but embraces it, may not sail the calm waters that others want. However, it may well drive the change we need.

Into the Fray

One morning a couple of years ago, I received an urgent call from the Home Office, the U.K.’s equivalent of the Department for Homeland Security. This was by no means a regular occurrence. I have worked a lot with government departments both in my work advocating for children in foster care and in my work with refugees. Usually that work involved me calling them to ask for help. This time they had called me, and I quickly sensed the panic down the line.

Only a few weeks earlier in Kabul, thousands of Afghan citizens had fled to the airport hoping to escape the Taliban. International news channels broadcast images of desperate mothers throwing their babies to American soldiers, families huddling inside the holds of cargo planes and some even clinging to the outside. Tens of thousands had been evacuated to the U.K., but now these traumatized, Muslim, Dari- and Pashto-speaking families with an abundance of young dependents needed accommodating and supporting as they settled. The Home Office couldn’t find anyone with expertise who could help.

“I can ask the church to welcome the resettled Afghans and provide practical, emotional, logistical and spiritual support,” I said.

The Home Office representative thought for a moment. “Where is this church based?” 

Then came the moment I may well have been waiting for my whole life.

“This church is everywhere,” I replied. “It is in every city, town and village across the country. Wherever you relocate Afghans, I can find people nearby whose two priorities in life are to love God and love their neighbor. Muslim refugees fleeing the Taliban are our neighbors, so I believe I can ensure they will receive a warm welcome from the church wherever they end up.”

My feet hardly touched the ground over the next few months as the evacuated Afghan families were found multiple different temporary housing solutions. Sure enough, we were able to identify churches willing to help in every single area.

We quickly set up a scheme to personally visit newly arrived Afghan families and find out what they needed. We used Amazon wish lists, rapid-response social media and all our connections to source and distribute new baby equipment and winter clothing. We facilitated churches to do basic well-being checks, English language classes and other bridge-building activities such as cricket matches and welcome events. Volunteers were recruited and ended up doing everything from building bunk beds to delivering babies.

In the middle of those chaotic weeks, I learned more about leadership than from any book I had ever read or from any talk I had ever heard. Here are three of those lessons I keep coming back to:

1. Lead With Faith, Not Fear.

It is almost always easier to retreat than engage in the face of chaos. It is more natural to lament than to look for solutions. It is simpler to avoid making decisions when all our options appear tough and unpredictable.

But chaos demands a braver leadership.

In the Bible, Esther was not the only one who expected to be killed for her racial heritage by King Ahasuerus’ henchmen, just as Daniel was not the only one to lose everything when he was kidnapped by King Nebuchadnezzar and taken to Babylon. But these two faithful believers changed the chaotic world in which they lived.

With God’s help, they made the tough decisions even when there was no assured outcome, even when there was serious personal risk involved, and even when they spoke out against those who did not share their ethical, theological or political views. Their example inspires us to use influence for good in times of chaos, however costly. 

2. Lead With Agility, Not Activity.

I remember when I started my first charity. It grew quickly, but sometimes it felt that the more staff we had, the less impact we had. Activity did not equal productivity. Instead, an increasing amount of time seemed to be taken up developing routines, systems, procedures, standards, training, communications and support.

While all those things are right and good, they didn’t marry well either with the entrepreneurial vision that drove the charity or the chaotic sector in which we worked. As we grew, we had less freedom to try out new ideas or seize opportunities as they arose.

In the Afghan resettlement program, I learned that during periods of great change, there are benefits to being small and striking a different balance of stability and agility.

Chaos sometimes requires a leaner leadership.

It may seem rather counterintuitive to whittle down our manpower in a crisis, but this was often the way Jesus worked too. Of the crowds of thousands who followed him, sometimes he enlisted the support of just 12 disciples. 

3. Lead With Praise, Not Criticism.

In a rapid-response situation, there can be a huge buzz of excitement knowing that what you are doing is really making a difference: People are being helped, maybe even lives are being saved. But it is also terrifying and exhausting.

Navigating scrutiny, politically sensitive issues and an evolving environment with new practical and financial challenges at every turn can be all-consuming for everyone involved. I have seen even the best leaders make things worse in a roomful of stretched and tired people. A ruthless, brusque and polished leadership style that is usually very successful can fail to make any headway when there is trauma.

Chaos benefits from another breed of leader. I have learned that in crises a positive word can be transformational; an authentic moment of vulnerability can break down the toughest barriers; and a flexible, collaborative and adventurous spirit can be truly life-changing.

Chaos, I believe, calls for this kinder leadership. 

Toward the Chaos

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan brilliantly illustrates the temptation to avoid chaos. The so-called leaders of the day—the Priest and Levite—had obviously been influenced by the tendentious voices within their cultural circles. As a result, they were so paralyzed by rituals, red tape and reputational risk, they were unable to cross a street to care for an injured neighbor.

The Samaritan, however, doesn’t have to have a theological or political debate before acting. He sees the suffering and immediately leaves his comfort zone to head toward the chaos.

I long to see braver, kinder and more agile leaders who follow his example and head toward the chaos. It’s not the easiest path to take. It is unpredictable and turbulent by its very nature, with huge risks. But it is in the chaos that we find incredible opportunities to do something extraordinary.

Krish Kandiah
Krish Kandiahhttps://www.krishk.com/

Krish Kandiah is the founder and director of Sanctuary Foundation, a U.K. charity supporting refugees. He is the author of several books including Paradoxology and God Is Stranger (both IVP).