How To Lead When It All Hits The Fan

Four steps to leading well when life gets tough.

Over the past six days, things in my world more or less hit the fan. For any readers not familiar with that phrase, it’s not the most in depth. Imagine what it would be like to take a handful of poop, stand in front of a fan on full speed, and throw it.

Just thinking about the week, here is what has happened:

  • My two year old threw up for the first time ever, and the second time ever, and the third, fourth, and fifth time ever. As a result, I didn’t sleep that night.
  • I had a former student killed on her college campus by a vehicle pulling into a parking spot, a complete freak and tragic accident. Her funeral was a few days later.
  • The day after my daughter spent the night throwing up, I spent the night throwing up.
  • We had to take our minivan in for some work that took longer (and cost more) than we anticipated, leaving us without a vehicle that could carry our whole family.
  • Found out someone I’ve been working with for years has been having some pretty heavy struggles he now doesn’t know I know.
  • Power went out at work, totally derailing an entire day of meetings and tasks.
  • My wife got a migraine that took her out for the count for a day.

There will always be someone who has it worse, but that was a lot to fit into those six days. But here’s the tension, or the issue, that adds to the situation. Those weren’t the only plates spinning in my life.

Life doesn’t care that things are hard. Life still demands results.

When we’re in leadership positions, that’s even truer. Off the top of my head, here are the things that had to get done over the same period of time:

  • Major decisions and communications for two-weekend retreats that will host around 700 people next month. Decisions that impact tens of thousands of dollars.
  • Onboarding a new staff member.
  • Study, prepare, write, and refine a 30-minute sermon…ironically covering busyness and stress.
  • Finalize a change in responsibilities with some team members I oversee and communicate that to the 50 people the changes impact.
  • Have clarifying but very tense conversations with some leaders reaffirming a decision made in the past that was not taken well by a few involved parties.
  • Have “covering the bases” conversations to change a different decision made a few months ago, now that we have more information.
  • Thanks to our viral bonanza, every piece of laundry in our house needed to be cleaned, dried, folded, and put away.
  • Host high school students doing job shadowing.
  • Run staff meetings and have one on ones with my team.
  • Meet with my direct overseer and a quarterly meeting with our organizational leader.

Life doesn’t care that everything hits the fan. Life is still going to happen. When you are the leader, it often does not matter if life has hit the fan, you are still responsible for leading.

So how do we lead when things go bad? How do we lead when nothing is working? How do we put one foot in front of the other when we’re exhausted, not able to make clear decisions, and really just want to go to bed? How do we lead when we’re emotionally empty and mentally in a fog?

I was reminded of these questions over the past few days, and I think there are three things to consider when deciding how to lead in seasons of stress.

Set key priorities.

You need to know before things fall apart where your priorities lie. What is the most important thing? What are the non-negotiable things in your life that need to happen, no matter what?

My priorities are pretty set. Faith, family, self, work, friends.

It is wildly helpful to know what you value before you are forced to decide if it’s valuable. What are the most important things to you?

For some, it may be the most important thing to make sure you get enough hours of deliberate practice in your craft, even before your own self-care.

For some, you may value time connecting with your peers and being in encouraging relationships more than you would value time with your family.

Whatever your priorities are, you have to have them established (and written down somewhere) before things go south. Once things have gone wrong, you don’t want to be spending valuable time and energy trying to determine whether or not something is important to you.

Evaluate your options.

What are some things you can ask that will help you decide if this is something that is currently a priority in your life?

I have found when I have weeks like I had this week, I need to ask a handful of questions. Feel free to steal these, adapt these, or hate these. Either way, these are the types of questions I need to be asking.

What happens if this doesn’t happen this week?

Who will be impacted if this doesn’t get done now?

Is this a situation where “best” isn’t necessary? In other words, is it okay for this to just be “okay”?

Which would be worse, to have to do this later or to grit through it now?

If I still do this, what doesn’t get done?

Can someone else do this, and if so, how well?

These are helpful questions in any situation, but I have found them to be especially useful when I’m trying to lead in days or weeks of struggle.

Recognize the obvious.

What’s obvious? There is no such thing as balance. I think we can so easily get caught in this idolization of living a balanced life that we forget that there is no such thing.

I will never have a balanced life. And that’s okay.

When you are leading, there will be times things don’t go well, you are going to be overwhelmed, and the light at the end of the tunnel seems to mock you. I have found that these times when things are tough actually turn into the times I have to work the most.

Over the past six days, I have spent two nights in my office more than I normally do. Why? Because things are falling apart but I am still responsible for leading. Things still have to get done.

I’m incredibly blessed with a spouse who understands that tension and helps me navigate that. She’s incredibly patient and knows when I am stressed and overwhelmed. At no point in the last week did she try and insinuate that I was being a bad dad because I had to go to the office after bedtimes or felt a little more distant at times.

There is no such thing as balance. When life hits the fan, leaders have to walk through the spray.

Work hard. Get things done. Stay sane. Rest later.


When things hit the fan and life gets too stressful, there are things that no longer make the cut…and that’s okay.

I spent extra nights at the office, I didn’t get to do some of the things I was really looking forward to doing. I didn’t get to keep my commitment to a group of friends to get some time with them.

There were things, good things, that didn’t make the cut…and I have to be okay with that. Ultimately, I had to make decisions using my list of priorities as a filter. Since I was overworked and overstressed, I worked extra to create space for emergencies, and to cover the gaps from sickness. But not everything got done. Some things weren’t done well. Some things weren’t done by me. Some things won’t get done until this weekend.

Some things didn’t get done, and that has to be okay.


When life hits the fan, here are the things that help you chart the course ahead.

1. Set key priorities.

2. Evaluate your options.

3. Recognize the obvious.

4. Be realistic

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