Finding common ground creates community where there once was no connection.

While many of us look to create common ground by listening more, talking less, and developing empathy for others, we often overlook a source of common ground – crisis.

A crisis in an organization, family or community can destroy relationships. Crisis can also bring people together like never before. My mentor, Dr. Maxie Burch, once told me, “Scott, don’t manufacture a crisis, but don’t waste one either.”

Crisis can create community. An unexpected season of adversity produces a need for people to pull together in a new way.

How A Crisis Created Common Ground in Our Organization

I once served in an organization where our leader suddenly resigned. A health crisis in his family demanded a move to a new city where the climate was more hospitable.

It was the worst time ever for a resignation like this. Our organization was in the middle of a transition process, and we had just experienced several meaningful victories under his leadership.

This announcement was a crushing blow! I remember grabbing the wall next to me when I heard the news – I nearly fell over with shock. We didn’t know what was going to come next.

Having joined the executive leadership team recently, I was scared. I had never led at this level before now, much less through a crisis of this magnitude. Our team didn’t want to lose momentum. While at the same time, we didn’t want all the focus on the leader we no longer had.

Our executive team made a critical decision in the early days after our leader’s resignation. We adopted a crazy goal – not quite on the level of Jim Collins’ BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) – but still a bit extreme.

We were about to enter what was traditionally the worst quarter for us. Our expectations often lowered during this season. However, when combined with our current leadership and organizational crisis, we could not afford to approach this quarter as we would normally.

Our crazy goal was to turn our worst quarter into our best one! We began strategizing ways to increase engagement, performance, and brand awareness in our community. We explored bold ideas and entertained proposals which made us uncomfortable (in a good way).

Crisis Brought Us Together and Created Unprecedented Success

Our board appointed an interim leadership structure. My supervisor and I would guide our organization, while the board did a nationwide search for a new permanent leader.

We stood before our entire organization and unveiled the bold plan which emerged from our crazy goal. The plan included 12 weeks of unprecedented experimentation. We knew this pace would be unsustainable; it would not be a new normal, but an experiment. We needed to shake up the culture. We announced our intent to try new things. We acknowledged the potential for discomfort. We might ruffle feathers, but we knew unless we tried new tactics, we wouldn’t get different results.

Our goal was to take the focus off the pain and the crisis. We wanted to direct everyone’s focus onto what we could do together, even without a permanent senior leader.

Surprisingly, this crazy plan worked! Our non-profit organization was exposed to as many new people in this 12-week period as we had in the previous 52 weeks. Our traditionally worst quarter was, in fact, our best quarter of the year! We not only stemmed the loss of our current momentum, but we also created more momentum heading into our traditionally best quarter of the year.

Excitement and engagement went way up. We saw disengaged team members transformed into passionate evangelists for the work of our organization.

Sure, we made mistakes – plenty of them. Some of the experiments proved to be foolish and unwise. We did our best to mitigate those consequences and admitted those bad decisions where appropriate. Looking back, I see several leadership decisions we would do differently if given the chance.

But we accomplished what we set out to do…and more. Even those on our team who disagreed with our decisions and were uncomfortable with our tactics respected our willingness to try something new and fail boldly.

How Can You Turn Crisis into an Opportunity to Build Common Ground?

1. Shift the focus off the pain and put it on what could be done.

Pain often paralyzes us. After the shock and surprise wear off, the pain remains. As we try to process the grief and loss, we turn inward and hyper-focus on what has been lost. When we shift the focus from the pain to the potential, from looking inward to looking outward, we begin to see what could be done.

2. Celebrate what we can do now as opposed to what is no longer possible.

Instead of being disempowered by obsessing on what was lost with our leader’s sudden departure, we empowered each other by celebrating what we could do together. We challenged everyone to own their role in creating momentum and successful outcomes.

In those days, across our organization, we felt a great sense of potential for the individual participants on our team. At the end of that miracle quarter, we had an organization-wide celebration. In a video highlight reel, I shared, “Look what we did, even without our senior leader!” The whole room erupted in applause.

3. Acknowledge the potential of crisis to either bring us together or drive us apart.

The positive outcome of our crisis wasn’t guaranteed. Things could have gone very differently. In organizations like ours, the loss of a senior leader often leads to an exodus of the best people and stagnation in momentum. I’m grateful that our crisis brought us together in new ways.

4. Lay out big goals which necessitate collaboration and creativity.

Common ground comes when we’re in the same crisis together, serving and helping one another, going for a big goal together. Common ground comes when we’re uncertain of the outcome but willing to try anything. Creativity thrives not when anything is possible, but when tight constraints demand new approaches and unexpected perspectives.

Crisis Offers An Abundance of New Opportunities

During the Great Recession, veteran CEO Steve Larsen was interviewed by TechCrunch. Larsen had a unique take on the crisis which was rocking every corner of American culture.

“I think the doom and gloom crowd are getting too much airtime. Look for opportunities. Difficult times are when they’ll most likely occur. When we’re at ‘steady state’ and things are normal, good opportunities are much harder to find with GREAT opportunities nearly impossible. It is during periods of tumult and transition when you can spot things that lead to the greatest returns—if you are alert. So be alert.”

It sounds like the wisdom of my mentor. “Don’t create a crisis, but don’t waste one either.” Look for ways to build common ground in your current crisis. Some people will be afraid, but others will be open in unprecedented ways.

Leaders thrive when things are the bleakest. Reject fear and choose hope.


Don't Waste a Crisis. Crisis in an organization, family or community can destroy relationships. It can also bring people together. Here's how to go from crisis to common ground.