Leadership During the Downturn

Leaders Facing Uncertain Times

We live in uncertain times. COVID-19 is the earthquake that is rocking us at the moment, but the pandemic’s devastating after-shocks will shake people and societies for years to come. As the disease ravages many lives, the economic and psychological impact of this virus will likely wreak havoc on a much greater number of the world’s population. As leaders face the challenging months ahead, how will others remember us when the dust settles? Jim’s story is instructional for leaders during the downturn.

Jim’s Story

My friend Jim is a gifted engineer, inventor, business leader, author, philanthropist, and noted sculptor. Jim’s story will appear in a book soon to be published; here’s a very abridged version.

Jim’s career included coming up with designs for requests from the University of Michigan for everything from a heart lung machine to a smart pump to control drug infusion during the induction of labor. Jim and his colleagues developed additional versions of the heart-lung machine, including the one that was used for the first heart transplant in South Africa. The company grew rapidly as they also invented kidney dialysis machines and peritoneal dialysis machines. Jim was paid generously, and had reached his life salary goal before the age of 30!

Through a series of twists and turns, Jim served effectively as Executive Director of a well-known Christian ministry. He also began his own company that patented many biomedical products. Eventually, Jim sold the company for a whole lot of money.

By any standard, he was a success.

Shortly before selling his company in 1996, Jim and some partners purchased a high-end furniture business. The company had been in difficulty for several years. Jim was enamored with furniture manufacturing and design, so he thought, “I can easily afford it, and it will be fun.”

From 1996-2000, they made great progress toward their goals. As they entered 2001, they had succeeded in changing the furniture company’s culture into a healthy one by establishing a high level of trust between the owners and the employees. In fact, the employees voted to decertify a long-time union.

Tragedy Strikes

Then tragedy struck on September 11, 2001.  Thousands of people perished. But the “after-shocks” would devastate many more. For example, Jim’s company needed to have shipments of $43,000 per day to break even, but orders suddenly dropped to less than $6000 per day. Within a few months the dollar loss was many times the purchase price of the company, and far exceeded Jim’s capability to continue to invest more money. Banks were operating in crisis mode across the country due to the economic climate, so loans were more difficult to get. Jim and his partners were forced to close the company or sell.

They found an Italian company that was seriously interested.  An agreement was made which provided enough money to pay off the bank loans. Jim’s prayers were answered, or so he thought. When the Italian company arrived to sign the details of the contract, they had promptly proceeded to ignore every employee protection agreement that Jim and his colleagues had written into the agreement. The purchasers were not willing to reinsert those terms, so they returned home without a deal.

After a season of more struggle, Jim and his partners were able to liquidate the company, provide the benefits to the employees that they had originally stipulated, and provide support for them in finding new jobs.


Reflecting on his life journey, Jim wrote,

For the next eighteen months [after liquidating the furniture business], I struggled over the question of why one business was so successful, and the next was a total disaster! One day as I was praying, it was like God asked me, “When you were in the medical business, did you draw closer to Me?”

“No, I became more independent.”

“When you were in the furniture business, did you draw closer to Me?”

“Yes, I was always on my knees, even when You seemed not to answer!”

Then God seemed to say, “What you called success was a failure, and what you called failure was a success in my eyes. ”

 As a postscript, Jim wrote,

“Recently my wife asked me, ‘Over the years you have been recognized with awards by a wide range of organizations. Tell me, which award means the most to you?’ I pondered her question over the next few days until an answer formed in my mind. I realized it wasn’t any of the public awards; rather, it was the words of an employee at the furniture company who said, ‘I want to thank you Jim. I’ve been watching you guide this company through good times and recently some very bad times. Yet, you consistently put your employees first even though I know it came at a cost. I’ve been a changed person since I’ve come to work here.’”

How will our leadership be remembered when the crisis has passed?  This season will define us. 


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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