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Sean Morgan: “What got you here won’t get you there”

It’s the idea of renewal. “What got you here won’t get you there.” — Sean Morgan In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic […]

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It’s the idea of renewal. “What got you here won’t get you there.” — Sean Morgan

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Morgan.

Sean is Vice President of Leadership Capital at CDF Capital and is a nationally known coach and speaker skilled in navigating ministries from obstacles to opportunities. Morgan served as Executive Pastor and CFO at New Life Church in Northern California. A graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, he is a former Chief Pilot of a KC-10 Air Force Reserve Squadron and has been on four combat deployments, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I did not have lifelong aspirations to be in ministry; it’s the last place I thought I’d be. In fact, for years I have to admit that I had a distaste for the local church I grew up in because I felt that the faith professed by church leaders was incongruent with the actions they lived out. As a teenager, I saw what I will simply refer to as “the dark underbelly of the church.” And it was part of the reason why my college experience was a struggle from a spiritual standpoint. After college, I served in the Air Force full-time from 1996–2001. I was stationed in Georgia and California and actually started out working as a hospital administrator in Air Force Hospitals. That whole industry involves very complex systems, so I learned a lot about people and culture and leadership there. Interesting how those experiences prepared me for what I do now, which could be summed up as change management in faith-based organizations. In 2001 I joined the Air Force Reserve and began my flying career; shortly thereafter I accepted a role as an Executive Pastor at a church I was a member of and already part of their leadership team. That started my ministry career and has led me to where I am today.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I get to do what I love — coming alongside senior church leaders to supplement their thought leadership, bringing health to entire congregations. Our rhythm is: Clarity, Health, and Alignment. It truly comes in that order. But this kind of coaching isn’t a quick fix. Almost all our engagements last a full year or more. Turning these entities around is hard work and can take years. Trust is key. If you want clarity, you can only get there through transparency; transparency only comes from trust. We believe the best way to trust is in relationship.

I like the term “coaching” better than consulting because the nature of our work is advisory in trusted, long-term relationships. I am 100% invested in seeing local faith-based organizations change the world on a whole new level than what I experienced. I believe that will only happen when leaders take risks and lead toward innovation, change, and rally their people to reach others. This fires me up!

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I’ve been in the US Air Force for 24 years and am a Distinguished Graduate from Pilot Training and multiple flight courses in the KC-10 Extender. The KC-10 is an Air Mobility Command advanced tanker and cargo aircraft designed to provide increased global mobility for U.S. armed forces. The KC-l0’s primary mission is aerial refueling, but it can combine the tasks of a tanker and cargo aircraft by refueling fighters and simultaneously carry the fighter support personnel and equipment on overseas deployments. The KC-10 is also capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets during aeromedical evacuations.

I am also an instructor and evaluator at the KC-10 Formal Training Unit. I’ve served on four combat deployments with 700 flight hours in a combat environment. In addition to serving my squadron as Chief Pilot, I’ve served the United States Pacific Command Headquarters by running their Operations Center, which has military combatant command for over half the globe.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

In the military and civilian life, it is inevitable that things won’t go according to plan. A big take away from my Air Force career is to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. When I’m mentoring someone, they’ll hear me talk about this more than once. Look ahead, anticipate all of the ways a situation can go, then prepare for each one.

I’ve been in combat, and one time is too many, but you must expect things to escalate. During an operation when fighting was at its highest point in Northern Iraq and Syria, I was part of the air efforts protecting US troops on the ground during extreme weather. Many pilots decided to head back to base due to the storms; they were simply not prepared for the worst-case scenario. Some of us were able to draw from our training where we walked through a situation like this, and we maneuvered around the storms to provide critical support to the troops. The result may have been tragic for many, had we not been prepared for the worst-case scenario.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

I had the chance to be mentored by one of the greatest war heroes the world has ever known. His name was Robin Olds. Robin (a.k.a. General Olds) was an incredible man. He graduated West Point early, so he could enter WWII through the Army Air Corps. He shot down 11 German aircraft and later returned to combat in Vietnam where he shot down five North Vietnamese MIG’s. Robin sacrificed a lot of himself for our nation and he learned a great deal along the way.

Something Robin taught me was that combat, and crisis situations, seems to create panic and fear in most people, yet very few seem to not only remain calm, but they have also increased clarity.

I think in times of crisis, leaders who find they have an uncanny ability to see the calm in the storm need to acknowledge that and step up. That’s when others need them the most.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

To me a hero is someone who is ordinary, yet does extraordinary things through selfless action.

During the COVID-19 crisis, we see everyday heroes in the medical world, for sure. One of the things I love about my job is that the pastors I coach are my heroes. They are some of the most amazing leaders on the planet! They would be top leaders almost anywhere they went, yet they choose to say ‘yes’ to serving others through the mission of the local church.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

Of course. The military is a giant leadership lab and factory. I had incredible leadership opportunities throughout my time at the Air Force Academy and I walked into my first Air Force job with 23 people reporting to me.

When you’re thrust into setting where you are in charge, and you know your team has massive talent, you quickly learn that you’re not there to help them do their jobs; they were doing that before you got there. You’re there to help them work as a team and do their jobs in a way that creates more collective value than they were capable of before.

Once you figure out how to guide, direct, and encourage, then your team produces more than they would if you weren’t there. What I’m describing is influence, which is the essence of leadership.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

During my time in the healthcare industry at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, my boss, Tom Tinstman, modeled a passionate form of leadership and took me under his wing. These lessons in the various iterations of leadership shaped my perspective and my heart, and prepared me for ministry. I had to let go of a lot of personal things, prideful things, to get to the point where I could think about dedicating myself to the local church as a lifetime endeavor.

When I was asked to be the Executive Pastor at New Life Church in Vacaville, California, I wasn’t mentally able to process what that meant, but I felt it was right in my gut. At New Life, I found a church pastor unlike any I had known growing up — Jon Harris was a leader worth emulating. He broke the mold and was willing to take risks. Under his caring leadership, the church flourished, and soon people began approaching me for church leadership advice. This was right in the area of what I am most passionate about, so I began to meet with ministry leaders over coffee, listening and sharing my own experiences, walking alongside them in their struggles of internal and external growth. The more people sought my perspective and encouragement, the more I felt that a door was opening up for me to lead leaders.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

I have a military background, so I’ll share the US Department Defense official definition of a crisis — “an incident or situation involving a threat to a nation, its territories, citizens, military forces, possessions, or vital interests that develops rapidly and creates a condition of such diplomatic, economic, political, or military importance that commitment of military forces and resources is contemplated to achieve national objectives.”

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

It’s imperative that senior leaders see what’s ahead. That’s not easy.

Most leaders get swept up into the vortex of running the day to day. That’s a huge mistake. Leaders need to ensure they have systems in place that run the business and managers that run the systems.

If this is done right, senior leaders must be diligent enough to create margin in their lives to observe and get mentally out ahead of where their business is. If senior leaders are not seeing the path ahead from the 40,000 foot level, no one else ever will.

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

This is so true. I think crises actually bring more opportunities than would be present without crises. First and foremost, you need to understand what success looks like. If you don’t know what “mission accomplished” looks like, then you will be unable to navigate the minute-by-minute decisions that crisis brings.

So, realize that what you may be dealing with in the moment may just be distracting you from success. A classic example we saw in churches during at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in this country was way too much worry, time, and energy spent on whether churches were going to be able to meet live for their normal Sunday services. The church leaders who saw live gatherings as optional were the ones who adapted quicker, moved communications and services online, and even began to supplement online services with daily engagement with their members. I know a church that made 32,000 phone calls in one week to connect with their congregants! If they were spinning their wheels worrying about how and when to keep meeting, they would have never made the step of a simple phone call to connect human to human.

Knowing what success looks like also allows you to keep perspective and to bounce back from defeat. It can be easy to get down when you lose a battle, but knowing what it takes to win the war is more critical than one battle.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

Being a PROBLEM SOLVER who can adapt to many different circumstances calmly under pressure is key, as well as understanding multiple approaches. CONFIDENCE because this will enable a leader to maintain control; the staff or team will follow a manager who exudes a “take charge” demeanor and knows what they are doing. The leader must also be DECISIVE and display authority while hitting the issue head-on, and also considering everything at stake from employees to overall operations and recovery. Being TEAM-ORIENTED and personable can inspire the team to push past fear and against the odds.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Easy. Winston Churchill. He was ever hopeful and he didn’t allow Britain to get distracted when things looked bleak.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

The list of my setbacks is quite long, actually. I would say I was a B student who figured out how to make A’s. I was an average athlete who played varsity sports year-round and even played in championships. I had eyesight problems that kept me from pilot training but fought for a waiver and later became a US Air Force Pilot Training Distinguished Graduate…the list goes on and on.

Early (and regular) setbacks in my life were certainly disheartening. However, there were always seeds of resiliency in me. If you want to be successful in life you have to figure out what you can change and what you can’t.

In the moments when I wanted to quit I made a conscious decision to have hope. I doubled my efforts and applied that effort to the things I could get better at, and that has made all the difference.

Hope is also contagious. It’s a wonderful trait for a leader.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Know what success looks like. I mentioned this earlier, and I can’t say enough how important this is because If you don’t know what “mission accomplished” looks like, then you won’t have the ability to make the countless decisions, many instantaneous, that crisis brings.
  2. Get comfortable with the unknown. Change your perspective so you’re comfortable that you can’t control everything, and therefore won’t know things you wish you did. Be willing to live in that tension but still make progress with what you can. Too many leaders make decisions because they can, not because they should. There are 10 decisions I could make right now that would affect my work and my team for the rest of the year. However, I’ve only made one key decision today and the other nine we will wait on. We will likely have a better perspective when the time comes to commit!
  3. Be prepared for worst-case scenarios. This means looking ahead and anticipating what could go wrong, then putting systems and necessary resources in place. Ensure that those who would be impacted understand the procedures that would need to come into play when the unexpected happens. Walk through it, trust your training and what you know to be true. Just like a team running plays in a championship game, there is much more at stake than when they ran them in practice, but it’s still the same players and playbook. This is never more true than in combat. If you don’t expect things to get worse, you’ll be on your heels quickly. I recall an operation we were supporting in Northern Iraq and Syria. It’s when the fighting was at its peak in Mosul and Al Raqqa. As always, air assets are there to support troops on the ground. The troops on the ground were engaged with the enemy, but we had severe weather hampering our air support efforts. The storms were impacting many things and I saw several pilots make decisions to return to base; from my experience and my perspective at the time, I thought those decisions were both premature and showed the pilots were not prepared for the situation to worsen. Fortunately, we were able to maneuver around the storms, adjust some rendezvous with other attack aircraft, and still provide the much needed support the troops on the ground needed that day.
  4. Learn to stay calm. Believe it or not, one of the biggest problems you’ll face when it comes to surviving, whether it’s a project at work or while camping in the wilderness, is your own mind. This could mean panic attacks, or worse, but there are many ways to calm yourself in an unexpected situation; breathing techniques can get your heart under control in an unexpected situation. Also, refocusing your mind on a solution or an exit strategy. When you are calm, you are better able to think straight and make good decisions. I think Yogi Berra once said, “90% of baseball is half mental.” That’ll make you think! On a more serious note, I do think the #1 obstacle leaders face is the battle in their mind. Not believing they can, and then giving up too soon. The story above captures that and all the early setbacks I had in life helped me learn just how quickly a resilient thought life can be.
  5. Gain a higher perspective. I’ve developed an ability to consider and assess risks that pose a threat and those that pose a concern. In the military, we have well-developed plans for every conceivable action an enemy could take against the United States. While it’s true that no combat plan ever survives contact with the enemy, it is nice going to bed at night knowing we’ve thought about and planned how to act when things escalate. We can know a risk exists and develop plans based on a concern without going into panic about an overbearing threat. Our early planning serves as a great “true north” when we have to alter things in execution.

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It’s the idea of renewal. “What got you here won’t get you there.” Each person, every day, in some way, can make small changes that when stacked on top of themselves result in life change. I try to be careful what routines I take on because I always want to spend 20% of my personal and professional time on creative and pioneering ideas.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

That’s a tough question for me, actually, I think because I already feel so honored to work with the leaders I get to work with and also, I don’t watch TV or the news. Hmmm…I suppose I would say, Bear Grylls, famed British adventurer and survivalist known for his television series including Man vs. Wild and Running Wild with Bear Grylls. I have a ton of respect for him, how he handles his fame, and his life priorities.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram at _seanmorgan, and I invite your readers to head to the CDF Capital website where I share some insights in the Blog section. In a recent post, I share thoughts with pastors related to making sound decisions and building trust with your community during this global pandemic, but I think it could be helpful for leaders of other types of organizations, as well.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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