April 2009


I’ve been in Atlanta this week at the Christian Leadership Alliance Conference. Here are a few relevant notes from a workshop by Wendy Johnson of Amor Ministries.

Point 1: How do established leaders need to change to lead Millennials?

Millennials don’t need to adapt to our world. We’re already in theirs, so we’re the ones that need to adapt. We’re trying to figure out how to use their technology and work in their cultural setting. We’re marketing and selling our product in their world. Therefore, it’s not their job to learn how to work in our culture. It’s our job to study them and adapt where necessary.

That’s an interesting point for me. What she’s saying is that a leader’s job is not to make other people conform to them and follow them, but to boldly make the changes so that followers will follow. Those changes might be personal or they might be corporate. Where do I need to change to adapt to leading Millennials? And where do I need to change my organization to gather Millennials to my cause?

Point 2: How can we create followers of Jesus Christ?

As leaders, we have the ability to shape our followers to be:

  • Faithful and loyal – These cannot be mandated, but leaders have the power to draw followers by their vulnerability and trust. We need to be loyal to them and allow them to make mistakes.
  • Obedient – We need to identify the boundaries that matter and hold our teams to them while allowing flexibility on the means. Millennials will follow the rules if we recognize their methods and processes are different, not wrong.
  • Last – Leadership doesn’t necessarily happen from the front.
  • Open – Leaders will know everything about their team. Will we be open in return? If you lie to your followers, you’re done.
  • Willing – We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for sacrifice. If we hold to the essentials but give up the how, we’ll get what we ask for and more.

I like this idea of follower development. Wendy said that it’s easier to discuss followership than leadership, because the latter is so hard to define. Leaders have the ability to build on the strengths of our followers and to shape our followers into incredibly effective teams. There’s more to think about here. I’ll come back to it in the days ahead.

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At Wycliffe USA, there’s a group of young leaders who meet together for mutual encouragement, accountability and to challenge each other. The goal of The Threshing Floor is to discuss issues of leadership and prompt each other to action. In meeting with this group twice a month for the last two years, I’ve noticed that there are differences between having leadership gifts, leadership interests and leadership calling. Reluctance seems to happen when one or more of those characteristics is missing.

(Notice that I didn’t list leadership positions. I think all of us can think of someone who has a position but lacks the other three.)

Let me give a couple of examples. For starters, I’ve watched a handful of people who come in streaks. They come for a while, then disappear. After a while they return. Why? I’ve concluded that they are intrigued by the idea of leadership. They’re students of it; they like to watch leadership in action up close. But every time they try setting out for the deep end themselves, they panic. Then they throw up their hands and stop pursuing leadership… for a while. Eventually that interest bubbles to the surface and they return.

So, do they just have leadership interests but no calling? Or no gifting? I’m not sure that’s it, because I’ve seen them influence people. I think they’re more comfortable following, except that they can’t simply follow. For some, I believe they perceive leadership gifts in themselves but they either haven’t found their niche or have failed gloriously the few times they’ve tried it.

What about the person who has leadership gifts and calling but never sought it? Consider Steve Murrell, pastor and author of The Reluctant Leader blog. The rationale for naming his blog is an interesting read. This sentence sums it up for me:

Maybe you never wanted to be a leader, but then you turned around and people seem to be following you. Scary.

Any reluctant leaders out there? What’s your story?

Part 2 in defining a reluctant leader is to describe what it is not. Another great quote from the blogosphere, this one from Jeffrey Dean:

In Forrest Gump, Forrest had hundreds of people following him as he ran across the country, but he had no idea why he was running, much less what to say to those who joined him. When the moment came for him to speak, he simply said he was tired, and thought he would go home. There is a simple wisdom in this, but it was not delivered in a way anyone was ready to accept.

Again, a person with the ability to lead has no duty to do so. While some may argue that choosing not to lead is a waste of ability, I would counter that a person who does not want to lead does not make a good leader. Here, then, is the most important distinction to make: a reluctant leader is not an unwilling leader. It is simply someone who does not actively seek to lead before attracting others who want to follow. At some point, such a person must decide whether to lead or not, and the choice itself defines whether the person is actually a leader or not.

I am one who would argue that stewardship of our gifts is critical, and anything less is waste. However, I’m with him on his last point. Leadership abilities are not enough. A leader is one who chooses to lead.

So reluctant leaders have huge potential, but they’re not leaders until they emerge. I firmly believe that in every reluctant leader, there is a suppressed desire to lead.

Time after time, I’ve run into people my age or younger who have leadership gifts that remain hidden. I’m not necessarily just referring to the long-established art of unearthing leadership gifts in people and bringing those to light. The part that disturbs me is when young leaders know they have leadership gifts but dodge the mantle of leadership.

“If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously” (Rom 12:8). I firmly believe that those who have leadership gifts have a responsibility. Rather than squander it or suppress it, they need to develop it and practice leading.

Why would people seek to bury their leadership gifts? There are lots of reasons I’m going to dig into over the next few posts. Before I do that, we should agree on what a reluctant leader is.

The internet is a goldmine. Of all places, I found a wonderful article from the Natural Science Department at Manatee Community College in Bradenton, FL. Perhaps in scouring the world for new and endangered species, they discovered the reluctant leader. Check out this quote from Dr. Anthony and Crystal Gambino’s essay: “Untapped Potential: In Search of the Reluctant Leader.”

There exists an elusive breed of potential leaders. Most of these potential leaders will go unnoticed; very few will ever reach their leadership potential. They serve out of view and live in the shadows of others. It is this existence, in the shadow, that will serve them well if they are found and developed into the leaders they could be. The question is how do you find such a potential leader, one that does their job, but gives the credit to those who they helped. They help others reach their potential by gently pushing from behind with words of encouragement. This potential leader should lead, but is reluctant to do so mainly because they see leaders as those who assign the work and then take the credit. In their mind this is the last thing they want to become. Finding a reluctant leader will take a keen eye for observation, nurturing with patience, equipping with knowledge and developing the future leader over time. Tapping into this untapped potential will be a personal investment with a high rate of return.

What are your reactions? Anything stand out to you?

The one caveat I have to point out is that everything I’ve said in all of these posts about young leaders is absolutely true… for those for whom it’s true. But the younger generations are what Bob Webber and George Barna call tribal. In other words, everyone is not uniform. There are so many types of leaders that it’s difficult to summarize a group attribute of all emerging leaders. The ones I’ve highlighted seem to me to be the stronger trends, but there are secondary ones.

For instance, in my post on giving authority away, I said young leaders “want a chance to speak into the process and try new things.” The secondary trend is that many young leaders instead have a paralyzing fear of failure; they don’t jump in. That’s my topic for my next few blogs: a characterization of the reluctant leader.

Young leaders give authority away. I’m not necessarily talking about delegation, but about how young leaders are less concerned with who gets the credit and more concerned with the accomplishments of a team.

They look for people who have a passion and a vision for a particular area and turn that area of responsibility over to them – to succeed or fail in glorious fashion. The result, with this wary but entrepreneurial generation, might be an incredibly creative idea that’s not ruined by top-down management. Or it might be a half-baked idea that falls flat. But a generation of students who have been told they can be anything they want to be and who have helped develop the technology to flatten the world wants an equal voice. They want a chance to speak into the process and try new things. The end product takes on the qualities of the team, and may look entirely different from anything the leader envisioned at the beginning.

My own observation is that young leaders get incredibly frustrated at the turf battles over who will get credit for the work. Let’s just get it done! The greed and selfishness that shows up in setting all the parameters up front has kept many a good idea from getting off the ground. For instance, April’s Wired magazine comments that the turf war over multitouch technology and gesture-based computing is “going to be ugly — and potentially fatal to the movement.” Group ownership of an idea and shared credit allows quicker response times and more creativity. Open sourcing almost always works better than closed.

Of course, this teamwork characteristic has big implications when it comes to interviews and resumes. A great accomplishment listed on a resume might require a follow-up question from the observant interviewer on what that person’s role was in the success of the team.

So, why can young leaders freely give away authority? (Am I not casting an idyllic view of the new generation of leaders? Probably, but not intentionally. I just think the new generations have different sins than their predecessors.) Young leaders are often simply not attracted to the trappings of power. No amount of money is incentive enough to offset the cost in time spent with friends and family. No perks can offset the long hours and increased stress. Money is not the idol it used to be. So when the goal is not consolidation of power, authority does not need to be hoarded.

I was in a meeting at Wycliffe one day in the middle of a raging discussion on the latest change. Yes, changes have been more the norm than the exception here since the words “Vision 2025” were first uttered in 1999. After a number of negative comments were made, an older volunteer stood up and asked the crowd whether there was anyone in the room who liked change. I still remember that out of a room of about 200 people, at least 20 of us stood up to say that we thrived on change rather than fought it.

There are those who thrive on change, and they are generally younger. Perhaps it’s just that once you get established, you get used to the way things are. There are probably a large number of personality factors and cultural factors that influence resistance to change, but I don’t think anyone can deny that the rate of change has risen exponentially in recent years. For those who resist change, it’s a nightmare. For those who love it, these are high times.

I read a great diagnosis of the issue of change in The Missional Leader (by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk):

There are two kinds of change we want to consider in this book: continuous and discontinuous. Let us illustrate the difference between the two types of change.

Continuous change develops out of what has gone before and therefore can be expected, anticipated, and managed. The maturation of our children is an example. Generations have experienced this process of raising children and watching them develop into adults. We can anticipate the stages and learn from those who have gone before us to navigate the changes. We have a stock of experience and resources to address this development change; it is continuous with the experience of many others. This kind of change involves such things as improvement on what is already taking place and whether the change can be managed with existing skills and expertise.

Discontinuous change is disruptive and unanticipated; it creates situations that challenge our assumptions. The skills we have learned aren’t helpful in this kind of change. In discontinuous change:
•    Working harder with one’s habitual skills and ways of working does not address the challenges being faced.
•    An unpredictable environment means new skills are needed.
•    There is no getting back to normal.

Discontinuous change is dominant in periods of history that transform a culture forever, tipping it over into something new. The Exodus stories are an example of a time when God tipped history in a new direction and in so doing transformed Israel from a divergent group of slaves into a new kind of people. The advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century tipped Western society toward modernity and the pluralist, individualized culture we know today. Once it placed the Bible and books into everyone’s hands, the European mind was transformed. There are many more examples, from the Reformation to the ascendance of new technologies such as computers and the Internet, that illustrate the effect of rapid discontinuous change transforming a culture.

I conclude, then, that change is not what people fear. Most change is manageable, after all. It’s discontinuous change that we fear. And we are in one of those periods of history as we shift from modernism to postmodernism. The book goes on to give an example of discontinuous change:

There is a wonderful IBM ad that captures something of what it means. A team of people evidently starting up a business, after working hard to develop an online marketing strategy, gather around a computer as their product goes online. They look hopefully and expectantly for the first Internet sale. When one comes through, they nervously look at each other, relieved that something has happened. Then ten more sales come through. Muted excitement runs through the anxious room. Then, suddenly, a hundred or so orders show up on the computer screen. The team is cheering and hugging one another in exultation; all their hard work has paid off. Then they stare at the screen, beyond disbelief: instead of hundreds of orders, which they couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams, there are suddenly thousands. Everyone is overwhelmed. No one knows how to deal with this; it’s outside their skills and expertise. They are at a loss to know what to do next. The organization has moved to a level of complexity that is beyond the team’s skills and ability to address.

In a period of discontinuous change, leaders suddenly find that the skills and capacities in which they were trained are of little use in addressing a new situation and environment.

I might adjust that last sentence to say that established leaders suddenly find that their training is of little use. The next generation of leaders is coming in with a new set of skills and capacities that are ready made for the times we live in. Perhaps the ADD tendencies of the younger generations will serve them well as they move into leadership.

Get used to it. Change is the new stability.