March 2010


This God who pursues us is always calling the wrong people onto a bus that isn’t expected to arrive.

Roxburgh and Romanuk in The Missional Leader are obviously trying to stir up some controversy. You don’t mess with Jim Collins! But they’re writing to a church audience while Collins clearly wrote Good to Great for a business audience. Even his monograph painted social sectors with a broad brush. Where do parachurch mission agencies like Wycliffe fall in the continuum? I know lots of people have opinions on that, but I don’t want to give a rash answer. I think it’s worthwhile to embrace the tension and wrestle with it for a week or two in this blog. Give me your thoughts as we go along.

What happens when the wrong people are in leadership? The Bible is full of examples of unlikely leaders. You know the obvious ones, so let’s look at the book of Judges for some more obscure ones:

  • Sampson, a guy with huge strengths and huge weaknesses. Probably had addiction problems, some anger problems and a taste for prostitutes.
  • Gideon, the “mighty warrior” who did everything he could to lay low and dodge leadership.
  • Barak, a guy appointed for leadership but who was more comfortable being in the #2 chair.
  • I think my favorite is Jephthah, the son of a prostitute who was chased away by his half-brothers until they got in a bind and asked him to be their leader. He was rash, unorthodox and creative in his leadership, but he also made some stupid decisions.

All of them had major flaws, but God used each of them in their times.

Perhaps the classic example is the twelve-seat bus that Jesus put together to transform the world and launch the church. He filled seats with a few hotheads, a handful of uneducated fishermen, a couple of dire enemies (a zealot and a tax collector) and a traitor. Not the team any leader I know would assemble. Roxburgh and Romanuk again:

Look at the ordinary people Jesus begins with; this is consistent with how God has always chosen to act…. What is present here is literally that in God’s economy the Spirit is among the people of God…. God’s future is among the regular, ordinary people of God. It’s not primarily in great leaders or experts but among the people, all those people most leaders believe don’t get it.

Ouch. I’m guilty of thinking some of these people don’t get it. I have a bent to engage with leaders but write off those who aren’t interested or gifted or called to lead.

So, how should a Christian organization engage with these tensions? On the one hand, we are stewards of God’s resources, with a huge responsibility to manage our assets well. We want good management and good leadership. On the other hand, we have the verses that say God’s power is strongest when we are weak. We have the examples that God can use a man like Peter — a disciple who’s quick to speak and slow to listen, a devotee who steps out of a boat in the middle of a lake, a coward who denies a friend at his neediest moment. The wild card is what the Holy Spirit can do to fill someone and make him useful. Acts 4 describes the transformation Peter went through and names two factors: he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he’d been with Jesus. I can’t say I’ve ever looked for those two criteria on a resume, though I have looked at previous failures and testing and how a person has grown — perhaps evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work.

There’s my challenge for you: in your hiring and development work, how are you looking for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work?

We have the idea that the top leaders in an organization have to have “the package.” They have to have well-rounded leadership ability, a lengthy track record of success at every level and a long list of desirable characteristics paired with a very short list of weaknesses. When we look for that kind of well-roundedness, I think we’re playing it safe. Leaders like those are not only hard to come by, but they don’t come with as much upside. It’s about risk management rather than seeking to make huge gains for the kingdom.

The result is that most innovations in a large organization don’t come from the top; they come from risky individuals not trusted with leadership whose ideas are embraced and supported from the top. The way to make that strategy work is to invert the pyramid and have the leaders support those ideas. I’m not saying that is a bad idea at all. But too many leaders shut down the good ideas and the radicals before they get a chance. Consider the movie Braveheart, where the leaders withheld support for William Wallace time after time until he led his own revolution.

Most organizations are founded by radicals and then stewarded by “packages.”

As Eddie Gibbs says in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture:

It is sobering to reflect that the most conservative institutions in the church today began as radical movements at their inception. Yesterday’s radical leaders become today’s conservatives who are seldom prepared to pay the high price of innovation a second time around.

What if, instead, we looked for people who couldn’t do everything, but would assemble a team around them to cover their obvious blind spots? What if we found roles for single-strength afficionados? What if we interviewed using questions focused on evidence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life and awe at what Christ has done to transform them? What if we looked for failure and loss in a candidate’s life and asked what God had done to redeem those situations? What if we looked for weaknesses through the lens of how Christ has and could show his strength?

I have to admit I’m not comfortable with this way of working. Comfort is risk-averse. I like “packages” as much as the next person. In fact, I desire to be a “package.” And I am afraid of the Holy Spirit. He’s unpredictable and too often challenges my comfort. I think to take bold action with an organization requires a crisis, a point when motivation becomes stronger than resistance or reticence. More and more, I think these are times when bold action is required.

Steve Moore’s list included a good indicator of early leadership that’s worth commenting on: individuals who are willing to take on a challenge others won’t. The ones who show initiative to take advantage of opportunity. The ones whose resistance to risk is overtaken by a compulsion that someone has to do something.

Leaders sometimes appear to come out of nowhere with a sudden success. I suspect I know what Malcomb Gladwell would say: that there are no overnight successes, and the individual has put in a lot of hours beforehand that led to such “instance success.” I agree. I think it’s easier to spot failure than to spot competence, and individuals like these have likely shown signs of potential along the way. What gets them noticed is the turnaround situation where they made something out of nothing.

There’s a well-worn piece of advice that seems relevant: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Remember that line from Amazing Grace, where a 24-year-old William Pitt first proposes to William Wilberforce that he thinks he can make a run at prime minister?

Wilberforce: No one of our age has ever taken power.
Pitt: Which is why we’re too young to realize certain things are impossible. Which is why we will do them anyway.

Some watch that movie and get inspired by Wilberforce; I get inspired by Pitt. Wilberforce succeeded through persistence and endurance; Pitt succeeded by sheer audacity. Perhaps he was a fool, but maybe that’s the point. In Moore’s recent book, While You Were Micro-Sleeping, he makes the point that experts and elitists “can’t ask the dumb questions that often trigger new ideas.” Most innovations come from fools.

Certainly, the pessimism born from experience becomes a block to innovation, but I think there’s another factor at work than just being too young to show caution. I think it’s a matter of conviction and motivation — that sometimes a situation is so dire, with no one willing to take it on, that a young person decides the worst they can do is fail. They have less to lose. Or that a frustrated young leader who never gets opportunity sees in a challenge a chance to go all in. With great risk comes great reward. We can probably all think of young leaders who took on big challenges and came out of nowhere to lead a new era. These are the kinds of stories we love.

But what about the other side? The stories of those who try and fail — or who never try — don’t get told. The younger generations have been long characterized as having an unhealthy fear of failure. Pessimism and skepticism is just as rampant among the young as it is among the old. I’ve had conversations with three young leaders in the past month who have recently faced choices: one relatively safe and one with greater risk. In all three cases, the young leader has opted for safety. There are good reasons for their decisions. No one would question their logic. But I’m disappointed.

Here’s the thing. Organizations need young leaders to step up. Hierarchical organizations need young leaders who master relational influence over positional authority. High-process organizations need young leaders who push back on bureaucracy and ask uncomfortable questions. Monocultural organizations need trailblazers who easily bridge cultures. And older, established organizations need age diversity.

What it comes down to is that the world doesn’t need an older you. The world needs young leaders who are willing to step up and take on the unique challenges we’re facing… today.

In our Threshing Floor lunchtime discussion a year or so ago, one of our senior vice presidents mentioned that there is no ladder for general administration. The fact is that the skills required for administration are not the same skills required for lower-level leadership or line management. Therefore what would make a person successful as an administrator wouldn’t necessarily make her successful at any point in earlier life. In fact, it might hinder her success. And someone who is very successful at a lower level might be extremely unqualified for executive leadership. It’s simply a different skillset.

We’re talking about the opposite of the Peter principle here. It’s not about promoting someone to their highest level of incompetence. It’s not about turning a talented practicioner into a manager. In fact, talented practicioners might best be used where they are. Imagine that!

So, when Michelle Braden asks if a young person demonstrates early-stage strategic thinking, I want to ask what that looks like.

  • I think in some ways, it might come across as boredom. Or daydreaming.
  • It might be the annoying propensity to not stick to a task.
  • Or a tendency to scope creep — to do things outside their jurisdiction.
  • It might be a hunger to know the background or the bigger context for a task they’re asked to do.

All of those indicate early-stage strategic thinking… and might make one very unsuccessful in a job that doesn’t require that skillset.

Because the only ladders are within departments, great generalists and executives can be typecast, stuck within a particular role and unable to break free. If they only have one variety of experience, they could very well be limited. Jeff Shaara’s Civil War novels talk about an extremely talented quartermaster in the Mexican American War who was adept at getting supplies where they needed to be. Wikipedia says that his desire to lead troops was so strong that he continually found ways to get to the front lines. After the war, he was an abysmal failure at a number of ventures. It wasn’t until the Civil War, when he finally got an opportunity to command troops, that he showed extraordinary brilliance, earning the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.” To his final battle, he included in his military strategy a strong recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of supply chains. He soon caught the eye of his commander-in-chief. U.S. Grant’s promotion to lieutenant genaral was likely the greatest leadership decision Lincoln ever made. My question is this: what if Grant had been left in charge of supplies? Or what if his civilian failures had ended his career?

We’ll save a future blog post for the fact that Grant was a fantastic general who made a terrible president.

To get back to my point, how do we find these diamonds in the rough? How do we spot strategic thinking in a position that doesn’t necessarily require it?

  • How do we test emerging leaders to see if that little glimmer is really full-blown, high-carat strategic thinking?
  • And are we willing to take the risks when we see it to move someone into a position that plays to that strength, even if their resume might not include all the rungs to the top?
  • Are we willing to recommend cross-departmental transfers to broaden a rising star’s experience outside their one area of expertise?
  • Are there spaces in general administration to bring in raw talents in intern, interim or assistant roles to develop them at the 50,000 foot level?

I think Wycliffe USA has some pretty good first steps in place, but there’s plenty of room to improve.

As I was walking into the office a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that a young leader was wearing a blazer… again. In a pretty casual department his attire stood out. Turns out he’s been dressing up consistently since the new year. When I asked about it, the response was that he’s trying to take himself more seriously.

Taking yourself seriously is a quality worth adding to our list of early seeds of leadership. There are a number of indicators that a person is preparing himself for future roles. At the earliest stage, this might include dressing up. It might also include a desire to spend time with senior leaders. Let’s look at a few examples.

When I was visiting with another organization recently, one of the senior leaders pointed out what first stood out to him about their youngest vice president: he had never been intimidated by leaders at the highest levels, instead choosing to interact with them… and ask lots of questions. I’ve seen this kind of thing myself when the board or senior leadership team gathers. A few young, rising leaders inevitably show up at break times.

A fortysomething leader came to me one day and told me he was considering throwing his hat in the ring to be considered for a promotion. He asked me what I thought. Among other things, I asked him if he considered people at that next level to be colleagues. How comfortable was he with walking into their office to have a conversation? Realizing that he was already at ease at that level was one factor in his decision to pursue a new leadership position.

What it comes down to is whether someone acts like the position they see themselves serving in.

I’m not talking about people who “sell out” to get a position. I think authenticity is extremely important in leadership. In fact, when I moved into the Offices of the President a year ago, I went to two people who knew me well and gave them permission to call me on it if they ever saw me becoming a clone of those I work around. If I ever become someone else in an attempt to get ahead, I want friends who are close enough to point out my hypocrisy.

What I’m talking about is the way David, hiding out in a cave in the wilderness, acted like the king he would become. His circumstances didn’t matter, and he didn’t let the group of misfits surrounding him bring him down to their level. He behaved in a manner suited to a king, and in so doing, laid a course for the way he would act as king.

Yesterday Mauricio Alvarez shared a fantastic message about living in hope, even in difficult situations. I think the non-western church has a lot to teach us about maintaining hope when times are difficult. While westerners are convinced things will rebound, our brothers and sisters from South America, Africa and Asia understand that things could very well not improve. Whether they do or not, we can still have hope.

One point Alvarez made was that we build hope by focusing on God and the character he wants to build in our lives. David’s life, for instance, shows the law of preparation. As a young shepherd, David spent a lot of time in isolation — plenty of time to practice his slingshot so that when he needed that shot, he could hit it with perfection. When he was young, he was tested by lions and bears. He learned to face his worst enemy and to overcome with inadequate weapons. His early years without pressure shaped him into the leader he would become when the pressure was on.

Years later, David mastered that ability to use circumstances as practice. He was a capable military commander and then leader over 400 outcasts in the wilderness. He showed fruitfulness at every level and demonstrated the character he would need as king. For instance, consider his incredible patience even when he had an opportunity to take the kingdom on his own terms.

Some friends in Seattle reminded me of Psalm 63 last week. David, writing in the wilderness while being pursued by King Saul, spends the first ten verses talking about his thirst for God’s presence, love, power and glory. Throughout the psalm, he speaks as a visionary, confusing present and future. He celebrates the future ruin of his enemies, then offers a very interesting statement:

But the king will rejoice in God.
All who trust in him will praise him,
while liars will be silenced.

What king? Saul? No. David’s referring to himself in future tense. He was anointed years before. He knows that he is next in line. So he lives the future even though present circumstances don’t warrant it. That hope allows him to thrive in small things, resulting in fruitfulness, faithfulness and joy.

When I was learning to ski back when I was in high school, I was taught that the most important thing to learn is how to fall well. Now, there’s two ways to judge quality. When you’re on the ski lift, and you see someone wipe out spectacularly below you, you judge a good fall by factors like whether both skis and poles separate from the individual, what body parts hit snow at high speeds, number of twists, etc. When you’re the one falling, you use different parameters. You want to fall in such a way that your skis don’t twist and cause knee damage, that you don’t hit stationary objects, and that you are able to get up again. During the recent Olympics, we saw some people who knew how to fall. Do you remember Anja Paerson, the female downhill skiier who crossed the finish line on her face? She ended up getting bronze two days later. That was someone who knew how to fall.

I think what Michelle Braden would tell you is that leaders need to know how to fall. They need to be able to get back up, stiff and bruised as they are, and try again. When gauging leadership potential we need to consider, What is a young person’s ability to fail and then recover again? Do they understand how to do that? As I think about her question, “Do they understand the process to recover from failure?” I suspect most organizations don’t have any kind of articulated process for that. What they have instead is a track record. I heard recently about an executive in Orlando who very publicly blew it in managing a division of the company. The CEO took him under his wing and gently restored him and built up his confidence again. He is now CEO of a division of that company. How many people in the company watched that happen? I guarantee you there are leaders in that company who have followed that same model to restore others. And I guarantee you the young leaders and aspiring leaders in that company noticed.

So, I think there are three points that are worth discussing. First, stop and ask yourself: What is your organization’s track record for recovery from failure? What can you as a leader do to change or build on that track record?

Second, as established leaders, keep your eye open for failure. Look for young people who show fortitude and resilience in failure. We can look for those who can take the heat and handle pushback. We can look for those who can stand by a decision that blew up on them and not make excuses. We need to be quick to come alongside them and not let them stay down too long.

Third, take a moment to think: What was your first big failure? What lessons did you learn from it that you still apply today?

I like to warn graphic designers that a day will come when they would cost their company money because of a bad decision. If they are lucky, it will only cost the company hundreds. My first big mistake cost my company a couple of thousand. I remember getting the bank stationery back from the printer and picking up the first sheet of letterhead. It felt like it was printed on copy paper. I got a big knot in my throat. I had to go to the namesakes of our public relations firm and own my mistake — that I had trusted the recommendation of our print broker without verifying the paper myself. We of course reprinted the job. That situation ended up breaking my relationship with the printer that we had used for years, and I probably could have handled that situation differently. My boss never complained about the cost. But I’ll tell you this: I worked harder at my job after that point. I swore I would never disappoint my boss again. And to this day, I trust my vendors but verify everything.

Failure is great leadership development… if you know how to fall well.