January 2011

When I was in Peru last year, a friend of mine told me the general nature of leadership in the Latin church. The goal, he said, was not a handoff. Sure, Latins want to be given responsibility and leadership in the missions movement, and deservedly so. In fact, the Church needs them to take leadership. But the nuance he introduced me to was that Latins don’t want the ex-patriates to leave. They want to serve alongside us.

I apply the same filter when reading the article, Google’s Greatest Innovation May Be Its Management Practice, from Fast Company. What if generations served together, even from the CEO role? It’s a fascinating idea. What are your thoughts?

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo tells the story of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso walking down a street one evening in Paris when a military convoy rumbled by. What caught their attention was that it looked different: the first time either of them had seen camouflage. Picasso cried out, amazed. “Yes, it is we who made it, that is Cubism!” Sure, camouflage was the direct application of Cubism by a lesser artist than Picasso, who thought he could apply art to transform warfare. But at the same time, that moment summarized in a moment the completely different way of seeing the world that was Cubism. It took artists to start the transformation, and it took artists to note the cultural shift.

Today’s prophets are found among artists. They’re the ones who have the pulse of what’s next. For instance, they’re the ones who first debated postmodernism… in the 1970s. The rest of the world took notice thirty years later. And the Church began to debate it within the last ten years, as if they could make a difference entering the debate that late in the day.

I was first exposed to Postmodern thought at a conference in 1999. It was eye-opening for me. I still remember one of the organizers lamenting about the state of artistic expression in most churches as well as the exodus of young people — particularly the artistic class — from the Church. Her conclusion: “The Church kicked out all the artists and then decided it wanted art.” She’s right on so many points. Without artists, worship becomes formulaic and stagnant. Without artists, the Church is so late in attempts to contextualize the Gospel as to be irrelevant. Without artists, the Church is left out of public debate on culture shifts.

So, while the Church engages with yesterday’s cultural shift, the artists long ago moved on to other shifts. What were they discussing at the turn of the century? What are they discussing today? The reason artists can express or portray an idea in fresh ways is that they see in fresh ways. The key to thinking differently is seeing differently.

Remember the old Apple ad series? The only one I clipped was the one featuring Ansel Adams. I wish I had the one featuring Paul Rand. Recall the narration: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.”

Leaders would do well to maintain relationships with the arts community. Artists can make you uncomfortable. They are not always appreciated in their hometown. They love to note hypocrisy. But don’t try to forecast without your best “seers.” When it comes to anticipating the future, keep your artists close by.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo recommends changing the way we look at things. He suggests that our global financial crisis resulted from our tendency in the West to try to take things apart to figure them out or look at individual parts of a problem. For instance, a viewpoint that isolates mortgages from insurance fails to see the interconnections that brought the whole system down. Instead, he recommends taking in everything at once instead of fixating on pieces. He likens complex systems to a sandpile, where every grain is dependent on the others. It has an inherent instability and very little predictability. The way to anticipate change in a complex situation is to look around the edges, in unexpected places.

Ramo tells of a study where 100 graduate students were tested to track their eye movements. Half were American-born, and half were Chinese-born. The Americans fixed their eyes on the main object in the foreground, to the extreme that they sometimes didn’t recognize that the background image changed. Ramo goes as far as saying, “When it came to the environment, Americans were almost completely “change blind.” In other words, they stared.

The Chinese students kept their eyes moving, searching the background for additional context. They didn’t stop with a tiger in the woods. Instead, they looked for threats, clues to location, tensions, etc. that might influence the tiger. In fact, some spent so much time on context that when a new picture came up with the same background and a different foreground object, they thought they had seen the image before. His conclusion was that Americans typically stare at a small handful of data points while high-context cultures believe that the environment contains clues to what will happen next.

More than anything, what you want to know is when change is going to begin. In Chinese philosophy this sense is known as a mastery of incipience, and the skill is often praised as the highest form of wisdom.

Ramo’s point is that today’s world requires a different way of looking. Those who will be successful in the present and future are not those who narrow their gaze, looking for specific data points. He’s seen it in foreign affairs, venture capital and intelligence: those who can take in a broad range of data and infer conclusions are more successful. Ramo’s conclusion:

The chance for real brilliance or flair is usually best seen out of the corner of the eye.

So, how’s your eyesight as a leader? If you have a distinctly western view of the world, this is a great argument for diversity. Surround yourself with people who see the world differently than you do, and you might do well to bring in people who from birth have been trained to look at the edges of the paintings — to look at the whole to gauge what’s just around the corner.

Here’s an unpopular idea for a New Years Resolution: resolve to do nothing in 2011.

That’s not the same as resolving not to make a resolution. My general pattern is to avoid them, as so many resolutions fall by the wayside before January expires, let alone survive the whole year. Rather, I’m proposing you resolve to be intentional about doing nothing. Let me explain.

There are two great Scriptures I’ve been chewing on in 2010. Both talk about the virtues of doing nothing. First, the words of Christ:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.”

Last October, Paul McKaughan of The Mission Exchange dusted off John 15:5 in his devotional thoughts at a conference in St. Louis. He reminded us that the verse doesn’t say that we will only produce some fruit. It doesn’t say we won’t be able to do much. It says we can do nothing. I want to have a productive, effective 2011. So I resolve to remain, to abide, in Christ.

After Moses brings the two tablets down from Mount Sinai to find all Israel worshiping a golden calf, he’s not the only one who is angry. In Exodus 33, God tells them he won’t travel with them on their journey, lest he destroy them. Moses pushes back: “If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place.” I’d rather dwell with Christ where he is than try to go anywhere or do anything in 2011. Even better if I can join him where’s he’s at work.

Secondly, in Philippians 2:3,4 Paul admonishes:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

The point isn’t that I hold back from ambitious acts. The kingdom of God and his glory are of too much value to hold back. What it’s saying is that if my motives are bad, God would rather I do nothing. The HOW is important. So I need to clothe myself in humility, seeking others’ interests in a way that shows I value them over myself and over my plans. That is the way we advance God’s kingdom — by doing his work his way.

I have high hopes for 2011. We’ll see if I can carry out this resolution past January.