July 2011

[re-posted from my ministry blog, teameyre.wordpress.com]

Thomas Jefferson is a fascinating character to me. I used to swallow everything he did wholesale: his beliefs about freedom, life and liberty, his inventive mind and his bent toward states’ rights. He was quite a Renaissance Man. When Becky and I went to the diplomatic reception rooms in the State Department last week, I didn’t expect to find my mind drawn to Thomas Jefferson in particular.

Thomas Jefferson painting at the State DepartmentThis image is interesting to me because, in an era of puffy-cheeked portraits, Jefferson looks a little gaunt. While George Washington took his dentures out for photos, requiring that the artist fill the cheeks back out again with cotton balls, Jefferson seems to have his own teeth. The artist also seems to have wanted to draw a connection between Jefferson and the ancient Greeks, perhaps suggesting esteem for a man he clearly put in the same category as Plato and Aristotle.

There’s also a Da Vinci feel to it, a connection I agree with. Jefferson was absolutely brilliant. And tall. At 6′ 1″, he was a head above his colleagues. As a result, he suffered from a bad back. So he drew up plans for an adjustable-height desk. The double hinge on his creation is remarkable. I could use one of these myself.

Jefferson's adjustable-height deskSo here’s a man whose day job is President, yet he can’t contain the ideas popping into his head regarding botany, architecture (the Jefferson memorial, for instance) and furniture design. As a leader whose primary strength is ideation, I can definitely admire a man like that! On my last flight, I sketched out designs for an expandable round conference room table. Perhaps I can find time to put my weekend warrior skills to work and build a prototype.

Yet Jefferson had clear blind spots. Let me give you a few. In writing the Declaration of Independence, he borrowed heavily from the big three rights hailed by the French: life, liberty and land. He and his subcommittee wanted a clean break from the land-owning aristocracies of Europe, but I’m not sure “pursuit of happiness” resulted in any improvements in the resulting culture.

I also fault his viewpoint on God and the world he observed. He couldn’t get past his logical mind to conclude that there might be such thing as mystery. A few years ago I read an account of Lewis and Clark’s exploration and lost a lot of respect for Jefferson, because of his flat viewpoint of the fantastic discoveries they made. Everything had to be explained. The fact that he made his own edited version of the Bible to explain away or remove the miracles sums it up for me. Sure, he was a product of his times, but he epitomizes the dangers of belief in the supremacy of mankind — our creations and our brilliance.

Jefferson was a complicated man. In laying out the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, he showed a clear naive optimism in the goodness of man. And yet, in laying out a form of government, he and his colleagues demonstrated a clear understanding that greed and the raw pursuit of power would corrupt any government. Eschewing pure democracy as a form of evil, they instead set up a republic, built on the idea of checks and balances. I may not like some of the opinions expressed by our senators and representatives, and I might despise the extreme polarizing ugliness we’re seeing during the debt standoff, but as I sat in the gallery of the Senate chamber last week, I could see the brilliance built into our system that keeps egos and fringe elements in check. We can thank Jefferson for a lot of the thought that went into the U.S. government.

Anytime you get a new person in your organization, you have an opportunity. Anytime a fresh set of eyes looks at the rut you live in, they’re going to see things that never occur to you. The key is to give that person permission to point out things that don’t make sense. Let them question everything. Your goal as an organization is to maximize that key window of opportunity.

I’ll never forget a testimonial I heard in Junior High about a chain-smoking biker who visited church for the first time. While I don’t remember the entire talk, one line lodged in my mind: At the door, a waiter handed him a menu and then walked him to his seat. Growing up in the church, it never occurred to me how absurd some of our common practices must be to those we desperately want to step in our doors. Why do we do them? Probably because no one ever asked why.

I’m trying to take advantage of my transition time with Wycliffe Canada, especially the months where I don’t have the title yet. I’m asking lots of questions, and I’m okay with the appearance of naivete. I’m fully aware that if I try to act like I know the answer, I’ll cheat Wycliffe Canada out of the foundational questions I should be asking. That’s the approach Patrick Lencioni endorses in his leadership book, Getting Naked.

So a fresh set of eyes is critical to challenge our practices and point out the obvious that is no longer apparent to the insiders.

That said, I think the emperor knew he had no clothes. Deep down, we know we’re maintaining absurdity. We know that we need to make a change; we just don’t want to do it. At the Catalyst conference a few years ago, Andy Stanley shared a quote that didn’t originate from him but stuck with him. Likewise, it stuck with me. It’s a pair of questions to ask your team, to help them move toward action and courage:

If our Board were to fire all of us today and bring in a new team, what changes would that new group of leaders make? What’s to stop us from stepping out of the room, walking back in and doing the same things?

That quote led me to my conviction for any job:

If I know what I need to do but don’t have the energy to do it, it’s time to step aside.

Sometimes reframing the question simply means choosing to look at a problem as an optimist rather than a pessimist. Let me give an example from Wycliffe — an organization that’s 65 years old in the U.S. and 50 years old in Canada. As a result, both have an increasingly aging population and a large number close to retirement age. You could see that as a negative, since we’re going to need to replace a lot of workers, outpacing the retirements with recruiting if we want to grow. If we face that situation in a scarcity mode, the tendency is to either get depressed or try too hard to swing for the fences with one big solution rather than keep doing the things that have worked for a long time.

Let’s reframe the question. Wycliffe has four generations working side by side. What an opportunity for mentoring! How do we get those who’ve served 40 years in Wycliffe to pass on some of the corporate mythology to the younger generations? How do we get the young generations to help the older generations understand the times and that the values can remain constant in spite of “crazy” new methodology?

Here’s another thought: what if the decrease isn’t a problem? In other words, what if God is doing something new? At the same time as North America is becoming a tougher market to recruit in, there’s explosive growth in the Church in South America, and it has a missionary vision. What if we were to conclude that some of the dollars spent here would get a better return in Brazil or Bolivia? In addition, what if our burned-out recruiters, who have tried so hard for so long, some with very little fruit, could do a staff swap with someone in Bolivia, getting their vision refreshed and helping Bolivian Bible translation mobilizers figure out how to direct some of that missionary impulse toward the Bible translation movement?

Or what if we concluded we have to work in new ways and in new roles? Perhaps God is moving us toward more of an equipping and empowering role within the global Bible translation movement.

My point is that, if we look at the question from any of these perspectives, we come to different conclusions than if we assume the trend is problematic. Perhaps you’ve got another perspective or your own case study. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

How many times have you been forced into a situation where you have to replace the status quo, but no alternative seems an improvement? You’re not going to get your followers to move from “here” if they don’t see the potential for “there.” My suggestion is to reframe the question and come up with a different solution entirely.

I learned this trick as a graphic designer, and I think it applies just as well to leadership. Turn the question around and ask it in a different way. Reframing the question means asking whether your problem could become an opportunity if you looked at it a different way. Let me give you two examples.

I think Apple reframed the issue of smart phones. My previous cell phone was too big. I wanted something smaller, and I tried a number of brands, seeking the smallest phone with the largest screen. Then I got an iPhone, which is the biggest cell phone I’ve ever carried. My biggest complaint? It’s too small. I wish it was just a touch bigger. So what happened? The iPhone reframed the discussion of what a smart phone could be and do. The iPad is Apple’s solution, and I admit I have iPad envy.

My second example comes from my house, where we spent the long weekend adding to our stack of boxes ready for our move to Calgary. Our biggest challenge was convincing our kids to part with some of their toys, even for a few months. We tried “spinning it” as an opportunity to send a gift to themselves in Canada, labeling the box to themselves to open and get fresh toys to play with. Didn’t work. Meanwhile, their play room has been getting smaller and smaller as boxes line the walls. What did we do? We reframed the question. Yesterday, the solution presented itself: build a fort/maze with boxes. All of a sudden, the whines have turned into persistent cries to pack more boxes so we can add more walls to the maze.

So, whatever issue you’re facing right now, is there a way you could present it in a different light, set it in a new context or turn it around so the negatives become positives? Perhaps it will require a bit of creativity, but the solution is likely lurking around the edges.