What successful traits then look like now: Shrewdness

In this series, we’re considering the question: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them? What competencies do you look for, and what do the early version of those competencies look like?

The working theory I’m exploring is that you should look for evidence of early indicators of megacompetencies. I’ve covered resourcefulness and servant heart. The third one I want to propose is:

3. Shrewdness

This one has potential dangers. There are a lot of negative connotations to shrewdness, so stick with me as I unpack it. Certainly, shrewdness can suggest a cunning, conniving, deceitful and devious person. But I believe shrewdness itself is contextual, a competency that in itself is not good or bad, but overlays character. To someone of honesty and purity, shrewdness can add impact to the good they pursue. To someone of rotten character, shrewdness can make their evil formidable.

The critical point for me is that on two occasions, Jesus tells his followers they should be shrewd. Because that point is worth unpacking, I will explore the Biblical view of shrewdness in another post.Okay, with that as a foundation, let’s look at the competencies within shrewdness. I’m essentially breaking down and redeeming negative traits like “cunning,” “conniving,” “crafty,” “calculating” and “conspiring”:

  • Strategery. I’ve adopted the term President George W. Bush coined to noun the verb strategize. There are two primary components to this quality:
    • Foresight: The ability to get up on the bridge and see the horizon in order to set the ship’s direction. This includes elements of abstract thinking, taking the broad view and not being bound to the current strategy.
    • Thinking and planning: The ability to anticipate and plan the steps and stages to get to that horizon, including anticipating and getting around perceived obstacles.

While few leaders may have both versions of strategery, both are useful elements of senior leadership, which mixes vision with implementation. And both can be noted early in young leaders. Look for those who are always asking “why?” and interested in context, the bigger picture. Look for those who are especially resourceful, who can negotiate tradeoffs or break down game theory. Yes, maybe there’s more to gamers than we give them credit for!

  • Street smarts. There’s an old military adage of disputed origins that was best summed up by Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So, as important as planning is, the question is how you adapt and roll with the punches. Street smarts brings wisdom to ground level and includes the ability to intuitively read an environment, handle situations with common sense and find a way through challenges. For those working in missions or other expatriate settings, such savviness may equate to cross-cultural adeptness. Of course, those with street smarts don’t necessarily play by the well-established game rules, and therefore you can anticipate the friction between this person and a system-protecting manager.
  • Creativity. Creative people find a way to do what needs to be done, which involves considering alternatives, seeing opportunity and taking risks. They may have a comfort with uncertainty and a wide-ranging set of interests. In fact, the ability to think laterally or draw applications from other fields that haven’t been tried in this field before might lead to a reputation for being “offbeat.” The challenge for senior leaders is to notice those who may be on the fringes and invite them into the center in order to harness their creativity for the good of the whole.
  • Timing. Shrewdness comes with an uncanny sense of timing. The right idea at the wrong time is just as likely to fail as the wrong idea itself. Successful entrepreneurs and breakthrough leaders are opportunistic in the best sense of that word. So watch for people who have an intuitive sense of the proper moment for change. But recognize that, early on in a career, such people may lack the courage or support to act on such instincts. That’s where a senior leader may be able to provide a safety net.
  • Influence. The DISC test affirms Influence as a legitimate leadership style. Those who shape the environment and win people over have innate understanding of interpersonal relationships and high emotional intelligence. When skilled, these people can be very persuasive. Patrick Lencioni calls this working genius “galvanizing”: the ability to figure out the wins for others and rally others to act on ideas. While influencers can certainly fall into manipulation and deceit, there are all kinds of positives to this trait. Look for indicators of it, even the unskilled or abused forms of it, and tap those traits for good.

At the beginning of this month I had a chance to watch a bit of track cycling at the velodrome in Japan. I had no idea just how cerebral some of those cycling races are. The sprints are a cat-and-mouse game, sometimes going incredibly slowly and then opening up to a frenetic scramble for the finish line. The omnium, with its many ways to make points or avoid elimination, requires a mix of: strong, pre-planned strategy; keeping track of other competitors; street smarts; agile reactions; opportunistic timing and the cunning use of small openings. Watching the British rider Matthew Walls pull ahead and then hold off the opposition over the four events of the omnium gave me a vivid picture of shrewdness.

When Jesus said his followers should be shrewd in Matthew 10:16, he made an important pairing: “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Manipulative, deceitful individuals are not harmless or innocent. But there is a shrewdness that’s rightly directed toward good, that comes out in good business sense and savvy maneuvering of a Christ-follower in this present age. That edge is something that helps in senior leadership, and the signs of its presence are evident much earlier if you’re alert for them.

So that perhaps brings me to the end of this series, unless I missed something. Now I want your input. What megacompetencies did I miss? What other early indicators should we look for in a future C-suite leader?


Megacompetency Series

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