Alive to the situation

I’ve seen some believers recently repost a story about a church that wasn’t able to meet together in their building, so they met at a local Walmart. Rather than celebrate with them this act of holy rebellion, I have some questions. Sure, it reflects a complete lack of understanding of the risk levels of worship and whether a church’s practices make a store or restaurant a poor comparison. But my concern is deeper: I wonder if anyone in Walmart that day was attracted to the gospel because of this improvised service. Was it the aroma of Christ to those employees and customers? Was that even on the minds of the church leaders?

My frustration during the second phase of this pandemic is that many churches are hyper-focusing on their rights and their comforts rather than equipping their people for these unique times. They’re focusing internally on whether and how they can hold services, when their congregants are lost to know how on earth they can live out the gospel within our socially-distanced, cancel culture. Few church leaders are speaking to how we can advance the mission right now in spite of, through and because of COVID.

I wonder if it reflects a mind block among leaders—something that is not limited to church pastors. Let me explain.

This is the greatest opportunity in our lifetimes for the Church. Rather than try our best to get back to the halcyon days of February 2020, we need to look for what doors God is opening right now. Churches need to realize this isn’t going away soon, and lesser imitations will only make people crave the old days, the old ways. Once church leaders cross the bridge in their thinking—that we won’t be back to normal on November 4, or even a year from now—then they’ll start seeing the opportunities. What opportunities? I’m glad you asked.

First, we have the same opportunities that the Church had in 1918-1920, when Christians died serving their communities in spite of risks of Spanish Flu. The parallels are clear. Governments today are following the same pattern of lockdowns, quarantines and masks. Churches had similarly-diverse responses: while some pushed back on religious freedom grounds, others got busy serving. These examples in Nashville, Tennessee, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are inspiring: when in-person church services were shut down, Church of Christ and Episcopal pastors offered their buildings as field hospitals. A.B. Lipscomb wrote in the Gospel Advocate that the epidemic had “opened up a way for the enlargement of the sympathies of Christian people.”

In South Dakota, the 1919 conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church report notes:

Immediately after the conference last fall (1918), the churches were closed on account of the influenza, some for several weeks, and some for several months. This enforced vacation gave our pastors an unusual opportunity to minister to the people in their need and their sorrow. Almost without exception the pastors were alive to the situation and cared for the sick, carrying them cheer and comfort, and in hundreds of cases, burying the dead, some pastors conducting as many as 40 funerals during the ravages of this awful epidemic.

Probably 70-75 percent of the pastors or their families were stricken with the disease, but there was not a death in one of the parsonage homes in the district, and of the unusually large number of funerals conducted by our pastors during this time, it was most remarkable that our church members constituted a comparatively small percentage of the total number.

Capital Journal, Mar 19, 2020

Second, this is an enormous opportunity to adapt our model. I’m waiting for churches to begin truly innovating. In the early days of COVID, when churches had to scramble because they were suddenly locked down, there was some experimentation. Churches tweaked their practices out of necessity. But going to online streaming, virtual communion and squirting holy water isn’t really innovation; most of it could be categorized as lesser imitations of the original.

Let’s look at a parallel. To walk into most restaurants today is a depressing situation. Tables are marked off and furniture stacked in a corner. Hastily-improvised plexiglass screens are hung around the register, ordering counter or concierge desk. These adjustments have all the markings of an expectation that this is a short-term inconvenience. If restaurants in urban centers are struggling, you can imagine how challenging it is for an island setting, so imagine my surprise when my wife and I walked into The Groove Kitchen + Cafe in Mayne Island, BC last week.

The owner shared with us about how difficult the past few months have been for their business, and they almost didn’t make it. Hearing his story, I fully intended to tip well. So, when I went to pay and there was no opportunity to add a tip, I asked. He asked me, “What would you be tipping for?” They’ve reduced their services and costs so much that he believes tipping would be unreasonable. They’ve streamlined their staff from 14 to 2. No dishes to wash. All ordering goes through their website, with customers encouraged to order ahead of time and given the opportunity to eat on site, pick up the prepared order, or grab pre-packaged ingredients and cook the menu at home. All their seating is outside, and they used the inside space to launch a specialty grocery store for the items in their menu and ingredients unavailable elsewhere on the island.

The owner told me he wished they’d made these changes years ago. “We’ll never go back!”

Innovation is coming to our industries. If existing restaurants, stores, businesses and congregations don’t get there, new upstarts certainly will. We know the Church will go on for another generation, but it may not be traditional churches that do, or even church plants that do their best imitation of the the model that has been successful in the past decade. The question is who is going to get there first?

I submit that it will the leaders who stop lamenting the way church was done and seek out the new opportunities in this virus and ways to do things differently. They’ll draw the best ideas from other industries, and they’ll create some fresh interpretations of ancient practices. Some of these ideas will fail, but a new model will surely emerge from their efforts. Some of them will see the new version and conclude, “We’ll never go back!”

Pentecost: When Peter’s world changed

In my last post, I discussed how COVID has shifted our world fundamentally in the economy, the nature of government, the charitable sector and international relations. Into that volatile mix—and since I published that blog post—a new force for change is sweeping the U.S. and is spilling over to Canada and Europe: the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have exposed faultlines around systemic, long-term issues of race and equality. The early indications are that long-silent voices have taken this moment to say, “Enough!” We don’t know yet how these protests will shift the direction already being set in motion by COVID. I think my thoughts here are still relevant.

My previous example of a change of eras might seem extreme; the tectonic shifts we’re facing may be big, but they’re existential and therefore much more difficult to define than a global flood. So let’s look at an example centered around the day of Pentecost we just celebrated: Peter in the first few chapters of Acts.

As a student of leadership, I’m fascinated by the transformation in Peter between his betrayal of Jesus and his emergence as bold leader in Acts 2. He’s just been restored by Jesus in John 21 and given a new commission to feed His sheep, but if he’s to take up the mantle of leadership, he feels lacking. So what does he do? 

First, he compresses a few years’ worth of Bible school into one month. Consider the following. 

  • We know Jesus has just spent 40 days opening his followers’ minds to the Scriptures and interpreting what the Old Testament passages said about himself (Luke 24:27,45). I suspect Peter was a sponge, soaking up everything Jesus could offer him.
  • After Jesus leaves the disciples, we know they spend their days in the temple, worshiping (Luke 24:52). And we know a group of them return to the upper room in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to prayer together (Acts 1:13-14). 
  • When Peter finally speaks up in Acts 1 and 2, the frequency with which he tosses out references to Psalm 69, Psalm 109, Joel 2, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 reflect the way he’s used his time. He couldn’t just flip to the various pages in his Bible; he has likely memorized these passages after hours devouring the scrolls at a synagogue or the temple library.

Then in Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, it’s showtime. The Holy Spirit falls and gives the believers everything Jesus promised: power, gifting, a message and supernatural linguistic ability. With 3,000 new followers, Peter has to figure out what exactly Jesus meant when he charged him to “Feed my sheep.” What was their religious practice going to look like? There are no models for the Church. I’d be very surprised if Jesus spelled out to Peter what church governance and structure he should use. It’s up to Peter and his colleagues to contextualize. As they do this, the sand is shifting under their feet. Peter will have to draw on all of his preparation to meet the needs, challenges and opportunities that are on his doorstep. 

That’s what makes Peter’s era so relevant to leadership today. Let’s look at a few points of application we can draw out of these early days of the Church, as we consider our own place, on the threshold of the post-COVID world, and the frustrations spilling out on the streets. Maybe this is our day of Pentecost.

1. Establish patterns of discernment and attentiveness

There’s a sense of anticipation about Acts 1. Jesus said to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes. Jesus made it clear that Peter’s education would continue after Jesus’ departure, as the Holy Spirit would remind him of all that Jesus said and teach him all things (John 14:26). So the disciples position themselves in the familiar confines of the upper room. These first believers establish an early pattern of devoting themselves to prayer and fellowship (Acts 2:42), and the apostles will later commit themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). 

The combination of prayer and the ministry of the Word isn’t just about preaching; it includes searching the Old Testament Scriptures and finding application to their situations. That’s what Peter does in Acts 1 when he quotes two Scriptures to support his decision that they should replace Judas among the Twelve. He does it again in the next chapter when he interprets the Spirit’s work at Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. 

In a conversation recently about these ideas with leadership consultant Jonathan Wilson  (read more at Lead by Soul), he told me:

one prepares for the future by understanding (or more accurately, discerning) the present. And that’s where Christians have resources that others don’t have, because not only can we do the necessary work of observing and interpreting the various socio-cultural and political dynamics unfolding before us, we have both the Spirit’s enlightening presence as well as theological tools of, e.g. thinking about worldviews and assumptions, about understanding needs, fears and desires, the way societies operate “in the flesh”, etc., that others don’t or can’t readily access. 

Rhythms of discernment and attentiveness are best established before crisis—when intentions are easily discarded and habits remain firmly in place.

2. Hold assumptions loosely

At first, the early Church seems to believe Jesus is coming back right away, perhaps based on Jesus’ ambiguous statements about his return (e.g. John 21:22). To me, that assumption best explains the earliest practices of the Church. They are continually at the temple, praising God (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). No need to work, but they do need to eat, so they start selling possessions (Acts 2:45). Their communal living and having everything in common sounds idyllic, but would not be a sustainable model for the future church. 

As each day passes without Christ’s return, the Church leaders have to deal with increasingly complex problems. They need to begin equipping believers for working and living in an increasingly-hostile environment. They shock the community by deploying church discipline (Acts 5). They are forced to find a structure that allows the movement to scale appropriately (Acts 6). They have to start establishing rules and order to these church services. This requires constant re-evaluation of assumptions. 

It’s the same for us today. Strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need a critical look to see if they’re relevant anymore. Activities need to be weighed against criteria, such as whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities. All of these assessments start by holding our assumptions loosely, or even deliberately questioning them. 

Wilson says that this is the moment for organizations to use a

combination of strategy and agile methodologies to engage in adaptation and, even, eventually, self-reinvention. It’s actually too early to truly reinvent, as we don’t know what we’re reinventing for, but it isn’t too early to build the capacity and capabilities for quick adaptation that, coupled with the kind of “discerning the times” I mentioned above, equip an organization to reinvent over time.

3. Reframe setbacks as opportunities

The idyllic model for Church of the first few chapters of Acts is built around the favour of the people and the government (Acts 2:47). Persecution, on the other hand, is an external disrupter, scattering the believers. A Church that risked becoming insular and territorial is suddenly thrust into fulfilling Jesus’ mission in Acts 1:8—witnessing throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). The movement continues to grow in the face of adversity. 

But these shifts bring new grey areas. Now the leaders of the Church need to either establish central control, managing the dispersed Church from Jerusalem, or embrace polycentric ministry, with multiple centres of influence. A combination of factors, such as a coming famine (Acts 11:27-30) and the killing and imprisonment of leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-5) invert power and allow the dispersed church to minister back up to the mother church.

What new things is God doing right now through COVID? What new doors is he opening that you never dreamed could happen? How do you reframe for your followers the setbacks we’ve faced? Shifting the narrative, and the thought processes behind the stories we tell, is critical to the path your organization will take: either merely trying to revert to normal or keeping the good things that have emerged while remaining open to new ways of structuring and operating for the future.

4. Never stand in God’s way

Then the Holy Spirit leads the Church to expand to include the Gentiles (Acts 10-11). Between a new satellite location in Antioch and Paul’s missionary journeys, a mixed church arises, based on a new identity in Christ rather than race, culture or caste (Gal 3:28). The church council meeting in Acts 15 is a pivotal moment in the Church as they decide whether they will truly become global or remain an offshoot of Judaism.

How does the Church respond? Look at the phrases I highlighted in the following statements and actions:

  • In Acts 10, when the Jewish-background believers are “astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles,” Peter asks, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:45,47)
  • When he faces criticism, he then asks: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
  • After Paul explains to the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles are hearing and believing, James concludes they would not make it difficult for the Gentiles who turn to God (Acts 15:19).

All of these phrases are about control. When the Holy Spirit is moving, and your assumptions are challenged, it’s a great principle to not get on the wrong side of an issue if God is on the other side. Rather than standing on principles and trying to fit God into your dogma, rewrite your principles around the movement of God.

So here we are, just after Pentecost, facing an unknown future. What can you do today to prepare yourself for the ambiguity ahead, and the movement of God that seems to accelerate when we stand between eras? Through the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter and his fellow leaders got a lot of decisions right. I pray He helps you do the same.

 

A new world

It’s easy to look out the window and see a world where it seems nothing has really changed. Maybe we’ll soon be able to return to normal, right? For many of us, that’s our deepest longing. But I believe the profound change in four fundamental areas can’t help but lead to a deep, deep change to the world we’ve known:

  1. The economy. Most western governments have acted like they have unlimited bank accounts to roll out programs. How will they pay for it? With austerity? With taxation? Or printing money? Or further stimulus to speed up the velocity of money? How many quarters, or how many years, will this impact our economy, and what will the implications be?
  2. The nature of government itself. How much risk should the government protect its citizens and businesses from? How extensive a safety net is going to be constructed? How will governments use or abuse contact tracing and health tracking? What liberties will citizens demand back from their governments?
  3. The charitable sector. Giving has been or will eventually be impacted by unemployment, increased government handouts, the up-and-down stock market and the continued threat to vulnerable populations. For non-profits and charities, all of these factors are bound to affect current and potential workforce, as well as philanthropy and generosity. Likely, impacts will come in waves. Where charities fail, who will step in to meet needs and fulfill charitable purposes?
  4. International relations. Closed borders, anti-foreigner resentment, tracking of citizens, visa restrictions and localization are just some of the factors that will impact travel and delivery of services around the world. For an organization that engages in sending expatriate missionaries as well as contributing funds for local projects, our priorities and strategies may need to shift.

“These are unprecedented times.” How many times have you heard someone say that? How many times have you said those words? While this particular alignment of factors may be unique, it is naive to believe no one else has faced such profound levels of change. Over a few blog posts, I want to draw out some lessons from three biblical characters that I believe are relevant today. Today, let’s look at Noah.

In some ways, we’re in a similar place as Noah in Genesis 8:4. After he and his immediate family have been on the ark for 5 months, they experience a great grinding shudder as the ark beaches itself on Mount Ararat. The immediate crisis over, it’s now time to look out the window. The earth Noah is returning to is the same one he left, but it is now going to be unrecognizable. Everything has changed. 

Perhaps these changes will prove to have only short-term consequences; the land below our ark is still drying up and taking form. But I believe it’s more than that. The similarities we see between the world outside our window and the world we left in March are only surface-deep. If we don’t prepare ourselves for what’s changed, we will miss opportunities as leaders. Here are a few thoughts.

1. The next six months will be a slow and often-frustrating re-emergence.

Land! I can imagine Noah’s eagerness to get off the ark. But the beaching of the ark was just the first step of restoration. They had to wait for the water to recede: to see the tops of the mountains, for the land to solidify, for greenery to emerge. Until that happened, they stayed in their lockdown. You know how long that was? Another 7 months and 10 days. I can’t imagine the patience that took!

As provinces and states are rolling out re-opening plans, each of our experiences across North America will look different. There will be inequities, delays and setbacks that test our patience, our contentment and our ability to follow those God has put in authority over us. Those we lead will need help with those frustrations, even as we struggle with our own responses. 

In a recent Zoom call with other leaders, one suggested that we haven’t faced our real leadership challenges yet; the next phase will require much greater leadership than the crisis phase. Ahead of us are many gray areas, many consequential decisions, and many existential choices that will redefine our ministries, organizations and businesses. But he also specifically mentioned navigating a world that is polarized and splintering, and a Church that is too quick to embrace conspiracy theories. He was considering how to proactively prepare his staff to be discerning without assuming they’ll take the wrong path.

2. This is not a blip that we need to survive; it’s a re-ordering of the way things have been. 

Whether you work for a for-profit or non-profit, your mission and vision are still relevant, and you have work to do. But strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need to be weighed against criteria to see whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities.

Some observers are saying that the quicker organizations can throw out previous assumptions and strategy and develop new strategy consistent with who they are, the better they will be positioned for success. There are new opportunities coming that were not even possible a month ago that we need to prepare for. My fear is that my organization will fill our plans and budgets with activities that are based on old assumptions and leave no room to develop new ideas that take advantage of opportunities that arise. That’s where leadership is required. 

3. New realities require different competencies.

There’s no indication in Genesis of what Noah’s competencies were before God asked him to build an ark. Think of the competencies required to build such a large sea-going structure. Think of the entirely different set of competencies required to manage a floating zoo for a year. Think of those necessary to re-establish infrastructure, cultivate the land and defend from nature in the new world. Individuals have competencies, and teams have collective competencies. A team, and a leader, must ask whether the competencies that served well in the past are still relevant for the context they will face in the future.

It may require a restructure to make that shift, but it’s also possible to pivot, as Moah and his sons did. For instance:

  • At the 2008 Catalyst conference in Atlanta, Andy Stanley shared a question he considers on a regular basis:

“If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would he do? Why shouldn’t we walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?”— Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove

  • John Pellowe, president of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, says his secret for serving in the role 17 years is self reflection. Every five years he asks himself what the organization needs for the next five years, evaluates whether he fits the criteria and then creates a personal and professional development plan to reinvent his leadership to become the leader the organization needs. Read more of his thoughts about Keeping your leadership fresh on his blog.

What kind of competencies do we need right now for this uncertain future? I’m going with futuring, forward thinking, asking good questions that challenge assumptions, performance management and metrics. Let me know if you have some others to add to that list.

Rest assured that, if you are in a leadership position, it is by God’s design. You may not know what to do—there is no model for the circumstances we’re facing—but He who put you in your position will help you as you call on him. God bless you as you lead in these extraordinary times. They may not be unprecedented, but they certainly demand leadership!

The Bible speaks to isolation

One of the things that constantly amazes me about the Scriptures is their relevance to every situation we face. The Bible speaks to every generation, to every era, to every situation. It doesn’t speak in the same way, and contextualization gives new appreciation for passages that were always there but didn’t speak to us in a previous context, or didn’t speak to a previous generation the way it does today.

That means, even though I’ve never thought about isolation before, I knew before I even looked that I’d find relevant passages to our context today. It turns out there are loads of examples in Scripture. Here are a few that I’ve been reflecting on:

  • What was it like for Noah to spend a year and ten days on the ark with his immediate family? What load of grief did he carry for the earth’s population who lost their lives? What trauma did he carry from hearing the screams of those outside the door of the ark? He certainly had lots to do, in his floating zoo, but a year in a small space is a long time! (Genesis 6-9)
  • What was it like for a normal, healthy person in Jesus’ day to suddenly get infected with leprosy? The instructions of Leviticus 13 include going to a front-line worker, a priest, and being quarantined for 14 days before being forced to live alone. How devastating it would be to be cut off from one’s family and pushed away from society! These castaways often formed a new community of the marginalized, with perhaps their only commonality being their shared illness. (Episode 6 of The Chosen has an amazing depiction of Jesus interacting with a leper.)
  • What was it like for Paul to transition from an active missionary lifestyle to sudden confinement in prison? Acts 20 and 21 describe the premonition Paul had that imprisonment and affliction awaited him, and show that he was thinking about end of life issues. It wasn’t easy for Paul. Once imprisoned, Jesus paid him a visit at night telling him to take courage and helping him say on mission (Acts 23:11). As an unmarried single, he talked a lot about his desire to see those he loved. He eventually settled into life as a WFH author (working from home).
  • What was it like for a young Joseph, whose plans and career trajectory were disrupted by sudden injustice not once but twice—first, when his brothers sold him into slavery, and second, when he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife? He found himself confined to the royal prison. Yet, even there, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor” (Gen 39:21). (Story in Genesis 37-41)

I encourage you to mine these examples and send me the insights and applications God uncovers as you look at them again through the eyes of isolation and physical distancing. God’s Word is alive!

Leadership Study Guide for The Darkest Hour

Darkest-Hour-One-Sheet-600x888I may have to go back and update some of my previous posts on best leadership movies, because The Darkest Hour just bumped the others off the the top spot. It doesn’t require special ability to note leadership lessons in Churchill’s life, so not much is original here, but perhaps the questions in this blog post can be a tool to be intentional about drawing out some of those lessons. In the spirit of Invictus, my most popular post, I offer The Darkest Hour study guide. It’s designed for personal or group reflection after watching the movie.

We learn the most about Churchill from his wife, Clementine. Their interactions as a couple reveal the truth about Churchill as a man much more three-dimensional than the legend most have come to know. Consider these questions about the Churchills and then reflect on how they apply to you.

  • Consider the various scenes in which Clementine appears. How does she view him—realistically or with rose-colored glasses? What specific traits does she appreciate about him?
  • What does she appeal to in Winston to get him to do what others can’t?

The takeaway quote is this one: “These inner battles have actually trained you for this very moment. You are strong because you are imperfect, you are wise because you have doubts.”

  • How do your doubts, weaknesses and imperfections give your leadership strength?

Later the king asks, “Are you not afraid?” Churchill admits, “Most terribly.”

  • Do followers expect their leaders to be fearless, or is that an unattainable standard leaders expect of themselves?
  • In what ways does the “fearless leader” myth hold back potential leaders?
  • How much should a leader let on about his/her own doubts? What are the risks and benefits?

From biographies, we know that one of the first things Churchill does as Prime Minister is to get a realistic assessment of the state of the war. In the film, his War Room depicts the dire state of the British forces. And yet he portrays to the public something very different.

  • What steps does Churchill take to get brutally honest information for himself?
  • What is the challenge in communicating to the public the state of the war? Do you agree or disagree with his choice to lie to the public? Why?
  • What is the line between optimism and inspiration versus honesty? What might have happened had he done it differently?
  • Clementine makes an interesting point about truth: “The truth will have its time.” In the film, when is the time for truth? Are the people ready by then?

The early days of Churchill’s time in office are extremely fragile, requiring great courage.

  • What is his relationship with the king? How does that relationship change over time, and what factors account for the change?
  • Why does he surround himself with a War Cabinet of rivals? What power do Chamberlain and Halifax utilize against him?
  • How does Churchill find the leverage to break the opposition and gain the political ground to lead effectively?
  • What would courageous leadership look like in your context—with superiors, with rivals and colleagues, and with direct reports?

Churchill struggles with whether his leadership position requires him to consider all possibilities, including entering into negotiations.

  • When does focus and principled leadership become myopic and stubborn to the point of blindness? Is it an abdication of leadership to cave on the one point that got you into your position? Why do you think Churchill concludes, “Those who never change their mind never change anything”?
  • What is the difference between leading others with a clear vision and looking at the people around you, asking their opinions and seeking out the voice of the people? Is that simply following, or is that also a form of leadership?
  • Which factor/whose support most influences his decision to never surrender? The king’s or the people?
  • In what ways does Churchill manipulate the various voices to influence the War Cabinet?

There are a lot of other directions you could take in a film discussion, from exploring the shifting nature of Churchill’s reliance on his secretary… to assessing the tradeoffs that come with leadership… to evaluating Chamberlain’s leadership from the back row. If you come up with any other questions or topics of discussion, post them here so we can all benefit.

Great man theory

My summer reading was pretty diverse. It started and ended with Jesus, then ran on a Second World War theme and borrowed inspiration from the Global Leadership Summit:

  • Christ for Real, by Charles Price
  • The War Magician, by David Fisher
  • Churchill: A Study in Greatness, by Geoffrey Best
  • Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull
  • Jesus on Leadership, by Gene Wilkes
  • Extreme Prayer, by Greg Pruett

One overarching theme was really impressed on me through this reading. I was inspired as I read the accounts of Jasper Maskelyne and Winston Churchill. In one case, such creativity organized toward creating illusions that turned the war momentum. In the second case, such sheer determination and eccentric energy focused in one direction. But something bothered me about the fact that everyone looked to these men, and their teams were ineffective without them. These biographies fall firmly in the camp of Thomas Carlyle, who said in the 1840s, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Wikipedia describes the resulting “Great Man Theory” this way:

a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

Since I was young, I’ve enjoyed biographies about these giants in history who turned the course of history. But I’m getting a bit jaded.

It wasn’t until I read Creativity, Inc. that I put my finger on how I have changed. In Ed Catmull’s critique of Walt Disney, I began to wonder why the legendary animation studio become so ineffective after the great man passed away. The expectations were so high, and so much revolved around Disney’s demanding, energetic presence that the studio just couldn’t keep going afterwards.

When Walt Disney was alive, he was such a singular talent that it was difficult for anyone to conceive of what the company would be like without him. And sure enough, after his death, there wasn’t anybody who came close to filling his shoes. For years, Disney employees attempted to keep his spirit alive by constantly asking themselves, “What would Walt do?” Perhaps they thought that if they asked that question they would come up with something original, that they would remain true to Walt’s pioneering spirit. In fact, this kind of thinking only accomplished the opposite. Because it looked backward, not forward, it tethered the place to the status quo. A pervasive fear of change took root. (p165)

Instead, Ed Catmull’s goal at Pixar—and later at Walt’s animation studio—was to create a culture that would produce greatness even after the founders and visionaries were gone. He wanted to build a company with interchangeable parts. Some of the ideas he explores in his book:

  • “My job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it” (p xv).
  • “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture… wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job” (p 65).
  • “All we could do at Disney, I knew, was create a healthy creative culture and see what developed” (p 274).

He begins by talking about the importance of finding the right people and getting them to work together in a way that produces great ideas. He certainly accomplished that by assembling an amazing collection of creative directors at Pixar. He then talks about the goal of management to constantly empower those people to solve creative problems together. He promotes the ideas W. Edwards Deming pushed at Toyota, referring to “a democratic central tenet: You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.” (p 51)

Ultimately, Catmull’s greatest success was to bring the ideas of candor and empowerment to the culture of Disney, leading to successive #1 films—”Tangled” and “Frozen”—after 16 years without a box office hit. Rather than replace the existing staff to accomplish this feat, he proudly points out that the studio “was still populated by most of the same people John [Lasseter] and I had encountered when we arrived” (p274).

Let me come full circle, as my summer reading list did. Jesus did the same thing as Ed Catmull did. Or rather, Ed did what Jesus did. He took a ragtag group of fishermen, zealots and tax collectors and spent three years challenging their mindset, changing their hearts and establishing a new culture. He certainly made himself dispensable and created a structure where interchangeable parts would keep the movement going for at least 2,000 years. Granted, we don’t have all the same tools he had available.

And yet, we do. As Jesus told his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12) and sending the Holy Spirit (v16). Though he probably wouldn’t say it this way, Catmull simply expounds a form of servant leadership that originally came from Jesus. There’s just something about having someone else say the same things again that makes them come alive and allows us to see them with fresh eyes. For that, I’m grateful to Ed Catmull.

I’m not sure I want to read any more “great men” biographies. I want to read about men and women who built great systems and great cultures that continue to the next generation.

Wartime leadership

A different kind of leadership is going to be needed in North America in the next decade.

The Church in Canada is moving into a different phase, with less overt impact on the government and society. If it recognizes and embraces this minority status, it can have even greater impact on the culture as a minority voice. This will require a different kind of leadership than we’ve needed in past decades where leaders struggled to engage a Church that enjoyed its comfort and fell into complacency. Now the culture, societal pressures and even government regulations are forcing the Church to be fully engaged, standing for religious freedom and expression, “exclusionary” truths and marginalized people. The gospel needs to be lived out clearly by the institutional Church and the people of God. Leadership will be critical in guiding the Church through this change of approach.

In the Bible translation world, leadership is going to get increasingly difficult. We’ve weathered storms over the years that threatened to destroy us, and some of those storms have intensified in the last couple of years. If I’m correct, the clouds will continue to build. Why? Because of Vision 2025. We don’t often look at it this way, but how would Satan view a vision to empower a sustainable worldwide Bible translation movement, with the specific goal of starting translation in the remaining languages that need it by 2025? What else is that vision but an all-out offensive on the kingdom of darkness? Before 1999, we poked and prodded, slowly advancing the kingdom. This vision plans to expose every dark corner of this planet to the light of God’s Word within this decade. Many of the places we will be going in the next ten years are longtime strongholds. These changes call for bold, courageous leadership.

In short, our tactics and our leadership must be fashioned for wartime, not peacetime. The problem is that we’ve always been at war, as much of the rest of Church outside the West could have told us. The greatest victory our enemy has accomplished is in convincing such a large part of the Western Church that we were at peace. The enemy has taken vast tracts of territory while we slept.

Fortunately, there’s some good news. The Bible has plenty to say about how to live and lead in wartime. In fact, little of the Bible concerns itself with how the Church should operate in peacetime. Peace is something spoken of as hope for the future, not something we’ll attain on this earth.

Second, this context is very familiar to the Church around the world. That means we can learn leadership skills from our brothers and sisters outside the West.

Over the next few posts, we’ll examine the leadership implications of what the Bible says about wartime leadership.

Leadership lessons on the Alberta election

Not sure how many of my readers are from Alberta, so let me quickly summarize the “Orange Crush” that happened while I was out of town this week. For my American readers, skip to the end quickly for an abbreviated primer in parliamentary government.

Bottom line: the Progressive Conservative party that had ruled Alberta for 44 years lost an election Tuesday that seemed a sure thing when called a mere 30 days before. They lost so soundly they came in third, and their party leader and incumbent premier resigned on the spot. For the first time, the NDP, which has been largely irrelevant in Alberta politics, has won a majority, their leader Rachel Notley premier-elect. The Wildrose Party came in second, returning to its familiar role as “the official opposition,” but in a much stronger position than it was before then-leader Danielle Smith tried to merge it with the Conservatives in December.

I was in Ottawa meeting with leaders on Parliament Hill as the results came through, and my views were challenged and inspired as MPs reacted to and tried to interpret what had happened. I’m going to attempt to avoid political bias while steering our attention to the leadership lessons we can learn from this week in politics.

Hubris

Premier Jim Prentice wanted it all. In the Calgary Herald, Graham Thompson theorized,

Prentice thought he had it figured out — undermine the Wildrose with a mass floor-crossing, appoint his favourites as candidates, call an early election — but it all backfired.

He goes on to call it “hubris.” That’s an excellent description of the overreaching we saw in the last six months. Prentice wasn’t the only one. Danielle Smith could have been premier today if she hadn’t reached too far. I suspect both felt they could do something historical, uniting the right, squashing the opposition and winning an unprecedented mandate. Such a move could perhaps launch at least one of them on to federal prominence.

In How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins offers 5 stages of decline:

  1. Hubris Born of Success
  2. Undisciplined Pursuit of More
  3. Denial of Risk and Peril
  4. Grasping for Salvation
  5. Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death

Sometimes, Collins says, you can be well into decline when you appear to be at the top of your game. The Alberta Progressive Conservative Party demonstrated the incredible speed with which everything can fall apart. As the Amazon review of that book says, “By understanding these stages of decline, leaders can substantially reduce their chances of falling all the way to the bottom.” All leaders can learn from this week’s object lesson, but the first warning sign is hubris. The solution is contentment, as I’ve blogged about before.

The bird in the bush

They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But Thompson’s analysis suggests that, though many didn’t know much about “Notley’s Crue,” they preferred a bunch of rookies to the current set of politicians.

Change theory says for change to be successful, a leader has to explain why a group needs to move from “here” to “there.” It’s not enough to paint a picture of what could be; you also have to create what some call the “burning platform,” the rationale behind leaving what’s known and comfortable. Leaders like Bill Hybels have argued that many change initiatives fail because a leader failed to establish why we can’t stay “here.”

But what happens when an entire group decides they can’t stay “here” without really knowing what “there” looks like? Alberta apparently reached the tipping point, where the pain of sticking with the party of 44 years was higher than the pain of change. They moved en masse into the unknown. Change theorists will be paying attention to the outcome.

But can she lead?

At the beginning of the Invictus film, Mandela’s security detail are offended by a headline that reads, “He can win, but can he lead?” Mandela dryly responds that it’s a fair question. Over the last few months, we’ve seen a lack of leadership from Danielle Smith and Jim Prentice. Smith admitted this week that she had been “very very naive.” The void created an opening for leaders like Brian Jean and Rachel Notley. The latter rallied the vote of frustration and anger. She proved she can win an election. But can she provide leadership in a province that’s looking for it?

Notley’s stunning NDP-orange victory reminds me of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s “Purple Revolution”  in 2010. He rallied the young vote and the frustrated vote into a winning combination. He turned out to be a competent leader who became a bit of a superstar after the flooding of 2013, leading to February’s over-the-top selection as the world’s top mayor. I suspect that’s overstating it, but it’s a demonstration of the  combination of popularity and leadership rare in today’s politicians.

All eyes in Ottawa were on Alberta this week, and few politicians are making plans beyond this October. It’s too early to see how it will all turn out, so I won’t join in any prognostications. But this week wasn’t just about politics. The earthquake of Alberta was also about leadership, and it is a case study on a number of fronts. Let me know your thoughts about the leadership lessons and implications.


An abbreviated primer in parliamentary government
(Canadians, if I get any of this wrong, I’m sure you’ll correct me in the comments.)

For my American readers, this will help you understand both our elections and the British election that just happened this week. On the federal level, the prime minister functions like your president, but he is actually within the legislative branch and first among cabinet members (aka “ministers”), therefore “prime minister.” As a legislator, the prime minister is also a member of parliament (MP) representing a specific district, called a “riding.” On the provincial level (kind of like states), this same function is called a “premier” rather than a governor, and he or she is a member of the legislative assembly (MLA).

Incidentally, as in the US, there are two legislative bodies. The prime minister comes from the House of Commons, made up of “commoners,” who represent the people of Canada. The second body is the Senate, made up of appointees who are not elected and have no terms. Unlike the UK, senators are not nobility. No earls and dukes in Canada’s Senate.

In Canada, the premier or prime minister is the leader of his or her party, and there are numerous parties. The potential swings from an irrelevant party with very few seats to an upset win (and vice versa) are astounding. I’ve quickly learned that you can never count out a party. The premier or prime minister has a 4-year window to call the next election, and it makes sense to choose the most optimal time rather than wait for the deadline. Once that election is called, the vote will happen 30 days later. It’s refreshingly quick! Even better, the candidates have 24 hours to take down all their signs or face fines.

For a more complete primer, try this guide to the Canadian Parliamentary System.

God’s requirement for leadership

About once a year Wycliffe Canada’s leadership team thinks about succession planning. We haven’t been doing it for very long, and each time we dust off the charts and consider our bench strength, I feel a bit more confidence in our process and note that we’re closing gaps. This is where we finally look at the evidence regarding what we feel to be true: we are making progress in developing leaders at all levels of the organization. It’s slow progress, but anything systemic is going to take some time.

When doing succession planning, there are a couple of questions you have to consider, and some traps that are too easy to fall into.

  • Do we really want to continue in the same structure we’ve had? The temptation with succession charts is to put names in all the boxes: immediate successor, 2-3 years and long-shot/dark horse candidates. But what if the best solution for any of those is to restructure, combine roles, partner or outsource? Does your format allow for that kind of thinking?
  • Just because the incumbent exhibits certain skills, experience and characteristics doesn’t mean her successor should. The challenge is to consider 3-5 years into the future and look for successors who can lead that functional area into the future. That’s why Jack Welch says that in the eight years he planned for his succession before stepping down as CEO of GE, most of the names eventually fell off his list, and it was the long-shot and dark-horse candidates who eventually became finalists.
  • And finally, we add a lot of our own biases when we consider names. Leaders often think themselves good judges of character, but I’ve seen a lot of leaders write candidates off too quickly. If we were brutally honest, a lot of CEOs would have written off the person their board selects to succeed them.

I could wade further into that subject based on my own reading and faltering attempts at it, but others would have a lot more expertise. If I based this blog post primarily on my own experience and wisdom, the prime benefit for you readers would be along the lines of one of my favourite leadership axioms:

A lot of good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement.

For this post, I want to consider what God says about succession planning.

Let’s go back a step and consider some of the mythology around leadership in the first place. In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender says our view of what a leader should be is quite different than God’s. For instance, we want the following:

  • “First, a leader must be physically attractive.” Full head of hair, all that. If they can’t be that, then they at least need to be over 6′ tall.
  • “We also presume our leaders will be fluent public speakers with a firm command of their audience.” We want panache, charisma and great storytelling.
  • “We seek leaders who are well-educated, open, sincere, humble, salt-of-the-earth people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, leaders who never forget their humble beginning or the values and convictions of those they represent.”
  • “We expect a leader to make tough decisions… yet we want him to tear up over a sad story and be sentimental on Mother’s Day.

Tell me that’s not true! How many of my readers measure up? This author certainly doesn’t. But we can’t stop there; Allender goes on to say,

What we want is an illusion and we know it. We prefer the illusion because we have a deep need to be buffered from reality. (p27)

The illusion is dangerous because it keeps any of us from qualifying. The pedestal we put leaders on makes leadership unattainable or destroys leaders with unmanageable expectations, sometimes self-imposed. When we apply our own biases to our successors, it gets truly scary. Ultimately, I want Me 2.0: a leader who matches my strengths but doesn’t have my weaknesses. But Me 2.0 doesn’t exist.

Even Moses had the same temptation, and he had the audacity to tell God what He should look for in his successor. Let’s look at Numbers 27:15-23:

Then Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Please appoint a new man as leader for the community. Give them someone who will guide them wherever they go and will lead them into battle, so the community of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

Look at that list of requirements: a male, a guide, a general, and a shepherd. Where did Moses come up with this list? Is he simply trying to clone himself? Certainly, the wilderness needed a guide and a shepherd. While the historian Josephus tells us Moses had been a general in Egypt, he never takes direct control in any of Israel’s battles. At the same time, Moses is likely looking ahead and considering the next phase for Israel: as it moves into the Promised Land, it will certainly require a military leader as well as a guide and shepherd.

In contrast, what was God’s requirement for leadership?

The Lord replied, “Take Joshua son of Nun, who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him.” (v18)

This doesn’t mean that Joshua didn’t measure up to Moses’ requirements. But God wasn’t looking at the man’s resume; he was looking for evidence of His Spirit. Joshua showed evidence in his past, and it becomes his primary hallmark of leadership after his commissioning:

Now Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him, doing just as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Deuteronomy 34:9)

Let’s apply these ideas to ourselves. Think for a minute about your successes. How many of them really happened because of your amazing ability? Or does your biography read more like Joseph’s? Potiphar… the prison warden… even Pharaoh himself didn’t need to pay attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, “because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.” (Genesis 39:2-6; 39:21-23)

Are you self-aware enough to look at yourself with sober judgement and not take credit for God’s handiwork? Have you taken time to reflect and see God’s hand reaching into and through your life to bring about His purposes?

Second, how do we include in our hiring/interviewing practices queries for evidence of the Spirit? If character is bad, if the Spirit is not evident, or the person hasn’t reflected on whether his/her success might have come from God, then to develop their leadership abilities is to enable them. In the future, you will see someone who abuses power, position and people.

In short, without God’s Spirit, all you get is competence. Is that all you want? Is that enough?

Top 20 leadership movies (that I’ve seen)

I’ve been chewing on the lengthy list of leadership movies that were recommended in the comments and responses to my last blog post. As a result, I’m pulling together a series of blog posts on top leadership movies. There’s no shortage of lists, so I’m not sure mine has much to add to the noise, but it was a fun exercise.

Here are the factors I used when I ranked the following movies that I’ve seen and recommend:

  • My standard is leadership where others could have stepped up but didn’t. That’s the main factor to bump movies to the top of my list.
  • Unexpected, non-positional leadership.
  • A complex portrayal of leadership that shows it’s not as easy as it looks.
  • Resourcefulness and perseverance in the face of difficulty.
  • Portrayal of leadership at multiple levels.
  • A well-told story. I used Rotten Tomatoes ratings as my standard.

So, here they are, the top leadership movies I’ve seen:

1. Invictus – The convergence in the leadership styles, roles and methods of two leaders. The impact of that rugby team on a nation came from the collaboration between Mandela and Pienaar, the rugby captain. In addition, there are contrasts with other leaders: de Klerk, the jailers and Mandela’s security forces. Interestingly, the coaching staff don’t really feature in this sports movie. See my more complete commentary here.

2. Amazing Grace – Two leaders with very different styles, roles and methods. Everyone focuses on William Wilberforce, but after watching this one I had to pick up a biography on William Pitt. Other leadership influences show up in the abolitionists, John Newton, Wilberforce’s wife and opposition leadership.

3. Lincoln – An interesting portrayal of situational leadership as Lincoln tries to gain support for the 13th Amendment. One of the most interesting angles is the various members of congress struggling to summon courage. And a fascinating portrayal of Lincoln’s need to lead his family. Read more of my thoughts here.

4. Shawshank Redemption – While one of my favourite movies, I didn’t think of it as a leadership movie until someone made a comment on my blog post. Dufresne is an extremely unassuming man who ends up leading fellow inmates and influencing a lot of people with titles and authority.

5. Braveheart – I almost didn’t want this one to rank so highly, but it really does wrestle with leadership issues, especially between William Wallace, who practically begs others to step up and lead. There are lots of contrasting leadership styles, including the king, the king’s son, the nobles and the magistrate who tortures him.

6. Hoosiers – An unconventional leader, an impossible challenge and lots of setbacks make this a great story. In the genre of coaching—where leadership is expressed primarily through drawing out potential and influencing a team to do something it didn’t believe it could do—this movie is at the top.

7. Captain Philips – A ship captain with huge expertise in one area finds himself thrust into areas of weakness and tapping into unknown leadership ability. He goes toe-to-toe with a young, hungry, adaptive Somali leader who makes the most of limited resources and takes on a Goliath.

8. The Queen – A more recent retelling of the Madness of King George, this movie details a prime minister who must guide the monarch through a major crisis. Unlike the other movie, this story portrays leadership by the monarch and the PM and her next-in-line. She listens to advice and manages to avert disaster with decisive leadership.

9. Apollo 13 – Leadership is demonstrated at multiple levels in this story, from the flight commander to the grounded astronaut in the simulator who swallows his disappointment. But it’s the flight director who keeps everyone inspired, on mission and committed to not giving up. He adjusts his leadership style to meet the crisis.

10. The Hunger Games – I’m thinking of the body of work: the three books and the two movies released so far. A young lady who is simply struggling to survive finds herself with a boatload of followers and has to learn how to lead a movement she never asked to lead.

11. The Madness of King George – What happens when a positional leader is sidelined while a potential usurper waits in the shadows? That’s the challenge of prime minister William Pitt, who has to find a way to manage the crisis, hold off the coups and lead upward.

12. Courage Under Fire – One moment of courageous leadership by an unlikely leader is blurred by others who try to twist it for their own purposes or even bury it. The way the story is told is innovative, though it all boils down to one moment of leadership when I wish we’d been able to get more of a glimpse of what Meg Ryan’s character was thinking and feeling.

13. To Kill a Mockingbird – A lawyer takes a stand to fight for his convictions and a minority, despite huge obstacles and cultural pressure. He manages to lead those he advocates for and he models new behaviour to a mob of whites, but his greatest leadership is to his family.

14. Moneyball – A new leader, facing an impossible challenge, finds a trick to even the playing field and in doing so, reinvents the entire game. He has to persevere through enormous pressure from the system. One of his most courageous decisions was to show loyalty rather than take the high-paying, high-power role offered him at the end.

15. Erin Brockovich – A “nobody” with courage, perseverance and principles puts in the hard work, taking on a Goliath and winning. No doubt she’s a hero, but leadership is influencing others. Perhaps her greatest feat in leadership is leading upward. While her boss has the title, she sets the direction for the law firm.

16. Amistad – There’s huge potential for leadership lessons in an opportunistic slave who starts a revolt and then has to learn how to overcome huge obstacles to get his followers back to Africa. Unfortunately, the story is ultimately told about a lawyer and a former president who have to figure out how to communicate with and for them. So I found the leadership lessons diffused.

17. Elizabeth: Golden Age – This was a story of one of history’s most powerful women facing incredibly-difficult challenges. I could have moved it higher, but I temper this one with the fact I haven’t seen the first movie with Cate Blanchett, and I hear it’s better.

18. Thirteen Days – The story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is an excellent portrayal of the complexities of leadership when everything is on the line. From fiery generals used to getting their own way to cabinet secretaries who have to carry the leader’s vision to a president who needs to know which voices to listen to, this movie drops you into the agony of decision-making when there is no good decision.

19. The Iron Lady – An interesting delivery of the story of a woman who stepped up to give leadership when no one in her male-dominated world was willing to. She courageously made and stuck with decisions, knowing full well the consequences and lack of support she’d get. It’s a bittersweet movie because it shows the insignificant retirement of an enormously successful public servant.

20. Remember the Titans – Another great coaching movie, with lots of overtones and cultural ramifications. It shows how great leadership and sports success can bring people together like nothing else. Continue reading