Concluding shrewd

So what can we conclude in our study of shrewdness, a megacompetency that I believe is needed more than anything in these days when we are sent out as sheep among wolves?

First, a quick review:

  • Rick Lawrence has proposed a definition of shrewdness: the expert application of the right force at the right time in the right place.
  • The people of our age are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than Christ-followers are.
  • We can learn a lot from observing shrewdness in the world around us, even when done with evil intent—such as in Jacob’s family line.
  • Our practice of shrewdness must be paired with the innocence of a dove—as a number of Bible characters did.

To wrap things up, here are some specific aspects the average believer needs to grow in to deal with this current world.

1. Use situational tactics

When did niceness become the primary value for Christians? Certainly there’s a place for traits like meekness, compassion, sympathy and even naïveté, but Lawrence says those are not an across-the-board rule for the believer. By boiling Christianity down to a single trait, the world is defining us in order to sideline us. Jesus did not use the same approach to every situation, and he urged his followers toward shrewdness in dealing with our own kind and in relation to the world’s hatred of our values. Paul became all things to all people in order to win some (1 Cor 9:19-23), and urged us to wage war with appropriate weaponry (2 Cor 10:3-4). And God shows himself differently to different audiences, including appearing shrewd to the devious (Ps 18:25-26).

2. Counter our enemy’s shrewdness

Paul fully expected believers to be aware of Satan’s schemes (2 Cor 2:11). Lawrence urges, “we must beat Satan (and those in his service) at his own game by practicing a greater level of shrewdness than he does, but with none of his cruel intent or evil motivation” (Shrewd, p34).
He offers an example of Satan’s strategy from James Ryle:

Don’t expect a frontal assault from the enemy. He’s far too clever for that. He knows that you love and treasure the Word of God, and that you would not stand for any attack against it. Instead, he sabotages your time and distracts your attention. He preoccupies you with skirmishes on other battlefronts, or he lulls you into complacency with prolonged cease fire. All the while he feverishly working at cutting you off from communication and supplies. If he succeeds he will win the war!” (Shrewd, p144)

3. Practice obliquity

Oxford professor of economics, John Kay, coined a term, “obliquity,” for avoiding the frontal approach and finding ways to outflank an obstacle or opponent. As mentioned above, this is a favourite practice of Satan’s, but there are positive models we can use to spark our own ideas. Esther learned that King Xerxes could be shifted by an oblique approach rather than the direct challenge Queen Vashti made to stand up to power (Esther 1,5,7). Another great example is the prophet Nathan, who drew King David in with his story about a rich man stealing a poor man’s sheep and then sprang the trap on David (2 Samuel 12). Jesus also used story to cloak hard truth in a deceptively-palatable package.

4. Avoid dichotomy

Imposing false choices is a form of power. In response, shrewdness finds a way to navigate between the poles to find another way. In some cases, it means finding a way to avoid war by creating a third space—a space to establish safety and neutrality and have opposing parties find common ground. In other cases, it might mean discovering an alternative that doesn’t require acceptance of the assumptions behind the two stark choices readily apparent. Jesus regularly avoided the traps the Pharisees laid for him, such as when they asked where his authority came from (Matt 21:23-27) or whether they should pay taxes (Matt 22:15-22).

5. Learn discernment

My final thought is that all of this calls for discernment. How did Paul know when to adjust his strategy and approach to each audience (Acts 22-23)? Even Jesus, who had previously sent out his disciples in pairs as sheep among wolves and telling them to take only shrewdness as their weapon, in Luke 22:35-36 says now is a time for a different approach: his disciples should bring a purse, a bag and a sword. The world these days is volatile and unpredictable. It requires constant awareness of what God is doing and ongoing listening for his guidance. Above all, it requires that our weapons not be the weapons of the world (see my post on under armor).

May God guide you as you put these ideas into practice. Let me know your thoughts, and share your examples. We can all grow in these skills, and we can learn from each other!


Shrewd Series

Good shrewd

My last post was a painful exercise in looking for positive, redemptive lessons from Jacob’s family’s deceit. On the positive side, a few biblical characters stand out. Let me briefly share the stories of four of my favorites as case studies.

Abigail

While tending the sheep of a wealthy man with huge flocks, a group of shepherds come upon a small army living off the land while hiding from King Saul. Even in a state of exile, constant vigilance and hunger,  David’s militia doesn’t take anything from Nabal’s flocks; instead, they provide protection. Innocent as doves. So it’s not unreasonable when David decides to approach Nabal to ask ask for help. Nabal weighs the politics and chooses to respond with insult rather than generosity. David is incensed, and his men strap on their weapons for vengeance.

Thankfully, this dead man walking has a shrewd wife who immediately recognizes the danger to her family. Abigail acts decisively, shows discernment and averts the danger through a mix of smooth talk, gifts and persuasive argument. She also picks her moment to inform her husband of the threat. The news of his close call causes Nabal’s heart to fail. In the end, God avenges David, who then pursues this amazing, newly-minted widow as his wife. (1 Samuel 25)

Daniel

When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon sacks Jerusalem and carries off exiles, he sets aside a group of young men to become eunuchs—young men selected specifically for a handful of traits. Chief among them are a demonstration of wisdom, because they are intended to join the magi, astrologers and highly-educated men who advised the king.

Among this group, Daniel and his friends stand out. The first scene in the book of Daniel describes Daniel’s oblique approach to a challenge. Rather than fight Nebuchadnezzar on his instructions regarding diet, Daniel proposes a 10-day test for him and his friends. It turns out vegetables can be healthier for you than the king’s fattening foods. Who knew? Daniel’s discerning action causes him to rise to the top of the group and gives him enormous influence with an oppressing king. (Daniel 1)

Esther

The story of Esther opens with Queen Vashti losing a direct challenge to King Xerxes’ authority, as she attempts to protect her integrity. The Jewish exile, Esther, becomes queen and proves to be a shrewd student of Vashti’s mistake and the corporate culture. After establishing her place in the kingdom, Esther learns of a plot that will destroy her people and threaten her own life. Rather than reproduce Vashti’s error, Esther takes a sideways approach.

She patiently enacts a moves management plan over three days, appealing to the king’s love for a lavish feast, using Haman’s weaknesses to trap him and then springing the trap at just the right moment. In her moment of favor, she reveals her ethnic identity and closes with a big ask to save her people. (Esther 4-7)

Paul

Rick Lawrence says Saul was one of the shrewdly brutal characters in the New Testament, and God chose him for that quality. He’d studied under Gamaliel and was therefore a sharp mind and a lethal debater who became a fierce Pharisee enforcer. God sent him where Peter and the other apostles couldn’t and wouldn’t, as a messenger to the Gentiles.

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul says he becomes all things to all people that he might win some. Some examples of how he applies shrewdness in these early days of the Church:

  • He preaches entirely different messages to Jews (Acts 13) and non-Jews (Acts 17). In the former, he shows his versatility with Moses and the prophets. In the latter, he draws from culture and quotes Greek poets.
  • When he’s arrested by the Romans in the temple, and a Jewish mob forms, he speaks to the people in Hebrew (Acts 22:2), calming the crowd.
  • Then he casually mentions his Roman citizenship once the Roman centurion stretches him out for a flogging (Acts 22:25), rendering the tribune paralyzed in indecision.
  • The next day, as he stands trial before the council of Pharisees and Sadducees, he pushes on the exact issue that will turn them on each other: “I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). The council dissolves in a great uproar.

Well, that was easier than sifting out positive lessons from evil examples! We’ll wrap this series up in my next post, drawing out some principles of shrewdness that might be most useful for a Christian leader in our context today.


Shrewd Series

Studying shrewdness: Jacob’s legacy

Let’s continue our study of Jacob’s family line, recalling Jesus’ admonition that the people of the world are more shrewd in their context than we are. We should study and learn from their tactics, while not reproducing the motivations. In these two examples, the heart is certainly not admirable.

Episode 2b: Leah vs. Rachel

At the same time Jacob is the protagonist in the drama with Laban, he’s a secondary player in a battle of wits between two sisters who learned shrewdness from their father Laban (Gen 29:31-30:24). Placed in a competitive position by their father’s deceit, Leah and Rachel now play out an epic domestic battle over their husband’s love and attention, and the requirement their culture has placed on them to gain value by producing male children.

Redemptive lessons:

  1. Shrewd people recognize points of leverage. Leah and Rachel are brutal in their attacks on each other because they know each other so well. The same trait can work the other way as well. Rick Lawrence defined shrewdness as “expert application of the right force at the right time in the right place.” Expertise comes from familiarity, and these sisters certainly had that in spades.
  2. Shrewd people never stop with no. When God withholds the fruit of the womb from Rachel, she finds another way: offering her servant as a concubine. While Rachel’s act was selfish and rebellious, it’s not unfamiliar to Jacob, whose grandparents did the same thing (Gen 16). As I’ve said before, tenacity, resilience, creativity and resourcefulness are built into the megacompentency we recognize as shrewdness.
  3. Shrewd people are singleminded in their pursuit of a goal. They have clarity about what they want, and pursue it with passion. One reason many believers don’t practice the same art of shrewdness is that we don’t have a clear goal, and we’re not as committed to finding a way to get there as Leah and Rachel were.

Episode 3: Simeon and Levi vs. Shechem

The shrewdness gene goes completely out of control in this story from Genesis 34. Jacob, of all people, would curse his sons for their deception (Gen 49:5-7). While the clan camps outside the town of  Shechem, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by Prince Shechem. When the prince then asks to marry Dinah, the brothers agree, on the condition that all males in the city get circumcised. “While all of them were still in pain,” Simeon and Levi go into the city, kill all the males in the village, plunder their goods, wives and children, and rescue Dinah.

Is there anything redemptive we can apply from this brutal story?

  1. Shrewd people understand their adversary. Jacob’s sons recognize the lust and greed (Gen 34:23) of the people of Shechem and expertly pull those strings to convince them to do something radical: get every male circumcised. Like a good phone scam, they require a deposit in order to get all this wealth in return. We can also pay attention to the motivations of others. For instance, an innocently shrewd negotiator will match motivations of both parties so everyone wins.
  2. Shrewd people use empathy to advantage. Simeon and Levi attack at the point of greatest weakness and pain. How did Simeon and Levi understand the right moment? Through empathy; they were very familiar with the healing process of circumcision. We can also use study and personal empathy to find the right moment for action.
  3. Shrewd people find ways to lower defenses. Genesis 34:25 says Simeon and Levi also attack at the point of Shechem’s greatest sense of security. The dream of intermarriage and the resulting transfer of wealth slows down the men of Shechem. In this case, it was empty promises and deceit. But the same principle of finding the right moment and not pursuing a frontal attack can be applied innocently as well. Rather than try to convince someone of something when their resistance is highest, there are ways to lower their guard and win them over.

By the way, God can redeem curses and evil shrewdness. In Exodus 32, Levi’s descendants choose the Lord’s side even if it means opposing their brothers, and so Moses blesses them and sets them apart. In Numbers 3:12, God chooses the tribe to be his redemptive substitutes for the people of Israel, and makes them his priests.

So here’s the point: you can find redemptive lessons in any example of shrewdness, no matter how evil its application. It’s a matter of studying and flipping the story around. That was Jesus’ point. Where do you see shrewdness applied in your context? In your world? How can the story of Jacob and his extended family help you improve your skills at gleaning out the principles so you grow in shrewdness?


Shrewd Series

Studying shrewdness: Where Jacob got it

The point of this series of blogs is that, while most people view shrewdness through a negative lens, it is a tactic that can be used for good or evil. Author of Shrewd, Rick Lawrence, describes it this way:

“Shrewdness is a weapons-grade relational tactic—a way of thinking and acting—that Jesus long ago urged His followers to use in their uprising against the powers and ‘spiritual forces of wickedness’ of this world. Shrewd people… first study how things work, and then leverage that knowledge to tip the balance in a favored direction. Shrewdness is the expert application of the right force at the right time in the right place.”  

As I emphasized in my last post, Jesus urged his followers to study the shrewd ‘people of this world’ to sharpen our skills, noting that shrewdness is more commonly practiced in the context of evil. For today, I want to start with some case studies from Scripture, and then we’ll move to examples from the world around us today.

Shrewdness is not a rare trait in the Bible. On the conniving side of the table, the clearest examples come in a streak of manipulation and deceit in Jacob’s family that runs from his mother Rebekah and her brother Laban through Jacob and his wives to his sons Simeon and Levi.

Episode 1: Jacob vs. Esau

Jacob is a twin who is born second but comes out of the womb trying to pull his brother back. So he earns the name “cheater.” Genesis 25 and 27 paints a picture of a young man who takes advantage of weakness in his brother—to steal Esau’s birthright—and naïveté in his father—to steal Esau’s blessing. But, lest we give Jacob too much credit, it’s his mother Rebekah spying on her husband, drawing her favorite son into the scheme and then planning and implementing the deception.

What positive lessons can we learn from this outright deceit?

  1. Value is in the eye of the beholder. A shrewd person understands value comes not from what we think something is worth, but what it’s worth to the prospective customer.
  2. Strategy involves managing tradeoffs. Michael Porter at Harvard Business School says that strategy is about trading one thing for another. If there is no trade off, there is no strategy. And if there is no need for a trade-off, there is no need for a strategy.
  3. The heart is an important motivator, even creating blind spots. A strong vision and a cause can be sufficient to overcome pain points, or even mental objections. Chip Heath and Dan Heath wrote in Switch that the heart is like an elephant, and the mind like the rider on top of the elephant. It’s important to engage the heart, because it has the power to override the will of the mind.

Episode 2: Jacob vs. Laban

So, deception runs in the family, but we find out just how broadly when Jacob flees to his uncle Laban’s house (Gen 28-31). It’s like Jacob is looking in a mirror at someone with the same traits, but wielded with far more skill. Jacob realizes the stakes when he wakes up the morning after his wedding and discovers he’s married the wrong daughter. Earning his true love will require Jacob to indenture himself again. While the first seven years had passed quickly because Jacob had a dream to anticipate, the second seven are all out battle with his crafty father-in-law. Then he agrees to a deal for another handful of years to provide for his own household. It’s a dangerous game, because Laban changes his wages ten times and tries to disadvantage Jacob at every turn. Jacob proves more than capable at building wealth in spite of the obstacles.

Lessons

  1. Shrewd people use every weapon at their disposal, even redeeming those others might question. There’s no indication that Jacob knew shepherding and breeding beforehand (Gen 25:27). I suspect he was a quick study of the latest science and theories (old wives tales?) about breeding, which he learned from the shrewdest person he knew, his uncle Laban.
  2. Shrewd people respect those who meet them on their terms. As Laban sees his own wealth trickling away and Jacob’s building (Gen 30:42-43), and then Jacob outsmarts him and sneaks away, Laban seeks a draw—he asks him to sign a covenant of equals. Lawrence says, “most shrewdly self-centered people have acclimated themselves to people who generally offer little resistance. Because of this, they’re soft—and that softness is exposed when they’re heartily engaged by someone who is innocently shrewd” (Shrewd, 160-161).
  3. God sees and uses the evils done to us. Jacob has a lot of tricks in his bag, but Genesis 31:4-12 says that God has seen what Laban has done to him, and has blessed Jacob’s maneuvers. It’s important to note that Jacob’s own character is challenged by Laban’s intense cunning. He begins to despise deceit and value honesty (Gen 30:33, 31:7, 31:38-42).

This is getting longer than I intended, so let’s pause there, and we’ll pick up in my next post with episodes 3 and 4 in Jacob’s family line.


Shrewd Series

Commending shrewdness

These are unique times. Unprecedented, I’m sure you’ve heard. I believe the circumstances we’re facing right now call for a leadership characteristic that most Christ-followers haven’t put any thought into: shrewdness. After all, doesn’t shrewdness suggest cunning, conniving, deceitful and devious characteristics? Yes. Yet Jesus twice urged his followers to grow in shrewdness. In fact, he said we should pay attention to shrewdness in the world around us and learn from it. So we must be missing something. Let’s take a look at what Jesus was trying to tell us through these instances.

The shrewd manager

In Luke 16:1-10, Jesus tells a strange parable about a manager. This man knows he is about to lose his job for mismanagement, so he uses his last days to settle accounts with each of his master’s debtors at 50¢ or 80¢ on the dollar. It doesn’t change the immediate outcome, but as he lets the manager go, the master commends the man’s shrewdness. Sometimes you just can’t help but shake your head at some people’s sheer audacity and cleverness.

So what exactly is Jesus commending in sharing this story, if it isn’t deceit or dishonesty? The big idea is in verse 9: The people of this world, even in their sinful actions, show more shrewdness within their context than the people of light do in theirs.

That negative contrast helps us understand something Jesus said earlier about a context very much like ours.

A critical pairing

After teaching his disciples for a year or two, Jesus decides it’s time for them to put their learning into action. It’s time for a mission trip. So he puts them in pairs and then shares some final thoughts in Matthew 10:16:

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

They are heading into a context where they will be surrounded by people who hate and seek to destroy them, yet Jesus tells them to take nothing with them. Yes, they’re empty-handed, but with these two things—the shrewdness of a serpent and the innocence of doves—they have what they need.

The pairing is important because there are a lot of traps; Christ-followers’ practice of shrewdness cannot resemble the world’s. Rick Lawrence, who literally wrote the book on Shrewd, explains the nuance in Jesus’ instructions:

“The word He uses here for “serpent” is the same one He uses for Satan. And the word He uses here for “dove” is the same the Bible uses to describe the Holy Spirit. He’s telling His disciples to be as shrewd as Satan is, but as innocent as the Holy Spirit is.”

Remember that comparison Jesus made in Luke 16? The problem is that, while evil has practiced shrewdness, we’re not very good at it. Lawrence summarizes:

“Jesus wants us to study the shrewd ‘people of this world’ like they were textbooks, instead of complaining about them or picketing them or ignoring them or gossiping about them… He’s asking us to watch how shrewd people—even and especially those we’re repelled by—get things done.” (157-158)

Christians are still sheep in a world of wolves, but if we put these two passages together, it allows us to see that world of wolves as an opportunity—an opportunity for study and contextualization. Remember this caveat from Lawrence:

“It’s the tactics, not the heart, we’re to pay attention to—translating the ‘what and the why’… into redemptive resolve.” (163-164)

Jesus is sending us out with the same advice he gave long ago, but we’ve ignored or misunderstood at our peril. It’s time to re-invest in shrewdness. How do you build expertise? By study and by practice. But it starts with a change of perspective.


Shrewd Series

Fail early

The most fascinating parts of Creativity, Inc. have to do with failure. Let me unpack a few of Ed Catmull’s points about failure.

1. Leaders must overcome fear.
At the heart of failure is fear. Leaders must overcome fear of failure themselves, and they must loosen its grip on their followers. As Catmull puts it, “The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure—to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts” (p 123). Failure is an opportunity for learning, and an opportunity for creativity. In fact, Catmull says the ideal is to create a culture where staff are empowered—not only to explore new areas, to have room for experimentation and to fail without major consequences, but to break outside constraints to solve problems. There’s an enormous upside to such empowerment: “If you create a fearless culture (or as fearless as human nature will allow), people will be much less hesitant to explore new areas, identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them” (p 111). Some of the ways Pixar creates these avenues:

  • Animated shorts, which have lower budgets and give new directors more opportunity to learn story telling and explore the range of technology.
  • Pixar University, which offers classes for all staff across the company to learn drawing, scene lighting or management.
  • Notes Day, where the entire organization once took a day off to work toward solutions to a problem that impacted them all.

2. Leaders must respond well to failure.
The book is worth reading just to catch the story of how an overly-enthusiastic programmer at Pixar accidentally erased the entire Toy Story 2 movie from the company servers, and how a rogue staffer who had previously set up some backdoor work processes managed to save it. When I shared the story of the accidental deletion with my nine-year-old daughter, her first reaction was, “I’ll bet he got fired!” That’s how most CEOs would respond, and that’s the best way to undermine everything you’ve been preaching. Catmull says if employees are given freedom to experiment, they should never be punished for mistakes. “Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions—and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure” (p 125).

3. The desire to avoid failure will doom your organization.
One of Ed Catmull’s most exciting moments came when Disney bought Pixar and put him and chief creative officer John Lasseter in charge of both animation studios. They found Disney Animation was paralyzed by institutional fear. “For too long, the leaders… placed a higher value on error prevention than anything else” (p 264). There’s no way to create original ideas or to liberate your employees to innovate if error prevention is your driver. That was the case when Disney went 16 years without an animated film coming in first at the box office.

The irony for Pixar, a company that has hit number one with every film, is that they consider failure to be inevitable. They therefore plan for failure. Yes, they guard against it, but they aren’t paralyzed by it. “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy—trying to avoid failure by outthinking it—dooms you to fail” (p 109).

4. Failure is best done quickly.
How does Pixar keep from failure at the box office? By allowing—or even forcing—failure to happen earlier, when consequences are fewer. Catmull says every film that goes on to success is born an “ugly baby.” It needs a lot of work, and it would be shut down if held up against any standards of success.

Instead of trying to overplan or avoid failure, it’s better to make a decision and see where it goes. This is true for directors and the film-making process, where Catmull says there’s an upside to decisiveness: “The time they’ve saved by not gnashing their teeth about whether they’re on the right course comes in handy when they hit a dead end and need to reboot. It isn’t enough to pick a path—you must go down it” (p 111).

Catmull also says it’s true at the top of the company. “Leadership is about making your best guess and hurrying up about it so if it’s wrong, there’s still time to change course” (p 228). Catmull intuitively pushes many of the tenets of design thinking. It’s a “ready–fire–aim–fire again” approach that takes a best guess and moves forward with it, knowing you have a better chance of hitting the target the second time because of the lessons learned by missing early.

The beauty of Ed Catmull’s approach at Pixar and Disney is that he raised up an army of empowered problem solvers. That approach allowed him to serve as president over two animation studios at the same time. Here’s how he sums up his leadership style:

If we allow more people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate (and don’t vilify) their mistakes, then we enable a larger set of problems to be addressed. When a random problem pops up in this scenario, it causes no panic, because the threat of failure has been defanged. The individual or the organization responds with its best thinking, because the organization is not frozen, fearful, waiting for approval…. If you push the ownership of problems down into the ranks of an organization, then everyone feels free (and motivated) to attempt to solve whatever problems they face, big or small (p 164).

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.

Christmas like you mean it

I inherited from my father a love for word play. I love palindromes, Spoonerisms and contronyms and I love verbing nouns. At this time of year, I like to verb the word “Christmas.” In other languages, it’s easy. For instance, the Germans verb Weinachten. The famous German poem that I memorized in High School, “Christkindl`s Weihnachtsgedichte,” includes the line, “es Weinachtet sehr,” which literally means, “It Christmases a lot.”

The English language has always been adaptive, ready to embrace new words. If you look online, English uses of the verb form today include towns getting Christmased-up and people getting Christmased out. Perhaps it’s catching. But it’s not just a new phenomenon. I found this fantastic poem from 1887:

The Verbing Man

“Oh, yes I Christmased,” says the man,
Who skips from verb to noun;
I dined and turkeyed à la mode,
And curry sauced in town.

I restauranted everywhere,
I whiskyed, beered and aled;
Cigared I on Havanas rare,
And on Regalias galed.I

New Yeared, too, on viands rich
And I champagned myself;
Or Tomed and Jerryed — can’t tell which,
Expenditured my pelf.

I resolutioned on that day,
As spirits throbbed my head;
But when the pangs next panged away,
I just cocktailed instead.

—Texas Siftings
[reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 3, 1887, p.9]

Let me get to my point. We’re well into the Christmas season, and the annual grumbling has begun. One thing you can count on every December is the Christians complaining that nobody’s recognizing Christmas anymore. Cashiers and waitresses won’t say, “Merry Christmas.” Cards opt for “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” Now we have Holiday trees, Holiday spirit and Holiday blend coffee.

One song probably grates on these Christmas defenders more than any other: “Holiday Like You Mean It.” The CBC has been running it on radio and TV this month. (If you haven’t gotten the song stuck in your head yet, you can find it here.) Rob Wells captured the essence of the Holiday season: festive, jolly and merry; presents, lights and bells. The fact that the Holiday has reached the point of verbing tells me the culture has crossed a line. December is the month to Holiday as we used to Christmas. And I for one am grateful that we’ve finally gotten to this point of honesty.

As I was wandering around the Eaton Centre in Toronto at the beginning of December (with that jingle stuck in my head), I realized I’m happy to tease this mashup season apart. Let’s let Holidaying refer to the rampant consumerism and materialism, the hustle and bustle and general busyness of the season, even the Santas and reindeer and elves.

As believers, I say we let them have the Holiday and we take back Christmas. Rather than defend the label, let them move on to new terminology for the season they’ve co-opted while we return to the real reason for Christmas: God coming to earth to be with us and live among us. Let’s redeem the term and let Christmas be a reflective and joyful time, centred around Christ and the fact that he gave. Then let’s renew our commitment to His mission: to be light in a dark world.

The well-known conclusion of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol says of Scrooge that, “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” In other words, after his transformation, Scrooge Christmased well. How did he do that? He took on the joy of generosity, his heart laughed, and “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them.”

Let the world Holiday while we Christmas. As we do that as a minority Church, we’ll stand out against the culture rather than fighting to conform the culture to our ideals.

Christians, let’s Christmas like we mean it.