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!

Resetting Missions – Fifty years behind

As I mentioned before, I recently attended the RESET conference in Arizona. My expectations were probably set too high, as the lead-up was fantastic.

  • Regional dialogs unearthed some really radical ideas, such as a proposal that mission agencies drop their own HR departments in favor of a single non-profit that provides those services. It was clear to all of us that there’s just too much redundancy.
  • The case statement drew from Ramo’s book, Age of the Unthinkable. I’ve blogged enough on that book that the author is still showing up in my tag cloud in the right column of this blog.
  • We knew going in that the two host organizations, The Mission Exchange (formerly EFMA) and Cross Global Link (formerly IFMA) were very likely going to end 50 years of talk and finally merge into one organization representing missions in North America. What a great model for the rest of us!

So those lofty expectations doomed me. I found the sessions somewhat flat in comparison. One tweet resonated with a number of us after a speaker proposed a list of changes for world missions: “This would have been great if we were talking about it 50 years ago.”

Then this week I discovered the speaker who should have been there. To their credit, the organization that introduced futurist Dr. Jay Gary to me was The Mission Exchange, the same organization that introduced me to Ramo and hosted the RESET Conference. Unfortunately, their webinar yesterday didn’t get the platform the conference would have given him. Dr. Gary is a professor with Regent University’s Masters of Strategic Foresight program. Just the name of that degree makes me salivate…

I’m only just beginning to unpack what Dr. Jay Gary recommends for the mission world in his article, “Toward the Great Work.” Here’s an example:

Protestant World Missions practitioners are fifty years behind awakening to this Great Work, and will likely have little leverage in leading our world to safety, contrary to the Wisdom of Jesus. This is a sober fact that evangelism has become reductionist, and merely focused on the after-life, not this life, contrary to what Jesus did for his generation. We must listen to the late missiologist David Bosch and learn how to transform mission.

For those of you who attended RESET, imagine a speaker lineup of Cobie Langerak, Tim Breene and Jay Gary. For those gifted with Futurist strengths, you’ll love the following collection of articles:

Strategic Foresight: Looking to the future to plan today

The future of Business as Mission 

15 Provocations from the future 

Trends and Technology Timeline 2010+ (the London Underground-inspired map above)
I need to go read some more. I just had to get this posted so you could join me.

Manage the moment

In regards to time, the least-inhabited place is the present.

A week ago, while attending a small church in Cary, NC, I had an unexpected privilege of hearing a sermon on Ecclesiastes 2 from a guest preacher, Jason Miller, an English professor at N.C. State. He continued a theme from our road trip, making some excellent points about living in the present. I want to share a few of his thoughts and add my own, drawing from my inner futurist.

Miller’s point was that we spend so much time consumed by our past or planning for the future. We forget to enjoy the moment we’re in. Instead, he urged us, consume the present.

I think that’s why I don’t like photography. Funny for a graphic designer to say, so let me clarify. Don’t get me wrong. I love looking at great photographs. I’m in awe of photographers and photojournalists past and present, from Ansel Adams, Robert Capa and Cornell Capa to Dave Crough, Jon Shuler and Mo Sadjapour today. I love looking at the incredible moments in time captured by a master. I just don’t want to be the guy behind the lens. Why? I simply would rather live in the moment and capture my own mental pictures of the present than lose out on an experience because I was trying to capture it for the future.

Let me give you an example. A colleague gave me a great piece of advice the week before my wedding: remember that moment when you’re standing at the front and first see your bride appear through the doors in the back of the church. That mental snapshot is seared in my memory today. It took my breath away.

Benjamin Franklin's bifocalsAs I was listening to Professor Miller, the metaphor of bifocals formed in my mind. The beauty of Benjamin Franklin’s invention is that you can keep an eye in two directions. One lens focuses ahead while the other focuses on the foreground. That’s how I want to live: with one eye on the future while maintaining one a gaze on the present. I have to know where I’m going, but I also want to consume the present.

I ran into this principle the week before in Norfolk, where we spent some time with a Commander in the U.S. Navy. He has authority over all the aircraft in the Navy, responding to crises like Libya by pulling the resources needed from their normal assignments, wherever those might be. He told me he’s currently working on two-year planning. “How can you plan two years ahead when there’s always a crisis that derails your plans?”, I asked. His response was pure military; he quoted Eisenhower:

Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Planning is like a good pair of bifocals. If you can’t toss the plan when the present interrupts, you’ve missed the point.

On our road trip, Becky and I listened to a Michael Connelly murder mystery. One of the lines the FBI uses in training new agents is “Manage the moment.” It’s more than a law enforcement principle; it’s a leadership principle. While not undermining the importance of planning and preparation, it acknowledges that the situation is never as ideal as our planning. You have to manage what you’re given.

What the Middle East uprisings have to say about leadership

This post is going to be about my questions rather than my thoughts. Pick a grouping or a specific question and give me your comments on this subject, okay?

Like many of you, I’ve been following with interest the successful, peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Success there has created a template for uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco and Libya. There are reverberations in numerous countries, including Iran, Jordan and China. Various dictators are considering how to respond, afraid of losing their positions and maybe their lives.

So, what can we learn about leadership from these world events?

First, what happens next when a leaderless group takes on an autocrat? The news has been asking who the government, or the military in Egypt’s case, should negotiate with. But does a leader eventually have to emerge from the egalitarian masses? I haven’t read The Starfish and the Spider. Anyone who has, feel free to give your predictions and thoughts.

Second, we can all agree that some of these leaders need to go. But there are a lot of influential forces, some of whom have been vocal in seeking regime change, who would like to benefit from the tenor of revolution. What happens when some of the more benevolent leaders go down? Does social media-stirred revolution maintain an ethical leaning? Will it always lead to replacing “bad” with “good”? What happens when al Quaida figures out how to steer the masses toward their ends?

Third, in The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo questions the very foundation of the idea that has shaped American policy for decades: democracy equals peace. Will this move toward democracy bring more peace to the Middle East? I remember a documentary on the Colombian drug scene that depicted the anarchy resulting from an autocratic cartel member being taken down. Is it better to keep the evil you know?

Fourth, given that leaders don’t need a title to lead, what can we learn from the autocrats’ struggle to hold onto positions? What are the implications for leadership in the future with a populous so empowered by cell phones and the internet? Can any totalitarian regime keep enough fingers in the dam to hold onto power?

My read: we’re in the middle of a dislocation of epic proportions that will rewrite the Middle East, that will rewrite leadership textbooks and will rewrite military and public affairs strategy. What’s your read?

The petrie dish for innovation

Times of crisis reveal what is and isn’t working. These are the times when obsolete and dysfunctional systems and practices collapse or fall by the wayside. They are the times when the seeds of innovation and invention, of creativity and entrepreneurship, burst into full flower, enabling recovery by remaking both the economy and society.

In The Great Reset, Richard Florida goes on to point out that the greatest periods of innovation in U.S. history were the 1870s and the 1930s. Those two depressions were marked by huge spikes in research for patents and technological progress. Florida says that depressions create a reset for society, acting like a forest fire to clear out the old growth and make room for the new.

Want to read more? Steve Moore, president of The Mission Exchange has written a fascinating case statement based on his reading, research and intuition about the future. It’s the basis for this post and for the upcoming North American Mission Leaders Conference in Arizona.

In a recent post, I referred to Hizb’allah, the terrorist group that Joshua Cooper Ramo characterizes as the most innovative organization in the world. Constant pressure and hardship has resulted in incredible inventions such as the Improvised Explosive Device that, for as little five dollars, can paralyze the lavishly-funded military of the United States. That example leads me to wonder where else we should see innovation thriving. On a political level, I would think the Israeli military would be one place. The persecuted church should be another. Constant threat leads to either innovation or death.

From a historical perspective, I have great optimism for the next few years. World missions needs a reset, and I think it’s happening. The next couple of years should stand out as a period of incredible breakthroughs in strategies, technology, partnerships and ideation. Breakthroughs will happen, many of them outside the world of mission agencies. The question is which organizations will be best positioned to take advantage or to ride the wave? No doubt many who take advantage are not in existence today. But will older organizations make the leap? I suggest the difference in organizations that make the adjustments and organizations that dig in their heels to try to hold onto the past is leadership.

Let me close by quoting Steve Moore’s conclusion:

We need a fresh wave of Spirit empowered entrepreneurial risk takers and mission pioneers who lean in to what God is doing in the midst of turbulent times, seizing what may prove to be unprecendented windows of opportunity that come with a Great Reset moment.

I’m getting excited. How about you?

Heed the artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incipience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are the leaders of the future?

While wrapping up Brad Smart’s book Topgrading, I launched into the first chapters of The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Both have me thinking about what characteristics to look for in the leaders of tomorrow. Predicting leadership characteristics in a broad view is easier than predicting for any one position, because the requirements for a particular position at a particular point in time are extremely difficult to predict. Organizational priorities and opportunities might require a successor to look very different from his predecessor.

Ramo doesn’t answer the question directly, but he does offer a suggested resume for someone pursuing a career in foreign policy. There are leadership implications in this list:

  • Should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms
  • Should have an expertise in some area of the world — be it China or the Internet or bioengineering — where fast change and unpredictability are the dominant facts of life
  • Should have experienced the unforgiving demands for precision and care that characterize real negotiation
  • Likewise, should have experienced the magical effect of risk-taking at the right moments
  • Should have mastered the essential skill of the next fifty years: crisis management
  • Should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than the lovely perfection of academic models
  • Most of all, however, we need policy makers and thinkers who have that revolutionary feel for the inescapable demands of innovation. We need early adopters…

Smart meanwhile talks a lot of about the competencies most desirable in “A players.” Number one on his list:

Resourcefulness refers to your ability to passionately figure things out, like how to surmount barriers… It is a composite of many [competencies]: Intelligence, Analysis Skills, Creativity, Pragmatism, Risk Taking, Initiative, Organization/Planning, Independence, Adaptability, Change Leadership, Energy, Passion, and Tenacity.

No wonder Smart refers to it as “the megacompetency.” Do you see the overlap with Ramo’s list? In an era of epic change, the leaders of the future will be resourceful, instinctive and action-oriented revolutionaries, risk-takers and innovators. This goes back to a previous point I’ve made that academic institutions and MBA programs have been training people for a reality that doesn’t exist anymore. There are few existing models for the world these leaders will face. So, perhaps we should add one more to the list: Critical Thinking skills. They need to be able to think on their feet.

Understanding the times

This is one of my favorite leadership qualities. In times of vast discontinuous change, leaders who understand the times are as rare as they are valuable.

In the Old Testament, there are two references to people who understood the times (Esther 1:13, I Chron 12:32). All kings seem to have surrounded themselves with men who understood the times and knew the direction the king should go. Kings had an uneasy relationship with these “wise men,” sometimes choosing to follow their advice and sometimes going their own way. For instance, Solomon’s son Rehoboam.

I want to pick an earlier and more familiar example, however. Everyone remembers the story of Joseph, a young man who was sold into slavery by his brothers. After some fruitful years as a slave in Egypt, managing the household of his master efficiently, he’s railroaded and thrown in prison. Even there, God’s hand is on him, and he thrives, taking on responsibility. One day his opportunity for redemption finally comes in the form of a dream by the king. God gives him the ability to understand the meaning of the dream and to come up with a plan that will rescue Egypt, preserve Israel and make his boss really wealthy.

Joseph certainly understands the times. He knows there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of severe drought. He deploys his plan with efficiency and discipline. When the task of stockpiling gets too difficult, he doesn’t give up on collecting food; he gives up on counting. So, when the seven years of plenty end, Egypt and Joseph are in good shape. That’s where the story gets interesting.

Two years into the drought, everyone else’s worst-case scenarios have expired.

  • Genesis 45:6 says the famine has reached a critical stage for Joseph’s Canaan-based family by year two of the drought.
  • 47:17-20 records how Joseph bought all of the property of Egypt and Canaan with the grain he’d collected.
  • By 47:21, he owns all the people. He can then dictate terms under a rollover contract that lasts long after the famine ends.

But here’s the thing that caught my attention. In the years of plenty, no one but Joseph saw the drought ahead. Anyone who did plan ahead saved up a couple of years worth to get them through what would surely be a short-term decline. Joseph’s value came in his God-given ability to understand the times and know what to do.

Is there anyone who understands the times today? We have no context for the changes we’re going through. A global financial crisis has never happened before, so all the previous models just don’t apply. It’s obvious that old guidelines don’t cut it in 10%+ unemployment, unheard-of foreclosure rates and frozen credit. Eddie Gibbs, in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture, says:

It is evident in rapidly changing times that knowledge does not necessarily flow from experience. Yesterday’s solutions and procedures may not provide an adequate or appropriate response to present challenges. Hence, the biggest hurdles facing long-time leaders may not be in learning new insights and skills, but in unlearning what they consider to be tried and true and what thus provides them with a false sense of security.

My response is that God is still God in good times and bad. He was still God while Joseph fumed in prison. Our brothers and sisters in the non-Western church can testify that they still have hope, joy and faith when the economy simply doesn’t rebound. I think we have a lot to learn from them, whether it’s patience in endurance or a theology of suffering. Christianity thrives in difficult times… because we realize we need God!

I suggest we learn from Joseph to be faithful and do the little things even from exile, even from prison.

I suggest we leaders seek the God who does understand the times and occasionally chooses to disclose them to those who listen.

I suggest we try our best to be ready when opportunity happens, even in the darkest situations.

And I suggest we seek to help each other out, offering our best to fellow prisoners with little hope of reward.

You never know how God might choose to use these times, because he holds today, and he holds the future.