generational


If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my previous blog post, “Humbled!” I suggest you take the time to read that one as context for this post. In that post, I asked for your stories about failure. I want to share my own example here and draw a few conclusions.

I was studying engineering when God showed me very clearly that I needed to change my major and move toward a career in missions. How was it so clear? I was failing Physics and another class foundational to engineering. At the same time, I heard a missionary share about the huge need for graphic design in missions. I had always played with design, but never thought of it as a career, let alone in missions. I couldn’t get it out of my head that I needed to change majors and change schools, and that graphic design was my path to missions.

While many find the idea of a “calling” somewhat mysterious, for me it was more practical. God clearly closed a door and opened another. At the point of failure of my plans, when I was ready to listen, God used a missionary to challenge me.

Shortly after we graduated, my wife and I attended the Urbana student mission conference. While visiting the mission booths, I found out Wycliffe Bible Translators had a huge need for graphic design, helping create displays, magazines, brochures, calendars and websites. But more than the need for my skills, the mission of Wycliffe grabbed me. This was an organization marked by perseverance, going into the difficult places, advocating for the marginalized, the minority languages that were so easily overlooked.

So my wife and I joined Wycliffe and took our first assignment in Canada. I managed a small team of designers, and put my energy into Wycliffe Canada’s award-winning photojournalistic magazine.

As I think back, I got pretty comfortable and even somewhat cocky in my position and abilities. I had won some design awards for Wycliffe’s Word Alive magazine, and I was able to “leverage” my abilities to take a similar position with Wycliffe USA, an organization about ten times the size of its Canadian counterpart. I remember thinking about the expansion of my influence to a larger constituency.

So my family and I moved down to Orlando and began the most difficult two years of my life.

A larger organization requires more specialization, and my job changed to the point that it played away from my strengths for big-picture thinking and ideas. I got buried in minutia and I found myself boxed in. My frustration grew, and I took it out on my boss, rebelling against her leadership. I lost trust and the hole I was in got deeper. I’m not at all proud of the way I handled myself, and I fully deserved the words my boss gave me near the end: “You’re gifted at a lot of things, but management isn’t one of them. Maybe you should find a job that doesn’t require management.”

I suppose I was gifted in a lot of things. But I was taking credit for success that wasn’t mine to take. Many of the ideas I was so proud of came in moments of unexpected inspiration. Most of my successes were done in the context of team, not solo. I was not very self aware.

This job came to an end when my boss sent me to a leadership conference. Given her thoughts on my leadership ability, it was a funny place to send me, but it turned out to be the best money she ever spent. An hour into the conference, I heard these momentous words: “If you don’t like your job, quit!” So I did. I was walking a fine line because I didn’t want to quit Wycliffe. I was still committed to the vision. But I walked away from graphic design. I was at rock bottom, not sure if anyone would want a washed-up designer, not sure I could find another job in this organization I loved.

At the bottom of my spiral of despair, as I debated my future, a senior vice president asked me to work for him as a project manager. I suppose if I’d learned anything from those two difficult years, it was project management, so I jumped at this surprise opportunity. He pulled me up from my knees and brought me into the president’s office. I discovered the amazing world of executive administration and big-picture strategy. I loved it! But I still had a lot to learn about management, so I took a 5-year detour, leading teams at various levels before returning to administration in a role responsible for developing leaders in the organization. I had learned from my experiences and had developed a soft heart for young leaders.

Like Peter, my philosophy of leadership is very much shaped by my failures:

  • I love to take on “projects.” Several times I have taken on a staff member whose recent career was marred by a bad performance appraisal, because I see potential in them and suspect that they were in some way a victim of circumstance. If I feel like the situation I can put them in will lead to success, I’ll take a risk on them.
  • I don’t believe firing is the worst thing you can do to someone. Letting them stay and spread their misery and discontent is worse for them and for the people around them.
  • I lead as an art director. I surround myself with great people who can do things I can’t, then paint a vision and let them add their creativity and input. The result is usually better than if I did it myself. So I have a much more realistic view of myself—my strengths and weaknesses and passions. I try to do what only I can do, and empower the people around me to use their strengths.
  • I look for talent in people across various industries. If a graphic designer could make a project manager and eventually a president who practices “design thinking,” then how could other skills translate into new situations?
  • I don’t confuse my job with my identity. I’m in at least my third career since I joined Wycliffe 17 years ago, and it’s been over a dozen years since I held the same job more than two years. So hold your passion, vision and calling more tightly than what you do.

Three years ago a search committee contacted me. They were looking for a young leader who wasn’t afraid to lead change, who had a track record of developing young leaders and who could turn Wycliffe Canada around from some significant areas of decline. When my wife heard what they were looking for, it was so clear to her that they were looking for me. “We’re moving to Canada,” she said. God had prepared me for this precise job at this precise time.

In my own story, I see a resemblance to Peter’s journey. Throughout each step, I see the Spirit working behind the scenes, shaping and preparing in order to accomplish his purposes. It causes me to take myself less seriously and to say with a twinkle in my eye that it’s God’s sense of humour that he’d put a graphic designer in charge of a Bible translation organization.

Roy Eyre, B.F.A.

“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers…”

I’ve said often that my goal is, like David in Acts 13:36, to fulfill the purpose of God in my generation. What is that purpose? I don’t think anyone will be able to say definitively until my funeral what that purpose was and whether I fulfilled it. It’s the kind of assessment that’s best defined via epitaph. In one sense, it’s out of my hands whether I accomplish that purpose. It becomes a driving force, a vision for my life. But in another sense, I have the ability to prevent it from happening. I can simply reject God’s purpose for my life and my generation. As my pastor preached through Luke 7 recently, I shuddered at these terrifying words from verse 30:

“…but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves…”

I can’t imagine a more horrible epitaph. Why and how did the religious leaders of the day manage to reject God’s purpose? How could people in such strategic positions miss the most important thing? What warnings are there for me? For us?

First, let me borrow from my pastor in laying out the context. John the Baptist, after sitting in prison, began to express doubts about whether his cousin Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus answered, not by rebuking his doubt or offering intellectual proof, but by reminding him of the messianic scriptures he fulfilled daily as he healed the sick, exorcised the possessed and gave sight to the blind. Then he turned on the watching crowd to cover John’s back and challenge their understanding of the eccentric prophet. The crowd responded in two ways. Those who were baptized by John “declared God just.” Those who were not tried to justify themselves. And in so doing, they rejected God’s purpose.

So, where did the latter — the religious leaders and lawyers — go wrong?

  1. They weren’t responsive. The very next point in the verse is that they had not been baptized by John. We know they heard his message but didn’t buy it. Jesus went on to compare them to grumpy kids who don’t join in the others’ games. They didn’t laugh with those who laughed or mourn with those who mourned. I think the issue was distance. They looked at the world from the outside, afraid to get their hands and robes dirty with real life. May I never fall prey to the traps of reading the Bible for knowledge, paying more attention to the rules of religion than to the needs of widows and orphans, or analyzing rather than empathizing and sympathizing.
  2. They had to be right. While the people responded to Jesus’ message about John by concluding that God’s plan was proved right, the Pharisees rejected God’s plan. They were so sure of themselves that they found ground to fault and judge anyone else’s beliefs or practice. John the Baptist was too much of a teetotaler, so he must be possessed. Jesus was too comfortable with culture, so he must be an addict. The Pharisees’ heart attitude of rigidity and self righteousness caused them to miss God’s plan for them. Instead, may I be one who holds my opinions loosely, as one looking through a glass darkly, and may I be as much of a learner at 69 as I was at 29.
  3. They were blind. The proof Jesus offered to John about his claim to be Messiah was available to the Pharisees as well. Elijah was in their midst. Jesus was in their midst. But they missed the point. If a leader is not one to understand the times and know what to do, then he needs people around him who fill that role. Many of the kings in the Old Testament — even the heathen ones — knew this (see 1 Chronicles 12:32Esther 1:13Daniel 10:1). A leader can’t afford to miss an opportunity like the one before the Pharisees. May I have eyes to see what God is doing, the ears to listen to those who see it before I do and the courage to put actions behind my beliefs once I know what needs doing.

As I said, I can’t say with confidence what God’s purpose is for me and my generation. But I see a door open before me. I can tell you that a significant challenge has been laid at the feet of this generation: the Word of God in every language in this generation. I would love for people at my funeral to say that I helped lead my generation to see that challenge completed.

That’s my prayer for myself. After all, David himself prayed in faith, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me… Do not forsake the work of your hands.”  (Psalm 138:8)

Here’s my biggest question when I consider Acts 6: did the apostles choose the right people for the job?

Here’s who they selected: Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch. All Greeks. All who were well respected, full of the Spirit and wisdom. It intrigues me that those were the job qualifications for running a food program. I would have listed people who showed a servant heart or gifting, who saw a need and met it. I would have gone after practical people, and perhaps a few who could think bigger and more strategically, perhaps to grow the program. The apostles, and those they included in the decision-making process, didn’t go in that direction.

On the surface, I’d say they chose the wrong people for the task. I’m not saying they weren’t leaders. Two of these new leaders take center stage in the next two chapters, but not because of the food program. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Stephen is described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and “a man full of God’s grace and power.” He is a miracle worker, a debater who was unrivaled in “the wisdom and the Spirit with which [he] spoke.” He’s a preacher who is unafraid to challenge those in power. And these gifts cost him his life. I even wonder if there was time to be part of the food program between his selection in 6:6 and his arrest six verses later.

When the persecution spreads after Stephen’s death and the believers disperse (perhaps ending the food program?), Philip takes on an identity as a traveling evangelist and miracle worker, quick to follow the Spirit’s guiding, bold in crossing cultural borders and loathe to miss an opportunity. Later, he’s a cross-cultural resident of a Roman town, and a father who raised four girls to follow Christ, and who become known for the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:8,9).

There seems to be a double standard here. If the apostles were so concerned about working in their own giftings and responsibilities, shouldn’t they have also worked to empower Stephen and Philip to serve in their giftings rather than giving them a task that was beneath their abilities and perhaps a bad fit?

My conclusion is that the food program was a developmental step, a stretch assignment. It was a platform to explore and expose their real gifts. In addition, it was a chance to raise their profile, take on responsibility and improve their leadership credibility. They’re not the only ones in Scripture who followed this kind of path.

  • Joshua spent decades as Moses’s assistant, and got his first stretch assignment as a spy in Canaan (Ex 33:11, Num 11:28 and 13:16).
  • King Saul asked David to be his harp player and armor bearer, and reluctantly gave him an opportunity to fight Goliath. These opportunities became a springboard for David’s military career and fame (I Sam 16:14-18:9)
  • John Mark hung around Jesus and Peter, then joined Paul and Barnabas on a mission trip as their assistant, where he didn’t exactly serve with distinction (Acts 12:12,25, 13:13 and 15:13-38).

Leadership is best learned by doing it, and stretch assignments are a perfect vehicle for experiential learning. We love to go back to “the usual suspects,” the 20% who do 80% of the work. But when the apostles demonstrated their faith in these new leaders, they lessened the work on themselves and introduced a new generation of leaders with apostolic gifts.

So next time you’re putting together a project, a challenge or a study team, consider the age-old practice of stretch assignments. If it’s good enough for Peter, it’s good enough for me.

Let’s continue mining the leadership development principles found in Acts 6. When the apostles made the decision to remove their fingers from day-to-day program management, who did they turn to? First, they opened the problem to “all the believers,” inviting their input. Second, they went local. The problem was a Greek-speaking versus Hebrew-speaking issue. The apostles were Hebrew-speaking, and when accused of some latent racism, they selected Greek believers to address the problem. They found a local solution. Third, they turned to the next generation. There’s no indication of age, so I don’t want to imply that they handed over responsibility to young leaders, but they clearly handed responsibility to the recipients of the gospel message.

That’s the mark of a movement: those who bring a new idea or message and hand it off to the recipients of that message to take it where they didn’t imagine it could go. We’re experiencing that within Wycliffe. There’s a movement exploding in many parts of the world, carrying forth Bible translation in ways and to places our founders never dreamed of. For instance, I just spent a few days with leaders of 25 non-Wycliffe organizations birthed in Central and South America who are just as passionate about advancing Bible translation in their countries and from their areas of the world as we are. We’re joining together in an alliance to figure this new world out together. It’s a world where language groups are setting up their own Facebook pages, beginning work before we ever get there and becoming evangelists to neighbouring people groups.

Here’s the ugly side, though: the one who can most easily suppress a movement is the original messenger. We westerners do this all the time. To give us the benefit of the doubt, most oppression by a majority is unintentional. We simply don’t realize where we shut down innovation, fail to hand over ownership or fail to see potential. A friend of mine calls it “institutional racism.” In older organizations, it can be a historical colonial viewpoint that has long been eradicated in the obvious places but has become institutionalized in policies, procedures and practices that have never been challenged. It’s time for some audits of the deep, dark corners of the organization.

Since this blog is about leaders, let’s not let ourselves off the hook. Let’s make it personal. Have you audited the deep, dark corners of your own core beliefs for inconsistencies in what you say and practice in terms of holding onto authority or ownership? I remember reading a passage in Sherwood Lingenfelter’s Cross Cultural Leadership about a missionary who had to return to the United States. He successfully found and prepared a national worker to assume responsibilities for preaching in the local church while he was gone. By the time he returned, this local pastor was thriving in his role over a growing church. What a tremendous success! That’s our dream, right? Imagine what happened next. This missionary thanked his brother and took over preaching responsibilities again. I wanted to throw the book down! I wanted to throw some stones!

Until I realized I probably do the same thing all the time. I take back a role I empowered my kids to do, because it’s part of my identity. I delegate an assignment to a subordinate and begin meddling again without thinking. How often have I done that? I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll bet my subordinates and the minorities who have worked with me could tell me… if I created a setting where they could speak openly. I won’t be throwing any stones.

In response, here’s a better way: Let’s lay hands on “the next generation, pray for them and posture ourselves behind them. Let’s lay aside our feeble visions for the capacity of the next generation and allow God’s vision for them to prevail. He may well have a movement in mind.

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

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

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

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

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

I was listening to a webinar last week that misrepresented itself and turned out far less useful than advertised. Not an atypical experience; webinars too often devolve into infomercials for the presenter rather than designed for the audience. I recall the words of an old boss. Joe Ledlie used to insist that you have to add value to any piece used to sell your company. If you add value for the recipient, they will listen to your message.

What saved the entire webinar for me was one question raised five minutes from the end. “What do I do with a young person who has an insatiable hunger for a leadership position and incredible impatience with taking the steps to develop?” Given the way my ears perked up at that question, I should have caught more of the presenter’s response. The one phrase that derailed my mind was his characterization of “an over-inflated sense of readiness.”

Have you ever encountered this phenomenon? I’m all for young people stepping into leadership, but too many want to reach the goal without putting in the hard work. Reality TV probably feeds this desire for instance gratification. Young people today would rather be Kelly Clarkson than the Beatles, who Malcolm Gladwell claims put in an estimated 10,000 hours of hard work in Germany before ever making it big.

So, let’s unpack this issue a little bit. First, why do we need young people in leadership? I’ll address that here. In my next post, I’ll argue the other side.

I think organizations are served well by a variety of viewpoints. Ethnicity and gender are two principle means of achieving that diversity, but recognizing that it’s not the skin that’s important, but the unique vantage points their unique experience brings. However, there are a few more elusive forms of diversity, such as age and a fresh set of eyes – someone who comes from outside the organization and lifts the organization out of its rut. Both have expiration dates.

Age diversity incorporates several desirable characteristics:

  • generational viewpoints
  • ability to understand the culture
  • technical savvy
  • coachability
  • open mindedness
  • willingness to risk
  • energy
  • curiosity

I think ability to understand culture and technology has parallels with ability to understand and speak languages. Social media is not my first language; I’m probably a 1.5 generation. But computers are my first language. In contrast, my parents use computers like it’s their second language and find social media completely unintelligible.

The goal isn’t to ditch one generation in favor of another, but to have all working together to create a rich tapestry of perspectives. You therefore need both on your leadership team. If you have a couple of older sages, you can afford to take a risk on a couple of young, energetic change agents. I’ll go ahead and say it: most organizations and businesses take too risk-averse a line when it comes to inviting young people to the leadership table.

Cameron TownsendWhen I look at Wycliffe and wonder how we could ever turn the keys over to a young leader, it’s helpful for me to remember this picture. Our founder was in his twenties when he had the audacity to think he could start an organization that would take on translation for the remaining language groups.

Invictus movie posterI really enjoyed watching Invictus this week. If you haven’t seen the film, it chronicles the first days and months of Nelson Mandela’s rise to leadership in South Africa. Rest assured it is not a sports movie as much as a leadership movie. It portrays several forms of leadership and one leader’s attempts to influence another leader to bring about a desired result.

I was fascinated first by Mandela’s use of symbols. He seemed to bet his presidency on a decision — against the advice of his chief of staff — to focus on rugby as a symbol that would accomplish his desire to bring a divided nation together. It’s true that sports are one of the few things that can create unlikely alliances. Sports success not only unites; it inspires and ignites dreams.

The biggest challenge Mandela takes on in his use of symbols was one of prejudice. Rugby was seen as a white sport, and the Springboks a symbol of everything black South Africans fought against. If the whites cheered for it, the blacks cheered against it. Mandela took a major risk in attempting to reclaim a national symbol. Most leadership gurus would fall on the side of his chief of staff; the associations of most symbols are too powerful to redefine.

Let me try to suggest a parallel. I don’t think we appreciate how crazy it is that the cross has become a piece of jewelry. In the first century, the cross symbolized everything that was hated about the Romans. How many redefinitions has that symbol gone through in the two millennia since Christ stole it from his captors? Of course, that’s 2,000 years. Mandela redefines the rugby team in less than a year. Can you think of another symbol that changed meaning so quickly?

Symbols are a powerful tool for leaders to use to advance their cause. That’s a topic worth another post down the road.

The second thing that struck me was that Mandela staked his influence over the rugby team on someone other than the coach. In fact, I can’t recall the coach appearing in the film. Instead, Mandela challenges the captain of the team. As a player, François Pienaar has the greater influence over the resolve of the team.

Mandela’s conversations with Pienaar are alone worth seeing the movie again. The bi-generational leadership model they employ is celebrated at the end, when each thanks the other for service to the nation. I think what struck me was their two very different styles and roles. Mandela has to lead a nation. His influence comes from incredible personal authority burnished from 27 years in prison. His job is to inspire, make tough choices and sacrifice for the good of the country. He does that in several cases by challenging his people — black South Africans — in essence to do to whites what they wish the whites would have done to them.

On the other hand, Pienaar begins with very little personal authority, seemingly barely surviving a purge of team leadership. In some ways, he is a symbol of the Springboks’ losing ways and racist heritage. Inspired by Mandela, he determines to bring change. He prods and challenges the team to break their self-made molds. He puts in the effort, comes up with the strategy and forces the team to dig as deep as he himself does. He also uses symbol. There’s a great moment when he hands out cans of beer that nobody likes and forcefully associates the taste with losing. At times, like Mandela, he looks very lonely in his leadership. By sheer determination, he carries his team to victory, but then shares the credit 43 million ways.

By the end of the movie, Pienaar shares the stage as equals with Mandela. I’m intrigued by his journey — how a young leader can build a reputation and gain the personal authority needed to influence a nation. The movie’s worth watching, and probably watching again. Give me your thoughts. What stood out for you?

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