The wisdom of the magi

Christmas is over, right? Why am I still writing about the three magi who visited Jesus? Well, we are right around the corner from Epiphany, or the Feast of the Three Kings. So it’s timely to focus on this mysterious group of men have been called kings, wise men and astrologers. If you’re not familiar with the story, take a look at Matthew 2:1-12, and then let’s dig in.

Who were the “magi,” to use Matthew’s term? I don’t believe they were kings, but I think they are descendants of a long-time strategy of kings to draw the wisest and most discerning men close to them in a desperate attempt to see the future and lead well. As Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (ESV).

Let’s trace this thread through history: 

  • When Pharaoh needs a dream interpreted and finds his magicians and wise men deficient, he gravitates to Joseph, “a discerning and wise man” who can tell him what God is about to do. “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God? … Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you,” he says as he makes him prime minister. (Gen 41:25-40)
  • When Pharaoh faces his challenger Moses, and Moses turns his staff into a snake, he calls out his wise men and sorcerers to reproduce the miracle. They are also able to turn water to blood and produce frogs but unable to produce gnats. (Ex 7-8)
  • When David is pulling his military together at Hebron, he values Issachar’s contribution: 200 chiefs who understood the times and knew what to do. (1 Chr 12:32)
  • When King Xerxes is faced with a defiant Queen Vashti, he consults “experts in law and justice,” “wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king.” (Esther 1:13-14)
  • When Nebuchadnezzar is baffled by his dreams, he summons “his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed.” When Daniel is able to explain the dream—because God “gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him”—Nebuchadnezzar places him in charge of all of Babylon’s wise men. (Daniel 2
  • Even Herod, when he first hears from the magi that a star indicates a new king has been born, consults the chief priests and teachers of the law. (Matthew 2:4)
  • When an intelligent proconsul of Paphos, who already retains a Jewish sorcerer named Elymas and a false prophet named Bar-Jesus, hears of Barnabas and Saul, he sends for them “because he wanted to hear the word of God”—likely not out of earnest seeking, but to add to his collection of wise men. (Acts 13:7-8)

Magi seems to be a word of Babylonian origin, which is consistent with these magi coming from the east. I believe Daniel was a magus himself and likely became leader of the magi. This group’s thirst for knowledge and early indicators lead them to note a star that no one else has observed, to conclude it indicates the birth of a king and then to seek that king in Israel. 

This Covid pandemic has the feel of a pivotal time. Few previous occasions have really become a global touchpoint we all have in common. What does it indicate? How is it likely to shake things up? Many of us, including me, long to understand our times and know what to do. But we haven’t faced anything like this in our lifetimes. I believe a moment like the one we’re in should not be wasted. It should be a catalyst to move on the things we’ve known we need to do, finally giving us the courage to act. Here are a few quick thoughts from the wisdom of the magi.

Watchful. The magi see the star because they are watching. Jesus tells us we should be servants noted for watchfulness, readiness, faithfulness and wisdom so we’ll be caught doing the right things. (Luke 12:35-48)

Take action on what you know. It’s not enough just to note the star; the magi believe enough to commit the resources to a long trip, but even then, they are still asking questions. They don’t have full information on what they had observed, but they also don’t stay in Babylon.

Discerning. They hear the words of Herod that he also wants to worship this king, but they also hear the warning from God in a dream. They are shrewd enough to defy the local authority and heed the words of God.

Widely read. We can see that the magi seek wisdom in many forms: the movement of the planets, prophecy, dreams and asking questions.

From the magi’s example, we see that wisdom is not static. Being in the right place at the right time does not come from a single bolt-of-lightning moment, but a progressive process. 

Let’s commit ourselves to watchfulness, obedience and discernment about the times we’re in.

And maybe 2022 is a great time to expand our studies to include other forms of wisdom or other sources we haven’t learned before. To prompt your thinking: First Nations elders are called “knowledge keepers,” and many of them can draw on the informal education they received before residential schools gave them a European education; they learned trapping, environmental practices and land management from their parents. Any tradesman has a pool of wisdom gathered from experience: carpenters, mechanics, electricians or farmers. Or why not take up a pursuit you’ve never engaged in before: calligraphy, baking, painting, woodworking or learning a new language?

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

What successful traits then look like now: Shrewdness

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

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

3. Shrewdness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Megacompetency Series


Shrewd Series

What leadership traits then look like now: Servant heart

In this series, the challenge we’re considering: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them? What competencies do you look for, and what do the early version of those competencies look like? I think this has relevance to other industries as well, because the competencies we’re considering would benefit every industry.

The working theory I’m exploring is that you should look for evidence of early indicators of megacompetencies. Last post, I covered the first megacompetency, resourcefulness. The second one I want to propose is:

2. Servant heart

There’s a glut of articles on servant leadership, so I won’t add to their number here. However, we’re talking about early indicators, and Robert Greenleaf himself said that the servant leader should be servant first. So it’s important to break down servanthood itself.

Early experiences shape a leader’s approach to problems, working with teams and handling of authority. The approach of numerous biblical leaders was shaped by years of serving, including Joseph, Aaron and Nehemiah.

Let’s park here for a minute before we get to the competencies. Attitudes and character are not the same as competencies. As I’ve written before, leadership training should never be given to someone who lacks character. Nothing builds character like serving, and nothing reveals character like being treated like a servant. A servant heart comes out in attitudes and attributes such as humility, selflessness and longsuffering (an archaic, but revealing way to articulate patience).

Now, those attitudes may not be evident in young leaders, because they are often developed by experience. How many brash, overconfident young people do you know who emerge from crisis, failure or loss with a greater maturity, self control and wisdom? The apostle Peter comes to mind. But there are some who are wired for service (Enneagram 2, for instance), transformed by the Holy Spirit or raised in conditions that hone early development of a servant heart.

But what makes servanthood a megacompetency? Let’s look at some of the specific competencies of a servant.

“As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.”

Think of period pieces like the TV show Downton Abbey or the film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Picture a banquet table, with beautiful table settings and guests seating arrangements carefully planned. The servants stand still on the periphery of a room, trying not to be noticed, but where are their eyes focused? On their master’s hands, looking for the slightest indication of need before it can be expressed. Servants are good listeners, empathetic, with high levels of awareness and emotional intelligence. My wife and I refer to this trait as “radar” and long to build it into our kids so they will notice a door that needs to be held for someone, a car full of groceries that needs to be unloaded, or a person carrying a heavy load that could use some help.

  • Attentive. This is related, but I want to list it separately to draw out additional competencies:  reliability, trustworthiness and diligence—to listen to, carry out and follow up detailed instructions. One way to describe this attentiveness might be to call them a student of their master or boss.

Attentiveness also touches on proximity. An attendant by definition keeps his or her position by the master’s side. In a 1990 study of successful executives, John Kotter identified one of the most important leadership development opportunities as “visible leadership role models who were either very good or very bad.” A young leader can draw his or her own conclusions from close experience with another leader, so back-stage access combined with attentiveness will accelerate a leader’s development.

  • Prescient. The best servants don’t even require an indication of need, because they know the need before it happens. They are prescient—but in the sense of having foresight, not clairvoyance. Through study and paying attention over time, they know how their master operates and what his or her preferences are. Early indications might be commitment, loyalty, curiosity and a deep interest in people.
  • Forbearing. Another archaic word with no modern equivalent. Collins Dictionary says, “Someone who is forbearing behaves in a calm and sensible way at a time when they would have a right to be very upset or angry.” A servant has to have thick skin. In The Butler, protagonist Cecil Gaines mostly succeeds at ignoring or shrugging off slights and racist comments made in his presence while maintaining a functional working relationship with eight successive presidents from both parties and a wide range of personalities. Yes, this characteristic becomes more prevalent with age, but not exclusively; well before he began working at the White House, Cecil Gaines—and Eugene Allen, the real butler his character  is based on—had gained these skills by growing up on a plantation.
  • Stewardlike. Chuck Bentley at Crown Financial Ministries says that, while there are behavioral characteristics in a steward, the definition is simple:

“A good steward is someone who doesn’t see their own life, money, and possessions as their own.”

It’s often been observed that renters treat property differently than owners. But stewards are qualitatively different. They see their role as caretakers of someone else’s property, company, organizational unit or staff, but treat them in the way they would if they were owners. In a steward, you might find early indicators of competencies like duty, resource management, resourcefulness, and employee care and development.

If you want to find a leader for the future, look among your servants. But you will have to look; the problem with seeing potential in servants is that they don’t stand out. They can get typecast and limited because leaders don’t see or allow for their potential. For many years I wondered how cupbearing could have prepared Nehemiah for a governorship, and I resolved that question in my blog post From “lording servants” to “stooping lords”—which is probably my most extensive reflections on servanthood and servant leadership.

Servant heart is important to cover before I get to the next megacompetency, because this one gets at issues of character. My next one is easily misunderstood, and I’ve seen very little written about it.


Megacompetency Series

What leadership then looks like now: Resourcefulness

So the challenge we’re considering: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them?

I covered the first part of the challenge in my previous post. The second challenge is to figure out what competencies to look for, and what the early version of those competencies might look like. How do you spot this kind of talent? The mission leader who proposed this challenge had a theory that you look for evidence of megacompetencies. These are broad competencies that are themselves a collection of competencies. He believes that makes it easier to watch for and cultivate early indicators. 

I want to propose three over my next three posts.

1. Resourcefulness

In the book, Topgrading, Brad Smart explores the ruthless leadership theory deployed by Jack Welch at GE: grade your executives each year and cut the bottom performers. I am not a fan of that ultra-competitive approach, and Simon Sinek offers a blistering critique of such finite thinking in The Infinite Game. However, I find Smart’s exploration of the competencies of “A players” to be helpful. 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.

So, if you need resourceful leaders in the future, how do you spot these competencies now? They can be seen in the way kids play, in the way students juggle competing responsibilities, in the way young leaders approach challenges. As a matter of fact, resourcefulness can show up very early in life. For instance, consider Rex Davis. While his mother was showering, this 2-year-old grabbed the car keys, left their locked motel room, got into the car and started it up. Unfortunately for him, it was a manual transmission car parked in first gear, so when Rex started the car without stepping on the clutch, the car lurched forward—through the front wall and into the motel room. While police were investigating the accident, this “precocious” 2-year-old found the keys again and climbed back into the car. I suspect Rex Davis will be one to watch for the future.

But here’s the rub: early demonstrations of resourcefulness may look to managers like disobedience; not accepting a firm “no” and making an end run around the bureaucracy. Some of these unskilled expressions will be intensely frustrating to a manager who simply needs the job done. In those cases, it’s up to the senior leader to intervene and create appropriate expressions for those characteristics.


Megacompetency Series

What gets you there won’t get you here

11 years ago, the president of a mission networking organization approached me with an interesting challenge: He wanted to help the network’s member organizations develop candidates for the C-suite* 15 years from now. But how do you help mission agencies recognize high-level leadership traits early?

Now, if you’ve read What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, you know that many of the leadership skills and aptitudes that get you noticed or even help you succeed at lower levels of leadership are not the same as those needed for senior-level leadership. In fact, some of them might actually block your promotion path. So, if that’s the case, the converse might also be true: what gets you there might not get you here. What if the competencies that might make someone an excellent CEO, Senior VP or VP are actually skills that won’t advance your career early on? What if they’re not even appreciated at the lower levels in an organization?

What does a young person do with skills, interests or abilities that are not encouraged, or perhaps even suppressed? Some might hide those dreams, those desires for bigger picture thinking, those challenging questions. Others attempt to nip them in the bud, attempting to stifle the development of “negative traits.” In other cases, those traits become major sources of frustration—for the individual or for his or her boss.

Thankfully, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln emerged successfully from their early failures, losses and frustrations.

In other words, the ladder to high level leadership may not actually pass through typical lower levels of leadership. What if, instead of suppressing certain competencies, we drew them out and developed them independently of a young person’s current role, simply to prepare a future leader for the future? The working theory of the mission leader who approached me was that future C-suite leaders cannot be developed within the organization; in order to develop skills for a generalist leadership role, they need to participate in a cohort with others like them outside their organizations.

Think about your organization. Are you likely to encourage and develop C-suite kind of thinking and behaviour when it has no immediate benefit to the organization or the role that person currently fills? Do you provide outlets for these kinds of leaders? What could you do to ensure that their frustration doesn’t boil over and some other organization ends up benefitting from their leadership 15 years down the road?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can develop skills for the C-suite, you have to recognize those high-potential individuals in the first place. In my next post, we’ll look at the second part of this challenge: what do the early roots of C-suite leadership look like?

*The C-suite refers to all the “Chief” roles: Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief HR Officer, etc.

Megacompetency Series