Leadership lessons on the Alberta election

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

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

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

Hubris

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bird in the bush

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

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

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

But can she lead?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Drinking the Kool-aid

I’ve described this overlap period with the current president as the best of both worlds: I can think strategically without having to worry about any of the day-to-day management of Wycliffe. However, if I try to strategize without first internalizing the corporate culture, I’ll fall prey to Drucker’s axiom:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

So how do I steep myself in Wycliffe’s corporate culture so that I can maximize my time on strategery? Like many offices, Wycliffe in Calgary is difficult to define as a block. It has many subcultures. So, whether it’s a new organization, a new country or a new department, here are some practical ideas to absorb the essence of organizational culture.

1. Experiential learning. I’m on a quest to jump in and identify with as many subcultures as I can. Two clear ones are cycling to work and joining the WTHL, the Wycliffe Table Hockey League. I have now biked to the office four times, the first of which came in 36 degree temperatures. That’s soft core. Cycling to work in the snow earns you more points.

I also watched by first table hockey game. I wish I’d had a camera to capture how serious they take this sport. I’ll post a photo next time I have an opportunity, but let me give you a taste. They have hockey cards for each team and a commemorative program that tracks every kind of statistics. At this point, I’m choosing to remain an observer rather than fall prey to their slap shots and wise cracks.

To take in the culture, don’t hold back. Experience the way your new colleagues celebrate. Spend time with them away from the office. Of course, there’s no replacement for the depth forged from experiencing a crisis together, but there are a lot of things you can do to seek breadth in the interim.

2. Read the same books. When I was in Orlando, a new leader on the recruitment team asked me what books the leadership team were reading. He wanted to know the way they think and take on the vocabulary. “Easy, I said. Read Jim Collins and Patrick Lencioni.” In Calgary, the Board and Leadership Team are now reading When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Recent reads have been Leading Cross-Culturally, by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, by Ruth Haley Barton. These books shape the way leaders think, talk and lead.

3. Ask questions. Speaking of Lencioni, his recommendation in Getting Naked is to ask lots of questions without regard to how they come across. The reason adults are slower to learn is their concern about appearing naive or dumb. I’m hoping most of my dumb questions will come before I take office. But I’m also hoping I won’t care more about my pride after I take office than about understanding my context.

4. Find out what influences them. If you want to join conversations at breaks, you have to know the terminology and people who influence them. For instance, media. In previous jobs, I’ve absorbed Survivor, American Idol, and Napoleon Dynamite. At church in Florida, if you weren’t playing Fantasy Football, you could find yourself cut off from fellowship with other men every Fall. When I retired from playing in 2007 (after winning my league twice in a row), I had to at least keep up on a few stats so that I could join the conversations. In Calgary, it’s the same way with hockey. Key influences include Hockey Night in Canada, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Corner Gas.

What have you done to immerse yourself in organizational culture? Lend me your ideas. I’ll probably put them to good use.

Are you excited?

[re-posted from my ministry blog, teameyre.wordpress.com]

“Are you excited?” and “Do you want the job?” are among the most common questions we’ve received. While Becky and I didn’t pursue this position with Wycliffe Canada, we made a series of prayerful decisions to go the next step in the process. And then the next. So, when the Board selected me unanimously, we saw the hand of God in that decision. This is simply our next step of obedience to God. It’s a role that will stretch us, challenge us and cause us to depend on God in new ways.

I think many look at the position of president in terms of the honor that it is. Certainly, it is an honor to be chosen. It comes with a platform, a high profile and authority. But when I look at the position, I see responsibility. There are significant challenges that need to be tackled. I feel a burden to support the 400 members plus volunteers and paid staff working throughout the world. And I feel the urgency to draw out the vast resources Canadians can contribute to making the Word of God accessible in every language in this generation.

I’ve quoted it several times before here, but I’ll say it again. In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Dr. Steven Sample quotes the advice of one of his colleagues:

Many men want to be president, but very few want to do president.

So, Yes! I am excited. And, Yes! I am terrified!

Put your money where your mouth is

Since the board of Wycliffe Canada selected me as the next president of Wycliffe Canada, the most common comment I’ve heard is “Wow!” followed by “Congratulations!” And then “Thank you for stepping up.” It’s that sentiment that hits most closely to my heart as I contemplate this jump in responsibilities.

For several years I’ve waxed, pontificated, prodded and urged through this blog and in leadership development events. In the latter, I’ve often closed by challenging those God has gifted to “Step up.” Now it’s time to put my leadership philosophies into practice, and I recognize that I will no doubt have to eat some of my words in this blog.

On Thursday, as I headed to a Wycliffe Canada conference where I would be publicly introduced, a member of the board read me the following personal note from Oswald Chambers:

If Jesus ever commanded us to do something that He was unable to equip us to accomplish, He would be a liar. And if we make our own inability a stumbling block or an excuse not to be obedient, it means that we are telling God that there is something which He has not yet taken into account.

I believe God has asked me to take this position at this moment in time. I’m not willing to say that He is not enough, that He can’t equip me for it. Chambers goes on:

Every element of our own self-reliance must be put to death by the power of God. The moment we recognize our complete weakness and our dependence upon Him will be the very moment that the Spirit of God will exhibit His power.

Wow. It’s going to be quite a ride.