“Is this a decision I need to make?”

I love Steven Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. He points out that while the conventional view of leaders is that they’re decisive and bold, most situations don’t necessarily call for snap decisions. Instead, he offers two rules for decision making:

1. Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.

So the first question he proposes that a leader ask is whether he’s the one to make the decision. A colleague of mine often reminds me that budget decisions are better made by the local manager. That’s true for more than just budgets, and it’s a good reminder to figure out who is best-qualified to make a decision. But I believe Sample is going a step further with his contrarian advice. He’s saying that a leader should deliberately delegate a decision he has the right to make as an act of empowerment to his team. Of course, he qualifies it by saying “reasonably,” but he’s talking about a bent, a tendency to defer on decisions whenever possible.

When all decisions have to pass through the top, we generally refer to that style of leadership as “autocratic.” But not all autocrats are despots. In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page says there’s a subsidiary of the autocratic model that he calls the “benevolent dictator.” These paternalistic leaders thrive in Christian organizations.

In its simplest form, it means that the leader alone knows what is best for the organization, either because of their direct connection to God or because of their superior God-given abilities.

Ouch. I know a few of these… in other organizations, of course. I pray that if I ever take that viewpoint, I’ll have given someone enough room at some more sane point in my tenure to be able to call me out on it. Far better to empower your managers at every level to make decisions. And to consciously push a decision down to build the capacity of your team.

Part IV: Young leaders thrive on change

I was in a meeting at Wycliffe one day in the middle of a raging discussion on the latest change. Yes, changes have been more the norm than the exception here since the words “Vision 2025” were first uttered in 1999. After a number of negative comments were made, an older volunteer stood up and asked the crowd whether there was anyone in the room who liked change. I still remember that out of a room of about 200 people, at least 20 of us stood up to say that we thrived on change rather than fought it.

There are those who thrive on change, and they are generally younger. Perhaps it’s just that once you get established, you get used to the way things are. There are probably a large number of personality factors and cultural factors that influence resistance to change, but I don’t think anyone can deny that the rate of change has risen exponentially in recent years. For those who resist change, it’s a nightmare. For those who love it, these are high times.

I read a great diagnosis of the issue of change in The Missional Leader (by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk):

There are two kinds of change we want to consider in this book: continuous and discontinuous. Let us illustrate the difference between the two types of change.

Continuous change develops out of what has gone before and therefore can be expected, anticipated, and managed. The maturation of our children is an example. Generations have experienced this process of raising children and watching them develop into adults. We can anticipate the stages and learn from those who have gone before us to navigate the changes. We have a stock of experience and resources to address this development change; it is continuous with the experience of many others. This kind of change involves such things as improvement on what is already taking place and whether the change can be managed with existing skills and expertise.

Discontinuous change is disruptive and unanticipated; it creates situations that challenge our assumptions. The skills we have learned aren’t helpful in this kind of change. In discontinuous change:
•    Working harder with one’s habitual skills and ways of working does not address the challenges being faced.
•    An unpredictable environment means new skills are needed.
•    There is no getting back to normal.

Discontinuous change is dominant in periods of history that transform a culture forever, tipping it over into something new. The Exodus stories are an example of a time when God tipped history in a new direction and in so doing transformed Israel from a divergent group of slaves into a new kind of people. The advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century tipped Western society toward modernity and the pluralist, individualized culture we know today. Once it placed the Bible and books into everyone’s hands, the European mind was transformed. There are many more examples, from the Reformation to the ascendance of new technologies such as computers and the Internet, that illustrate the effect of rapid discontinuous change transforming a culture.

I conclude, then, that change is not what people fear. Most change is manageable, after all. It’s discontinuous change that we fear. And we are in one of those periods of history as we shift from modernism to postmodernism. The book goes on to give an example of discontinuous change:

There is a wonderful IBM ad that captures something of what it means. A team of people evidently starting up a business, after working hard to develop an online marketing strategy, gather around a computer as their product goes online. They look hopefully and expectantly for the first Internet sale. When one comes through, they nervously look at each other, relieved that something has happened. Then ten more sales come through. Muted excitement runs through the anxious room. Then, suddenly, a hundred or so orders show up on the computer screen. The team is cheering and hugging one another in exultation; all their hard work has paid off. Then they stare at the screen, beyond disbelief: instead of hundreds of orders, which they couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams, there are suddenly thousands. Everyone is overwhelmed. No one knows how to deal with this; it’s outside their skills and expertise. They are at a loss to know what to do next. The organization has moved to a level of complexity that is beyond the team’s skills and ability to address.

In a period of discontinuous change, leaders suddenly find that the skills and capacities in which they were trained are of little use in addressing a new situation and environment.

I might adjust that last sentence to say that established leaders suddenly find that their training is of little use. The next generation of leaders is coming in with a new set of skills and capacities that are ready made for the times we live in. Perhaps the ADD tendencies of the younger generations will serve them well as they move into leadership.

Get used to it. Change is the new stability.