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

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

A new world

It’s easy to look out the window and see a world where it seems nothing has really changed. Maybe we’ll soon be able to return to normal, right? For many of us, that’s our deepest longing. But I believe the profound change in four fundamental areas can’t help but lead to a deep, deep change to the world we’ve known:

  1. The economy. Most western governments have acted like they have unlimited bank accounts to roll out programs. How will they pay for it? With austerity? With taxation? Or printing money? Or further stimulus to speed up the velocity of money? How many quarters, or how many years, will this impact our economy, and what will the implications be?
  2. The nature of government itself. How much risk should the government protect its citizens and businesses from? How extensive a safety net is going to be constructed? How will governments use or abuse contact tracing and health tracking? What liberties will citizens demand back from their governments?
  3. The charitable sector. Giving has been or will eventually be impacted by unemployment, increased government handouts, the up-and-down stock market and the continued threat to vulnerable populations. For non-profits and charities, all of these factors are bound to affect current and potential workforce, as well as philanthropy and generosity. Likely, impacts will come in waves. Where charities fail, who will step in to meet needs and fulfill charitable purposes?
  4. International relations. Closed borders, anti-foreigner resentment, tracking of citizens, visa restrictions and localization are just some of the factors that will impact travel and delivery of services around the world. For an organization that engages in sending expatriate missionaries as well as contributing funds for local projects, our priorities and strategies may need to shift.

“These are unprecedented times.” How many times have you heard someone say that? How many times have you said those words? While this particular alignment of factors may be unique, it is naive to believe no one else has faced such profound levels of change. Over a few blog posts, I want to draw out some lessons from three biblical characters that I believe are relevant today. Today, let’s look at Noah.

In some ways, we’re in a similar place as Noah in Genesis 8:4. After he and his immediate family have been on the ark for 5 months, they experience a great grinding shudder as the ark beaches itself on Mount Ararat. The immediate crisis over, it’s now time to look out the window. The earth Noah is returning to is the same one he left, but it is now going to be unrecognizable. Everything has changed. 

Perhaps these changes will prove to have only short-term consequences; the land below our ark is still drying up and taking form. But I believe it’s more than that. The similarities we see between the world outside our window and the world we left in March are only surface-deep. If we don’t prepare ourselves for what’s changed, we will miss opportunities as leaders. Here are a few thoughts.

1. The next six months will be a slow and often-frustrating re-emergence.

Land! I can imagine Noah’s eagerness to get off the ark. But the beaching of the ark was just the first step of restoration. They had to wait for the water to recede: to see the tops of the mountains, for the land to solidify, for greenery to emerge. Until that happened, they stayed in their lockdown. You know how long that was? Another 7 months and 10 days. I can’t imagine the patience that took!

As provinces and states are rolling out re-opening plans, each of our experiences across North America will look different. There will be inequities, delays and setbacks that test our patience, our contentment and our ability to follow those God has put in authority over us. Those we lead will need help with those frustrations, even as we struggle with our own responses. 

In a recent Zoom call with other leaders, one suggested that we haven’t faced our real leadership challenges yet; the next phase will require much greater leadership than the crisis phase. Ahead of us are many gray areas, many consequential decisions, and many existential choices that will redefine our ministries, organizations and businesses. But he also specifically mentioned navigating a world that is polarized and splintering, and a Church that is too quick to embrace conspiracy theories. He was considering how to proactively prepare his staff to be discerning without assuming they’ll take the wrong path.

2. This is not a blip that we need to survive; it’s a re-ordering of the way things have been. 

Whether you work for a for-profit or non-profit, your mission and vision are still relevant, and you have work to do. But strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need to be weighed against criteria to see whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities.

Some observers are saying that the quicker organizations can throw out previous assumptions and strategy and develop new strategy consistent with who they are, the better they will be positioned for success. There are new opportunities coming that were not even possible a month ago that we need to prepare for. My fear is that my organization will fill our plans and budgets with activities that are based on old assumptions and leave no room to develop new ideas that take advantage of opportunities that arise. That’s where leadership is required. 

3. New realities require different competencies.

There’s no indication in Genesis of what Noah’s competencies were before God asked him to build an ark. Think of the competencies required to build such a large sea-going structure. Think of the entirely different set of competencies required to manage a floating zoo for a year. Think of those necessary to re-establish infrastructure, cultivate the land and defend from nature in the new world. Individuals have competencies, and teams have collective competencies. A team, and a leader, must ask whether the competencies that served well in the past are still relevant for the context they will face in the future.

It may require a restructure to make that shift, but it’s also possible to pivot, as Moah and his sons did. For instance:

  • At the 2008 Catalyst conference in Atlanta, Andy Stanley shared a question he considers on a regular basis:

“If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would he do? Why shouldn’t we walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?”— Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove

  • John Pellowe, president of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, says his secret for serving in the role 17 years is self reflection. Every five years he asks himself what the organization needs for the next five years, evaluates whether he fits the criteria and then creates a personal and professional development plan to reinvent his leadership to become the leader the organization needs. Read more of his thoughts about Keeping your leadership fresh on his blog.

What kind of competencies do we need right now for this uncertain future? I’m going with futuring, forward thinking, asking good questions that challenge assumptions, performance management and metrics. Let me know if you have some others to add to that list.

Rest assured that, if you are in a leadership position, it is by God’s design. You may not know what to do—there is no model for the circumstances we’re facing—but He who put you in your position will help you as you call on him. God bless you as you lead in these extraordinary times. They may not be unprecedented, but they certainly demand leadership!