Incipience

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo recommends changing the way we look at things. He suggests that our global financial crisis resulted from our tendency in the West to try to take things apart to figure them out or look at individual parts of a problem. For instance, a viewpoint that isolates mortgages from insurance fails to see the interconnections that brought the whole system down. Instead, he recommends taking in everything at once instead of fixating on pieces. He likens complex systems to a sandpile, where every grain is dependent on the others. It has an inherent instability and very little predictability. The way to anticipate change in a complex situation is to look around the edges, in unexpected places.

Ramo tells of a study where 100 graduate students were tested to track their eye movements. Half were American-born, and half were Chinese-born. The Americans fixed their eyes on the main object in the foreground, to the extreme that they sometimes didn’t recognize that the background image changed. Ramo goes as far as saying, “When it came to the environment, Americans were almost completely “change blind.” In other words, they stared.

The Chinese students kept their eyes moving, searching the background for additional context. They didn’t stop with a tiger in the woods. Instead, they looked for threats, clues to location, tensions, etc. that might influence the tiger. In fact, some spent so much time on context that when a new picture came up with the same background and a different foreground object, they thought they had seen the image before. His conclusion was that Americans typically stare at a small handful of data points while high-context cultures believe that the environment contains clues to what will happen next.

More than anything, what you want to know is when change is going to begin. In Chinese philosophy this sense is known as a mastery of incipience, and the skill is often praised as the highest form of wisdom.

Ramo’s point is that today’s world requires a different way of looking. Those who will be successful in the present and future are not those who narrow their gaze, looking for specific data points. He’s seen it in foreign affairs, venture capital and intelligence: those who can take in a broad range of data and infer conclusions are more successful. Ramo’s conclusion:

The chance for real brilliance or flair is usually best seen out of the corner of the eye.

So, how’s your eyesight as a leader? If you have a distinctly western view of the world, this is a great argument for diversity. Surround yourself with people who see the world differently than you do, and you might do well to bring in people who from birth have been trained to look at the edges of the paintings — to look at the whole to gauge what’s just around the corner.

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Romans 12 – self awareness

3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.

It happens every year. A young lady shows up on American Idol, sings her heart out… and the judges cringe. When someone informs her that she’s bad, she appears genuinely shocked.* Why? Because her entire life, she’s been told that she can sing. She has never received honest feedback until Simon Cowell.

* Go with me here. I know it’s all rigged.

Do you have a Simon Cowell in your life? Okay, bad example. Do you have someone in your life who has the privilege and authority in your life to tell you the truth? Paul had the ability to say this to the Roman church because of his role as spiritual father and apostle. Perhaps for you it’s a pastor or mentor or Proverbs-worthy friend, but you need people to give you an honest assessment, particularly as you move up in leadership.

What if you’re not really as good a leader as you think you are? This is a tough question, so take a minute to think about it.

I’ve read many times that when a superstar executive is plucked from a team by headhunters to fill a new leadership position in another company, they can’t reach the same success in the new setting. Why? It’s the drumbeat I’ve been saying for some time now: leadership is contextual. You are likely only as good as the team you’re surrounded by and the ideal match of your abilities to the challenges and opportunities you’re facing. Before you take credit for things that God has given you, read Daniel 4 as a warning from King Nebuchadnezzar.

I believe self-management is the first requirement of leadership. The Bible is clear that if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. The first step, then, is to know yourself. Know what you’re good at and what you’re not. Leaders have as few blindspots as possible and know their weaknesses well so they can lead to their strengths and staff to their weaknesses. But it’s true that the higher you move up in leadership, the more difficult it is to keep from living in a coccoon. There’s no one to tell you the truth, and it’s difficult to stop believing your own press.

The sticking point in these verses to me is that line, “measuring yourself by the faith God has given us.” What does that mean? For starters, if faith is the assurance of things unseen, then our plum line is not anything readily apparent to us. It’s not the media or our kiss-up friends. Our plum line is how God sees us. He’s the one who can see our insecurities and our coping mechanisms. He’s the one who sees past our false bravado. He’s the one who sees how our “courageous decision” was really just a guess, and this time it worked. He knows all that… and more.

Yet he also knows our full operating potential, because he’s the manufacturer. I think God believes in us. When we consider others better than ourselves and are quick to give credit to others for the success we enjoy, I think we’ll uncover a lot of the potential he built in.

Matthew Henry has a great admonition to sum up my last two posts (and this is a nice counterpoint to my recent posts on ambition):

We must not say, I am nothing, therefore I will sit still, and do nothing; but, I am nothing in myself, and therefore I will lay out myself to the utmost, in the strength of the grace of Christ.

Romans 12 – no conformity

2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

This verse has been covered in relation to the Church engaging culture, so I’m not going to go there today. Instead, I want to focus on what it says to leaders — more of a personal application. I want to hit two areas of conformity that I think a lot of leaders struggle with, particularly those working in ministry.

It’s very easy for churches and non-profit ministries to embrace secular management and business philosophies. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of good, helpful advice that can be applied to our settings. I remember hearing Jim Collins describe his astonishment at how many non-profit leaders were reading his books. He cautioned “social sector” leaders to discriminate, noting that non-profits shouldn’t necessarily embrace business practices. Just because businesses do it doesn’t make it worth copying, because most businesses are average at best. Instead, he noted that the same principles that make a business great can make a non-profit great. Copy the greatness principles, he urged.

Too many ministry leaders spend time reading the latest leadership techniques when greatness is found in more ancient texts. The Bible’s principles are still applicable today. I remember Dave Ramsey noting one time, “Who knew you could make so much money teaching people what the Bible says?” He’s not the only guru making money repackaging biblical concepts. Consider Collins’ Level 5 leader idea. Humility and a deep passion for the work are not new ideas.

The second thing leaders struggle with is the desire for easy success. A simple way to do that is to see what works for others in ministry — Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, you name it — and copy that in your context. By now, you know that I think leadership is contextual. I’m sorry, but there are only so many of Hybels’ strategies that work in my church of 350. Different scale, different world. I think a desire to copy the behavior of others — be it the world or even other ministries — comes down to laziness.

Instead, Paul calls leaders to transformation built around an experience with God. God’s will for me is personal, and it involves my mind and will. God has gifted me differently than any other leader, and he has a plan for my ministry and my part in my ministry. When I’m transformed by God’s work in me, I don’t look to others as a measure of my success, but work for an audience of One. I don’t measure myself by the expectations and requirements of others. And I don’t look at what God is doing in others’ ministry, but I look at my context and my situation.

When I’m transformed, I can freely exercise my leadership gifts and do my thing where God has called me, in my context.

Leadership is contextual

I’ve blogged on this subject before, but I heard and read some really interesting thoughts on the subject in Leadership Rising, Wycliffe’s one-week, strengths-based leadership development program.

First of all, our president referred back to the last four presidents of Wycliffe USA. He pointed out that the board brought in each one of them for a specific purpose to transform our organization. Each one had his own strengths and weaknesses but was ideal for the role he was asked to fill. That reinforces to me the idea that there is no single pattern for a successful CEO. I suspect that in the room I’m sitting in, every single one of the Myers-Briggs types is represented. And yet, we’re all leaders in our own contexts.

Second, a friend of mine sent me a challenging new leadership book, The 52nd Floor: Thinking Deeply About Leadership. The following quote stood out to me, quoting from “a famous Gulf War general”:

The act of leading is a process that undergoes constant change. When you find what works, such as your “six keys to success,” you’ll eventually fail. All the elements in a leadership situation are constantly changing. You as a leader are growing and changing. Your workforce is developing. Some employees leave the organization, others enter it. The situation changes all the time. The easiest way for a leader to fail is for him or her to apply what worked yesterday to today.