Looking over your shoulder

As we continue exploring Exodus 17:8-16, I want to turn our attention to the foot of the hill and the young leader who steps into the spotlight for the first time. Joshua is designated by Moses to lead the forces of Israel in their first battle. They go on to route a larger army that is better prepared and has every advantage.

Of course, we know why he really won. My question is whether Joshua figured out the secret of his success. Could he see the three men silhouetted on the hill? Did he wonder what they were up to? Did he eventually logic out that it wasn’t whether he did anything great on his own, but whether Moses’ arms were raised? Did he have one eye on his present situation and one checking behind him to see Moses’ posture? And, in doing so, begin to work with God?

Clearly, the story doesn’t tell us. We can only guess, because so many details are left out of the story of Joshua. For a man who featured so heavily in the story of Moses, who then becomes leader of Israel for 27 years and even has a book named after him, we know surprisingly little. We don’t know if he ever married. We don’t know his back story. And we don’t know his thoughts or fears.

Knowing Joshua’s confidence level would give insight into whether he figured out his role in the successful battle that day. An overconfident leader would conclude that it was all about his great strategy—only to discover at the debrief that he had very little to do with it (v14). A leader unsure of himself would spend too much time looking over his shoulder at Moses, to see if he was doing it right and to watch Moses’ hand positions. Which one describes this young leader of 30 or 40 in his public debut?

Joshua’s back story

A leader’s confidence is so often tied to his or her back story. Great books like Dan Allender’s, Leading with a Limp, urge us to lead out of who we are, and to embrace the brokenness in us that comes from prior experiences. But what was Joshua’s back story? We simply don’t know where he was prior to Exodus 17:9.

We know he lived in Egypt. Given the role Moses offers him, there’s a good chance he had some form of military background in Egypt.

We know he participated in the first 17 1/2 chapters of Exodus. But that simply leads to more questions about how he developed his leadership aptitude.

  • Where was he among the skeptical Hebrew leaders in Egypt when Moses first showed up with a message from God (Ex 4:29-31)?
  • Where was he when the foremen complained to Moses that he had made them a stink in the sight of Pharaoh, who ended the distribution of straw in retaliation (Ex 5:21)?
  • Where was he in the exodus from Egypt, that night when Moses had to signal to an entire nation that it was time to leave?
  • Where was he in the crossing of the Red Sea, as the people nervously paced the beach, watching the dust rise from chariot wheels?
  • Where was he when the people were grumbling?
  • Where was he in the first half of this chapter, when the people were ready to stone Moses?

Leaders don’t burst on the scene fully developed, so there are two possibilities.

Perhaps Joshua was an emerging leader, beginning to catch Moses’ eye by taking on unmentioned roles—helping mobilize the people on Passover night, vigilant on the beach beside the Red Sea as the pillar of fire kept the Egyptian army at bay, a loyalist giving encouragement to Moses.

Or, Joshua was already in some kind of leadership position and had to choose to come under Moses’ authority. Note in the paragraph above that those in established positions were not always on Moses’ side. In fact, the first seven verses of Exodus 17 tell us that not everyone was part of “Team Moses.” There was an insurrection brewing. Which side was Joshua on?

In other words, if Moses wasn’t the one to first draw out Joshua as a leader, when did the young man convert from critic to loyalist?

Whatever the back story, in this moment Moses trusts Joshua implicitly. Joshua is thrown into the deep end and finds himself leading a battle. Soon Joshua will become indispensable to Moses.

With those musings as a foundation, let’s get to a few points of application.

1. Leaders are followers first. Godly leadership takes a conversion from the role of skeptic, critic and grumbler who wishes he was in charge, to a new role as a loyalist who surrenders to God’s leadership.

2. Our best strategy is to participate with God in his purposes. Did Joshua’s strategies even matter to the battle? What would have happened if Joshua had laid down his weapons? Would he still have prevailed? There’s a lesson here about why God so often only lets us see the big picture after the fact. Somehow, in some way, our efforts and strategies do matter, but so often the real results come from a spiritual strategy or prayer. We take great risks when we foray out on our own without that foundation.

3. We need to give young leaders space. There’s a risk with young or inexperienced leaders. They may be put in the driver’s seat, but they spend all their time looking back over their shoulder to see if they’re doing it right, if they have their superior’s or mentor’s approval. That’s where, if the one with the authority has another job to do, it creates space. Whatever Joshua’s back story was, Moses took a calculated gamble. Rather than lurking around as an observer, Moses goes where he can’t possibly grab the controls. He’s occupied elsewhere. Yet, he still does everything he can to make Joshua successful.

I believe Joshua figured out where his success was coming from. The clue is in the absence of detail about what Moses was saying on the mountain. While most of Moses’ prayers, speeches and arguments with God were meticulously recorded, Moses’ biographer was otherwise occupied on this day. Joshua recorded faithfully the only detail he could see: the posture of Moses’ hands. It gave him the courage to apply his leadership on the ground.


Moses on the Mountain series:

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Leadership Study Guide for The Darkest Hour

Darkest-Hour-One-Sheet-600x888I may have to go back and update some of my previous posts on best leadership movies, because The Darkest Hour just bumped the others off the the top spot. It doesn’t require special ability to note leadership lessons in Churchill’s life, so not much is original here, but perhaps the questions in this blog post can be a tool to be intentional about drawing out some of those lessons. In the spirit of Invictus, my most popular post, I offer The Darkest Hour study guide. It’s designed for personal or group reflection after watching the movie.

We learn the most about Churchill from his wife, Clementine. Their interactions as a couple reveal the truth about Churchill as a man much more three-dimensional than the legend most have come to know. Consider these questions about the Churchills and then reflect on how they apply to you.

  • Consider the various scenes in which Clementine appears. How does she view him—realistically or with rose-colored glasses? What specific traits does she appreciate about him?
  • What does she appeal to in Winston to get him to do what others can’t?

The takeaway quote is this one: “These inner battles have actually trained you for this very moment. You are strong because you are imperfect, you are wise because you have doubts.”

  • How do your doubts, weaknesses and imperfections give your leadership strength?

Later the king asks, “Are you not afraid?” Churchill admits, “Most terribly.”

  • Do followers expect their leaders to be fearless, or is that an unattainable standard leaders expect of themselves?
  • In what ways does the “fearless leader” myth hold back potential leaders?
  • How much should a leader let on about his/her own doubts? What are the risks and benefits?

From biographies, we know that one of the first things Churchill does as Prime Minister is to get a realistic assessment of the state of the war. In the film, his War Room depicts the dire state of the British forces. And yet he portrays to the public something very different.

  • What steps does Churchill take to get brutally honest information for himself?
  • What is the challenge in communicating to the public the state of the war? Do you agree or disagree with his choice to lie to the public? Why?
  • What is the line between optimism and inspiration versus honesty? What might have happened had he done it differently?
  • Clementine makes an interesting point about truth: “The truth will have its time.” In the film, when is the time for truth? Are the people ready by then?

The early days of Churchill’s time in office are extremely fragile, requiring great courage.

  • What is his relationship with the king? How does that relationship change over time, and what factors account for the change?
  • Why does he surround himself with a War Cabinet of rivals? What power do Chamberlain and Halifax utilize against him?
  • How does Churchill find the leverage to break the opposition and gain the political ground to lead effectively?
  • What would courageous leadership look like in your context—with superiors, with rivals and colleagues, and with direct reports?

Churchill struggles with whether his leadership position requires him to consider all possibilities, including entering into negotiations.

  • When does focus and principled leadership become myopic and stubborn to the point of blindness? Is it an abdication of leadership to cave on the one point that got you into your position? Why do you think Churchill concludes, “Those who never change their mind never change anything”?
  • What is the difference between leading others with a clear vision and looking at the people around you, asking their opinions and seeking out the voice of the people? Is that simply following, or is that also a form of leadership?
  • Which factor/whose support most influences his decision to never surrender? The king’s or the people?
  • In what ways does Churchill manipulate the various voices to influence the War Cabinet?

There are a lot of other directions you could take in a film discussion, from exploring the shifting nature of Churchill’s reliance on his secretary… to assessing the tradeoffs that come with leadership… to evaluating Chamberlain’s leadership from the back row. If you come up with any other questions or topics of discussion, post them here so we can all benefit.

Leading under authority

In my last post, I unpacked the art of influencing. The second major challenge of second chair leadership is to understand the nature of authority. This is key to leading when the vision or the decision is not yours.

In John 19, Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate in the face of questions about where he came from, whether he is a king, whether he is the Son of God. Pilate finally asks in frustration, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (v10). Jesus shares a secret of authority in that moment, to that sole audience: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been give you from above” (v11). Authority comes from above—from the power you represent, the one who sent you, the one in whose name you act.

The Roman centurion in Luke 7 shows an astounding grasp of the principle that leadership is stewardship of the authority we have been given. Jesus himself marvels at the man’s faith, which flows from his understanding of the authority given to Jesus from above. He believes Jesus can simply speak the word, and his son will be healed. Why is he so certain? “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Lk 7:8). It follows that if Jesus is acting on behalf of the Creator, he has command of the very elements. Indeed, in the next chapter, even the wind and waves obey Jesus’ orders (Lk 8:25).

There are three primary challenges to a second-chair leader when it comes to authority.
1. When lines of authority are unclear. Confidence comes from clarity in direction and scope of authority. When either is unclear or confusing, a leader’s ability to lead is undermined. When there is daylight between the first- and second-chair leaders, followers can be disillusioned, or they can be emboldened to take advantage, playing one against the other.

2. When we disagree with our supervisor. It is inevitable that you, as a second-chair leader, will be asked to carry out a decision you don’t believe in or spoke out against. Even leading within a servant leadership model, where each has ample opportunity to be heard and to provide input toward a group decision, will lead to decisions that weren’t unanimous. So now you are committed to carrying out a decision that you once argued against. Your team may well make the same arguments you made. Is your job as a second-chair leader to toe the company line or confide in your team that you made the same objections?

Siding with your team against those in authority is not leadership. Leadership means carrying out a decision even if it’s not popular, even if you might agree with some of the criticism, even if you have your own doubts. The time to make your opinions, your arguments, your doubts clear is in the privacy of a meeting with your boss or leadership team. Once you leave that room, you move forward with one voice. The alternative erodes trust and undermines leadership authority.

3. When our authorities disagree. The confusion for believers is that we have a higher master than our immediate supervisor. Christ is our master, just as he is master over our direct reports and our supervisor (Eph 6:5-9). When our two sources of authority disagree, the choice over which authority we will obey is clear. When we’ve expressed our objection on biblical grounds, and our earthly supervisor disagrees, what then?

Think about Joseph again. He is a man under authority. First, he could clearly see God’s hand in his life—the successes, the tragedies and the waiting were all part of his preparation for this role. He knows God has sent him to this position (Gen 45:8), and he is a man who will not compromise his high morals (Gen 39:9). Yet he is clearly also under Pharaoh’s leadership. If he disagrees with Pharaoh, can he disobey? Besides loss of position, he may face exposure of his past, perhaps a return to prison, perhaps a loss of life. But Joseph could make a stand, or surely he could engineer an escape from the country. Most of us, even leaders, can quit if we’re faced with bad choices.

On the other hand, Joseph knows that the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled, and God hasn’t completed his mission. He can’t walk away. God has prepared him, led him to this point and filled him with his Spirit (Gen 41:38). So Joseph co-leads Egypt through this period of adversity as best he can, balancing the tensions to the point that today, we can’t see light between him and Pharaoh.

Ultimately, confidence comes from the knowledge that your supervisor will be held to account. The Lord himself raises up and removes authorities (Dan 2:21, Jn 19:11), holds leaders to account (Heb 13:17), and rewards faithful servants (Eph 6:6-8). We can only be responsible for ourselves and the way we respond to the situation we’re dealt. God will take care of the rest.


Joseph series:

Joseph: Fulfilling his promise

The day begins as any other in prison—no hope, no indication that today’s dreariness is going to be any different than any other. Joseph’s sentence is undefined and subject to the whims of Pharaoh. At thirty years old, he’s become jaded, burned from briefly allowing himself to hope that the cupbearer would put in a good word. His optimism faded long ago—two whole years, like an added sentence. So in Joseph’s wildest dreams he couldn’t begin to imagine what this day holds. He doesn’t allow himself to dream.

Suddenly a summons, and a whirlwind of activity. Bathing, shaving, new clothes, makeup. In a few short hours—minutes perhaps, given Pharaoh’s sense of urgency—Joseph is transformed from a lowly prisoner and slave to advisor, standing before Pharaoh like an intern called before the president. He doesn’t seem to have been given any context, any indication of what he’s being asked to do. All these years of waiting, and Joseph has a few minutes to make an impression. There is no transition.

Joseph can’t possibly have a plan; the opportunity is so sudden, he is clearly working off the cuff, relying on God to guide him. And yet all of Joseph’s thirty years have prepared him for this moment of spontaneity. Upon his summons he has the presence of mind to offer a rebuttal that it is God who can give Pharaoh what he wants; Joseph is merely a spokesperson. Then he has a few minutes to listen to God’s word to Pharaoh, sense the meaning in it, collect his thoughts and give a response.

In Genesis 41:1-32, Joseph does exactly as requested and expected: he tells Pharaoh seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of famine.

It would be a completely different story if Joseph ends there. However, like the sons of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32), Joseph not only understands the times but knows what to do. That’s where Joseph crosses a line from being simply a prophet to being a discerning and wise strategist. The key, of course, is that in Joseph “is the Spirit of God” (Gen 41:38). He combines wisdom with action, and the courage to follow through. Joseph takes an enormous risk advising action to Pharaoh. I imagine a deafening moment of silence when he finishes, with all eyes on Pharaoh. In verse 37, a smile creeps over Pharaoh’s face, and things will never be the same for Joseph.

Pharaoh’s gut tells him he needs to promote this young man as the one to implement this plan. To come up with such a specific plan of action with no advance preparation, it’s clear to all that God must have shown him the strategy, too. It is this God who makes Joseph stand out above Pharaoh’s own wise men (Gen 41:8,38-39). Pharaoh makes a key observation: that this is not a one-time incident; if the Spirit of God dwells in Joseph, no one will be as continually discerning and wise as Joseph. Within the next nine years, God will make Joseph a “father to Pharaoh” (Gen 45:8), and he will instruct princes and teach Pharaoh’s elders wisdom (Ps 105:22).

By the end of the day, Joseph has a new name, fine clothing, a signet ring, a private chariot and a new bed in his own palace.

But Joseph is not content to kick back, enjoy his new status and his new wife. Motivated and ready for action after waiting so long, he quickly gets to work. How does Joseph lead in times of prosperity? First, he scouts the country and secures his status. It’s important as a newcomer that he be seen, and it’s important that he see the land. He learned leadership at a much smaller scale, which allowed him to get to know and attend those under his care, and his new scope requires travel. His education in Egypt has also been incomplete, and he must learn the agricultural industry. As the Theology of Work Project puts it,

His office would have required that he learn much about legislation, communication, negotiation, transportation, safe and efficient methods of food storage, building, economic strategizing and forecasting, record-keeping, payroll, the handling of transactions both by means of currency and through bartering, human resources, and the acquisition of real estate…. The genius of Joseph’s success lay in the effective integration of his divine gifts and acquired competencies.

Joseph has a high level of responsibility and loyalty, and with a looming deadline, he has a lot to manage. Like any businessman today, Joseph needs agility to take full advantage of opportunities and resolve bottlenecks, and the right balance between stockpiling and investing for “the business cycle of economic boom and bust” (Tien Fock). Planning and preparation is required to preserve some grain for sowing at the end of the famine, while the rest will be portioned out by year. Security at the storage facilities will also need to be part of the plan.

True to the plan he had laid out to Pharaoh, he taxes the revenues during this period of abundance at 20%. He scales the management task, creating a regional oversight structure under competent leaders and designing regional storage collection. And he tracks inventory and revenues, until the abundance is too great to measure. Some accounting historians suggest this passage is marking an epic change in bookkeeping from tokens to writing; “the breakdown of the means by which the surpluses could be measured” (Jose and Moore) may precipitate a shift in how accounting is done in the ancient world. In short, God’s abundant provision breaks the system.

A rising tide raises all boats, and this period is a time of fabulous wealth for all. Joseph enters his own seven-year period of fruitfulness, gaining two boys (Gen 41:50-52) and incredible favour with Pharaoh. God is restoring Joseph and nurturing an environment that will preserve life, and especially Jacob’s family line (Gen 45:5-7). The edge that Pharaoh enjoys above any others is Joseph’s extraordinary insight into the timing of the trends. However, there is no way Joseph could tax the people and store this much grain in secret. As a man of integrity, Joseph wouldn’t have practiced insider trading; the timeline of abundance and famine had to be made public, and others had a chance to follow Joseph’s investment plan. Yet all evidence points to a failure by any individual Egyptians to properly plan for the seven years of famine.

The season turns, and the time of plenty comes to an end. Joseph has proven himself as prime minister, fulfilling his promise as a leader. There are different challenges to leading in abundance than leading in scarcity, and we’ll look at how Joseph adjusts in my next post.


Joseph series:

A void of leadership

This has been quite the year for leadership. Near the end of July, in the middle of violence between black men and police, Stephen Collinson nailed my thoughts in this CNN headline:

Who can make it stop? Is there a leader who can stop the chaos and heal America?

For a student of leadership like me, it was a summer chock full of case studies from all of Canada’s neighbours. I realize I’m a little late to the game, but I want to weigh in with the back row leader’s perspective in a three-part series.

Full disclosure: I’m a dual citizen, and a former Republican who is planning to vote absentee in the U.S. election, not because I like the choices I’ve been dealt but because I don’t want to abdicate on my responsibilities as a naturalized American. I’m also a child of Europe, in possession of an uncompleted Irish passport application and with similar eligibility in Britain. I really don’t see a need for four passports, but I can’t hide the fact that I do feel loyalty to all four. That said, I’m an observer of much of what I’m commenting on, so I recognize I may have missed some nuances. Anyway, let’s jump in.

1. Populism is a form of leadership.
We’ve seen populist revolutions in the U.K. with Brexit, the U.S. with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and in Colombia last week with the people’s rejection of a peace deal referendum. Populist movements have multiple influencers and an inertia of their own. It’s hard to pinpoint the leader of a movement, which has its weaknesses but also offers some protection from political pressures. In The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom use the metaphor of a starfish to discuss movements, pointing out that scientists still don’t know how starfish move in concert when they’re essentially an organism by committee. Without a head, the starfish is less vulnerable to damage and still manages to move and feed itself, but I suspect it sometimes surprises itself with where it ends up.

But isn’t Trump the leader of his movement? Attempting to read the trends and making adjustments to stay in front of the mob makes a good surfer but a poor leader. Trump has had a remarkable ability to see a wave building and to harness it without being knocked off his board; consider the strange bedfellows who resonate with “Make America Great Again,” and his flirtations with David Duke’s endorsement.

2. The most challenging part of leadership is to figure out how to get “there.”
It’s easy to be a critic, and even to lead a group away from “here.” But the wilderness beyond is full of regrets, uncertainty, and leadership pitfalls – where followers turn on a leader when their expectations aren’t met. Just ask Moses. Or Nigel Farage, who decided he “did his bit” in leading Britain out of Europe and wasn’t ready to take the mantle any further. As Bill Hybels is fond of stating, leaders move people from “here” to “there.” Leaving isn’t enough; it’s only the beginning of the need for good leadership.

It takes real courage to take on the wilderness ahead of Britain. You could argue that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson had a lot of wisdom in backing away, but they lacked the courage — or perhaps the specifics — to back up their vision. Theresa May remained in the game even though she hadn’t supported the Brexit decision. It’s now up to her to help define the vision for what “there” is going to look like.

3. There’s a hunger for thought leadership.
Back on this side of the pond, there’s a failure of imagination. Dialogue is non-existing and creativity fails to get a hearing when well-defined camps hold long-established lines. Civility is lost, and the President skirts legislative approval while Republicans even resort to suing the President to prevent action. Too many Americans have believed the lie that the other candidate or party is wrong on 100% of the issues. And so there is no nuanced thought or open-minded discussion about tackling healthcare, immigration, gun violence, racism and terrorism.

When someone decides ahead of time that one party has the right position, it undermines their ability to think honestly. Even worse, it neutralizes their voice to speak into the issues.

4. The Church has lost its voice.
The issues America is facing have spiritual roots and spiritual implications. Only the Church can speak to heart issues like hatred; the State’s hands are tied. So the Christian must be able to work between the parties to challenge the extreme edges of gun freedom, to address roots of poverty, to seek equality and remove profiling in the application of law, while also seeking religious freedom for believers to operate in their sphere to address heart issues. No political party has a corner on solutions for these issues.

When the Church marries itself to a political party, as the black Church has largely done with the Democratic Party and the evangelical Church with the Republican party, they are taken for granted and their voice is silenced. When Donald Trump thinks he has evangelicalism firmly in his camp by offering them greater influence, power and friendly Supreme Court justices. Many no longer criticize his character or other policies, because they’ve heard what they need to hear.

5. Any void will be filled.
This is not an election as much as a referendum on the direction of the country. If the Republican party can’t fight off its hijacking, a void will certainly beckon for a new party to represent the conservative, immigrant-loving spectrum in a merger with the disenfranchised #nevertrump social and economic conservatives. If ever the United States could tolerate three parties, this seems the time.

However, I submit that the leadership void will not be filled by a politician. The Christian community must rise up to defy hatred, challenge racism, love the unloveable and defend the vulnerable. Spiritual leadership is needed, and it must come from voices that are not power-hungry and bowing the knee to any political party. To some, such meekness and humility will look like weakness. Some might call them losers. But the last will be first, and the first last. The meek will inherit the earth. The one who loses the world will gain his soul. That, more than anything else, is what America needs to find again.

On July 7, when Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed police officers in Dallas in the middle of a public firestorm focused on police brutality toward black men, it was not a politician who stepped up to lead with fresh vision. The world noticed when Dallas’s black police chief found a platform to address the craziness. David Brown had just the right combination of empathy with black minorities, identity with the uniform and Christian compassion, and his leadership drew praise from all parties.

That’s the kind of leadership we need.

Part 1: A void of leadership
Part 2: A time for repentance
Part 3: An opportunity for Millennials

Challenge lazy thinking

The leader whose thinking is constrained within well-worn ruts, who is completely governed by his established passions and prejudices, who is incapable of thinking either gray or free, and who can’t even appropriate the creative imagination and fresh ideas of those around him, is as anachronistic and ineffective as the dinosaur. He may by dint of circumstances remain in power, but his followers would almost certainly be better off without him. (Dr. Stephen Sample, Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership)

In my last blog post that spelled out what I call leading as an art director, I promoted the idea of gaining buy-in and then letting an idea go. Letting go doesn’t mean the leader can’t continue to feed the idea. He or she needs to do this by challenging lazy thinking and by destroying natural constraints to thinking. Here are four ways to do that:

1. The threshing floor. I love the concept of the threshing floor, where ideas can be tossed in the air to see what solid nuggets of wheat fall to the ground while the chaff blows away. I am a proponent of “thinking out loud.” Until an idea is stated and turned over a few times, you don’t know its value. I believe everyone has something to contribute, so when a meeting ends and someone never spoke up, I wonder what held back. I’m convinced introverts could solve most of the world’s problems, but they’re happy to take their solutions to the grave!

2. Design thinking. I can’t articulate the concept of design thinking as taught at Stanford’s d.school, but I learned the concepts the hard way, through five years of undergrad training and nine years of practice. One basic tenet is that the ideal is not ready-aim-fire as much as ready-fire-aim-fire again. In other words, don’t analyze something to death before you ever move. Trial and error is the best way to develop an idea.

Another tenet drummed into me at Georgia State is that your first ideas are likely worthless. However, if you don’t get them out on paper and then intentionally throw them away, they will limit your thinking. Push yourself to come up with at least one more viable idea. Many leaders talk about the trap that results when everyone in a meeting is in agreement, and they intentionally push someone to argue the other side or challenge group think.

3. Thinking free. Former USC Chancellor Stephen Sample articulates this practice in a fabulous leadership book called The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. It’s a process where a group of people intentionally remove all constraints to their thinking for a period of time so they can break out of their ruts. It goes way beyond brainstorming, allowing anything to be considered and sometimes exposing a simple, obvious solution no one has ever seen before. Sample explains the idea in the second half of this essay:
Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership

4. Fresh eyes. When someone is new to a team, a company or initiative, their most important asset for the first three months is their ability to see with fresh eyes. I try to meet with them in the first week to empower them, encouraging them to ask silly questions, challenge our thinking and point out anything that doesn’t make sense. Without encouragement, they will keep these observations to themselves because of natural desires to assimilate.

Dr. Sample offers an excellent rationale:

It’s well known among engineers that the most important inventions in a particular field are often made by people who are new to that field – people who are too naïve and ignorant to know all the reasons why something can’t be done, and who are therefore able to think more freely about seemingly intractable problems. The same is true of the leadership of institutions: It’s often fresh blood and a fresh perspective from the outside that can turn an ailing organization around.

5. Courageous questions. It takes a secure leader to encourage radical thinking and invite questions. We must always have the courage to ask the right questions, even if we don’t want to go where the questions might lead us. If the questions lead us back to where we are, then we have greater confidence in the direction we’re already moving. Or they might expose the absurdity of our current path and open the door to new possibilities.

The point of these exercises is that inertia creates laziness, and leadership is never about going along with momentum. If, as Gary Hamel put it at Global Leadership Summit 2009, “It’s so easy to mistake the edge of your rut for the horizon. We have to learn to be contrarians.” There are some proven exercises that can help you forcibly break out of your own thinking or lead a team to release the constraints that bind their imaginations for what could be.

Wartime leadership: a case study from Nehemiah

Having examined the defensive positioning and offensive weaponry of our warfare in previous blog posts, I want to return to my main point. How do we as leaders respond to these attacks, these schemes, these tactics? What does wartime leadership look like, when others are depending on us and looking to our lead? How can we assist our followers and our organizations in fighting back appropriately?

I think it’s appropriate to look at Nehemiah as a case study. The first half of the book of Nehemiah lays out the man’s extensive work to rebuild a wall to protect a city long-term, while at the same time using his builders as armed guards to keep watch against local enemies. The attack never came. Nehemiah was successful, and through his visionary servant leadership, the wall was completed in 52 days.

But as I read through the book recently, it struck me that the attack did come. It wasn’t one large military force coming at the gates or besieging the walls; it was a thousand darts that came from unexpected places. This is my partial list:

This list is much more devastating and effective than sticks and stones. It’s amazing how fear of shame, derision and jeering can keep the mightiest leader firmly in his chair. Nehemiah could have held onto his position in Persia and considered himself there “for such a time as this.” But his calling was different than Esther’s. By challenging the status quo and stepping up to lead the change himself, Nehemiah put his own reputation on the line. He risked not only his position and his safety from outside attack; he risked internal attack if his followers gave way. For an interesting parallel, consider what Moses put up with as he led over a million men, women and children through the wilderness.

So how did Nehemiah circumvent, undermine and defy the attacks of his enemies? We can learn an awful lot from his example. Here are a few key lessons.

1. God awareness
Nehemiah was constantly aware of God’s role in his success. When the king granted his request, he knew it was the result of prayer, because “the good hand of my God was upon me” (2:8). When it came time for Nehemiah to get everyone on board his vision to rebuild the walls, his punch line was his testimony: “I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me” (2:18). They were convinced. Of course, when the wall was finished in a remarkable 52 days, he claimed no credit. Instead, Nehemiah said it was obvious even to their enemies “that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (6:16).

Nehemiah constantly pointed his followers back to the Lord, inspiring them with God’s greatness (4:14), encouraging them that God would fight for them (4:20), challenging them with the fear of God (5:9), and decisively dealing with sin as treachery against God (13:27). It seems clear that the courage he consistently demonstrated came from his constant awareness of God’s presence and a sense that he would be held accountable as a leader. That same courage is available to us. It starts with the same awareness.

2. Never get undressed
In the busiest, most stressful part of the project, the threat of attack imminent, Nehemiah decreed that everyone must stay in Jerusalem for the night as a guard for the city. Then he noted that they kept their weapons within reach, and “none of us took off our clothes” (4:23). If you haven’t had time to read my last blog post on the right clothing, now’s a good time to read that. When we realize that we are at war, we don’t ever let our guard down. We continue to protect ourselves and our families with truth, righteousness, readiness through the gospel of peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. We don’t ever take off compassion, kindness, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love.

Have you seen the scene in Saving Private Ryan where, in the thick of battle, a bullet clangs off a soldier’s helmet? He takes off his helmet to marvel at the dent, only to fall to another shot? If we take off our armor even for a moment, we are incredibly vulnerable.

3. Practice prayer rhythms
Nehemiah’s prayer life certainly included prayer and fasting marathons during times of waiting (ch 1), but his day-to-day management was stabilized by a prayer reflex that helped him handle difficult situations:

  • When he was almost paralyzed by fear before the king, he sent up a quick prayer to God (2:4).
  • He took out on God his rage at his enemies, rather than letting the people see it (4:4-5).
  • When he heard of new plots, his response was twofold: prayer and setting a guard (4:9).
  • His sentence prayer at the end of chapter 5 suggests that his generosity in sharing his table wasn’t without personal cost of some kind.
  • When he exposed plots against himself, he took strength from the Lord (6:9) and trusted God to pay his enemies back (6:14).
  • I believe it was this rhythm of prayer that allowed him to see and understand the plot against him in 6:10-13. Discernment comes from time spent with the Lord.

It’s in that communing, that constant awareness of the Lord that you learn to hear His voice for encouragement, wisdom and venting.

4. Face the problems head-on
Sitcoms have overdone a common storyline: someone who needs to have a difficult conversation, but they constantly avoid it and choose the easy path until the problem blows up to comic proportions. I find those storylines incredibly frustrating. Leadership is about tackling the tough issues head-on. That’s what Nehemiah did in chapter 5 when class warfare raised its ugly head. When he discovered the rich were making profit out of the desperation of the poor, Nehemiah wasted no time bringing this exploitation to light and challenging the rich (5:6-7). By using his own example, deliberately choosing not to assert his rights, he managed to do it in a way that brought them on board, to the point that they closed the matter with a worship service together!

In chapter 13, he took on another problem with similar forthrightness, but with a different approach. This time he evicted a resident of the temple, confronted officials, warned and threatened merchants, and then cursed, beat and pulled out the hair of Jews who knowingly committed sin. There’s a progression of increasing anger, frustration and violence, punctuated by frequent prayers for God to remember him for these deeds. His constant refrain reveals his motives: the fear of God trumped fear of people.

As Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Ultimately, Nehemiah had one audience, and he never let the fear of man hold him back from what he needed to do. As David put it, “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps 56:11)

Here’s the bottom line: anyone doing “a great work” (6:3) is going to face attack, and we can learn a lot from the way Nehemiah approached his mission. If you’re in the middle of a swarm of fiery darts, don’t give up. It’s not about you; it’s about God from start to finish.

For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose. (Phil 2:13)