About once a year Wycliffe Canada’s leadership team thinks about succession planning. We haven’t been doing it for very long, and each time we dust off the charts and consider our bench strength, I feel a bit more confidence in our process and note that we’re closing gaps. This is where we finally look at the evidence regarding what we feel to be true: we are making progress in developing leaders at all levels of the organization. It’s slow progress, but anything systemic is going to take some time.

When doing succession planning, there are a couple of questions you have to consider, and some traps that are too easy to fall into.

  • Do we really want to continue in the same structure we’ve had? The temptation with succession charts is to put names in all the boxes: immediate successor, 2-3 years and long-shot/dark horse candidates. But what if the best solution for any of those is to restructure, combine roles, partner or outsource? Does your format allow for that kind of thinking?
  • Just because the incumbent exhibits certain skills, experience and characteristics doesn’t mean her successor should. The challenge is to consider 3-5 years into the future and look for successors who can lead that functional area into the future. That’s why Jack Welch says that in the eight years he planned for his succession before stepping down as CEO of GE, most of the names eventually fell off his list, and it was the long-shot and dark-horse candidates who eventually became finalists.
  • And finally, we add a lot of our own biases when we consider names. Leaders often think themselves good judges of character, but I’ve seen a lot of leaders write candidates off too quickly. If we were brutally honest, a lot of CEOs would have written off the person their board selects to succeed them.

I could wade further into that subject based on my own reading and faltering attempts at it, but others would have a lot more expertise. If I based this blog post primarily on my own experience and wisdom, the prime benefit for you readers would be along the lines of one of my favourite leadership axioms:

A lot of good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement.

For this post, I want to consider what God says about succession planning.

Let’s go back a step and consider some of the mythology around leadership in the first place. In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender says our view of what a leader should be is quite different than God’s. For instance, we want the following:

  • “First, a leader must be physically attractive.” Full head of hair, all that. If they can’t be that, then they at least need to be over 6′ tall.
  • “We also presume our leaders will be fluent public speakers with a firm command of their audience.” We want panache, charisma and great storytelling.
  • “We seek leaders who are well-educated, open, sincere, humble, salt-of-the-earth people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, leaders who never forget their humble beginning or the values and convictions of those they represent.”
  • “We expect a leader to make tough decisions… yet we want him to tear up over a sad story and be sentimental on Mother’s Day.

Tell me that’s not true! How many of my readers measure up? This author certainly doesn’t. But we can’t stop there; Allender goes on to say,

What we want is an illusion and we know it. We prefer the illusion because we have a deep need to be buffered from reality. (p27)

The illusion is dangerous because it keeps any of us from qualifying. The pedestal we put leaders on makes leadership unattainable or destroys leaders with unmanageable expectations, sometimes self-imposed. When we apply our own biases to our successors, it gets truly scary. Ultimately, I want Me 2.0: a leader who matches my strengths but doesn’t have my weaknesses. But Me 2.0 doesn’t exist.

Even Moses had the same temptation, and he had the audacity to tell God what He should look for in his successor. Let’s look at Numbers 27:15-23:

Then Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Please appoint a new man as leader for the community. Give them someone who will guide them wherever they go and will lead them into battle, so the community of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

Look at that list of requirements: a male, a guide, a general, and a shepherd. Where did Moses come up with this list? Is he simply trying to clone himself? Certainly, the wilderness needed a guide and a shepherd. While the historian Josephus tells us Moses had been a general in Egypt, he never takes direct control in any of Israel’s battles. At the same time, Moses is likely looking ahead and considering the next phase for Israel: as it moves into the Promised Land, it will certainly require a military leader as well as a guide and shepherd.

In contrast, what was God’s requirement for leadership?

The Lord replied, “Take Joshua son of Nun, who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him.” (v18)

This doesn’t mean that Joshua didn’t measure up to Moses’ requirements. But God wasn’t looking at the man’s resume; he was looking for evidence of His Spirit. Joshua showed evidence in his past, and it becomes his primary hallmark of leadership after his commissioning:

Now Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him, doing just as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Deuteronomy 34:9)

Let’s apply these ideas to ourselves. Think for a minute about your successes. How many of them really happened because of your amazing ability? Or does your biography read more like Joseph’s? Potiphar… the prison warden… even Pharaoh himself didn’t need to pay attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, “because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.” (Genesis 39:2-6; 39:21-23)

Are you self-aware enough to look at yourself with sober judgement and not take credit for God’s handiwork? Have you taken time to reflect and see God’s hand reaching into and through your life to bring about His purposes?

Second, how do we include in our hiring/interviewing practices queries for evidence of the Spirit? If character is bad, if the Spirit is not evident, or the person hasn’t reflected on whether his/her success might have come from God, then to develop their leadership abilities is to enable them. In the future, you will see someone who abuses power, position and people.

In short, without God’s Spirit, all you get is competence. Is that all you want? Is that enough?

[re-posted from the Wycliffe Canada President’s Blog]

Malcolm Gladwell made an observation in his book, Outliers, that the vast majority of professional hockey players at all levels are born in the first four months of the year. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that results from the fact that, from the earliest ages, kids are grouped by age. The biggest and strongest players, who are generally of course the older players in any group, get more opportunities. Everyone thinks that it will even out over time, but it doesn’t. More developed players get more development, and a handful of them make it to the highest level.

What does this have to do with women in leadership? Look at that last sentence again. Gladwell concludes that if you select a certain group of people early enough and continually give them development, you’ll change the composition of the group at the highest level. The fact is that leadership gifts aren’t identified in women early enough, and their development is often impeded when they step out of a career track to raise children.

My wife is one example. When Nancy Cochrane was recruiting us into Wycliffe 17 years ago, she knew what I was going to do: graphic design. But she had plans for Becky as well: management. Becky responded, “But I’m planning to have kids and raise a family.” Nancy responded, “After that.” Becky began to realize that Nancy was recruiting her for a role 25 years in the future. “Wycliffe needs more female managers,” Nancy concluded.

Like most mission agencies, Wycliffe has more women than men. I’ve heard that we are the “most educated organization in the world,” and more of our doctorates are held by women than men. But that same ratio doesn’t hold at the highest levels of leadership.

That’s why I was excited when I visited Abancay, Peru last month and heard that our partner organization AIDIA has someone specifically dedicated to leadership development among Apurimac Quechua women.

That’s why I’m excited to see that, as Wycliffe Canada begins its second Leadership Development Initiative next week, two-thirds of the participants are women. 17 years after Nancy said it, Wycliffe still needs more female managers.

Next week, we’re going to have a panel discussion on women in leadership. We’re gathering questions to ask the panel. What question would you add to that panel discussion? What question do you have regarding this critical topic?

Here’s my biggest question when I consider Acts 6: did the apostles choose the right people for the job?

Here’s who they selected: Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch. All Greeks. All who were well respected, full of the Spirit and wisdom. It intrigues me that those were the job qualifications for running a food program. I would have listed people who showed a servant heart or gifting, who saw a need and met it. I would have gone after practical people, and perhaps a few who could think bigger and more strategically, perhaps to grow the program. The apostles, and those they included in the decision-making process, didn’t go in that direction.

On the surface, I’d say they chose the wrong people for the task. I’m not saying they weren’t leaders. Two of these new leaders take center stage in the next two chapters, but not because of the food program. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Stephen is described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and “a man full of God’s grace and power.” He is a miracle worker, a debater who was unrivaled in “the wisdom and the Spirit with which [he] spoke.” He’s a preacher who is unafraid to challenge those in power. And these gifts cost him his life. I even wonder if there was time to be part of the food program between his selection in 6:6 and his arrest six verses later.

When the persecution spreads after Stephen’s death and the believers disperse (perhaps ending the food program?), Philip takes on an identity as a traveling evangelist and miracle worker, quick to follow the Spirit’s guiding, bold in crossing cultural borders and loathe to miss an opportunity. Later, he’s a cross-cultural resident of a Roman town, and a father who raised four girls to follow Christ, and who become known for the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:8,9).

There seems to be a double standard here. If the apostles were so concerned about working in their own giftings and responsibilities, shouldn’t they have also worked to empower Stephen and Philip to serve in their giftings rather than giving them a task that was beneath their abilities and perhaps a bad fit?

My conclusion is that the food program was a developmental step, a stretch assignment. It was a platform to explore and expose their real gifts. In addition, it was a chance to raise their profile, take on responsibility and improve their leadership credibility. They’re not the only ones in Scripture who followed this kind of path.

  • Joshua spent decades as Moses’s assistant, and got his first stretch assignment as a spy in Canaan (Ex 33:11, Num 11:28 and 13:16).
  • King Saul asked David to be his harp player and armor bearer, and reluctantly gave him an opportunity to fight Goliath. These opportunities became a springboard for David’s military career and fame (I Sam 16:14-18:9)
  • John Mark hung around Jesus and Peter, then joined Paul and Barnabas on a mission trip as their assistant, where he didn’t exactly serve with distinction (Acts 12:12,25, 13:13 and 15:13-38).

Leadership is best learned by doing it, and stretch assignments are a perfect vehicle for experiential learning. We love to go back to “the usual suspects,” the 20% who do 80% of the work. But when the apostles demonstrated their faith in these new leaders, they lessened the work on themselves and introduced a new generation of leaders with apostolic gifts.

So next time you’re putting together a project, a challenge or a study team, consider the age-old practice of stretch assignments. If it’s good enough for Peter, it’s good enough for me.

I hear Marcus Buckingham has a book with a name like that. I haven’t read it (yet), but it is on my list. The title came to mind as I was reading Deep Change, by Robert E. Quinn. Let me give some quick context and then give you a point from the book.

One thread for 2011 that I’m really going to enjoy following is the idea of RESET. The Mission Exchange is hosting a conference in Scottsdale at the end of September by that name, and I participated in a pre-conference RESET Dialogue session last Friday. Steve Moore’s goal is not to pull off a conference as much as facilitate a dialogue on the subject of Mission in the Context of Deep Change. An extremely relevant topic. Moore’s thoughts have been heavily influenced by Quinn’s book, along with Ramo’s Age of the Unthinkable, which I’ve blogged on in the past. With that context, here we go.

A group of executives in a large state government wanted to create a leadership development program built around the idea of transformational leadership. How could they develop public administrators who would take initiative as change agents in their organizations? They decided the best route was to look for what the Heath brothers would call “bright spots” and highlight these success stories in a series of videos. Their research began to unearth a number of individuals who led dramatic transformation within their organizations: a hospital with horrid conditions for patients, an office known for long lines and bad customer service, things like that.

Teams were sent to interview these leaders. Then the project came to an abrupt end. No videos could be made. Why? Because in each case, it appeared that in order to transform an ineffective organization into an effective one, laws needed to be broken. And how can a state teach its managers to break its own laws?

To be fair to Quinn, he’s not advocating breaking the law. His point is that leaders must take significant risks to challenge the rules, policies and procedures that become law within an organization. “To organize is to systematize, to make behavior predictable,” therefore organizations are built around systems. When an organization is growing, systems provide the stability for growth. When an organization stops growing, systems atrophy into rigid boxes.

Excellence, however, never lies within the boxes drawn in the past. To be excellent, the leaders have to step outside the safety net of the company’s regulations.

Deep change therefore brings to a head the conflict between management and leadership. If management is about making processes more efficient and standardized, and leadership in a context of change is about breaking rules, then there’s going to be a collision.

Leadership development gets awkward, then. How can an organization teach its managers to break its own laws?

Warning: at first glance, this post is about sports. Or maybe it’s not about sports. You might have to read past the first paragraph and gauge for yourself.

A couple of weeks ago, Georgia Tech concluded its search for a new basketball coach, selecting Brian Gregory from Dayton. For most Tech fans, that choice was underwhelming, as it appears Gregory is more steak than sizzle. Yes, he’s good. But his team isn’t in the NCAA tournament, and he didn’t come from a major conference. Tech fans have a high-enough view of their program that they think they could have hired a great coach away from another big-name school. So Gregory is bound to crush expectations.

Tech’s athletic director had a choice to make, and it just so happens that it’s the kind of choice any leader makes when it comes to succession planning and search committees. I think sport serves as a fishbowl, bringing certain choices into the open that often happen behind the scenes. The choices Tech faced, stated in general leadership terms for greater application:

1. Covet a shiny object. There are a number of “Cinderella teams” who crashed the NCAA tournament this year. Every time Butler or VCU won, the dollars projected for a bigger school to steal their hot coach rose significantly. Yet who’s to say their recent success in a smaller organization would translate to a regular winning program? Most organizations can point to people who, by their movement in an organization, are bound to be noticed. Yet there are concerns. For someone who has been successful at every level, what happens when they face adversity? What happens if their inertia collides with the Peter principle and they exceed the limits of their competence? Have they been adequately tested? Can they handle the increase in complexity and profile? How much risk is there in promoting the latest trend? One area to watch for is managing expectations. This leader better win, and soon. With all sizzle, he’s likely to win spectacularly or fail spectacularly.

This week, I read the story of David and Goliath again. David’s qualifications for taking on Goliath were that he had defeated lions and bears. King Saul had a decision to make: promote or protect this young, eager leader.

2. Stay safe with experience. In contrast, the safe choice looks attractive. He’s slow and steady. He’s never stood out as a rising star, but he’s also had few down years. Mr. Consistency has been successful at just about every level and is solid in the fundamentals. He’s likely a workaholic, accomplishing success through hard work and effort. He might be boring, but he’s put in the years and earned the right to be considered for the position.

My biggest concerns here are whether the person has the passion and energy to motivate followers and the courage necessary to lead change. If the organization has systemic challenges, it needs a leader, not a manager. Sometimes the safe choice is the biggest risk. In Saul’s case, the safe choices were hiding. The organization needed a fool who would “rush in where angels fear to tread.”

3. Stay close to home. In Georgia Tech’s case, a duo of former players indicated an interest and built a strong enough argument to at least get interviewed. Willing to work for less money and put their heart and soul into the job, home grown leaders have the opportunity to tap the culture and win over the fan base. In this case, both lacked head coaching experience but had been successful at lower levels. There’s risk, because they’re unproven, but patience among the fan base, who is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

This is the kind of leader Jim Collins calls a Level 5 Leader: someone from within who is passionate about the organization and stubbornly wills it to success. In a sense, David tapped into that passion. His drive came from the fact that Goliath mocked his God. Nobody should get away with that!

4. Go with reluctance. In the person who never sought the job, you find humility and a low salary. While similar to the passionate leader in being homegrown, there’s a distinct difference: this person showed no initiative, nor did he dream that he would be considered. My concern is that someone who never thinks himself a leader and doesn’t take personal development seriously. He might do a competent job, but he’s not interested in growing as a leader so may never take the organization any further. When adversity comes, he may buck responsibility and wither. On the other hand, expectations are low, and followers are pulling for his success, so he may be given a long honeymoon period.

We absolutely love the Rags to Riches story, and we have a strange desire for a leader who stands up and says he never wanted the position. But the risk is that he’ll burn out because it’s a bad fit or quit because of the stress. Or perhaps he’ll turn down your offer in the first place.

There are lots of examples in the Bible of reluctant leaders who begged God not to send them, but David wasn’t one of them. I love the way he verifies the reward before taking the risk with Goliath: “What will a man get for killing this Philistine?” While they weren’t his primary motivation, David didn’t refuse the attractive salary package (the king’s hot daughter and a tax exemption for life).

So, which is the right strategy? It depends. The fact is that every organization is different, and every organization is at a different stage when looking for a coach or president. In Georgia Tech’s case, they needed fundamentals, consistency and a low salary. That led them to replace a coach who looked uninspired with an experienced coach who has hardly excited the fan base. In another setting, they may well have made a different choice.

The best book I’ve read recently on leadership is Leading Across Cultures, by James Plueddemann, former executive director of SIM International. The book is his attempt to cut through cultural variations of leadership and get down to the core of what leadership is before building back out to find culturally-appropriate expressions of leadership. I’ve tried to do this a little by digging into what made me a leader, following Dr. Robert Clinton’s theory in The Making of a Leader. I’ve also tried to develop and articulate my personal philosophy of leadership, as a number of authors have urged. I’ve taught a session on my philosophy of leading in your strengths, leading in your weakness and leading in your context. (I should blog on those for you sometime.) But Plueddemann went deeper: he challenged me to consider my leadership theology.

As a church elder, I’ve had to spend some time trying to figure out theology. I’d never really been interested in theological discussions, thinking them a bit of a waste of time. Why not spend your time applying it instead of arguing it? But it has been helpful for me to dig into what I really believe about God so that I can then realize the implications. That’s what Plueddemann says: your beliefs about God will drive your leadership practices.

Let me provide an example. If we believe that human beings are created in the image of God and will live forever, what are the implications? If we truly believe that, therefore

the primary goal of leadership is to facilitate the development of people so they become all God created them to be. The atheistic philosophy contends that people are expendable for the sake of the government. Christian theology argues that governments come and go, but people live forever. People are more important than institutions, including the organizations we lead.

I’d never really considered that logic. I obviously believe in developing leaders, but I’d never considered why before. Of course, now that I have this foundation, it means that I have probably not gone far enough in my practice. Plueddemann points out one clear application to my task-oriented tendencies:

Effective leaders don’t use people to accomplish the job; instead they use the job to develop people.

It’s worth the time to focus for a couple of posts on some other theological beliefs and how they might apply to leadership. Plueddemann gives the why very succinctly:

The purpose and the worldview of leadership are intertwined. A bad theology of leadership will inevitably result in bad leaders. Leadership grounded in God’s glory and driven by a scriptural worldview is the hope of the global church.

Don’t ask a question unless you already know the answer.

Have you heard that before? The paternalism in that quote makes my blood boil. I remember my wife and I were once part of a Bible study led by one of our pastors. When he’d ask a question, he’d dutifully faciltiate discussion, adeptly drawing in every participant… but then he always concluded with his own authoritative comment. As we began to realize that he was the only one with the right answer, our discussions became forced and clipped. Becky and I soon found a reason to stop participating in that group.

I’ve blogged before about the power of a question, quoting Ron Heifetz’s great line, “One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.” In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long pointed out that a “well-structured question” can draw emerging leaders into the creative and leadership process. It goes back to control. If you want the outcome to be exactly as you expect, then do all the work yourself. If you want a better result, with a strong developmental bent, then you have to work more as an art director.

When I worked with graphic designers, I would present the question or challenge but withhold my own possible answers until I saw what others came up with. I didn’t want my “authoritative” answer to steer or limit the creative potential of my staff. Offering creative freedom often resulted in an unpredictable but even more creative end product than I could have imagined. More often than not I ended up tucking away my own feeble attempt to answer the question!

Of course, there’s also the risk that your team’s creative ideas just won’t work. There’s a tension that you learn to manage between involving others and drawing out their best versus the fact that you have ultimate responsibility for the end product. I’ve had to make some tough calls as an art director and as a manager to take control back and change the direction. I’ve done it poorly, and I’ve done it well. On a few occasions, I’ve been able to do it in such a way that the team can still share ownership, by steering the project and keeping my staff engaged in the new direction. Usually it involved vulnerability and accepting blame.

So what are some great questions to ask? I’ll suggest a few this week, but I’d love to hear your questions as well.