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

What gets you there won’t get you here

11 years ago, the president of a mission networking organization approached me with an interesting challenge: He wanted to help the network’s member organizations develop candidates for the C-suite* 15 years from now. But how do you help mission agencies recognize high-level leadership traits early?

Now, if you’ve read What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, you know that many of the leadership skills and aptitudes that get you noticed or even help you succeed at lower levels of leadership are not the same as those needed for senior-level leadership. In fact, some of them might actually block your promotion path. So, if that’s the case, the converse might also be true: what gets you there might not get you here. What if the competencies that might make someone an excellent CEO, Senior VP or VP are actually skills that won’t advance your career early on? What if they’re not even appreciated at the lower levels in an organization?

What does a young person do with skills, interests or abilities that are not encouraged, or perhaps even suppressed? Some might hide those dreams, those desires for bigger picture thinking, those challenging questions. Others attempt to nip them in the bud, attempting to stifle the development of “negative traits.” In other cases, those traits become major sources of frustration—for the individual or for his or her boss.

Thankfully, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln emerged successfully from their early failures, losses and frustrations.

In other words, the ladder to high level leadership may not actually pass through typical lower levels of leadership. What if, instead of suppressing certain competencies, we drew them out and developed them independently of a young person’s current role, simply to prepare a future leader for the future? The working theory of the mission leader who approached me was that future C-suite leaders cannot be developed within the organization; in order to develop skills for a generalist leadership role, they need to participate in a cohort with others like them outside their organizations.

Think about your organization. Are you likely to encourage and develop C-suite kind of thinking and behaviour when it has no immediate benefit to the organization or the role that person currently fills? Do you provide outlets for these kinds of leaders? What could you do to ensure that their frustration doesn’t boil over and some other organization ends up benefitting from their leadership 15 years down the road?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can develop skills for the C-suite, you have to recognize those high-potential individuals in the first place. In my next post, we’ll look at the second part of this challenge: what do the early roots of C-suite leadership look like?

*The C-suite refers to all the “Chief” roles: Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief HR Officer, etc.

Megacompetency Series

How women lead

Without wading into the politics of it, I want to ask a simple question: does anyone else think Elena Kagan would make a better executive than a judiciary? Everything I’m hearing about her qualifications is focused on her leadership abilities rather than her ability to be fair and unprejudiced.

I found this recent Harvard Business Review blog that uses Kagan’s nomination as a springboard to make some excellent points about the challenges and obstacles to women taking leadership roles. Emily Harburg reinforces my suggestion about Kagan’s abilities, along the way making some very important and nuanced observations about the leadership strengths women bring to executive positions. She does a good job of articulating some of the issues friends of mine have struggled with. These are issues that organizations like Wycliffe need to pay attention to.

Harburg also points out the unique characteristics women bring to leadership. Women are ideally suited for leadership in today’s collaborative environment. Many are good at “transformational leadership,” a style that empowers, mentors and inspires their followers. I’m grateful for some of the amazing women God has placed on the Wycliffe USA board, and it’s been my privilege to work with two of them closely over the last year and see the way they lead. I read somewhere recently that some studies in Europe show that companies are more successful with women in key positions of leadership, including the board. I agree: we need women in leadership!

I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially those from my female readers.