Of course, God’s presence is not as obvious as it was in Moses’ day. Remember that the context was different. God knew that Moses and his followers needed visual assurance of his presence, so when Israel as a nation first began to experience is active leadership, God gave them the pillar of cloud and fire, the cloud descending during the dedication of the Tabernacle, the bread of the presence and the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, he even provided Moses with a point of focus in Exodus 25:22: God told Moses he would meet with him in the Holy of Holies and speak to him from between the two cherubim carved in its cover.

I wish God didn’t give us the benefit of the doubt that we’re any better at maintaining focus on a God who is not obviously visible. We don’t have the same overt symbols. But God still gives us experiences where his presence is undeniable. These moments of provision and protection serve to build our faith, affirm our calling as leaders and establish our leadership credentials with others. I know some leaders who collect and display in their offices “rocks of remembrance” from various situations and experiences so that they don’t forget.

In the Old Testament, God used physical reminders for both leader and follower alike. The most powerful example is that pillar of cloud and fire. Through 40 years in the wilderness, God built a habit for Israel of actively following his leadership. Consider the implications for leadership and followership in this remarkable passage from Numbers 9:16-23:

This was the regular pattern—at night the cloud that covered the Tabernacle had the appearance of fire. Whenever the cloud lifted from over the sacred tent, the people of Israel would break camp and follow it. And wherever the cloud settled, the people of Israel would set up camp. In this way, they traveled and camped at the Lord’s command wherever he told them to go. Then they remained in their camp as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle. If the cloud remained over the Tabernacle for a long time, the Israelites stayed and performed their duty to the Lord. Sometimes the cloud would stay over the Tabernacle for only a few days, so the people would stay for only a few days, as the Lord commanded. Then at the Lord’s command they would break camp and move on. Sometimes the cloud stayed only overnight and lifted the next morning. But day or night, when the cloud lifted, the people broke camp and moved on. Whether the cloud stayed above the Tabernacle for two days, a month, or a year, the people of Israel stayed in camp and did not move on. But as soon as it lifted, they broke camp and moved on. So they camped or traveled at the Lord’s command, and they did whatever the Lord told them through Moses.

Can you imagine living that way? Day after day, you have no idea when God is going to move and when he’s going to stay put. Each morning, you check to see if God’s Spirit is moving on. You’d surely develop a feeling of never quite being settled. Life would be unpredictable, right?

Let me challenge that. Perhaps the lesson is that you shift your definitions of “settled” and “predictable.” “Settled” no longer means you make it your goal to put down roots on this earth. Instead, you make it your goal to find your security in God’s presence alone. “Predictable” no longer means making plans that start from and centre around you. Instead, your primary plan is to find out what God is doing and join him.

The Israelites were asked to do no less than their patriarch, Abraham, whom God called to leave his land and his father and go where God would lead (Genesis 12). Where was that? Abraham was not told. Hebrews 11:8-10 makes several points about Abraham’s faith:

  • He lived like a foreigner, not considering where he lived at the time to be his real home.
  • He looked forward to his long-term home. He was a citizen of heaven.
  • He lived in tents, ready and mobile when God called him to move on.
  • Even when he arrived at his “promised land,” he continued to live in the pattern he developed on the journey. It was a habit.
  • His kids followed his example. Hebrews says Isaac and Jacob inherited the same promise and likewise lived as nomads in Canaan. Children are keen observers and imitators of the beliefs of their parents when they see it authentically lived out.

So, what can we learn? We, who don’t have such obvious signs of the presence of God, can still live in the same way. That’s where I find Abraham’s example helpful. After all, Abraham’s God wasn’t obvious and visible. I love watching renditions of Bible stories as told through fresh eyes. As I watched an episode on Abraham in the recent The Bible Series on the History channel, it hit me that the people around Abraham, including his wife, likely thought him crazy. Think about it: each time he told them God had spoken to him, they had to have faith as well. His ideas to leave his family and hometown were counter-cultural and made no sense. His idea that God was telling him to sacrifice his son was beyond radical. How did he know so clearly what God was saying, when no one around him could see it or hear it? We’re not told. But I’m absolutely convinced that it only happened because Abraham knew intimately the God who spoke to him and because he walked by faith. He demonstrated complete obedience to what little he knew. And so God continued to lead him.

Just as Moses came to see God as his “promised land,” seeking the presence of God even more than the land promised to him, we can seek to know God and to abide in him as a greater goal than what he provides or promises.

Just as Abraham longed for his eternal home, we can live simply, showing our faith by our priorities and the way we live in this world.

Just as the Israelites built a habit of looking each day for God’s presence, we can grow our ability to recognise God’s fingerprints and the wind of his Spirit in the circumstances around us. When we’re quick to action about the things we know to do, our hearts will be more and more attuned to seeing God moving.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to say with the nomadic Moses,

Lord, through all the generations
you have been our home! (Psalm 90:1)

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One of my colleagues recently asked me if I’d taken the time to reflect on my first year in the job. I did some quick, on-the-fly verbal processing with her and then began a longer personal reflection. My basis was the idea of examen and the specific questions, “In what areas did you experience consolation?” and “In what areas did you experience desolation?” I am trying to incorporate those questions into my quarterly days of prayer and an annual retreat. But if I’m to incorporate reflection into my weekly or daily practices, I’ve finally concluded I need to condense to one question. Two questions decreases the likelihood of follow-through. So it comes down to this: “Where did I see God at work in either the positive or negative events I experienced?”

I know you’re interested in my answers to those questions, but they’re more personal than I want to get into in this public a forum. Instead, this forum warrants a different question that you may find relevant: “After a year of leading an organization at the highest level, do I still stand by the leadership theories I espoused here in this blog?”

In general, I still feel strongly about the philosophy I articulated here. Of course, there are a few posts that show some naiveté, but surprisingly few that I would take back. While the purposes of my two and a half years in leadership development were to invest in others and initiate leadership development and succession planning programs for the organization, I was the one who benefitted the most. I used that period as a self-study masters in leadership.

Bobby Clinton talks about the phases in the life of a leader. To really digest his material requires extended reflection on a leader’s experiences, beliefs and practices. Those years afforded me the time to reflect and articulate a leadership philosophy that has allowed me to feel slightly less like I’m flying by the seat of my pants. Believe me: I am no MBA grad or Six Sigma consultant, plugging in formulas and templates for every challenge. My leadership philosophy and practice is much more reactive and organic; it’s centred around critical thinking, brainstorming and art direction. Yes, I am a design thinker who leads on the canvas of reality rather than idealism. I love to incorporate the creativity of others in my solutions. And I’ll compromise on specific ideas to get 80-90% of my goal.

I’ve found that philosophy to be well-suited to the circumstances I inherited at Wycliffe Canada.

Stay tuned. No doubt I have plenty of time to eat my words. But that’s part of my philosophy as well: sometimes ready-fire-aim and then fire again is more appropriate than the ideal alternative. You just have to be quick to apologize when you get it wrong, and try again.

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’ve described this overlap period with the current president as the best of both worlds: I can think strategically without having to worry about any of the day-to-day management of Wycliffe. However, if I try to strategize without first internalizing the corporate culture, I’ll fall prey to Drucker’s axiom:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

So how do I steep myself in Wycliffe’s corporate culture so that I can maximize my time on strategery? Like many offices, Wycliffe in Calgary is difficult to define as a block. It has many subcultures. So, whether it’s a new organization, a new country or a new department, here are some practical ideas to absorb the essence of organizational culture.

1. Experiential learning. I’m on a quest to jump in and identify with as many subcultures as I can. Two clear ones are cycling to work and joining the WTHL, the Wycliffe Table Hockey League. I have now biked to the office four times, the first of which came in 36 degree temperatures. That’s soft core. Cycling to work in the snow earns you more points.

I also watched by first table hockey game. I wish I’d had a camera to capture how serious they take this sport. I’ll post a photo next time I have an opportunity, but let me give you a taste. They have hockey cards for each team and a commemorative program that tracks every kind of statistics. At this point, I’m choosing to remain an observer rather than fall prey to their slap shots and wise cracks.

To take in the culture, don’t hold back. Experience the way your new colleagues celebrate. Spend time with them away from the office. Of course, there’s no replacement for the depth forged from experiencing a crisis together, but there are a lot of things you can do to seek breadth in the interim.

2. Read the same books. When I was in Orlando, a new leader on the recruitment team asked me what books the leadership team were reading. He wanted to know the way they think and take on the vocabulary. “Easy, I said. Read Jim Collins and Patrick Lencioni.” In Calgary, the Board and Leadership Team are now reading When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Recent reads have been Leading Cross-Culturally, by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, by Ruth Haley Barton. These books shape the way leaders think, talk and lead.

3. Ask questions. Speaking of Lencioni, his recommendation in Getting Naked is to ask lots of questions without regard to how they come across. The reason adults are slower to learn is their concern about appearing naive or dumb. I’m hoping most of my dumb questions will come before I take office. But I’m also hoping I won’t care more about my pride after I take office than about understanding my context.

4. Find out what influences them. If you want to join conversations at breaks, you have to know the terminology and people who influence them. For instance, media. In previous jobs, I’ve absorbed Survivor, American Idol, and Napoleon Dynamite. At church in Florida, if you weren’t playing Fantasy Football, you could find yourself cut off from fellowship with other men every Fall. When I retired from playing in 2007 (after winning my league twice in a row), I had to at least keep up on a few stats so that I could join the conversations. In Calgary, it’s the same way with hockey. Key influences include Hockey Night in Canada, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Corner Gas.

What have you done to immerse yourself in organizational culture? Lend me your ideas. I’ll probably put them to good use.

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.

You’ve probably heard the line. Parents excuse a lack of quantity time with their kids by falling back on the axiom that it can be replaced by quality time. It’s just not true, right? I believe it can be true from a team perspective.

I’ve been thinking for some time about how best to build community and trust, particularly in distributed teams. When Wycliffe USA went through a process of closing down satellite offices to integrate staff into national strategies, this was a big topic of discussion. How do you create a “virtual water cooler”? I resisted most of the easy answers like technology or social media as incomplete. They help fill in the gap, but they don’t replace an communal work setting. Almost three years later, a theory is finally coagulating for me.

Trust is developed in a team or community best either through quantity OR quality. The obvious path is through a quantity of time and common experience. Most of our friendships are built this way. Well, that same trust can be established through a single, brief, intense experience. It doesn’t happen through retreats that try to distill a quantity approach into a concentrate. Fun and interaction doesn’t build that level of trust. Meetings certainly don’t.

On the other hand, an intense experience does. Think of people who go through a crisis together. It establishes a point of reference, a set of inside stories, and a sense of accomplishment. For instance, the connection my wife and I have with neighbors who went through three hurricanes in 2004. The bond shared by Wycliffe staff who went through Jungle Camp or Pacific Orientation Course experiences when they were heading overseas in years gone by. For me, it was the 4-week interview process Wycliffe USA was using in 1997. Last week, I shared a 13-year-old inside joke via Skype with one of those fellow interviewees now living in Vanuatu.

Let me take a detour for a minute. In my experience, churches that have stagnated or are shrinking are churches who have grown inwardly-focused. It may be counterintuitive, but the way to grow is to look outside yourself. For starters, people are drawn to a mission. They’re drawn to vision. They’re drawn to a cause. The way to turn around a negative trend is not to focus entirely inward — though there may well be internal issues that need addressing — but to return to the mission you exist for. Okay, hold onto that thought.

Here’s my theory: the best way to build trust and community is through quality, and the best way to establish quality is to look outside yourself. Instead of bringing a team together to do a ropes course or play paintball, why not get your team to serve together for a day building a house with Habitat for Humanity? Instead of trying to gauge the quality of new staff by watching them in a classroom setting for four weeks, why not work alongside them? You want to build common experience? You want to build trust? You want to assess someone’s cross-cultural ability or servant heart? Spend a few days volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse in Galveston, Texas after a hurricane, sleeping on a gym floor and interacting with a dazed, hurting community.

As you look outside yourself, you might even make a difference in someone else’s life. Now, that’s quality. You’ll share that experience for decades.

16 And don’t think you know it all!

…or act like you know it all. I remember working at Pace Warehouse when I was in college. There was one area of the store that I devoutly avoided. If a customer asked about it, I would try to find someone else to answer their questions or pretend I never heard them and walk away: Tires. I knew nothing about tires, and customers could tell I knew nothing about tires. That’s when a veteran employee — aged 25 or so — took me under his wing and explained that customers don’t like it when you don’t have answers for them. It’s all in the delivery; you have to speak with confidence.

Even worse than acting with confidence you have no right to have is thinking you know everything when you don’t. Ambition and self-confidence grow from the same stock. Both are good, but easily abused. Many young leaders think they have the skills and ideas to solve the world’s problems right now, and perhaps they do, but they lack opportunity and credibility.

Let me offer some perspective from Bob Creson, Wycliffe USA’s president:

It’s hard to say this (as an older leader to younger leaders) but there really is no substitute for experience.  And, often it takes one or two very difficult experiences to form the foundation of a leader’s future success.  My father-in-law likes to say, “Education is expensive.”  He’s not talking about formal education but rather the hard knocks required learning the lessons of leadership (and life, for that matter).  I can point to several of these in my own experience (both inside and outside of Wycliffe) that continue to shape my approach to leadership to this day.

It goes back to your attitude. Do you approach life, colleagues, reports, kids and clients like you know it all? Or like a learner always willing to have your views challenged with a new perspective? The question I have to ask myself again is, “Are you more interested in being discovered or in being developed?

As we start a new year, and I wrap up my series on Romans 12, let’s agree to approach 2010 as learners. There’s always more room to grow in our leadership abilities.