Have you noticed that there’s a shortage of good stories about CEOs that don’t fall into the stereotype of wealthy-fat-cat-who-dodges-taxes-and-treads-on-the-poor? Where are the stories about a corporate or organizational president who wants to do what’s right but runs into constant ethical grey areas, and faces struggles with public perception, morasses with no good outcome and dark nights of the soul—not to mention overcoming his or her own personal weaknesses? The current TV series most benevolent to CEOs is Undercover Boss, in which the big boss risks embarrassment and ridicule as he or she attempts to step into the shoes of an average employee within their own company.

I think my hunger for good president stories led me to dust off The West Wing, the long-running TV series from the 2000s that focused on the staff serving with the president of the United States. The episode I watched last night depicted a White House mired in a controversy that was in large part caused by a president who was less than forthcoming with his own staff, let alone the public. It causes the president’s staff an enormous amount of extra work and personal expense, as they each have to hire their own lawyers. They begin to crack under the stress, and it becomes clear that the core problem is not overwork or personal cost: as loyal as the staff are to their president, they haven’t forgiven the president for not bringing them into the loop earlier. By the end of the episode, the staff entertain a number of possible steps their leader could take to repair the damage.

  • Does he need to commend their hard work and give them some time off?
  • Does he need to apologize and spend some time getting them on the same page again?
  • Does he need to lay out a bold vision for the future that stirs their hearts to get over their personal pain?

President Bartlet does apologize to them as a group, but it feels cursory. Then he moves to inspiration and paints a vision for what they’re going to accomplish in the years ahead – something new and noble and big. Then he says, “Break’s over.” In other words, rather than lighten their load, he increases their capacity to give even more.

Vision does that. It makes a load feel a little bit lighter and in fact reveals that the load-bearer has unknown additional capacity. In her book, Multipliers, Liz Wiseman offers research that says a manager who diminishes staff will only draw out about 45% of their staff’s capacity, while a multiplier will get closer to 90%. But a significant sample in her research suggested the staff actually gave more than 100%. In other words, the leader drew out of them capacity they didn’t even know they had.

I recently read a chapter of Mistakes Leaders Make, in which Dave Kraft says leaders sometimes sacrifice vision for busyness. After all, many who find themselves in leadership positions were promoted because of competence. They love to do the work themselves while their teams struggle because they don’t have the one thing the leader alone can provide: vision. He arrives at one of the best differentiating statements about leadership and management I’ve ever heard:

Biblical leadership is concerned with the future, while management is concerned with the present.

To back up his point, Kraft cites Marcus Buckingham: “What defines a leader is his preoccupation with the future. He is a leader if, and only if, he is able to rally others to the better future he sees.” Kraft concludes, “True leadership is always forward thinking and forward moving.”

So how does an average, life-size leader practice “visioning,” without the benefit of Hollywood script writers and triumphant background music?

Take time to dream. Kraft says visioning is not just one thing a leader does; rather, “a leader’s primary responsibility is to hear from God.” And for most of us, it won’t happen without hard work. A leader has to “set aside time for retreating to dream, think, plan, and pray.” Kraft’s point:

Biblical leadership requires taking time to be in God’s presence often enough to hear from him what he wants to do in the future in your church, ministry or group.

Unlock ability in people. Wiseman says multipliers identify talent, know what they’re capable of, invest in them and create space for them to thrive. In short, they inspire people to offer their best. But they don’t stop there.

Demand their best work. Multipliers follow inspiration with high expectations. They delegate ownership and then hold their staff accountable to the high standard they know they’re capable of. Wiseman says that while the best leader’s desks appear level, in reality they have a distinct slant, where accountability slides back to the person sitting on the other side of the desk. Responsibility is never delegated upward.

It’s the beginning of a new year. I always rebel against the idea of resolutions, but I realize that my practice of reflection at the new year more often than not leads me to set areas of improvement. Let’s just call a resolution a resolution. Here are three areas I want to improve in 2014:

1. Visioning. I think my team needs to hear more vision, and they need to be equipped to share vision and plan for the future with their own teams.

2. Accountability for high expectations. I need to throw greater challenges to my team and hold them accountable. I need to constantly move things off my plate so that I have space for visioning and follow-up.

3. Storytelling. Since storytelling is such an essential tool for conveying vision, I want to invest in my abilities to tell effective stories that inspire, challenge and emote rather than simply conveying information.

How about you? What steps do you need to take to improve your ability to share vision and draw the best out of your team?

By the way, I think President Bartlet went a bit light on his apology. There’s incredible power in apology, and I think he missed an opportunity.

As I mentioned before, I recently attended the RESET conference in Arizona. My expectations were probably set too high, as the lead-up was fantastic.

  • Regional dialogs unearthed some really radical ideas, such as a proposal that mission agencies drop their own HR departments in favor of a single non-profit that provides those services. It was clear to all of us that there’s just too much redundancy.
  • The case statement drew from Ramo’s book, Age of the Unthinkable. I’ve blogged enough on that book that the author is still showing up in my tag cloud in the right column of this blog.
  • We knew going in that the two host organizations, The Mission Exchange (formerly EFMA) and Cross Global Link (formerly IFMA) were very likely going to end 50 years of talk and finally merge into one organization representing missions in North America. What a great model for the rest of us!

So those lofty expectations doomed me. I found the sessions somewhat flat in comparison. One tweet resonated with a number of us after a speaker proposed a list of changes for world missions: “This would have been great if we were talking about it 50 years ago.”

Then this week I discovered the speaker who should have been there. To their credit, the organization that introduced futurist Dr. Jay Gary to me was The Mission Exchange, the same organization that introduced me to Ramo and hosted the RESET Conference. Unfortunately, their webinar yesterday didn’t get the platform the conference would have given him. Dr. Gary is a professor with Regent University’s Masters of Strategic Foresight program. Just the name of that degree makes me salivate…

I’m only just beginning to unpack what Dr. Jay Gary recommends for the mission world in his article, “Toward the Great Work.” Here’s an example:

Protestant World Missions practitioners are fifty years behind awakening to this Great Work, and will likely have little leverage in leading our world to safety, contrary to the Wisdom of Jesus. This is a sober fact that evangelism has become reductionist, and merely focused on the after-life, not this life, contrary to what Jesus did for his generation. We must listen to the late missiologist David Bosch and learn how to transform mission.

For those of you who attended RESET, imagine a speaker lineup of Cobie Langerak, Tim Breene and Jay Gary. For those gifted with Futurist strengths, you’ll love the following collection of articles:

Strategic Foresight: Looking to the future to plan today

The future of Business as Mission 

15 Provocations from the future 

Trends and Technology Timeline 2010+ (the London Underground-inspired map above)
I need to go read some more. I just had to get this posted so you could join me.

In regards to time, the least-inhabited place is the present.

A week ago, while attending a small church in Cary, NC, I had an unexpected privilege of hearing a sermon on Ecclesiastes 2 from a guest preacher, Jason Miller, an English professor at N.C. State. He continued a theme from our road trip, making some excellent points about living in the present. I want to share a few of his thoughts and add my own, drawing from my inner futurist.

Miller’s point was that we spend so much time consumed by our past or planning for the future. We forget to enjoy the moment we’re in. Instead, he urged us, consume the present.

I think that’s why I don’t like photography. Funny for a graphic designer to say, so let me clarify. Don’t get me wrong. I love looking at great photographs. I’m in awe of photographers and photojournalists past and present, from Ansel Adams, Robert Capa and Cornell Capa to Dave Crough, Jon Shuler and Mo Sadjapour today. I love looking at the incredible moments in time captured by a master. I just don’t want to be the guy behind the lens. Why? I simply would rather live in the moment and capture my own mental pictures of the present than lose out on an experience because I was trying to capture it for the future.

Let me give you an example. A colleague gave me a great piece of advice the week before my wedding: remember that moment when you’re standing at the front and first see your bride appear through the doors in the back of the church. That mental snapshot is seared in my memory today. It took my breath away.

Benjamin Franklin's bifocalsAs I was listening to Professor Miller, the metaphor of bifocals formed in my mind. The beauty of Benjamin Franklin’s invention is that you can keep an eye in two directions. One lens focuses ahead while the other focuses on the foreground. That’s how I want to live: with one eye on the future while maintaining one a gaze on the present. I have to know where I’m going, but I also want to consume the present.

I ran into this principle the week before in Norfolk, where we spent some time with a Commander in the U.S. Navy. He has authority over all the aircraft in the Navy, responding to crises like Libya by pulling the resources needed from their normal assignments, wherever those might be. He told me he’s currently working on two-year planning. “How can you plan two years ahead when there’s always a crisis that derails your plans?”, I asked. His response was pure military; he quoted Eisenhower:

Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Planning is like a good pair of bifocals. If you can’t toss the plan when the present interrupts, you’ve missed the point.

On our road trip, Becky and I listened to a Michael Connelly murder mystery. One of the lines the FBI uses in training new agents is “Manage the moment.” It’s more than a law enforcement principle; it’s a leadership principle. While not undermining the importance of planning and preparation, it acknowledges that the situation is never as ideal as our planning. You have to manage what you’re given.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo tells the story of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso walking down a street one evening in Paris when a military convoy rumbled by. What caught their attention was that it looked different: the first time either of them had seen camouflage. Picasso cried out, amazed. “Yes, it is we who made it, that is Cubism!” Sure, camouflage was the direct application of Cubism by a lesser artist than Picasso, who thought he could apply art to transform warfare. But at the same time, that moment summarized in a moment the completely different way of seeing the world that was Cubism. It took artists to start the transformation, and it took artists to note the cultural shift.

Today’s prophets are found among artists. They’re the ones who have the pulse of what’s next. For instance, they’re the ones who first debated postmodernism… in the 1970s. The rest of the world took notice thirty years later. And the Church began to debate it within the last ten years, as if they could make a difference entering the debate that late in the day.

I was first exposed to Postmodern thought at a conference in 1999. It was eye-opening for me. I still remember one of the organizers lamenting about the state of artistic expression in most churches as well as the exodus of young people — particularly the artistic class — from the Church. Her conclusion: “The Church kicked out all the artists and then decided it wanted art.” She’s right on so many points. Without artists, worship becomes formulaic and stagnant. Without artists, the Church is so late in attempts to contextualize the Gospel as to be irrelevant. Without artists, the Church is left out of public debate on culture shifts.

So, while the Church engages with yesterday’s cultural shift, the artists long ago moved on to other shifts. What were they discussing at the turn of the century? What are they discussing today? The reason artists can express or portray an idea in fresh ways is that they see in fresh ways. The key to thinking differently is seeing differently.

Remember the old Apple ad series? The only one I clipped was the one featuring Ansel Adams. I wish I had the one featuring Paul Rand. Recall the narration: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.”

Leaders would do well to maintain relationships with the arts community. Artists can make you uncomfortable. They are not always appreciated in their hometown. They love to note hypocrisy. But don’t try to forecast without your best “seers.” When it comes to anticipating the future, keep your artists close by.

While wrapping up Brad Smart’s book Topgrading, I launched into the first chapters of The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Both have me thinking about what characteristics to look for in the leaders of tomorrow. Predicting leadership characteristics in a broad view is easier than predicting for any one position, because the requirements for a particular position at a particular point in time are extremely difficult to predict. Organizational priorities and opportunities might require a successor to look very different from his predecessor.

Ramo doesn’t answer the question directly, but he does offer a suggested resume for someone pursuing a career in foreign policy. There are leadership implications in this list:

  • Should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms
  • Should have an expertise in some area of the world — be it China or the Internet or bioengineering — where fast change and unpredictability are the dominant facts of life
  • Should have experienced the unforgiving demands for precision and care that characterize real negotiation
  • Likewise, should have experienced the magical effect of risk-taking at the right moments
  • Should have mastered the essential skill of the next fifty years: crisis management
  • Should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than the lovely perfection of academic models
  • Most of all, however, we need policy makers and thinkers who have that revolutionary feel for the inescapable demands of innovation. We need early adopters…

Smart meanwhile talks a lot of about the competencies most desirable in “A players.” 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.

No wonder Smart refers to it as “the megacompetency.” Do you see the overlap with Ramo’s list? In an era of epic change, the leaders of the future will be resourceful, instinctive and action-oriented revolutionaries, risk-takers and innovators. This goes back to a previous point I’ve made that academic institutions and MBA programs have been training people for a reality that doesn’t exist anymore. There are few existing models for the world these leaders will face. So, perhaps we should add one more to the list: Critical Thinking skills. They need to be able to think on their feet.

This is one of my favorite leadership qualities. In times of vast discontinuous change, leaders who understand the times are as rare as they are valuable.

In the Old Testament, there are two references to people who understood the times (Esther 1:13, I Chron 12:32). All kings seem to have surrounded themselves with men who understood the times and knew the direction the king should go. Kings had an uneasy relationship with these “wise men,” sometimes choosing to follow their advice and sometimes going their own way. For instance, Solomon’s son Rehoboam.

I want to pick an earlier and more familiar example, however. Everyone remembers the story of Joseph, a young man who was sold into slavery by his brothers. After some fruitful years as a slave in Egypt, managing the household of his master efficiently, he’s railroaded and thrown in prison. Even there, God’s hand is on him, and he thrives, taking on responsibility. One day his opportunity for redemption finally comes in the form of a dream by the king. God gives him the ability to understand the meaning of the dream and to come up with a plan that will rescue Egypt, preserve Israel and make his boss really wealthy.

Joseph certainly understands the times. He knows there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of severe drought. He deploys his plan with efficiency and discipline. When the task of stockpiling gets too difficult, he doesn’t give up on collecting food; he gives up on counting. So, when the seven years of plenty end, Egypt and Joseph are in good shape. That’s where the story gets interesting.

Two years into the drought, everyone else’s worst-case scenarios have expired.

  • Genesis 45:6 says the famine has reached a critical stage for Joseph’s Canaan-based family by year two of the drought.
  • 47:17-20 records how Joseph bought all of the property of Egypt and Canaan with the grain he’d collected.
  • By 47:21, he owns all the people. He can then dictate terms under a rollover contract that lasts long after the famine ends.

But here’s the thing that caught my attention. In the years of plenty, no one but Joseph saw the drought ahead. Anyone who did plan ahead saved up a couple of years worth to get them through what would surely be a short-term decline. Joseph’s value came in his God-given ability to understand the times and know what to do.

Is there anyone who understands the times today? We have no context for the changes we’re going through. A global financial crisis has never happened before, so all the previous models just don’t apply. It’s obvious that old guidelines don’t cut it in 10%+ unemployment, unheard-of foreclosure rates and frozen credit. Eddie Gibbs, in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture, says:

It is evident in rapidly changing times that knowledge does not necessarily flow from experience. Yesterday’s solutions and procedures may not provide an adequate or appropriate response to present challenges. Hence, the biggest hurdles facing long-time leaders may not be in learning new insights and skills, but in unlearning what they consider to be tried and true and what thus provides them with a false sense of security.

My response is that God is still God in good times and bad. He was still God while Joseph fumed in prison. Our brothers and sisters in the non-Western church can testify that they still have hope, joy and faith when the economy simply doesn’t rebound. I think we have a lot to learn from them, whether it’s patience in endurance or a theology of suffering. Christianity thrives in difficult times… because we realize we need God!

I suggest we learn from Joseph to be faithful and do the little things even from exile, even from prison.

I suggest we leaders seek the God who does understand the times and occasionally chooses to disclose them to those who listen.

I suggest we try our best to be ready when opportunity happens, even in the darkest situations.

And I suggest we seek to help each other out, offering our best to fellow prisoners with little hope of reward.

You never know how God might choose to use these times, because he holds today, and he holds the future.

Yesterday Mauricio Alvarez shared a fantastic message about living in hope, even in difficult situations. I think the non-western church has a lot to teach us about maintaining hope when times are difficult. While westerners are convinced things will rebound, our brothers and sisters from South America, Africa and Asia understand that things could very well not improve. Whether they do or not, we can still have hope.

One point Alvarez made was that we build hope by focusing on God and the character he wants to build in our lives. David’s life, for instance, shows the law of preparation. As a young shepherd, David spent a lot of time in isolation — plenty of time to practice his slingshot so that when he needed that shot, he could hit it with perfection. When he was young, he was tested by lions and bears. He learned to face his worst enemy and to overcome with inadequate weapons. His early years without pressure shaped him into the leader he would become when the pressure was on.

Years later, David mastered that ability to use circumstances as practice. He was a capable military commander and then leader over 400 outcasts in the wilderness. He showed fruitfulness at every level and demonstrated the character he would need as king. For instance, consider his incredible patience even when he had an opportunity to take the kingdom on his own terms.

Some friends in Seattle reminded me of Psalm 63 last week. David, writing in the wilderness while being pursued by King Saul, spends the first ten verses talking about his thirst for God’s presence, love, power and glory. Throughout the psalm, he speaks as a visionary, confusing present and future. He celebrates the future ruin of his enemies, then offers a very interesting statement:

But the king will rejoice in God.
All who trust in him will praise him,
while liars will be silenced.

What king? Saul? No. David’s referring to himself in future tense. He was anointed years before. He knows that he is next in line. So he lives the future even though present circumstances don’t warrant it. That hope allows him to thrive in small things, resulting in fruitfulness, faithfulness and joy.