My summer reading was pretty diverse. It started and ended with Jesus, then ran on a Second World War theme and borrowed inspiration from the Global Leadership Summit:

  • Christ for Real, by Charles Price
  • The War Magician, by David Fisher
  • Churchill: A Study in Greatness, by Geoffrey Best
  • Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull
  • Jesus on Leadership, by Gene Wilkes
  • Extreme Prayer, by Greg Pruett

One overarching theme was really impressed on me through this reading. I was inspired as I read the accounts of Jasper Maskelyne and Winston Churchill. In one case, such creativity organized toward creating illusions that turned the war momentum. In the second case, such sheer determination and eccentric energy focused in one direction. But something bothered me about the fact that everyone looked to these men, and their teams were ineffective without them. These biographies fall firmly in the camp of Thomas Carlyle, who said in the 1840s, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Wikipedia describes the resulting “Great Man Theory” this way:

a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

Since I was young, I’ve enjoyed biographies about these giants in history who turned the course of history. But I’m getting a bit jaded.

It wasn’t until I read Creativity, Inc. that I put my finger on how I have changed. In Ed Catmull’s critique of Walt Disney, I began to wonder why the legendary animation studio become so ineffective after the great man passed away. The expectations were so high, and so much revolved around Disney’s demanding, energetic presence that the studio just couldn’t keep going afterwards.

When Walt Disney was alive, he was such a singular talent that it was difficult for anyone to conceive of what the company would be like without him. And sure enough, after his death, there wasn’t anybody who came close to filling his shoes. For years, Disney employees attempted to keep his spirit alive by constantly asking themselves, “What would Walt do?” Perhaps they thought that if they asked that question they would come up with something original, that they would remain true to Walt’s pioneering spirit. In fact, this kind of thinking only accomplished the opposite. Because it looked backward, not forward, it tethered the place to the status quo. A pervasive fear of change took root. (p165)

Instead, Ed Catmull’s goal at Pixar—and later at Walt’s animation studio—was to create a culture that would produce greatness even after the founders and visionaries were gone. He wanted to build a company with interchangeable parts. Some of the ideas he explores in his book:

  • “My job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it” (p xv).
  • “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture… wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job” (p 65).
  • “All we could do at Disney, I knew, was create a healthy creative culture and see what developed” (p 274).

He begins by talking about the importance of finding the right people and getting them to work together in a way that produces great ideas. He certainly accomplished that by assembling an amazing collection of creative directors at Pixar. He then talks about the goal of management to constantly empower those people to solve creative problems together. He promotes the ideas W. Edwards Deming pushed at Toyota, referring to “a democratic central tenet: You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.” (p 51)

Ultimately, Catmull’s greatest success was to bring the ideas of candor and empowerment to the culture of Disney, leading to successive #1 films—”Tangled” and “Frozen”—after 16 years without a box office hit. Rather than replace the existing staff to accomplish this feat, he proudly points out that the studio “was still populated by most of the same people John [Lasseter] and I had encountered when we arrived” (p274).

Let me come full circle, as my summer reading list did. Jesus did the same thing as Ed Catmull did. Or rather, Ed did what Jesus did. He took a ragtag group of fishermen, zealots and tax collectors and spent three years challenging their mindset, changing their hearts and establishing a new culture. He certainly made himself dispensable and created a structure where interchangeable parts would keep the movement going for at least 2,000 years. Granted, we don’t have all the same tools he had available.

And yet, we do. As Jesus told his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12) and sending the Holy Spirit (v16). Though he probably wouldn’t say it this way, Catmull simply expounds a form of servant leadership that originally came from Jesus. There’s just something about having someone else say the same things again that makes them come alive and allows us to see them with fresh eyes. For that, I’m grateful to Ed Catmull.

I’m not sure I want to read any more “great men” biographies. I want to read about men and women who built great systems and great cultures that continue to the next generation.

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If I had a nickel for every time someone referred to me as “our fearless leader,” I’d be a wealthy man. I realize people are trying to honour me, and I accept that, but the label rubs me the wrong way because it suggests that I’m cut from different cloth. It suggests I must be among the fearless ones, when most people have fears, and many are debilitated by fears.

It puts a leader on a pedestal that places leadership safely out of reach for the normal person.

But leading isn’t about being fearless. It’s about overcoming fear. Think about some of these Old Testament characters. We remember that all three boldly approached a foreign king, asking for favour:

  • Esther seems to have tried to dodge the pending annihilation of her people, keeping her heritage hidden beneath the robes of a queen. But then she accepted her cousin’s charge that she was God’s woman on the scene “for such a time as this.” She asked her people in the city to fast for three days while she summoned courage to visit the king and make her request. She concluded, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:12-17). After winning the king’s favour, she still took two days to make her request, easing into it by filling the king’s stomach with feasting. Was it continued nerves or a strategic approach?
  • Ezra’s burden to teach the returning exiles God’s Word led him to approach the king and ask for favour to return to Jerusalem. He had more faith than strategy, because he kicks himself for failing to ask for protection. This became an extra burden when the king was so taken with this scribe’s request that he appointed him governor and overloaded him with donations. God’s hand and love had been so clearly extended to Ezra that he “took courage” (Ezra 7:28), but he admitted a few verses later that he had been “ashamed to ask the king” for protection after boasting in God’s power (Ezra 8:22). Desperate, he proclaimed a fast “and implored our God” to come through for them.
  • Nehemiah prayed four months before slipping up and allowing the king to see the burden he carried. When asked why he was so glum, he was “very much afraid.” He gulped and offered a teaser. When the king took the bait and asked his request, this cupbearer prayed a desperate plea before illogically seeking an appointment as construction foreman for a city wall (Neh 2:1-5).

My point is that we usually remember the outcome, not the struggle. Often the perception is self-inflicted, as leaders reinforce the hero myth. If followers only see the outcome, they put leaders on the pedestal. Leaders need to be clear about the burden we couldn’t shake, the wrestling with God, the dark nights of the soul that led us to make a bold decision.

Worse yet, sometimes leaders convince themselves that they were fearless. Perhaps it’s delusion, believing the headlines. Perhaps it’s forgetfulness. Perhaps it’s poor self awareness. Both Ezra and Nehemiah refer often to “the hand of God” being on them to the point of compulsion. They never claimed credit for their own courage.

Followers can also play a role in overcoming fear. In a later scene after Ezra gets to Jerusalem and exposes a pattern of sin among the clergy, he faces a horrendous decision. The king had given Ezra incredible authority to back up his teaching with strict judgment: death, exile, bankruptcy or prison (7:26). Still, Ezra struggled with the decision until his followers—the ones caught in sin—told him he must follow-through. “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it” (10:4). What an amazing verse of followership! Clearly God’s hand was on Ezra to have followers ready to face their punishment.

So how do you overcome fear? As I was putting this blog together, a friend referred me to the blog of Jeff Iorg, President of Golden Gate Seminary. In July 2012, he wrote three powerful and practical blogs on the subject of overcoming fear. They’re a worthy follow-up to this blog post.

The third item on Steve Moore’s list caught my attention. It reminded me of an essay by Reidy Associates on Encouraging Reluctant Leaders that explored the reasons leaders don’t step up, blaming the “hero myth” for a lot of the damage. Reidy starts with a quote from Jerry Garcia:

“Somebody has to do something and it’s incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.” We don’t have to have all the skills, all the answers. We don’t have to have it figured out better than anyone else. We do need to see something that needs attention and be motivated enough to organize a response.

Let me repeat that last statement, because it’s as good a definition of leadership as I’ve heard in a while: someone who sees something that needs attention and is motivated enough to organize a response. As Reidy points out, many get into leadership out of necessity. “Action occurs when motivation is stronger than resistance or reticence.”

Let me give you a personal example. Over the last ten years, I noticed a number of incredibly-gifted young leaders suddenly decide to leave our organization. These were people that I was looking forward to serving shoulder-to-shoulder with, long into the future, and they were suddenly gone. I realized that if our young leaders didn’t stick around, we wouldn’t have the leadership we needed to see our vision completed.

It certainly wasn’t my responsibility, but someone needed to do something about it. As no one stepped up, my desperation grew. About three years ago, I decided to send out a pact to all the young leaders I knew. It contained four points:

  1. We will practice leading. We commit ourselves in community to develop and use that gift where God has placed us. “If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously” (Rom 12:8).
  2. We will be not be disqualified. We hold ourselves to a high standard of godliness. We will hold each other accountable for our actions. “Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (I Cor 9:27).
  3. We will step up. We will develop our gifts by accepting appropriate positions of responsibility and authority. We will encourage each other to consider new challenges. “If someone aspires to be an elder, he desires an honorable position” (I Tim 3:1).
  4. We will not give up. Working as younger generations in a Boomer environment, we know we will get discouraged at times. We will not give up without consulting with one or two other colleagues for encouragement and prayer. “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (I Tim 4:12).

We began the Threshing Floor community as a lunch discussion group, and it has since expanded to Facebook. In the three years since we began meeting, I’ve had eight conversations with people who approached me and said, “I promised I’d talk with someone before I did anything…” and then went on to share their frustrations. Only one regular Threshing Floor participant has left the organization.

It’s not just a Wycliffe need. When Steve Moore taught that breakout session on supporting young leaders, he struck a chord. At the end, a young African American lady from another mission was in tears as she said, “I’ve been so hungry for this kind of thing.” She confessed her frustration at being overlooked because of her age and her gender. That was the moment I realized that I’ve only scratched the surface with the breadth of these issues.

Back to the topic at hand. My road to leadership development started three years ago when I saw an unmet need, and I had to do something. The need isn’t gone; if anything, I’m still learning how big that need is.

I’m chewing on my notes from the first day of the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, looking for patterns and the fingerprints of God. A couple of things jump out as I put the various threads from yesterday together.

1. Our current crises are opportunity. I knew that already, but it was good to hear Bill Hybels and Gary Hamel say it.

Hybels: How do gifted leaders react? With perverse excitement at the opportunities. These are perfect conditions for greatness to emerge.

Hamel: Should we wring our hands or thank God for the opportunity?

I think your reaction depends on whether you’re more concerned with defending the past or strategizing for the future. It also depends on how nimble you are. I think of Rudolph Guiliani on 9/11. He had a long-term plan for the city, though the average person in Orlando never heard about it or cared. That was the plan that no doubt led him to the meeting that happened to be right near the Trade Center that morning. But if Guiliani was anything, he was nimble as he reacted to the crisis, and greatness emerged.

2. Leadership in the future is going to look quite different. Gary Hamel and Jessica Jackley (founder of Kiva) both talked about a lack of hierarchy.

Hamel: It’s a challenge to build organizations that can survive without superhumans at the top. Leaders today are less concerned with control and more concerned with connecting, mobilizing and supporting. Their strategies are open and their hierarchy is flat.

Jackley: When you assume co-creation as a value from the beginning, top-down management doesn’t work.

If the hero leader is an old and failed model, as I’ve blogged about before, how do we move to the idea that a team can fill the impossibly long list of requirements for a CEO? Could you have different members of the team to cover the multiple roles of rousing public speaker, visionary leader, internal communicator, disciplined manager and caring, accessible, sympathetic boss? High-level leadership would sure look more attainable if we could find a way to lead in community.

3. Ideas need contribution. Gary Hamel had a couple of zingers, but one metaphor is going to stick with me:

Ideas shouldn’t develop like a pregnancy, where something happens in private and then a number of months later, out comes a nice package, but as a family picnic, out in the open where everyone contributes.

How do we get everyone — colleagues, clients, etc. — involved in our future? How can a large organization move to co-creation? Others have managed to reinvent themselves.

At lunch, one of our staff members pointed out that he’s been around long enough to see us move from bottom-up leadership to top-down leadership, and now we’re talking about bottom-up leadership again. I’m not sure we’re really back where we started. I think our world and our technology has evolved to the point that we now have the ability to co-create instead of individual brainstorming that has to be pulled together by an individual. It may have flavors of the old, but it feels new.

Another major reason for reluctance is the hero myth. In their article Encouraging Reluctant Leaders, Reidy Associates describes this myth as:

the view that leadership is carried out by a person, “the Leader”, who possesses a particular skill set. Included among the skills thought of as constituting leadership are charisma, courage, decisiveness, ability to delegate, time management, and so on. It is not surprising that people often hold this view. Many cultural myths and messages promote a view of leadership based on the hero, the knight in shining armor. The leader/hero has courage, skill conviction, clarity and he (almost always he) holds the responsibility for rescuing the rest of us from whatever threat we face.

This view, of course, is reinforced by superstar pastors or superstar CEOs who seem to have no weaknesses. Of course they do! We just don’t see them, or they never admit them. I worry about people like that, because they seem to fall harder.

Leadership development is a tricky subject, because it always seems to boil down to a bullet list of characteristics needed in leadership. No one person can ever attain such a lofty list of traits. And therefore young people loaded with potential don’t try. How do we create an atmosphere that breaks down this paralyzing myth?

Here are a few thoughts. One, established leaders have to be vulnerable. Pull back the curtain and let us see your weaknesses, your fears and your failures. Admit when you are or were wrong. Unveil your coping mechanisms. Reluctant leaders might learn a few things from your brutal honesty and might love and respect you even more.

Two, let’s publicize the fact that no one person has all the qualifications for any one job. And no one type of leader is perfect for any one job. Different combinations of giftings can match a position perfectly. Or, to put it another way, different combinations of weaknesses can match a position perfectly.

Three, let’s remind ourselves that leaders are simply the right person for the right setting. Winston Churchill was a masterful leader of war but a poor leader of peace. You could say the same about Ulysses S. Grant on our side of the pond.

Reidy goes on:

We think, “I can’t be a leader because I’m deathly afraid of public speaking.” Or, “How can I exercise leadership when I don’t have the: (pick one) college degree, title, solution to the problem, right image?”

Let me suggest a different approach, taken by my sister-in-law, who keynoted a seminar in Atlanta this weekend. Here’s the bio she used:

Emily Bruso is a 28-year-old wife and mother of two young boys. She has a modest education, a messy house, and an imperfect life. She has no awards to her name, but she loves Jesus, loves the Word of God, has experienced the healing that comes from a Godly forgiveness, and wants you to experience it too!