God’s requirement for leadership

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?

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When “the wrong person” is your fault

I was just reading Acts 9, where Ananias pushes back on God’s request for him to go and lay hands on Saul. He basically tells God that Saul is clearly the wrong guy, and he strongly implies that he doesn’t want to work with him. He sounds like any number of managers I’ve met. Yet God responds,

Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel.

To put it in Jim Collins’ language, Saul is the right person for this particular seat on God’s bus. It’s not because he shows any potential for the role, though he proves to have an amazing resume for the job. Saul is simply the wrong guy, and then God turns him around, and he’s the right guy. How on earth do we apply traditional hiring, development and firing principles when God is in the business of makeovers and repentances?

That’s the setting for my post today. When the wrong person is in a job, or there’s a staff member who just can’t find the right assignment, what should our organizational response be? And what should we be doing as leaders in the organization?

When it comes to staff, I think parachurch agencies have to find the right middle ground. We should not be as quick to fire as (many) businesses, whose business model doesn’t allow the patience to retool and develop their staff. We also should not be too slow to fire when firing is warranted. I think it’s safe to say most Christian organizations tend more to the latter fault. We give people “one more chance” as they continue to gush their contamination throughout our departments and organization.

The question we need to be asking is whether the person is wrong or the role is wrong. I have seen many people who are wrong for one role — indeed poisoning those around them — take a completely different tack and find a role they flourish in. Perhaps my own experience has shaped my approach to this issue. Three or four times in recent years, I have taken a risk on someone with bad performance appraisals and offered them a new position that I had a hunch would work out for them. Taking them out of the circumstances that had exposed their weaknesses and playing instead to their strengths made all the difference.

These cases give me incredible satisfaction. Why? Because someone did the same for me. While I trained for graphic design and worked in that field for 8-9 years, I’m a long way from my major today. I’ve changed careers several times in Wycliffe. What prompted my first big career change was a miserable couple of years in a bad role. As I lost trust with my boss, my discontent turned to frustration and depression. I look back on those years as a low point in my management career and in my followership career. I was poison in that department. It’s taken a while, but I now point fingers at myself before I point them at my circumstances or my boss.

I think that’s the first part of the answer: as an organization or as a manager, we should point fingers at ourselves first. I’m reminded of three points Chip and Dan Heath made in Switch about pursuing change in an organization. In short, they expose our tendency as leaders to fault the other person when change isn’t going well.

  • What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Have we been clear in our instructions? Have we been clear in communicating expectations? Have we provided the training this person needs?
  • What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. Have we provided good performance management, support, encouragement and care for a staff member who is dry emotionally? Is the pace of change beyond what he can handle? Are we leading by force or engaging him in the vision of where we’re going?
  • What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

The Heaths quote Stanford psychologist Lee Ross’s Fundamental Attribution Error: a deeply seated tendency “to attribute others’ behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in” (while generously doing the opposite with our own behavior).

So, leaders, when someone on your team is wrong for the job, take a look at yourself and the situation you have put them in. It may well be that the fault lies in your court.

You’ll notice my postings have really slowed down in recent weeks. That’s because thoughts on this topic don’t come readily to me. When I said I wanted to wrestle through these issues, I meant it. So I welcome your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Am I being too naive? Want to push back? Join the discussion!

The wrong people

This God who pursues us is always calling the wrong people onto a bus that isn’t expected to arrive.

Roxburgh and Romanuk in The Missional Leader are obviously trying to stir up some controversy. You don’t mess with Jim Collins! But they’re writing to a church audience while Collins clearly wrote Good to Great for a business audience. Even his monograph painted social sectors with a broad brush. Where do parachurch mission agencies like Wycliffe fall in the continuum? I know lots of people have opinions on that, but I don’t want to give a rash answer. I think it’s worthwhile to embrace the tension and wrestle with it for a week or two in this blog. Give me your thoughts as we go along.

What happens when the wrong people are in leadership? The Bible is full of examples of unlikely leaders. You know the obvious ones, so let’s look at the book of Judges for some more obscure ones:

  • Sampson, a guy with huge strengths and huge weaknesses. Probably had addiction problems, some anger problems and a taste for prostitutes.
  • Gideon, the “mighty warrior” who did everything he could to lay low and dodge leadership.
  • Barak, a guy appointed for leadership but who was more comfortable being in the #2 chair.
  • I think my favorite is Jephthah, the son of a prostitute who was chased away by his half-brothers until they got in a bind and asked him to be their leader. He was rash, unorthodox and creative in his leadership, but he also made some stupid decisions.

All of them had major flaws, but God used each of them in their times.

Perhaps the classic example is the twelve-seat bus that Jesus put together to transform the world and launch the church. He filled seats with a few hotheads, a handful of uneducated fishermen, a couple of dire enemies (a zealot and a tax collector) and a traitor. Not the team any leader I know would assemble. Roxburgh and Romanuk again:

Look at the ordinary people Jesus begins with; this is consistent with how God has always chosen to act…. What is present here is literally that in God’s economy the Spirit is among the people of God…. God’s future is among the regular, ordinary people of God. It’s not primarily in great leaders or experts but among the people, all those people most leaders believe don’t get it.

Ouch. I’m guilty of thinking some of these people don’t get it. I have a bent to engage with leaders but write off those who aren’t interested or gifted or called to lead.

So, how should a Christian organization engage with these tensions? On the one hand, we are stewards of God’s resources, with a huge responsibility to manage our assets well. We want good management and good leadership. On the other hand, we have the verses that say God’s power is strongest when we are weak. We have the examples that God can use a man like Peter — a disciple who’s quick to speak and slow to listen, a devotee who steps out of a boat in the middle of a lake, a coward who denies a friend at his neediest moment. The wild card is what the Holy Spirit can do to fill someone and make him useful. Acts 4 describes the transformation Peter went through and names two factors: he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he’d been with Jesus. I can’t say I’ve ever looked for those two criteria on a resume, though I have looked at previous failures and testing and how a person has grown — perhaps evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work.

There’s my challenge for you: in your hiring and development work, how are you looking for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work?