Stretch assignments

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.

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A dearth of curiosity

I was recently telling a colleague in Canada about a friend of mine I’ve worked with for some time who has a lot of leadership ability. This individual has a lot of influence, is engaging, has strong networks and is very competent. But something’s lacking. While relating to people well and even reading audiences intuitively as a speaker, this young leader is missing a key part of emotional intelligence. I finally think I’ve identified it: a dearth of curiosity. When I told my colleague about my friend, she challenged me: “Then how can this person be a leader?”

A dearth of curiosity is a career derailer. Curiosity is critical to leadership. It’scritical for lifelong learning. It’s critical for teamwork. And it’s critical for diversity.

On my flight to Toronto, I read an article by David Marcum and Stephen Smith, called “The Ultimate Team.” The authors point out that we all assume that good teams need diversity. However, diversity of viewpoints, age, ethnicity and experience doesn’t guarantee anything.

Diversity, without curiosity, isn’t worth much. Great teams know how to tap into the collective experience  and POV of everyone of them. But that “tapping” isn’t frequent enough on most teams to move them from “good enough,” to great.

One of the problems with a lack of curiosity is that it’s a form of arrogance. It signifies a person has concluded they know everything they need to know. They therefore hold back on colleagues and team members. They make judgments quickly, and are often unfortunately final in their decisions.

So if a dearth of curiosity is death to a leader and to a team member, is there no hope for my friend? There has to be a way to grow in curiosity. How do you increase your capacity for curiosity? Give me your best ideas. There are a lot of people who need your help.

Efficiency vs. learning

“Stop wasting water!” One of my pet peeves is when I’m busy at something, vaguely conscious that my kids are doing something in the bathroom and then suddenly realize that the water has been running a long, long time. I’m not sure why wasting water bugs me so much. Is it the cost or the environmental responsibility of living in a state with a draining aquifer? I clearly value efficiency when it comes to water. If you have any doubt, just look at my lawn.

I recognize my hypocrisy, however. My kids are simply doing the same thing I did when I was their age. There’s no way to explore without a little waste. I used to love pouring water from one vessel into another, inverting a glass and pushing trapped air beneath the surface, finding the best way to turn my hands into a cup to bring water up to my mouth, or watch greasy water flee from a drop of soap. Water is fascinating, and you don’t learn about it without wasting a little.

The older we get, the more we value efficiency at the expense of discovery, joy and innovation. Organizationally, the bigger we get, the more we value efficiency, too. We love the economies of scale that come with standardizing processes. And in so doing, we squelch innovation.

As leaders, how can we assure that doesn’t happen? First, allow room for dreaming. I recently read a colleague’s summary of Leadership Divided – What Emerging Leaders Need and What You Might be Missing, by Ron Carucci. Here’s an excerpt that caught my attention:

The explosion of enterprise-wide technologies has fueled efficiency and standardization. A negative consequence, though, has been the tendency to approach challenges in terms of process compliance rather than allowing for dreaming. There exists a tension between standardization and innovation as a result. Incumbent leaders often view dreams in terms of precision rather than desire.

Of course, we know the tension that results when dreamers encounter one of these big, immovable objects. Too many  emerging leaders have given up on established businesses, churches or organizations and fled to start their own where they could dream, innovate and bring about the change they long for. But established organizations need dreamers and innovators lest we become dinosaurs.

What’s the solution? I think Carucci hits on a good start: “Dream first, set targets later.” I like that approach to planning. We should include a time for dreaming before getting down to process and rigid goal-setting. Leadership IQ wrote an article called, “Are SMART Goals Dumb?” in which they challenged the traditional view of goal-setting: to create goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. The data shows that there’s a better way to create goals that will be implemented. Make sure they’re HARD:

  • Heartfelt – My goals will enrich the lives of someone besides me — customers, the community, etc.
  • Animated – I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I accomplish my goals.
  • Required – My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  • Difficult – I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my assigned goals for this year.

Picture the end. How great it will feel. Leave my comfort zone. Not the traditional way we approach goals, but the territory of dreamers. Start with a vision of the future and then set targets toward making it reality.

Second, be sure to leave room in your business model for waste. Experimentation and learning are not always easy on the bottom line. For that matter, it’s almost always easier and more efficient to do things yourself than to pass on your knowledge. But a truly healthy organization is like a family. You have to be passing on and empowering the next generation. They’re going to make mistakes, and they’re going to waste resources as they experiment. Then, one day, they’re going to make a discovery that we “adults” never saw. That’s the way with innovation.