A new world

It’s easy to look out the window and see a world where it seems nothing has really changed. Maybe we’ll soon be able to return to normal, right? For many of us, that’s our deepest longing. But I believe the profound change in four fundamental areas can’t help but lead to a deep, deep change to the world we’ve known:

  1. The economy. Most western governments have acted like they have unlimited bank accounts to roll out programs. How will they pay for it? With austerity? With taxation? Or printing money? Or further stimulus to speed up the velocity of money? How many quarters, or how many years, will this impact our economy, and what will the implications be?
  2. The nature of government itself. How much risk should the government protect its citizens and businesses from? How extensive a safety net is going to be constructed? How will governments use or abuse contact tracing and health tracking? What liberties will citizens demand back from their governments?
  3. The charitable sector. Giving has been or will eventually be impacted by unemployment, increased government handouts, the up-and-down stock market and the continued threat to vulnerable populations. For non-profits and charities, all of these factors are bound to affect current and potential workforce, as well as philanthropy and generosity. Likely, impacts will come in waves. Where charities fail, who will step in to meet needs and fulfill charitable purposes?
  4. International relations. Closed borders, anti-foreigner resentment, tracking of citizens, visa restrictions and localization are just some of the factors that will impact travel and delivery of services around the world. For an organization that engages in sending expatriate missionaries as well as contributing funds for local projects, our priorities and strategies may need to shift.

“These are unprecedented times.” How many times have you heard someone say that? How many times have you said those words? While this particular alignment of factors may be unique, it is naive to believe no one else has faced such profound levels of change. Over a few blog posts, I want to draw out some lessons from three biblical characters that I believe are relevant today. Today, let’s look at Noah.

In some ways, we’re in a similar place as Noah in Genesis 8:4. After he and his immediate family have been on the ark for 5 months, they experience a great grinding shudder as the ark beaches itself on Mount Ararat. The immediate crisis over, it’s now time to look out the window. The earth Noah is returning to is the same one he left, but it is now going to be unrecognizable. Everything has changed. 

Perhaps these changes will prove to have only short-term consequences; the land below our ark is still drying up and taking form. But I believe it’s more than that. The similarities we see between the world outside our window and the world we left in March are only surface-deep. If we don’t prepare ourselves for what’s changed, we will miss opportunities as leaders. Here are a few thoughts.

1. The next six months will be a slow and often-frustrating re-emergence.

Land! I can imagine Noah’s eagerness to get off the ark. But the beaching of the ark was just the first step of restoration. They had to wait for the water to recede: to see the tops of the mountains, for the land to solidify, for greenery to emerge. Until that happened, they stayed in their lockdown. You know how long that was? Another 7 months and 10 days. I can’t imagine the patience that took!

As provinces and states are rolling out re-opening plans, each of our experiences across North America will look different. There will be inequities, delays and setbacks that test our patience, our contentment and our ability to follow those God has put in authority over us. Those we lead will need help with those frustrations, even as we struggle with our own responses. 

In a recent Zoom call with other leaders, one suggested that we haven’t faced our real leadership challenges yet; the next phase will require much greater leadership than the crisis phase. Ahead of us are many gray areas, many consequential decisions, and many existential choices that will redefine our ministries, organizations and businesses. But he also specifically mentioned navigating a world that is polarized and splintering, and a Church that is too quick to embrace conspiracy theories. He was considering how to proactively prepare his staff to be discerning without assuming they’ll take the wrong path.

2. This is not a blip that we need to survive; it’s a re-ordering of the way things have been. 

Whether you work for a for-profit or non-profit, your mission and vision are still relevant, and you have work to do. But strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need to be weighed against criteria to see whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities.

Some observers are saying that the quicker organizations can throw out previous assumptions and strategy and develop new strategy consistent with who they are, the better they will be positioned for success. There are new opportunities coming that were not even possible a month ago that we need to prepare for. My fear is that my organization will fill our plans and budgets with activities that are based on old assumptions and leave no room to develop new ideas that take advantage of opportunities that arise. That’s where leadership is required. 

3. New realities require different competencies.

There’s no indication in Genesis of what Noah’s competencies were before God asked him to build an ark. Think of the competencies required to build such a large sea-going structure. Think of the entirely different set of competencies required to manage a floating zoo for a year. Think of those necessary to re-establish infrastructure, cultivate the land and defend from nature in the new world. Individuals have competencies, and teams have collective competencies. A team, and a leader, must ask whether the competencies that served well in the past are still relevant for the context they will face in the future.

It may require a restructure to make that shift, but it’s also possible to pivot, as Moah and his sons did. For instance:

  • At the 2008 Catalyst conference in Atlanta, Andy Stanley shared a question he considers on a regular basis:

“If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would he do? Why shouldn’t we walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?”— Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove

  • John Pellowe, president of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, says his secret for serving in the role 17 years is self reflection. Every five years he asks himself what the organization needs for the next five years, evaluates whether he fits the criteria and then creates a personal and professional development plan to reinvent his leadership to become the leader the organization needs. Read more of his thoughts about Keeping your leadership fresh on his blog.

What kind of competencies do we need right now for this uncertain future? I’m going with futuring, forward thinking, asking good questions that challenge assumptions, performance management and metrics. Let me know if you have some others to add to that list.

Rest assured that, if you are in a leadership position, it is by God’s design. You may not know what to do—there is no model for the circumstances we’re facing—but He who put you in your position will help you as you call on him. God bless you as you lead in these extraordinary times. They may not be unprecedented, but they certainly demand leadership!

The petrie dish for innovation

Times of crisis reveal what is and isn’t working. These are the times when obsolete and dysfunctional systems and practices collapse or fall by the wayside. They are the times when the seeds of innovation and invention, of creativity and entrepreneurship, burst into full flower, enabling recovery by remaking both the economy and society.

In The Great Reset, Richard Florida goes on to point out that the greatest periods of innovation in U.S. history were the 1870s and the 1930s. Those two depressions were marked by huge spikes in research for patents and technological progress. Florida says that depressions create a reset for society, acting like a forest fire to clear out the old growth and make room for the new.

Want to read more? Steve Moore, president of The Mission Exchange has written a fascinating case statement based on his reading, research and intuition about the future. It’s the basis for this post and for the upcoming North American Mission Leaders Conference in Arizona.

In a recent post, I referred to Hizb’allah, the terrorist group that Joshua Cooper Ramo characterizes as the most innovative organization in the world. Constant pressure and hardship has resulted in incredible inventions such as the Improvised Explosive Device that, for as little five dollars, can paralyze the lavishly-funded military of the United States. That example leads me to wonder where else we should see innovation thriving. On a political level, I would think the Israeli military would be one place. The persecuted church should be another. Constant threat leads to either innovation or death.

From a historical perspective, I have great optimism for the next few years. World missions needs a reset, and I think it’s happening. The next couple of years should stand out as a period of incredible breakthroughs in strategies, technology, partnerships and ideation. Breakthroughs will happen, many of them outside the world of mission agencies. The question is which organizations will be best positioned to take advantage or to ride the wave? No doubt many who take advantage are not in existence today. But will older organizations make the leap? I suggest the difference in organizations that make the adjustments and organizations that dig in their heels to try to hold onto the past is leadership.

Let me close by quoting Steve Moore’s conclusion:

We need a fresh wave of Spirit empowered entrepreneurial risk takers and mission pioneers who lean in to what God is doing in the midst of turbulent times, seizing what may prove to be unprecendented windows of opportunity that come with a Great Reset moment.

I’m getting excited. How about you?

Where angels fear to tread

Steve Moore’s list included a good indicator of early leadership that’s worth commenting on: individuals who are willing to take on a challenge others won’t. The ones who show initiative to take advantage of opportunity. The ones whose resistance to risk is overtaken by a compulsion that someone has to do something.

Leaders sometimes appear to come out of nowhere with a sudden success. I suspect I know what Malcomb Gladwell would say: that there are no overnight successes, and the individual has put in a lot of hours beforehand that led to such “instance success.” I agree. I think it’s easier to spot failure than to spot competence, and individuals like these have likely shown signs of potential along the way. What gets them noticed is the turnaround situation where they made something out of nothing.

There’s a well-worn piece of advice that seems relevant: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Remember that line from Amazing Grace, where a 24-year-old William Pitt first proposes to William Wilberforce that he thinks he can make a run at prime minister?

Wilberforce: No one of our age has ever taken power.
Pitt: Which is why we’re too young to realize certain things are impossible. Which is why we will do them anyway.

Some watch that movie and get inspired by Wilberforce; I get inspired by Pitt. Wilberforce succeeded through persistence and endurance; Pitt succeeded by sheer audacity. Perhaps he was a fool, but maybe that’s the point. In Moore’s recent book, While You Were Micro-Sleeping, he makes the point that experts and elitists “can’t ask the dumb questions that often trigger new ideas.” Most innovations come from fools.

Certainly, the pessimism born from experience becomes a block to innovation, but I think there’s another factor at work than just being too young to show caution. I think it’s a matter of conviction and motivation — that sometimes a situation is so dire, with no one willing to take it on, that a young person decides the worst they can do is fail. They have less to lose. Or that a frustrated young leader who never gets opportunity sees in a challenge a chance to go all in. With great risk comes great reward. We can probably all think of young leaders who took on big challenges and came out of nowhere to lead a new era. These are the kinds of stories we love.

But what about the other side? The stories of those who try and fail — or who never try — don’t get told. The younger generations have been long characterized as having an unhealthy fear of failure. Pessimism and skepticism is just as rampant among the young as it is among the old. I’ve had conversations with three young leaders in the past month who have recently faced choices: one relatively safe and one with greater risk. In all three cases, the young leader has opted for safety. There are good reasons for their decisions. No one would question their logic. But I’m disappointed.

Here’s the thing. Organizations need young leaders to step up. Hierarchical organizations need young leaders who master relational influence over positional authority. High-process organizations need young leaders who push back on bureaucracy and ask uncomfortable questions. Monocultural organizations need trailblazers who easily bridge cultures. And older, established organizations need age diversity.

What it comes down to is that the world doesn’t need an older you. The world needs young leaders who are willing to step up and take on the unique challenges we’re facing… today.

Servants and visionaries

I think servants and visionaries both have good eyes. It takes someone special to see an opportunity that everyone else has missed… and get there first.

The key to a great visionary is that everyone else asks themselves why they didn’t think of that. Somehow, in the context everyone was looking at, no one else saw the opportunity or was positioned to take advantage. I was reminded recently that a number of the companies that took our economy down last year were founded during the Great Depression. They were founded by visionaries who found a way to do things differently when everyone else was stuck in the decline. Unfortunately, the companies they started weren’t able to sustain that heritage… or held onto their heritage. A topic for another day, I suppose.

Likewise, servants have good eyes. Think about every period movie about British high society you’ve ever seen. Someone pointed out to me that the key to being a good servant was to watch their master’s hands. A good servant could anticipate the need of their master by watching body language and meet the need before it was expressed. I see the same quality in people who serve in my church today. There’s an ability to notice something that’s not being done and jump in before the need is even expressed. When you run an event, you want to stock your team with that type of person.

Leaders today need good eyes. They need to be visionary, and they need to be servants — people with the agility and flexibility to see a need and respond. So, where do we find those qualities in the next generation? As Steve Moore and Tim Elmore remind us, we can look for people who are already serving somewhere. We can look for people who look at challenges and see opportunity. We can look for initiative.

As I mentioned before, we can also look for people who are others-focused, who “watch the hands” of both their managers and their direct reports. They look for opportunities to empower and develop others. They give assignments and then invert the hierarchical pyramid to support their staff in the job they’ve been asked to do. They are quick to give credit to their staff or team for the success they might enjoy.

If you’re looking for servant leaders, start with character. Promote from among your servants.

The future is coming!

“Hurry, everybody! Hide! The future is coming!”

I think my three-year-old daughter summed up the way a lot of people feel about the future. Time to put our heads in the sand. Maybe it’ll go away.

I’m really enjoying the premise of the new show, FlashForward — the idea that everyone on the planet gets a two-minute glimpse of their future six months ahead. For some, this glimpse gives them hope. For others, it’s agonizing. As the season moves ahead, I’m looking forward to seeing how the show tackles ideas like free will, our ability to control our destiny and our inherent brokenness. I’m quite sure I’ll be disappointed, but I might also be pleasantly delighted at the truth the show exposes.

Yesterday morning I led Wycliffe USA’s leaders in a discussion on succession planning. One point I made is that you can’t anticipate the leadership needs of an organization or department by looking at today’s leader. The tendency if you do that is either to seek a clone to succeed an incumbent or rather to seek a reaction to the incumbent — someone who has strengths where the incumbent is weak. Unfortunately, the present is a bad starting place for succession planning. You have to force yourself into an assessment of the organization and an assessment of future trends that then defines the leadership needs of an organization or department. Where are the challenges and opportunities going to be? Who can take advantage and lead us in that reality?

The future is coming. Are you the kind of person who sticks your head in the sand, or one who wishes you could see around corners? Are you excited or depressed about what you see?

Willow Creek Thoughts

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.