When the right person won’t

What happens when the right person is unwilling to lead? I know an organization that recently came up short looking for a new president. The board made the decision to start their search over again. Is there simply a shortage of good leaders in that organization? No. There are a number of extremely-qualified candidates who turned them down.

Not long ago, The Reluctant Leader had an interesting post that drew my attention to an Old Testament parable. While Steve Murrell applies Judges 9 to government — which I think is a very good application — I think you’ll see how it applies more broadly. In the non-profit world we live in at Wycliffe, with no financial incentives to offer someone to step up in leadership, we often face situations where the right leader is unwilling to take on greater responsibility.

When the right people don’t step up, the void is filled by others.

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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!

People in parachurch agencies

I asked the question recently: In the world of social sectors, where should “parachurch” mission agencies like Wycliffe fall in the continuum between church and business? Let me try to outline the issues around the topic, and then next post we’ll look at how an organization like ours should act toward “the wrong people.”

One of my favorite metaphors for church is that it’s a hospital. Jesus himself said the healthy don’t need a doctor; those that need him are the sick, the poor and the needy. Those are the kinds of people the church is best suited to attract. The healthy aren’t the core audience, and certainly not the rich. Jesus said those are harder to corale for his kingdom than putting a camel through the eye of a needle.

A business exists to create value for its owners or shareholders. In order to do that well, it has to deliver a product or service of value to its customers, but a business doesn’t exist for its customers. At the end of the day, it has to make money.

Wycliffe is designed neither to heal the broken nor to make money. Its ultimate goal is to bring value to people in other parts of the world, but in order to do that, it must create value for that end with people and churches who are local. It therefore becomes a bridge, making connections between the two parties, and a broker, moving resources from one to the other and then communicating the effective use of those resources.

So, when the question is posed about how an organization like Wycliffe should act toward “the wrong people,” the response is complicated. If we have the wrong people on our bus, we will not effectively complete our mission. In that sense, we are like a business. We need to pursue sound strategies and good stewardship. On the other hand, few businesses recognize the role of the Holy Spirit, who is at the least a force multiplier, amplifying our meager resources and efforts. The Holy Spirit should play a huge role in our organization, as he does in each individual.

If you ask any business leader what his most important resource is, he’ll say it’s his people. With an organization whose members raise their own salaries, it may be even more so. Wycliffe is built on our staff and the relationships they bring with them. Personal relationships are our driving force, our economic engine. In addition, staff members not only serves the organization but their constituents: churches and individuals who sent them.

An organization built on a model where you screen heavily and only take in the top tier of candidates comes with a parallel value that you don’t let go of them easily or quickly. On the other hand, it comes with a value that you try to repackage and develop people for another role if they don’t work out in the initial one.

Let’s just say it’s complicated. Looking forward to further musings on the topic, and I welcome your thoughts as well.

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?