What successful traits then look like now: Shrewdness

In this series, we’re considering the question: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them? What competencies do you look for, and what do the early version of those competencies look like?

The working theory I’m exploring is that you should look for evidence of early indicators of megacompetencies. I’ve covered resourcefulness and servant heart. The third one I want to propose is:

3. Shrewdness

This one has potential dangers. There are a lot of negative connotations to shrewdness, so stick with me as I unpack it. Certainly, shrewdness can suggest a cunning, conniving, deceitful and devious person. But I believe shrewdness itself is contextual, a competency that in itself is not good or bad, but overlays character. To someone of honesty and purity, shrewdness can add impact to the good they pursue. To someone of rotten character, shrewdness can make their evil formidable.

The critical point for me is that on two occasions, Jesus tells his followers they should be shrewd. Because that point is worth unpacking, I will explore the Biblical view of shrewdness in another post.Okay, with that as a foundation, let’s look at the competencies within shrewdness. I’m essentially breaking down and redeeming negative traits like “cunning,” “conniving,” “crafty,” “calculating” and “conspiring”:

  • Strategery. I’ve adopted the term President George W. Bush coined to noun the verb strategize. There are two primary components to this quality:
    • Foresight: The ability to get up on the bridge and see the horizon in order to set the ship’s direction. This includes elements of abstract thinking, taking the broad view and not being bound to the current strategy.
    • Thinking and planning: The ability to anticipate and plan the steps and stages to get to that horizon, including anticipating and getting around perceived obstacles.

While few leaders may have both versions of strategery, both are useful elements of senior leadership, which mixes vision with implementation. And both can be noted early in young leaders. Look for those who are always asking “why?” and interested in context, the bigger picture. Look for those who are especially resourceful, who can negotiate tradeoffs or break down game theory. Yes, maybe there’s more to gamers than we give them credit for!

  • Street smarts. There’s an old military adage of disputed origins that was best summed up by Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So, as important as planning is, the question is how you adapt and roll with the punches. Street smarts brings wisdom to ground level and includes the ability to intuitively read an environment, handle situations with common sense and find a way through challenges. For those working in missions or other expatriate settings, such savviness may equate to cross-cultural adeptness. Of course, those with street smarts don’t necessarily play by the well-established game rules, and therefore you can anticipate the friction between this person and a system-protecting manager.
  • Creativity. Creative people find a way to do what needs to be done, which involves considering alternatives, seeing opportunity and taking risks. They may have a comfort with uncertainty and a wide-ranging set of interests. In fact, the ability to think laterally or draw applications from other fields that haven’t been tried in this field before might lead to a reputation for being “offbeat.” The challenge for senior leaders is to notice those who may be on the fringes and invite them into the center in order to harness their creativity for the good of the whole.
  • Timing. Shrewdness comes with an uncanny sense of timing. The right idea at the wrong time is just as likely to fail as the wrong idea itself. Successful entrepreneurs and breakthrough leaders are opportunistic in the best sense of that word. So watch for people who have an intuitive sense of the proper moment for change. But recognize that, early on in a career, such people may lack the courage or support to act on such instincts. That’s where a senior leader may be able to provide a safety net.
  • Influence. The DISC test affirms Influence as a legitimate leadership style. Those who shape the environment and win people over have innate understanding of interpersonal relationships and high emotional intelligence. When skilled, these people can be very persuasive. Patrick Lencioni calls this working genius “galvanizing”: the ability to figure out the wins for others and rally others to act on ideas. While influencers can certainly fall into manipulation and deceit, there are all kinds of positives to this trait. Look for indicators of it, even the unskilled or abused forms of it, and tap those traits for good.

At the beginning of this month I had a chance to watch a bit of track cycling at the velodrome in Japan. I had no idea just how cerebral some of those cycling races are. The sprints are a cat-and-mouse game, sometimes going incredibly slowly and then opening up to a frenetic scramble for the finish line. The omnium, with its many ways to make points or avoid elimination, requires a mix of: strong, pre-planned strategy; keeping track of other competitors; street smarts; agile reactions; opportunistic timing and the cunning use of small openings. Watching the British rider Matthew Walls pull ahead and then hold off the opposition over the four events of the omnium gave me a vivid picture of shrewdness.

When Jesus said his followers should be shrewd in Matthew 10:16, he made an important pairing: “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Manipulative, deceitful individuals are not harmless or innocent. But there is a shrewdness that’s rightly directed toward good, that comes out in good business sense and savvy maneuvering of a Christ-follower in this present age. That edge is something that helps in senior leadership, and the signs of its presence are evident much earlier if you’re alert for them.

So that perhaps brings me to the end of this series, unless I missed something. Now I want your input. What megacompetencies did I miss? What other early indicators should we look for in a future C-suite leader?


Megacompetency Series

Waste no time

In this blog, I’ve unpacked the stories of a number of leaders in the Bible, but as I reflect back, they’ve been overwhelmingly male. In my unwitting focus, I’ve missed one of the most fascinating leaders in the Bible: Abigail. She’s featured heavily in only one chapter. After 1 Samuel 25, she only makes bit appearances. But chapter 25 describes an amazing woman.

Who is Abigail? She’s a sensible and beautiful woman married to a rich, crude, mean, ill-tempered and foolish man. I have trouble with her choice of husband until I realize she probably didn’t have any. (I can imagine a sensible young lady hearing from her parents that they’ve arranged a marriage with a guy named “Fool.” I bet that didn’t go over well! Her father probably retorted, “But he’s rich!”)

Observing Nabal’s behavior and hearing Abigail’s own description of her husband in verse 25, it’s hard to imagine where his riches come from. I can only conclude either he inherited it or his wife manages it for him. Judging by her actions, the last part is likely true.

With that, let me hit the highlights of the story. King-in-waiting David and his men spend some time near Carmel, all the while providing protection for the local shepherds. After some time, they head to town in time for the sheepshearing festival and ask for some provisions from the flock’s owner, Nabal. He insults David and turns them away. As David and 400 men strap on their swords to avenge the insult, Nabal’s wife appears with the very provisions Nabal refused, successfully averting David’s anger and violence.

Here are some of the advanced leadership abilities I see in Abigail:

1. She understands the times. I’ve blogged before about how leaders either need this trait themselves or need to staff for someone who understands the times and knows what to do (I Chronicles 12:32) Abigail has this ability in spades. When Nabal turns David’s men away, one of his servants goes straight to Abigail, explains the situation and says, “You need to know this and figure out what to do.” Sure enough, she hatches a plan on the spot.

2. She knows the power of owning a problem. Abigail didn’t even see David’s men. She had no opportunity to intervene in Nabal’s rude behavior. But, like any good leader, she takes full responsibility. “I accept all blame in this matter.” “Please forgive me if I have offended you in any way.” In Calgary in May I stayed at a hotel where a guest forgot to spray the waffle maker before pouring in the batter. The waffle was stuck fast to the iron. The Asian kitchen manager immediately took over, spending a good 15 minutes getting it clean, to the guest’s chagrin. I overheard a guest walk by and make a comment, and the kitchen manager sheepishly took credit for burning the waffle. In my experience, that may well be a typical thing for an Asian to do. In my experience, that’s not a typical thing for a manager to do.

3. She knows the power of apology. It’s amazing how seldom many leaders use this tool. They regret, they explain, they excuse, they dodge. But a straight-up apology goes a long way toward building trust. For some reason, apologies are a head game. It’s difficult to say you’re sorry, because it puts you in a position of weakness. It feels like you’ll be taken advantage of. But appropriate vulnerability always builds credibility. Abigail’s actions give her huge credibility with David. Her willingness to lower herself saves her entire family.

4. She knows the power of timing. With David, “Abigail wasted no time.” With Nabal, she chooses a different path. Rather than tell him of her actions – which will appear as betrayal to him – while he’s drunk and partying, she waits until the morning. The news isn’t good for his heart, and within ten days, he’s dead.

David knows the power of timing, too. The moment Abigail becomes a free agent, he asks her to marry him. A woman like that won’t be available for long.

Who can find a virtuous and capable wife?

She is worth more than rubies. (Proverbs 31:10)

“How much time do I have?”

Sample’s second rule for decision-making:

2. Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.

But isn’t that procrastination? First, let me say that our western, negative view of that word is not necessarily universal. Procrastination is negative when it stems from a lack of courage. Instead, Sample espouses conscious and even courageous “artful procrastination.” Certainly, postponing a decision has its consequences: in our busy workplaces, with full inboxes, a strategy to leave more on your plate for tomorrow is contrarian.

I borrowed the question above from president Harry Truman, who always sought clarity on the timing for a decision as his first response. To misunderstand the timing required for a decision is to choose the wrong method of decision-making. For instance, a snap decision in a case that should have involved consultation with experts could be disastrous. A collaborative process in a fight or flight scenario could be deadly. It might be worthwhile researching how Truman applied this methodology to as grave a decision as dropping atomic bombs on another sovereign nation, but that’s another topic for another day. Sample’s point is that “the timing of a decision could be just as important as the decision itself.”

Now, Sample isn’t talking about simply putting things off or failing to make a decision. A non-decision is a decision (and leaders have consciously used that method to great success in a variety of arenas). Knowing the timing allows a leader to wait strategically. It can often open up more options for a leader, providing a beautiful solution that wasn’t available at the time the question was posed. However, it comes with a risk: it can slam the door on decent solutions. Simply put, circumstances will often make a decision for you, and there’s a fine line between a wise leader who reads the timing well and a foolish one who misses an opportunity. The point is to make a decision “and get on with it” when the time is appropriate to choose, whether the conditions improved or not.

I’ve heard CEOs say before that they pretty much expect to be 50% right on their decisions. That’s not comforting! But leadership and decision-making are arts, not sciences. Experience teaches when to listen and when to make a judgment, when to wait and when to conclude a matter. This question is a great place to start, because it puts a leader in position to follow the best road to a decision. Whether she’s right or wrong, perhaps the real question is what she does next, after the decision is made.

Sample’s final thought on the matter:

It is one thing for a leader to delegate a decision to a lieutenant, but an entirely different (and unacceptable) thing for him to surrender a decision to fate or to his adversaries. Therein lies the difference between artful and cowardly procrastination.

Agree? Disagree? Does this spur a question or reaction? Give me your thoughts!