Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, by Tod E. Bolsinger (Please support the author by purchasing the book. The following are highlights from my personal reading).
A couple of years ago I learned that three of my pastor friends around the country had resigned on the same day. There were no affairs, no scandals and no one was renouncing faith. But three good, experienced pastors turned in resignations and walked away. One left church ministry altogether. The details are as different as the pastors themselves, but the common thread is that they finally got worn down by trying to bring change to a church that was stuck and didn’t know what to do. Their churches were stuck and declining, stuck and clinging to the past, stuck and lurching to quick fixes, trying to find an easy answer for what were clearly bigger challenges. What all three churches had in common was that they were mostly blaming the pastor for how bad it felt to be so stuck. “If only you could preach better!” “If only you were more pastoral and caring!” “If only our worship was more dynamic!” “Please, pastor, do something!” (That is what we pay you for, isn’t it?) And to make matters worse, the pastors don’t know what to do either. As a seminary vice president, I am now charged with confronting this reality head-on. Our graduates were not trained for this day. When I went to seminary, we were trained in the skills that were necessary for supporting faith in Christendom. When churches functioned primarily as vendors of religious services for a Christian culture, the primary leadership toolbox was teaching (for providing Christian education) liturgics (for leading Christian services) pastoral care (for offering Christian counsel and support).
Lewis and Clark’s expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase was built on a completely false expectation. They believed, like everyone before them, that the unexplored west was exactly the same geography as the familiar east. This is the story of what they did when they discovered that they—and everyone else before them—had been wrong. And how instructive and inspiring that story can be to us today. Using the story of Lewis and Clark’s expedition and applying the best insights from organizational leadership and missional theology, we will learn together what it means for Christians to lead when the journey goes “off the map.” We will discuss and seek faithful responses to the following questions: How do we lead a congregation or an organization to be faithful to the mission God has put before us when the world has changed so radically? What are the tools, the mental models, the wise actions and competing commitments that require navigation? And mostly, what transformation does it demand of those of us who have been called to lead?
From Lewis and Clark we will learn that if we can adapt and adventure, we can thrive. That while leadership in uncharted territory requires both learning and loss, once we realize that the losses won’t kill us, they can teach us. And mostly, we will learn that to thrive off the map in an exciting and rapidly changing world means learning to let go, learn as we go and keep going no matter what.
To begin, let’s summarize the five vital lessons that make up the structure of this book: The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you. No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map. In uncharted territory, adaptation is everything. You can’t go alone, but you haven’t succeeded until you’ve survived the sabotage. Everybody will be changed (especially the leader).
*REORIENTATION* Christian Leaders: You were trained for a world that is disappearing.
Today’s leaders are facing complex challenges that have no clear-cut solutions. These challenges are more systemic in nature and require broad, widespread learning. They can’t be solved through a conference, a video series or a program. Even more complicated, these problems are very often the result of yesterday’s solutions. They are what Ronald Heifetz calls “adaptive challenges.”7
The changing world around us and even the success we had experienced had brought us to a new place where we would need a new strategy. To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, “What got us here wouldn’t take us there.”8
What Is Leadership, Really? – Let’s begin by clarifying what leadership is and is not. Leadership is not authority. It is not the title or position that a person holds. Leadership is different from management. Leadership is not running good meetings, keeping good books, overseeing good programs and making good policies (as important as those are!). Management is a kind of stewardship. Management cares for what is. Leadership is focused on what can be or what must be. Management is about keeping promises to a constituency; leadership is about an organization fulfilling its mission and realizing its reason for being. To that end, let me offer three leadership principles that shape my work in leadership development (mostly in church and nonprofit circles).
Therefore, leadership is always about personal and corporate transformation. But because we are hard-wired to resist change, every living system requires someone in it to live into and lead the transformation necessary to take us into the future we are resisting. The person who takes personal responsibility to live into the new future in a transformative way, in relationship to the others in the system, is the leader. If someone is not functioning as a leader, the system will always default to the status quo.
The culture is changing, the world is changing rapidly, and churches are facing change on an unprecedented scale. Churches and church leaders are becoming increasingly irrelevant, even marginalized. Shared corporate faith is viewed with cynicism at best, downright hostility at worst. The cultural advantage we experience during the seventeen centuries of Christendom has almost completely dissipated. Seminary training for the Christendom world is inadequate to this immensely challenging—transformation-demanding—moment in history. We have to learn to lead all over again.
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were about to go off the map and into uncharted territory. They would have to change plans, give up expectations, even reframe their entire mission. What lay before them was nothing like what was behind them. There were no experts, no maps, no “best practices” and no sure guides who could lead them safely and successfully. The true adventure—the real discovery—was just beginning.
Farewell to Christendom – After forty years as a missionary and bishop in India, Lesslie Newbigin retired and returned home to Great Britain in the 1970s. What he found in his beloved homeland was a more difficult mission field than he left behind. He wrote, “England is a pagan society and the development of a truly missionary encounter with this very tough form of paganism is the greatest intellectual and practical task facing the Church.”10 In that one sentence Newbigin challenged the mental model of how the Christians in the West had seen their hometowns and resident cultures for what is now seventeen hundred years. No matter how many times English men and women sang “God Save the Queen,” no matter how beautiful the Christopher Wren cathedrals, no matter the presence of a state-sponsored church where bishops hold seats in the House of Lords, England—and for that matter most of Europe—had become a “pagan society.” Newbigin foresaw that the West was quickly becoming a mission field, and the church needed to “develop a truly missionary encounter” with their friends and neighbors.
Christopher Wright has reminded us that the sending of the church as the apostle to the world goes to God’s very purposes: “It is not so much that God has a mission for his church in the world, but that God has a church for his mission in the world.”13
Alan Hirsch, the mission or “sentness” of a congregation is its “true and authentic organizing principle”: Missional church is a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world. In other words, the church’s true and authentic organizing principle is mission. When the church is in mission, it is the true church.14
A Church without Experts We are in uncharted terrain trying to lead dying churches into a post-Christian culture that now considers the church an optional, out of touch and irrelevant relic of the past. What do you do? If you are like me, indeed, like most people, what you do is default to what you know. You do again, what you have always done before.
We can’t see our way to a new way of being, a new response. We are growing more anxious about the decline of the church and the demise of whole religious structures. We don’t know what to do. So we keep trying harder; we keep trying our old tricks. But, of course, it doesn’t work. In Moneyball, an exasperated Billy Beane looks at his manager and tries to urge him to think differently. “It’s adapt or die!” he says. Adapt or die.
What is needed? “A spirit of adventure,” where there are new, unexpected discoveries (serendipities) and ultimately “new perceptions.” To be sure, this is an adapt-or-die moment. This is a moment when most of our backs are against the wall, and we are unsure if the church will survive to the next generation. The answer is not to try harder but to start a new adventure: to look over Lemhi Pass and let the assumptions of the past go.
*REORIENTATION* If you can adapt and adventure, you can thrive. But you must let go, learn as you go and keep going no matter what.
Back to the Pass – As he stepped off the map into uncharted territory, Meriwether Lewis discovered that what was in front of him was nothing like what was behind him, and that what had brought him to this point in the journey would take him no farther. Lewis faced a daunting decision: What would he do now? Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery were looking for a water route, but now they had run out of water. How do you canoe over mountains? You don’t. If you want to continue forward, you change. You adapt. Meriwether Lewis looked at the miles and miles of snow-covered peaks and knew that to continue his journey he would have to change his entire approach.
But what kind of leadership do we need today in a culture that has become again a mission field? What does leadership look like in a day when the moorings of society have become disconnected from the anchors of faith? What is leadership in a world where the task isn’t so much to re-mind as to encounter and engage, to proclaim and demonstrate a completely different world that is available and yet beyond awareness of or even interest to so many? What does leadership look like in a post-Christendom day when we have left behind rivers filled with the waters of shared Christian culture and are facing a new terrain marked by mountains to climb? Ironically, it looks a lot like the earliest church leadership.
The Recovery of Leadership for an Apostolic Church – In their book The Permanent Revolution, Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim recover the concept that the church—literally, “the ecclesia”—is an apostolic movement.2 Nurtured by a fivefold model of leadership (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers) found in Ephesians 4:1-16, they demonstrate that the church’s very nature is apostolic. That is, the church is the embodiment of the work of the original twelve disciples who became the first apostles, “sent” to the world, and equipping and being equipped for the sending. For Darrell Guder this is indeed the very purpose of the ecclesia, the apostolate, that is, “the formation of the witnessing communities whose purpose was to continue the witness that brought them into existence.”3
To live up to their name, local churches must be continually moving out, extending themselves into the world, being the missional, witnessing community we were called into being to be: the manifestation of God’s going into the world, crossing boundaries, proclaiming, teaching, healing, loving, serving and extending the reign of God. In short, churches need to keep adventuring or they will die. We need to press on to the uncharted territory of making traditional churches missionary churches.
Communal Transformation for Mission – At the heart of this book is the conviction that congregational leadership in a post-Christendom context is about communal transformation for mission. Christian community is not merely about connection, care and belonging. Spiritual transformation is not just about becoming more like Christ as an end in itself. In a post-Christendom world that has become a mission field right outside the sanctuary door, Christian community is about gathering and forming a people, and spiritual transformation is about both individual and corporate growth, so that they—together—participate in Christ’s mission to establish the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Leadership therefore is about the transformation of a congregation so that they, collectively, can fulfill the mission they, corporately, have been given. Every spiritual practice, including preaching, is to serve that end.
Don’t Just Fix the Problem – According to Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, adaptive leadership is not about finding the best-known or most-available fix to a problem, but instead adapting to the changing environment or circumstances so that new possibilities arise for accurately seeing, understanding and facing challenges with new actions.
Adaptive challenges, by contrast, are those that “cannot be solved with one’s existing knowledge and skills, requiring people to make a shift in their values, expectations, attitudes, or habits of behaviour.”6 These are “systemic problems with no ready answers” that arise from a changing environment and uncharted territory.7 These are challenges leaders face when the world around them changes so rapidly that the planned strategies and approaches are rendered moot. This is when the discovery of the Rocky Mountains requires us to ditch the canoes and look for new ways forward.
In this new post-Christendom era, the church leader will be less a grand orator or star figure who gathers individuals for inspiration and exhortation, and more a convener and equipper of people who together will be transformed as they participate in God’s transforming work in the world. To that end, I offer this definition of leadership: Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.
For Christian leaders today, this is the moment of truth. Are we willing to take the risks and get up the nerve to lead a big adventure? lead our people to face the challenge of a changing world? acknowledge that what is in front of us is not at all like the world where we have previously thrived? clarify and cling to our core convictions and let go of everything else that keeps us from being effective in the mission God has given us? let go of the tried and true default actions that have brought us this far? learn a new way of leading that begins with our own transformation?
While leadership in uncharted territory may or may not require us to move our families to Alaska, Jon’s advice is worth remembering. Adaptation, even adaptive leadership, begins in the nuts and bolts of surviving and thriving, in the lessons passed on by those who are a few steps down the road, in the tricks and tips of “technical competence.” Or to put it another way, unless we demonstrate that we are credible on the map, no one is going to follow us off the map.
Technical Competence – Surprisingly, transformational leadership does not begin with transformation but with competence. At the same time, many of us assume that it begins with character, that is, the personal attributes that make up a good, wise and effective leader. But in reality, the opportunity to lead usually begins with technical competence (see fig. 4.1). The best player on the team becomes the team captain. The expert, the high achiever, the most articulate, the best producer, the smartest, strongest, most attractive are, under most circumstances, tapped for leadership (King Saul immediately comes to mind).
Technical Competence, Stewardship and Credibility – Another way to say this is: Stewardship precedes leadership. Biblically, stewardship is about faithfully protecting and preserving what is most important, about growing and developing the potential of everything and everyone under one’s care. It is about faithfully discharging the duties and carrying out the responsibilities that we have been authorized to do. It is the first and most basic act of being human, the first charge given in the garden to “cultivate and keep” (Genesis 2:15).
Stewardship, therefore, is on-the-map authorization, and technical competence describes the leaders’ ability to do the job they were hired to do—to navigate the known territory—before beginning the transformational leadership process. Before Lewis and Clark asked their men to follow them beyond the Missouri River headwaters into uncharted territory, they led them upriver with both expertise and efficiency.
*REORIENTATION* Before people will follow you off the map, gain the credibility that comes from demonstrating competence on the map.
Only she really wasn’t praying for my leadership at all, she was praying for my faithful stewardship of what she held most dear, the Scriptures and our theological traditions. She was praying that amid all of the things that were changing, I would keep very clear on what wouldn’t or shouldn’t change.
Competent stewardship of souls and communities. Pastors are more than preachers. Christian leaders are not just trusted with the Scriptures; we are also entrusted with souls. And before we can lead our people into uncharted territory, they have to believe that we will spiritually protect and personally care for them along the way. To be truly credible we also have to be shepherds.
In the same way, we are to lead the people of God into the mission of God and to care for each person with the love of the tangible embrace of Christ. We are called to offer both love for people just where they are and to call and equip them to be part of the kingdom mission of Jesus in the world around them. But to be sure, people need to experience the love of God as they are led into the mission of God. If they don’t feel loved, they will likely not let anyone lead them anywhere.
Competent stewardship of teams and tasks. Technical competence for the pastor is measured not only through fidelity to the Scriptures and the spiritual tending of souls and church, but also in the ability to competently manage the organization or institution given to our charge. Pastors of congregations need to be both personal and organizational. If they are not, they likely are not pastors. Spiritual directors, certainly. Evangelists, possibly. Prophets, maybe. Pastoring involves both persons and the communities they are part of. And this is a difficult challenge indeed!
We need to make sure that when our attempts at innovation go awry it’s because we have something to learn, and not because we mishandled an otherwise good idea. Or in the indelicate words of our unofficial team motto, “We can fail, but we can’t suck.”
In the same way, leaders must demonstrate competence in fidelity to Scriptures and traditions, the nurture of souls and communities, and fruitfulness in tasks and teams of people running the work of the church in order to develop the credibility that will be necessary later when the harder work of adaptation and dealing with loss begins.
Beyond Credibility – If leaders are going to take on challenges beyond day-to-day technical ones, competence isn’t enough. Credibility built through technical competence, while crucial, is not enough either. Especially in a congregation. The change needed for a typical traditional congregation to become a missionary congregation is radical and scary indeed. To lead into uncharted territory is to reconsider the cherished narratives and assumptions, and as Ronald Heifetz reminds us, “Refashioning narratives means refashioning loyalties.”
In addition, we need to grasp just how difficult organizational transformation can be. Even if we agree that we are in an adapt-or-die (even adventure-or-die) moment, the urgency of the situation is not enough. When given that particular choice, 90 percent choose dying.7 In a study of those who were faced with exactly that choice—stop drinking or you will die, stop smoking or you will die, change your diet now or you will die, the vast majority choose to risk death.
*REORIENTATION* In uncharted territory, trust is as essential as the air we breathe. If trust is lost, the journey is over.
Building Trust – Trust must be added to credibility. Relationships must be healthy, life-giving and strong. The web of connectedness within the organization must be able to hold each other in the midst of all the chaos that comes from not knowing what is to come.
When we are experienced as congruent, trust goes up; when we are incongruent—when my words don’t match my actions—the trust level goes down. According to Osterhaus, “Trust is gained like a thermostat and lost like a light switch.”
Relational Congruence – Relational congruence is the ability to be fundamentally the same person with the same values in every relationship, in every circumstance and especially amidst every crisis. It is the internal capacity to keep promises to God, to self and to one’s relationships that consistently express one’s identity and values in spiritually and emotionally healthy ways.
As one of my clients, a former Army Ranger and West Point graduate said to me, “The mission first; the men always.”
For Christian leaders this means that ministry is not only the means to bring the gospel to the world, ministry together is how God makes a congregation into a corps that is ready to continually bring the gospel in new ways to a changing world. As missionaries who have been thrown together into unfamiliar surroundings with little more than a sense of call and commitment to each other, when we love each other and are dedicated to our mission, we change.
For Christians who have answered the call to follow the Master who also calls us friends (John 15:15) and gives us to each other as brothers and sisters (John 19:26-27), this relational congruence is even more critical. For the mission of Jesus entrusted to his followers (John 20:21) is expressed to the world through the love that the disciples have for each other (John 13:34-35).
But it is crucial to remember again that the goal of the expedition was not to build a family—it was to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Similarly, the goal of the Christian faith is not simply to become more loving community but to be a community of people who participate in God’s mission to heal the world by reestablishing his loving reign “on earth as it is in heaven.”
“So, how do you change a church’s culture?” he asked. “Sex,” I answered.
Here is the key idea: The most critical attribute a congregation must have to thrive in uncharted territory is a healthy organizational culture.
The key words in Kotter’s definition are behaviors and values. Actions form the organizational culture, and that culture—like the DNA of a body—keeps reproducing the same values and behaviors. Note again, it’s not the aspired values that shape the church culture but the actual values that produce and are expressed in actual behaviors. It’s not enough to say that “we value creativity” if every creative idea is immediately criticized. It’s not enough for a church to “be committed to evangelism” if there are no adult baptisms. In the words of Dallas Willard, “to believe something is to act as if it is true.”6 A church can say that it values hospitality, discipleship and transparency, but these become part of the DNA of the church only when they are so resiliently present that they happen automatically, by default, because all aspects of the organizational life reflexively support and reinforce them. The actual behaviors of those in authority express and shape the actual values of the organizational culture.
For missional theologian JR Woodward this “unseen culture” is more important than strategy, vision or planning in determining a congregation’s health, openness to change and missional conviction.7 A church culture built on meeting the needs of its members will struggle with implementing changes that depend on putting those self-interested needs aside. A church that has expressed its devotion to God in the beauty and majesty of its worship will unconsciously resist a new informal service where people come in casual clothes carrying cups of coffee.
Numerous organizational writers have said the same thing: “After working on strategy for 20 years, I can say this: culture will trump strategy, every time. The best strategic idea means nothing in isolation. If the strategy conflicts with how a group of people already believe, behave or make decisions it will fail.”9
Alignment Toward a Healthy Culture – JR Woodward writes, “While management acts within culture, leadership creates culture.”10 Creating a healthy culture with the capacity to experiment, innovate, take risks and adapt is one of the primary preparatory tasks of a leader. That culture creation work rests on identifying the gaps between aspired values and actual behavior, and then working with the leaders to bring every aspect of the organization into alignment with the core ideology (core values, mission, primary strategy).
Perhaps in a previous generation where a highly regulated, centralized and authoritative structure was commonplace, some could argue that shared values could be enforced through power, position or other incentives. But today a genuine culture shift requires voluntary submission to shared values. No longer will church members simply accept the values of their leaders as their own. No longer will people dutifully submit their own ideals for the sake of a group. Before leaders begin any transformational work, cultivating a healthy environment for aligned shared values to guide all decision making must be a priority. Indeed, the values must be truly shared.
John Kotter puts it this way: “How does culture change? A powerful person at the top, or a large enough group from anywhere in the organization, decides the old ways are not working, figures out a change vision, starts acting differently, and enlists others to act differently.”21
Love – We protect what we cherish. Love drives us to hold on to what is dear and cling to what gives us meaning and life. But it is also because of love that we are willing to change. It is a great paradox that love is not only the key to establishing and maintaining a healthy culture but is also the critical ingredient for changing a culture. Which takes us back to my answer to my colleague John, who was eating chips and salsa. How do we change the culture of a church? What if the default way of functioning is one of self-preservation? What if the behaviors of the leaders have created a culture of entitlement rather than discipleship? What if the church culture is focused on preserving American Christendom or worse? When the church’s default behavior, way of functioning, its organizational DNA is now hindering the very thing that must be done to fulfill the mission God has given us, how do we change it? And if “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” then how do we change the culture before we are eaten alive? Well, how do we change any DNA? Through sex. You have to birth something new.
Ronald Heifetz said, “You don’t change by looking in the mirror; you change by encountering differences.”24 To be sure, fear of differences can keep us resolutely committed to the status quo, to rejecting what seems foreign and to circling the wagons to keep out the intruder.
I looked at him and said it again. “You change the DNA of any living organism through birthing something new. The new birth won’t be all you or all them but a new creation, a new living culture that is a combination of the past and the future you represent. But you have to communicate that you really love them, or they will never let you close enough to them to take in the different perspective, experiences and vision that you bring. Right now, they know you are disappointed in them, and they don’t want to do anything but resist you. But seeing and embracing differences, if we know that we are loved and cherished just as we are, is also the way that we become open to the new possibilities. Love precedes change.”
The most critical attribute that a congregation must have if it is going to thrive in uncharted territory is a healthy organizational culture. When leaders are perceived as technically competent, they gain credibility in the eyes of their followers. When they are perceived as relationally congruent, trust is established. When credibility and trust are mobilized to create a healthy organizational culture, then we are ready to embrace the thrilling and daunting task of entering uncharted territory.
Adaptive Leadership: Loss, Learning and Gaps – Adaptive leadership is about “letting go, learning as we go, and keeping going.” It’s about loss, learning and gaps: “Adaptive leadership consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face.”4
This mode of leading raises up and sheds light on the competing values that keep a group stuck in the status quo. For churches, competing values like caring for longtime members versus reaching out to the unchurched, assuring excellence in ministry programming versus increasing participation with more volunteers, giving pay raises to staff versus bringing on a new hire, assuring control and unity versus collaboration and innovation entail conflict about things of equal or near equal value. Because they are both valued, the competition for resources and the decisions that need to be made can put individuals and congregations into a most vulnerable moment. Like a person with one foot on the platform and one in the train, the moment of adaptation exposes the gaps within a system and forces the leadership to ask painful questions: What will we lose if we have to choose one of these values over the other? What must we be willing to let go?
Adaptive Capacity – Adaptive capacity is defined by Heifetz, Linsky and Grashow as “the resilience of people and the capacity of systems to engage in problem-defining and problem-solving work in the midst of adaptive pressures and the resulting disequilibrium.”5
I looked back at the others, and while some still thought it was something we should do, they agreed it didn’t help kids feel more connected. Indeed, we had been doing it and we still have the problem of teenagers not feeling part of the church community. Youth Sunday hadn’t worked after all. So, I asked, “If we knew that Youth Sunday hadn’t worked to help teenagers feel more connected to the church, why did we suggest it?” After talking about it a while we came to the conclusion that we were talking about it, because it was the only thing we knew how to do.
But I’m trying to point out that when we get to moments of deep disorientation, we often try to reorient around old ways of doing things. We go back to what we know how to do. We keep canoeing even though there is no river. At least part of the reason we do this is because we resolutely hope that the future will be like the past and that we already have the expertise needed for what is in front of us. And facing the “geography of reality” and the inner uncertainty that arises within us is extremely difficult.
*REORIENTATION* When our old maps fail us, something within us dies. Replacing our paradigms is both deeply painful and absolutely critical.
Lewis exemplified what happens to most of us when we are confronting rapidly changing circumstances: even though the evidence is around us, we cling to the previously held assumptions as long as possible. Now, to his credit and as an exemplar for us, Meriwether Lewis wasted no time in casting off that assumption once the brutal facts of his situation were clear.7 There was no water route, there were miles and miles of snowcapped mountain peaks in front of them, they had no trail to follow, food was scarce in this rugged terrain and winter was coming. This is the canoeing the mountains moment. This was when the Corps of Discovery faced for the first time the breadth of the challenges posed by the Rocky Mountains and came to the irrefutable reality that there was no Northwest Passage, no navigable water route to the Pacific Ocean. This is the moment when they had to leave their boats, find horses and make the giant adaptive shift that comes from realizing their mental models for the terrain in front of them were wrong.
Recommitment to Core Ideology – First, by continuing on, they recommitted to their core ideology. At the core of adaptive work is clarifying what is precious, elemental—even essential—to the identity of an organization. The core ideology of any group functions as both a charter and an identity statement. This is who we are, we say. If we stop being about this, we stop being.
For church leaders, moments of disequilibrium like Lewis and his party faced at the top of the Continental Divide certainly bring our own motivations into focus: What are we really called to? Is it just to professional success or personal security? Is it merely to get more people in the church pews and dollars in the offering plates so our congregations can keep offering religious services to those who desire them? Is church leadership nothing more than an exercise in institutional survival? Or isn’t there a higher purpose, a set of guiding principles, a clear compilation of core values that are more about being a community of people who exist to extend God’s loving and just reign and rule in all the earth? This moment forces us to face and clarify our own core beliefs. And for each organization, this facing-the-unknown moment asks us particular questions we need to answer honestly together: Why do we exist as a congregation, institution or organization? What would be lost in our community, in our field or in our world if we ceased to be? What purposes and principles must we protect as central to our identity? What are we willing to let go of so the mission will continue?
Reframing Strategy – They reframed their strategy. With a recommitment to core ideology (values and mission) there is a critical moment to reframe the strategy for the mission at hand. In adaptive leadership, reframing is another way of talking about the shift in values, expectations, attitudes or habits of behavior necessary to face our most difficult challenges. It is a way of looking at the challenge before us through a different lens and in seeing it differently finding the possibilities for a new way of being and leading.13
New Learning They relied on new learning. At the heart of adaptive leadership is learning. To put it bluntly, if you are not learning anything new, it is not adaptive work. It might be a good, necessary, wise, even vital strategy. But if your group is addressing a new challenge with an old solution, relying on a best practice or implementing the plan of a resident expert, then the solution is a technical one, not adaptive.
In moments of uncertainty and disorientation, leaders own internal adaptations; that is, the work that leaders themselves have to do to clarify their own motives, identity and mission is the necessary precursor to the work that the entire community will have to do. When a leader and a people together resist the anxiety that would lead to throwing in the towel or relying on the quick fix, but instead look more deeply—recommitting to core values, reframing strategy and relying on learning—this enables them to gain the just-in-time experience necessary to keep the expedition going.
At the heart of adaptive leadership for the church is this conviction: The church is the body of Christ. It is a living organism, a vibrant system. And just like human bodies, human organizations thrive when they are cooperating with the wisdom of God for how that system is designed, how it grows and how it adapts to changing external environments.
This is what adaptive leadership is all about: hanging on to the healthiest, most valuable parts of our identity in life and letting go of those things that hinder us from living and loving well.
*REORIENTATION* In a Christendom world, vision was about seeing possibilities ahead and communicating excitement. In uncharted territory—where no one knows what’s ahead—vision is about accurately seeing ourselves and defining reality.
Leadership Vision – Every book on leadership talks about vision. Leaders, it is assumed, are visionaries who have the unique ability to see past the horizon, to see the future coming before anyone else and prepare the organization to meet that challenge. That is surely a valuable ability. But leadership vision is often more about seeing clearly what is even more than what will be. As the former CEO and leadership author Max De Pree has famously written, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”1
This system definition is assumed in the working definition of leadership we are using here: Energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.
The church is not a collective but a communion. A local congregation is not just a collection of individual people but also the love, commitment, values and mission they share. A healthy church, like any healthy living thing, is always defined by the nature, quality and behaviors of the relationships.
For a church this means that when the members, the relationships and the mission of the church are aligned and working symbiotically toward a shared purpose, the church functions well. People are both loved (relationship) and challenged (purpose). There is both a commitment to depth and authenticity (relationship) and space to welcome new people (purpose). There is an ability to accept people as they are (relationship) and to be continually transformed into the likeness of Christ (purpose). There is a deep desire to enjoy life together (relationships) and use our resources and energy to serve others (purpose). Relationship and purpose are expressed in as wide a variety of ways as the diversity of the people (the elements) that make up the system.
Because every church has a different DNA code, Ronald Heifetz suggests that at the heart of any adaptive work are three key questions church leaders need to wrestle with together:12 What DNA is essential and must be preserved? What, in the words of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, “must never change”? What are the key elements of our theology, tradition, ministry practices and organizational culture that must be maintained at all costs because to lose them would be to lose our identity? Just as we discussed in chapter seven, for Lewis and Clark, water route was not as essential as discovery, and for churches, before we consider changing or adapting anything, we must first determine what is truly sacred. What DNA can be discarded? What elements of our church life, while important to us, are not essential? What can we stop doing or let die so we can free resources and energy for new forms of ministry? What do we need to celebrate for the impact it made in another day or circumstance that has outlived its usefulness? Or what do we need to set aside because there is no energy for or interest in it any longer? As we will discuss at length, this is the critical issue. “People don’t resist change, per se. They resist loss,” Heifetz and Linsky remind us.13 What DNA needs to be created through experimentation? What essential part of the church’s identity and mission needs to be adapted to a new day, environment or opportunity? How can the church keep doing the things it is called to do, but in a way that resonates, connects, serves and challenges people who wouldn’t otherwise pay it any attention? What potential healthy partners will create the possibilities of birthing something new?
Declining Attendance and an Anxious, Adaptive Moment – There is nothing that freaks out a pastor like declining attendance numbers. While most of us try hard not to show it, when the Sunday morning crowds thin out, we take it personally. When we look at the attendance reports and see the decrease, it is tempting to make excuses, blame other factors or just deny it entirely.3 If we do acknowledge the decline, we want to jump right in and turn it around. There is nothing that screams for a quick fix like less people in the pew (unless it’s decreased giving too).
Immediately, in the brainstorming session, elders and staff started suggesting strategies for dealing with decline. We should offer a more practical sermon series. The one you are doing now is pretty heady. We should get the kids more involved, let’s put together a new kid’s choir. We could do some better marketing. And so on. We did what most people do when faced with an anxiety-producing problem: we try to fix it as quickly as possible.
It’s All About the Process – The first component of developing adaptive capacity is to realize that it’s a process of learning and adapting to fulfill a missional purpose, not to fix the immediate issues. For Heifetz, adaptive leadership tries to look behind what might be a symptom to bring health and growth to the larger system. In this way, adaptive leadership is different from what I call “directional leadership.” Directional leadership offers direction and advice based on experience and expertise, while adaptive leadership functions in an arena where there is little experience and often no expertise.
Adaptive leadership, again, is about leading the learning process of a group who must develop new beliefs, habits or values, or shift their current ones in order to find new solutions that are consistent with their purpose for being.
Heifetz, Linsky and Grashow describe it this way: Adaptive leadership is an iterative process involving three key activities: (1) observing events and patterns around you; (2) interpreting what you are observing (developing multiple hypotheses about what is really going on); and (3) designing interventions based on the observations and interpretations to address the adaptive challenge you have identified.5
Observations – Observations are the data points for understanding a system. When a leadership team is on the balcony, their first task is to get as many different observations that are as objective as possible about the situation. In the observation stage, therefore, the group must intentionally withhold interpretations or interventions in order to gather as much data as possible.
The National Football League uses a video system called “All-22” for all professional football games. It’s a video system that records the entire game from overhead so that all twenty-two offensive and defensive players on the field are in view in any one play (or shot). It is standard for coaching and strategizing practices. Teams use it to take snapshots throughout the game and even fax pictures to the sidelines so coaches and players can get a broader perspective of what they can’t see while on the field.
*REORIENTATION* Leadership in the past meant coming up with solutions. Today it is learning how to ask new questions that we have been too scared, too busy or too proud to ask.
In autumn 2012, when our attendance did not come back from the usual summer slump, we decided to resist the temptation to either deny the problem or default to previous strategies, and instead made a plan to get as much perspective as possible. We decided to interview a cross-section of people we hadn’t seen in worship in at least three months, asking every elder, deacon and staff person to identify three people they knew well who they also hadn’t seen in church since the following spring. They asked their friends three questions: When were you most excited or felt the sense of deepest connection to our church? What was happening during that time in your life and in the life of our church? What has changed in your life or in the church since then that may have affected your sense of connection or excitement about our church? What is one wish/hope/dream you have for the future of our church?9 Note that none of these questions asked why they weren’t in worship, but tried to get bigger observations to serve as data points. Each interviewer wrote down the answers and then sent them on to one of the elders who collected and collated the responses for presentation the following month.
Listen to the songs beneath the words. In the interpretation stage we look for patterns we wouldn’t normally notice.
Very often I ask my coaching clients to consider the question, What is the song behind the words that is keeping us all dancing? In other words, what deeper tune of the church is getting played in this circumstance? What is going on in this situation that nobody is talking about but is affecting the whole system of the church?
Because of the gap between cause and effect, it is difficult to diagnose the true underlying causes of most problems.
We discovered that we didn’t need so much to attend to our worship as to our web of connections. We needed to focus our attention not on how to increase Sunday morning attendance but on how to strengthen and increase more points of connection for people, which would enable us to better pastor people through life transitions.12
Protect the minority voices. “People don’t learn by staring into a mirror; people learn by encountering difference,” observes Ron Heifetz.13 The interpretation step is only productive if there is freedom to explore as many different interpretations as possible, and especially the opportunity to hear from usually ignored voices.
David McRaney, author of the book and the blog You Are Not So Smart, writes about “survivorship bias,” that is, the tendency to look only at the “survivors” or “stories of success” and draw conclusions about reality.14
When they examined the planes, they discovered that they were shot up most on the bottom of the plane, on the wings and near the tail gunner. So, the engineers made preparations for putting more armor there. But one statistician, Abraham Wald, challenged the underlying assumption by pointing out that the planes they were studying were the survivors—these are the planes that were not shot down. In other words, Wald said, this is exactly where we should not put more armor—a plane can survive even if shot up in the bottom, wings and near the tail gunner. So they needed to look at other areas of the plane to reinforce. Through several tests they discovered that adding more armor to the ailerons, engine, stabilizers and around the pilot made the planes safer. Only listening to a different interpretation allowed them to find the right solution.
Raise up competing values. Any musician (and I am not) knows that harmonies in music are made up of concurrent concordant and discordant notes that sound in tension with each other and finally come to a resolution. That simultaneous tension of silence and sound, of notes that blend well and those that are related but different create the music that fills the ear and the heart.
The final piece of the interpretation lens is to begin to raise up these values for discussion and consideration. Some common competing values dilemmas are Do we serve our longtime church members who pay the bills, or do we innovate to reach new people and risk angering the stakeholders? Do we have a mostly professional staff that provides excellence in ministry program, or do we want a strong, involved laity to use their gifts? Do we want a centralized organization unified around clear objectives, or do we want a more creative, collaborative system that is nimble, innovative and able to experiment with new ideas?
Innovative interventions will always be resisted. Most of us don’t come to church to experiment. Even the idea of experiments raises anxiety. Most of the time the system will be inclined to shut down any experiments before they even begin. Growth, transformation and adaptation always means loss. Change is loss. And even experimental changes signal loud and clear that change—and loss—is coming.
The leaders of one of my church clients did a careful and lengthy study of observations and interventions that led the church to experiment with a contemporary blended worship service in their main sanctuary. They were not going to disrupt traditions of the choir and hymns, the traditional service; they merely were going to add an additional service led by a band to see what happened.
When they installed some new drums in the sanctuary, a number of members of the congregation balked. The pastor assured them that they would not play the drums in the most traditional service. They just needed them available for the contemporary service. Still the members of the traditional service complained: they didn’t even want to look at the drums, let alone hear them.
“Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb,” write Heifetz and Linsky.1 This painful truth brings us to the heart of the necessary adaptive capacity to lead transformational change in uncharted territory. Disappointing people “at a rate they can absorb” is a skill that requires nuance: Disappoint people too much and they give up on you, stop following you and may even turn on you. Don’t disappoint them enough and you’ll never lead them anywhere.
Leadership isn’t so much skillfully helping a group accomplish what they want to do (that is management). Leadership is taking people where they need to go and yet resist going. Leadership, as I have defined it, is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.
Transformational leadership is always a two-front battle: On one side is the challenge of a changing world, unfamiliar terrain and the test of finding new interventions that will enable the mission to move forward in a fruitful and faithful way. On the other side is the community that resists the change necessary for its survival. If adaptive leadership is “enabling a people to grow so they can face their greatest challenges and thrive,” then it is crucial to acknowledge that a significant part of the greatest challenge is internal. Deftly handling resistance and the disappointment that comes along with it so a community of people can accomplish a goal for the greater good is the core capacity of adaptive leadership.
The answer was for me—and my leaders—to develop the adaptive capacity that comes from living out a core, clarifying conviction: The mission trumps. Always. Every time. In every conflict. Not the pastor. Not the members of the church who pay the bills. Not those who scream the loudest or who are most in pain. No. In a healthy Christian ministry, the mission wins every argument.
The focused, shared, missional purpose of the church or organization will trump every other competing value. It’s more important than my preferences or personal desire. It’s more critical than my leadership style, experience or past success. It’s the grid by which we evaluate every other element in the church. It’s the criterion for determining how we will spend our money, who we will hire and fire, which ministries we will start and which ones we will shut down. It’s the tiebreaker in every argument and the principle by which we evaluate every decision we make. Denominational affiliation? Mission partnerships? Financial commitments? Staff decisions? Worship styles? The key question is: Does it further our mission? The mission trumps all.
A mission statement serves the same purpose in a healthy organization. The one in power doesn’t win every conversation: the mission trumps.
If the mission trumps all, then a leader must develop the clarity and conviction to live out that mission no matter the circumstance, no matter whether the challenge comes from the context or the very community we serve.
The emotional processes, ways of relating and being, decision making, symbols, values and other parts of the organizational culture (see chap. 6) naturally work together to keep things the same. The church leadership who calls a young pastor to reach young families thwarts every new initiative. The evangelistic pastor who attracts outsiders to the church is accused of not caring for the church membership. The preacher who was called to bring intellectual depth is chided that she should tell more stories and offer more practical teaching. The elder board that commits to a new vision for ministering to their neighbors will place all the plans on hold in order to attend to denominational issues that have simmered for generations. This is normal.
In this and the following three chapters we’ll look at it clause by clause. It’s that important. I encourage you to commit it to memory. Write it on a Post-it note and put it on your bathroom mirror. Make it your screensaver on your computer. And say it to yourself over and over again: Start with conviction, stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.4
Start with Conviction – The first question about leading into uncharted territory is not about change but about what will not change. First we determine what is precious, what is worth keeping no matter the circumstances, what will never change, what is the core ideology of the church. Conviction is the core ideology in action.
Every conflict raises the question: Are we clear on and committed to our mission?
*REORIENTATION* There is perhaps no greater responsibility and no greater gift that leadership can give a group of people on a mission than to have the clearest, most defined mission possible.
Because the mission is what matters. The mission trumps. Even more than whether our stakeholders like it, our mission demands that we make decisions based on conviction.
The purpose of the commander’s intent is to empower subordinates to be able to achieve the goals of the mission if the circumstances change and they need to adapt.5 If you tell a group of Marines, “Take the enemy airfield,” that is a very different commander’s intent than “Take the enemy airfield so we can use it ourselves.” The commander’s intent clarifies the goal so that all strategies and tactics (Should we blow up the air traffic control room or not?) can be evaluated.
The mission, when enacted and owned, becomes a conviction that holds and changes us. It is a simple, clear, almost humble statement of the reason we as a congregation believe we are occupying the bit of real estate God has given us at this moment of history.
Getting Clear on Conviction – Before acting on a conviction we actually have to have a conviction. And this takes time. It is the result of study, conversation, humility and discernment. It is formed through processes of self-observation, self-reflection and shared aspirations. Jim Collins describes this mission-statement conviction as a Hedgehog Concept made up of the intersection of three elements: What are we passionate about? What are we constantly talking about, praying about, involved in and concerned about? In the words of Jim Collins, “Nothing great can happen without beginning first with passion.” What do we have the potential to do better than anyone else? Collins says that this is an awareness of self, not aspirations or hopes. It is the humble and clear perspective about the particular value we as a church, organization or ministry have to offer our community or the larger world. It is a statement of uniqueness, not arrogance; a statement of the distinctive contribution we are equipped to make in God’s work in the world. What will pay the bills? What drives our economic or resource engine? What helps us continually create the resources that will keep us going? What brings us partners, money, opportunities and the talent we need to continue our work?6
Mulago requires grant applicants to write a simple proposal with an eight-word mission statement.7 The statement must be in this format: verb, target, outcome. And it can use only eight words.
The Leader’s Mission Within the Mission – For the leader navigating this two-front battle, he or she must have clear convictions about his or her call and purpose. To be blunt: The leader in the system is committed to the mission when no one else is. For the leader the mission always trumps. Again, this is hard.
Another conversation in my office. This time it was an older couple who were new to the church. They were registered for our next new members’ class, but after hearing from some concerned friends about how liberal Presbyterians are, they thought they’d ask me some questions. They told me they had been leaders in three well-known megachurches, but after a falling-out with the pastor they had been without a church home for several months. They started listening to a Presbyterian pastor via podcast and were so impressed they decided to check out our church (even though they had never dreamt of being part of a mainline church). They loved our church. They told me they loved our emphasis on discipleship, reaching out to the unchurched, and proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom to those who hadn’t accepted the good news. Everything they heard resonated with their hearts, and they decided to join. When they told a friend what they were intending to do, he cautioned them because of what he read in the papers. So, they came to see me. I found out that the Presbyterian pastor they had heard on the podcast was Tim Keller, and I explained that he was part of a different Presbyterian denomination. They had only recently learned that there was not only the Presbyterian Church (USA), our denomination, but others they thought they’d be more comfortable joining. I said to them, “You have heard me talk about our mission to proclaim the kingdom of God to the unchurched. Do you think the people we are trying to reach care what denomination we are in?” They responded, “No, not at all.” “So,” I said, “The mission trumps. As long as we can fulfill our mission, we are not going to spend time or energy on denominational worries. For us, it’s all about the mission.” “But Tod,” the wife chimed in, “the people you are trying to reach don’t care about denominational labels, but people like us do. If you want people like us to join your church, you may want to consider switching denominations.” I looked them and said softly but firmly. “You are not our mission.”
I said it again. “You are not our mission. Our mission is to be a community of disciples who proclaim and demonstrate the good news in every sector of society. We want to reach people for Jesus Christ. Our mission is not to help Christians move from one church to our church. You are not our mission. But . . . I think God brought you here so that you would join our mission. You have a heart for the unchurched and desire to see people come to know Christ and experience his reign and grace in their lives. All you have heard has resonated with you, and you have already begun new ministries here. No, you are not our mission, but I think God is calling you to join us in fulfilling our mission.” The husband looked at his wife. “Honey, I think we’re Presbyterians.” They joined our church in the next class.
The first step in adaptive change is “start with missional conviction”; the second is to “stay calm.” For the leader it is critical to monitor our own emotional reactivity when the anxiety within the church rises. The calm leader is self-aware, committed to the mission (the mission trumps) and focuses on his or her own self in the transformation process.
*REORIENTATION* When dealing with managing the present, win-win solutions are the goal. But when leading adaptive change, win-win is usually lose-lose.
But when we enter the realm of adaptive work—working in uncharted territory—win-win often becomes lose-lose. Transformational leadership and the adaptive change necessary requires us to go beyond win-win to make hard, oftentimes forced choices. When we are faced with limited resources and a new experiment we can’t squeeze into the budget, a choice has to be made: Either the existing programs are going to lose some of their resources or the new experiment will go unfunded.
Heifetz and Linsky inform us that people do not resist change, per se. People resist loss. You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity and passion a promising future of progress and gain, people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain. 2
Transformational leadership, therefore, equips people to make hard choices regarding the values keeping them from the growth and transformation necessary to see in a new way and discover new interventions to address the challenges they are facing. And this is done with values that are valuable. Systems theory reminds us that “today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.”3 This means that the program, ministry, staff person, principle, action or activity in danger of being lost was at one time of great value.
Crockpot Leadership – Imagine you are cooking a meal for a big, hungry family. You decide to make a stew in a Crock-Pot. You get raw meat, hard vegetables, some stock and seasoning. You put it in the Crock-Pot, and with enough time at the right temperature you get a feast. But if the temperature is too high, the meal gets burned; too low and even though a long time has gone by, all you have is hard vegetables and raw meat.
A leader’s job is to regulate the heat. The leader is like the thermostat on the Crock-Pot, keeping enough heat in the system so things begin to change, but not enough that individual parts get scorched.
The Heat of Urgency – There are two forms of heat for bringing transformation: urgency and anxiety.
Instead of patiently waiting for a widespread and true urgency, most leaders settle for the false urgency of attending to the most urgent issue or the one that has the most people in an uproar. Whenever the urgent pushes out the important, we fall into the trap of feeling as if we are busy accomplishing something while we are running on a treadmill—getting exhausted but not going anywhere.6
True urgency, on the other hand, is centered on the passion and vision that comes from developing a clear conviction and mission. It is the urgency of seeing both the reality of the moment and the opportunity God has given.
When we keep our deepest purpose/mission/vision as our true urgency, it should not wax and wane; it should remain the central root of urgency around which we regulate the heat of peripheral issues.
I also often coach my pastor clients to give a yearly “I Have a Dream” sermon in order to keep raising the urgency in the congregation.8 It’s important that the sermon is not shaming or demanding. It’s not a presumptuous “God told me this to tell you” or “this should be your dream” or even “an expert told me that this should be our dream” sermon. Instead this is an honest and very personal sharing of hopes and visions.
The Heat of Anxiety: Is That a Lion or Not? – In the harsh midsummer African heat, a herd of impala finds an increasingly rare water hole. They rush to drink, crowding in, fearful of not getting enough water to sustain them. Suddenly, one impala raises his head in high alert. Immediately every other impala stops drinking and stands at attention. No impala moves, none utter a sound.
If there is a lion and they do run, or if there is no lion and they don’t run, they live another day. But all that matters is: Is that a lion or not?
For leaders the point of calming down is not to feel better; it’s to make better decisions. It’s to make the best decisions for furthering the mission. When people are too hot, they don’t. The only issue is: Is there a lion or not? Is there a threat, or are we making this up? Is this true urgency or false urgency? Do we need to run, or should we stay here, get water and then calmly continue our journey?
For leaders this is the point to remember about anxiety: People who are overly or chronically anxious don’t make good decisions. When anxiety spikes we revert to more primitive ways of being. We fight, we flee, we freeze. We run from danger and leave others to face the lions alone. Or we capitulate and allow the herd to be overrun. We turn on each other instead of working together. We jump to quick fixes; we look for technical solutions to adaptive issues. Transformational leadership is built on leaders making good, wise, discerning decisions for the sake of both the health and the mission of the community—decisions that reinforce the missional conviction—and this requires leaders who are able to stay calm.
Stay Calm – What does it mean to stay calm? That we become a Mr. Spock-like Vulcan with no emotions and complete rationality? No. That would be impossible. To stay calm is to be so aware of yourself that your response to the situation is not to the anxiety of the people around you but to the actual issue at hand. Staying calm means so attending to our own internal anxiety in the heat of a challenging moment and the resistance around us that we are not tempted to either cool it down to escape the heat (thus aborting the change process) or to react emotionally, adding more fuel to the fire and scorching the stew we are trying to cook.
Osterhaus and his colleagues help us understand that the best decisions come out of the Blue Zone. Blue Zone is about serving the mission. Blue Zone decisions are marked by consistency and are focused on effectiveness. In the Blue Zone the mission trumps. But most of the time, when the heat is on, if we are not deliberately conscious to do otherwise, we will operate out of the Red Zone of high emotional reactivity based on one or more of four core issues: survival, acceptance, competence and control. Each person is different, and each person must negotiate different Red Zone issues.
But It’s Cool to Lose Your Cool, Right? – Some of us may be recalling great illustrations of passionate and prophetic leaders who lose their cool. Didn’t Jesus drive out the money changers? Don’t the prophets rail out in condemnation? Doesn’t that turn up the heat? From the 1970s movie Network to so much political discourse today, we assume that if change is going to come, somebody is going to have stand up and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Most of the time when things get heated, people get scorched. The meal is ruined and most is thrown out of the Crock-Pot. The community stops following and starts fighting or fleeing.
Anxious people scurry to quick fixes and work avoidance. But when the leader stays calm enough internally to attend to and regulate the heat of chronic anxiety so that it is instead the clear blue flame of urgency and mission, then transformation can occur.
How do you Regulate the Heat? – This is the delicate work of adaptive leadership. We need our people feeling the urgency and healthy anxiety enough to overcome complacency and move. At the same time we need our people to calm down enough to get beyond technical fixes, false urgency and work-avoidance scrambling. If the system is too cool and needs more heated urgency to change, then the leader’s own heat (passion, truth-telling, conviction, actions) begins to get things cooking. But when the system gets too hot and people are in danger of burning each other or bailing out of the change process, the very presence of a calm, connected leader cools the system down so people can tolerate staying on course.
In his book Just Listen: The Secret of Getting Through to Everyone, Mark Goulston recommends a simple process of self-talk that literally slows the brain processes down. It begins by acknowledging the anxious, angry or fearful feelings and breathing slowly until your heart rate comes down and you are able to hear and respond instead of lash out reactively.
All I want is for my presence to turn the anxiety thermostat down one click on the dial so we can focus on the urgency of our mission. Peter Steinke notes, “The leader’s ‘presence’ can have a calming influence on reactive behavior. Rather than reacting to the reactivity of others, leaders with self-composure and self-awareness both exhibit and elicit a more thoughtful response.”15
When a leader with conviction can stay calm amid the losses and reactivity of a congregation, then thoughtful, Blue Zone, “it’s all about the mission” decisions are possible. But sometimes being calm is not enough. So, what do we do when the others around us choose to fight or flee because of their Red Zone issues? The opposite of what our human nature does reflexively: we draw closer.
The Church and the Wheelchair – Hal is blind. Gus is an amputee confined to a wheelchair. Alone they would each be what we sometimes call shut-ins. Octogenarians both, they don’t get around very easily on their own. When they come to worship services at SCPC, Hal pushes Gus and Gus directs Hal. They make their way through the parking lot and the patio to their place together in the pew. Gus sits in his wheelchair and gives direction, Hal pushes the wheelchair and follows Gus’s lead, and together they get to where they want to go. And together, and only together, they come to church.
Why is it so difficult for the great idea to become embedded in the culture of the institution? Why does a new missional conviction so rarely become the new way of being, the new strategy for acting, the new normal? Why do so many innovations get stopped before they can be tried as an experiment? This is the demoralizing frustration for so many leaders.
If, as I define it, leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world, then leadership is always relational. It is focused on a community of people who exist to accomplish a shared mission. So, while we start with a missional conviction and regulate the heat by staying calm and focusing on our own self-awareness and personal responsibility, organizational transformation cannot be accomplished through the efforts of one person, no matter how gifted. So, in addition to “start with conviction and stay calm” we add stay connected. Which leads us to the next key principle of adaptive leadership. After finding a missional conviction and regulating the heat, to bring change we must enact relationally.
But human nature being what it is, it’s more effective in a change process for a leader to think not only of one team but six. Six different teams that reflect the different kinds of relationships a leader must attend to in order to bring transformation to the whole organizational system.6
1. Allies. An ally is anyone who is convinced of the mission and is committed to seeing it fulfilled. In this sense, allies are inside the system, taking part of the change process with a stake in it and aligned and in agreement—at least for the moment—with the adaptive changes the leader is attempting to bring.7
2. Confidants. To be a confidant, a person must care more about you than they do about the mission of the organization. Therefore, healthy confidants are usually those outside the system who can give you honest feedback about yourself as a leader in the system. Being a confidant is usually most comfortable and healthy for our friends and family.
3. Opponents. Potential opponents are stakeholders who have markedly different perspectives from yours and who risk losing the most if you and your initiative go forward. Let’s be clear here, if you are leading a change process, opponents are not your enemies in much the same way that allies are not necessarily your friends. Opponents are nothing more and nothing less than those who are against the particular change initiative.
4. Senior authorities. As I have said from the outset, leadership is not the same thing as authority. Authority is your role, your position of formal power, but leadership is a way of functioning. Very often the leader in uncharted territory is not the authorized leader but someone tasked to explore the new terrain. Remember, it wasn’t Commander in Chief Jefferson who crossed the Continental Divide, but two captains.
5. Casualties. In any transformational leadership effort there will be casualties. You can’t go into uncharted territory without risk. Even Lewis and Clark had to bury one of their men along the way. If a leader is “the person in the system who is not blaming anyone,” then the leader is also the one who assumes the responsibility for these inevitable casualties.8 As change initiatives are being proposed, don’t whitewash the losses. Acknowledge them.
6. Dissenters. In true adaptive change there are no unanimous votes. Someone, usually a significant number of people, will say no, no matter what. These voices of dissent are extremely important at every step of the way. The early naysayers are the canaries in the coal mine. They will help you see how opposition will take form and will raise the arguments that eventually will come to full volume.
Every visionary leader needs both a group to keep attending to the necessary work and a team to lead the transformation of the organizational culture. And while they may be one and the same in some circumstances, a great idea needs at least two groups of people to see it through: the maintaining mission group and the transformation team.
The maintaining mission group. The maintaining mission group has to be committed to giving safety, time, space, protection and resources to the project. At first, they don’t need to actually do anything except not create obstacles and not sabotage the change process (a big task, in itself!). At best, they actively voice support, keep a steady hand at the wheel and monitor the inevitable anxiety.
*REORIENTATION* In a Christendom world, visionary management usually comes from the board of directors. In the uncharted world of post-Christendom transformation, leadership will more likely come from a small Corps of Discovery who serve as a transformation team while the board manages the health of the organization currently.
The transformation team. The transformation team is akin to what John Kotter calls a “Guiding Coalition.”11 This group will add effort to the inspiration. They are going to do the work of listening, learning, attempting and, yes, failing. (Remember how many early attempts at building rockets flamed out on the launch pad?) This team needs to be innovative and persistent, cohesive and communicative.
For most leaders I know, and especially for pastors, all of this discussion of the different relationships certainly doesn’t sound like good news. While most of us are good at personally relating to people (praying, teaching, counseling), most of us have not been trained in organizational relationship skills.
Our theology affirms that leadership is a shared task, and the church is meant to be both a safe environment for protecting the community and a group willing to lay down their lives for the vision of God’s kingdom come to earth.
1. Give the work back to the people who most care about it. Are you the only one losing sleep over the challenges you face? Then you need to raise the urgency with a broader coalition of people. When a group of people bring a complaint, don’t jump to fix it but instead engage those who raised the complaint in the process of transformation.
2. Engage the mature and motivated. Let’s face it, most of our work (especially for pastors) is putting out fires, dealing with the resistant, attending to the cranky and trying to appease the complainers. These are part of our work and are indeed the people to whom we are called. But when it’s time to lead on, more and more of your energy must be invested in those who are motivated to grow and take responsibility for themselves.
3. Stay connected to your critics. From The Godfather we learned to “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” but that was for self-protection. In this case that great advice is a way to keep trying to turn enemies into friends (not through accommodation but through influence). This is the essence of what it means to “stay connected.”
We tell ourselves that if we don’t back down we’ll do something in anger that we’ll regret. So we do nothing instead. Face-to-face conversations become quick voicemails, phone calls turn into emails, and discussions over lunch become formal letters. After a while, because we are so afraid of the heat, thick walls of ice rise up around us, and while we may be able to see the subjects of our conflicts, we can’t hear or touch them. But when we lose connection, we lose the opportunity to keep gently influencing the system for good. We need at least a light touch on the wheel to steer the car toward the destination of our convictions.
So what is a leader to do? Stay connected. Keep contact. Close the distance with word and touch. When someone writes me an angry email, I call them at home. When someone sends a formal letter of complaint, I invite them for coffee. When people start getting upset, I call a meeting and invite them to talk. The more heated the situation, the closer I want to get to it. Believe me, this is hard. I’m no different than anyone else.
4. Expect sabotage. Which is where we turn next.
So, when we came to the General Assembly, how many of those same leaders who had affirmed our work all along the way made public statements of support? Zero. How many asked to testify to the oversight committee? Zero. How many of those who had hugged me in the hall did anything at all to support its passage? Zero. When I asked for public statements to counter the resistance, one person after another told me that the word had come down from “on high” that they couldn’t be seen “taking sides” in what was a controversial debate. The whole proposal was soundly rejected with the most benign part referred to a committee for further study.
That is the rub, isn’t it? It’s one thing to disappoint and anger the other side, but another thing entirely to endure friendly fire.
Even Lewis and Clark faced their own challenge with sabotage.
If the change process is “start with conviction, stay connected, stay calm and stay the course,” then when you are focused on “staying the course,” expect that it is “your own people” who are going to try to knock you off course. And the key to staying the course is wisely and calmly responding to sabotage. Note the verb here: not reacting, but responding.
Sabotage is natural. It’s normal. It’s part and parcel of the systemic process of leadership. Saboteurs are usually doing nothing but unconsciously supporting the status quo. They are protecting the system and keeping it in place. They are preserving something dear to them. If every system is “perfectly designed for the results we are getting,” it became clear to me that our denominational system exists for institutional self-preservation.
Many who sabotage you will even claim that they are doing you a favor by doing so. Friedman describes these “peace-mongers” as “highly anxious risk-avoiders” who are “more concerned with good feelings than progress” and consistently prefer the peaceful status quo over the turbulence of change—even if change is necessary.
*REORIENTATION* When on the map, leaders could assume that once an affirmative vote was made, the challenge of bringing change was finished. In uncharted territory, where changes occur so rapidly, leaders cannot assume success until after they have weathered the sabotage that naturally follows.
First, expect sabotage. Anticipation is a great defense. To be aware that sabotage is coming will at least keep us from being surprised when it comes.
Second, embrace sabotage as a normal part of an organizational life. Even the saboteurs aren’t really to blame. Systems like stability. Natural survival skills demand it, in fact. You, by bringing change, have upset the emotional equilibrium of the system. The Israelites wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt once things got rough in the desert. Systems always look for and find comfort in the familiar.
Third, don’t take it personally. The people following you may be shooting you in the back, but it’s really not you that they are sabotaging, it’s your role as leader. They are sabotaging the change you are bringing.
Fourth, focus your attention on the emotionally strong, not the saboteurs. We are so focused on quieting our critics, appeasing or answering our accusers and shielding ourselves from the friendly fire that it often knocks us off course. While we need to stay connected to the saboteurs (“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”), what actually keeps the change process going is investing even more time in those committed to growing, adapting and changing for good. Find other calm, courageous people and strengthen and support them.
Last, make it a conviction to stay calm and connected so you can stay on course. Endure. Stick with it. Be dogged and determined.
Leading change is a process not accomplished quickly, and the moments of sabotage are the most crucial times in the change process. At this moment everyone in the system sees the leader’s true colors. Sabotage is not only a test of the leader’s resolve but also a test of the system’s resilience.
Blue Zone Decisions: Staying the Course Amidst Sabotage – The key skill for staying the course amidst sabotage is to make Blue Zone decisions—no matter what. In chapter twelve we explored Osterhaus, Jurkowski and Hahn’s Red Zone–Blue Zone decision making. The Red Zone is “all about me”; the Blue Zone is “all about the mission.” Blue Zone decisions are made as an expression of the core values and healthy principles, and further the discerned, shared mission conviction of the group.
When making Blue Zone decisions, a set of questions are being asked and answered by the leadership group. These questions are different from the Red Zone “me” questions around survival, acceptance, competence and control. They are What furthers the mission? What principles are at stake here? What values are we expressing? What pain must we endure? How will we support those who are experiencing loss?
Whenever I talk about this with groups, the hands shoot up. “This contradicts Jesus. Didn’t he always choose people over principles?” Frankly, no, he didn’t. At least not the way we think of it. If we look closely at the ministry of Jesus, everything he did was for one purpose: to proclaim and demonstrate the good news: “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15 nasb). And as much as he ministered to people as an expression of that mission, he also disappointed people constantly. He left towns while there were still crowds waiting to be healed (Mark 1:38). After a miraculous feeding of one large crowd, he refused to feed another, and some of his disciples left him (John 6:30-66). He disappointed his mother and brothers who wanted him to return home (Mark 3:31-35), he initially refused to heal the Syrophoenician woman because his mission was to the “lost sheep of . . . Israel” (Matthew 15:21-28), and he constantly disappointed ministry leaders because he hung out with the wrong sorts (Mark 2:16-17) and did the wrong things, like healing on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). Every parable Jesus taught that challenged the status quo (the prodigal son, the woman with the coin, the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to get the one sheep) did not describe his desire to care for and comfort people but, in effect, “I do this because God is like this” (Luke 15) or “I am doing these things because the kingdom of heaven is like this” (Matthew 13). Jesus’ mission was to reveal the presence and nature of God’s reign and rule. That was his purpose. That was his principle. When Jesus challenged the Pharisees, it wasn’t that they were concerned with religious principles and he was concerned with people, but that they had the wrong principles (Matthew 23:15). They valued human tradition over God’s own revelation about his character, his love and what he desires (Micah 6:8). Jesus… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
For Friedman, failure of nerve is the tendency among leaders to “adapt to immaturity,” that is, to give in to the most anxious elements within themselves or within the community who are clamoring to preserve the status quo and undermining the adaptations and experiments necessary for moving forward and meeting the challenges in front of them.10
A Picture of Courage – My favorite old movie is Casablanca. It’s a classic film with Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, where Bogie owns Rick’s Café Americain restaurant in Casablanca, Morocco. It takes place during World War II. Casablanca was then a French territory under German occupation. In one of my favorite scenes a group of Nazi soldiers drinking in Rick’s bar gather at the piano and start singing the German national anthem so loudly and without consideration of the number of French citizens sitting glumly around them.
First, leaders must act. Laszlo doesn’t cower at the sound of the German officers singing their songs with such bravado; he stands and heads toward the conflict. He takes decisive action and determines not to let this moment pass by. When the heat is on, leaders head to the kitchen.
Second, when sabotage or opposition appears, leaders continue to calmly stand on conviction in the face of it. Laszlo doesn’t rant. He doesn’t rave. He doesn’t start a fight or call the manager to complain. He goes to the band (very likely French citizens, all) and calls them to act with him. From the backstory of the movie, we know that Laszlo has already suffered for his convictions. He has already spent time in a prison camp. He is being denied exit visas that would take him and his wife to safety. The authorities have him on a watch list, and he is certainly in danger. But nevertheless, he continues to act on his convictions.
Third, leaders inspire. The root word of “courage” is the Latin word for “heart.”
Last, leaders don’t act alone. Yes, Laszlo is first to his feet and willing to stand alone. Leadership requires a missional conviction that takes a stand whether anyone follows or not. But for a leader to become a leader, someone must follow.
Sabotage is indeed the critical issue for lasting change. Friedman calls it “the key to the kingdom.”11 The key capacity: Does the leader have the capacity to hang in there when reactivity is at its highest? If a leader can develop the emotional stamina to stay true to principles when reactivity and sabotage are most evident, the adaptation process reverses itself and the followers begin to adapt to the leader.
The paradox of transformational leaders is that the very conviction that causes the leader to be willing to “disappoint your own followers at a rate they can absorb” is what ultimately—when handled well—wins “your own followers” to join you in your cause. If we as leaders start with conviction, stay connected, calm and on course in the face of opposition, then others around us have both the time and conditions to take on these very convictions as their own.
His name was Jean Baptiste, and because his mother would become the most famous member of the party next to Lewis and Clark themselves, “Pomp” as William Clark would nickname him, would be the youngest member of the Corps of Discovery. Pomp’s mother, Sacagawea, had been born Shoshone. Kidnapped by the Hidatsa when she was eleven or twelve, she was now at sixteen or seventeen years old, one of the wives of a French Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. The captains had hired Charbonneau as a guide through the mountains and very quickly they saw the value of having a Shoshone woman to serve as interpreter. While, by all accounts, Lewis and Clark soon took a dim view of Charbonneau’s skills and value to the party, their opinion of—and need for—the teenage mother only grew. A month after she joined the party, Lewis mentions her “fortitude and resolution.” Two months into the journey, they worried about losing their translator when Sacagawea fell ill with a fever. When a canoe capsized, her quick-thinking saved the captains’ journals.1 When the captains needed horses to cross the Rockies, they turned to Sacagawea. She led them to the Shoshone, navigated the tense relationship at the first encounter, and when she discovered that she was translating between Lewis and her own long-lost brother (a most remarkable, tearful and near-miraculous reunion), she helped broker the deal that brought the Corps the critical horses they needed. When her tribe begged Sacagawea to stay, she instead insisted on going with the Corps and continuing the journey. Later, Clark would praise her as the “pilot” that took them through the country.
*REORIENTATION* Those who had neither power nor privilege in the Christendom world are the trustworthy guides and necessary leaders when we go off the map. They are not going into uncharted territory. They are at home.
For many Christians throughout the world today, the death of Christendom in the West simply means there are more brothers and sisters joining them at the margins, more shared experience within the greater church, more equality of leadership roles, more valuing of previously ignored voices and more opportunities for shared witness to a world that is profoundly in need of the gospel. In other words, the deep disorientation for those trained in Christendom can be helped by learning to look to and partner with those who have already been living in post-Christendom marginality.
Entering uncharted territory is like boarding a time machine set for the future. Lewis and Clark made decisions and functioned with a leadership style that was decades, even centuries before their time. A true partnership without one clear leader in “command.” A woman in leadership. A native American woman and a slave given a vote. A soldier released gladly from his duties in order to further knowledge. Could it be that God is taking our churches and organizations into uncharted territory in order for the church to become even more of a witness for the future of the world?
Sometime in the 2040s, the United States will become a true ethnic plurality. During that decade white Americans will no longer be the majority but one of several considerably large ethnic groups. Even more surprising is that those trends are actually higher in the church and especially in seminaries that provide the training for Christian leadership. While white, mainline and evangelical churches are in decline, racial-ethnic churches are growing and predicted to increase even more; seminary enrollments show increases only among nonwhite students.33 In other words, what will soon be true of America is already becoming true in our churches and seminaries.34
*REORIENTATION* Exploration teaches us to see the familiar through a new frame. Exploration brings differentiation. Exploration requires us to become expert experimenters. Exploration demands our best selves.
Differentiation enables the leader to stay with the group in the most difficult moments even when the group is blaming the leader for the difficulties. Exploration so challenges our illusions of competence, so triggers strong reactions of others and so often leads to enough conflict that it requires differentiation to psychologically endure as a leader.
Escaping the Expert Expectation – One of the signs of an organization that is resisting change is what Heifetz calls “the flight to authority.”22 Instead of accepting the adaptive challenge of learning and being transformed, the congregation, company or even family will decide to elect an expert to the do the work for them. The expert becomes the “technical solution,” which is actually “work avoidance” that creates the illusion that something is being done (“We brought in an expert to solve it!”) when in truth nothing is changing.
The internal and psychological stress of leading, exploring, learning and keeping an organization on mission is demanding. The fear of failure weighs heavy on all types of leaders, but perhaps even more so for pastors. When failing can mean losing your job (survival), community (acceptance), reputation (competence), even the possibility of failure can make us feel out of control.
The most tragic tale of the Corps of Discovery, however, is the suicide of Meriwether Lewis. Today, Meriwether Lewis would be treated for severe depression. Even then, it had been noted by Jefferson that Lewis tended to get melancholy and exacerbated it with alcohol. But during the expedition, neither the depression nor any signs of excessive alcohol abuse were ever noted by Clark or the other men.
*REORIENTATION* While on-the-map leaders are praised for being experts who have it all together, uncharted transformational leadership is absolutely dependent on the leader’s own ongoing exploration, learning and transformation.
But if I could meet with that group today, I would say something completely different. “If you want to keep your church from dying,” I would say, Focus on your own transformation together, not on your church dying. Focus on the mountains ahead, not the rivers behind. Focus on continually learning, not what you have already mastered.
Leaders thrust off the map in a rapidly changing world must trust that God is taking us into uncharted territory to extend the healing, justice and loving rule of God to all the world, and at the same time to transform us. The great discovery in following Christ into his mission is that we find ourselves being continually formed to be like Jesus. By doing the work of the kingdom, we become like the King. Leadership into uncharted territory requires and results in transformation of the whole organization, starting with the leaders.
Perhaps that is the most important thing to remember: God is taking us into uncharted territory to transform us. The great discovery in following Christ into his mission is that we find ourselves. And the beautiful paradox is that the more committed we are to our own transformation, the better leader we will be.
*Reorientation Recap* You were trained for a world that is disappearing. If you can adapt and adventure, you can thrive. But you must let go, learn as you go and keep going no matter what. In a Christendom world, speaking was leading. In a post-Christendom world, leading is multidimensional: apostolic, relational and adaptive. Before people will follow you off the map, gain the credibility that comes from demonstrating competence on the map. In uncharted territory, trust is as essential as the air we breathe. If trust is lost, the journey is over. When our old maps fail us, something within us dies. Replacing our paradigms is both deeply painful and absolutely critical. In a Christendom world, vision was seeing possibilities ahead and communicating excitement. In uncharted territory, vision is accurately seeing ourselves and defining reality. Leadership in the past meant coming up with solutions. Today leadership is learning how to ask new questions we have been too scared, too busy or too proud to ask. There is no greater gift that leadership can give a group of people on a mission than to have the clearest, most defined mission possible. When dealing with managing the present, win-win solutions are the goal. But when leading adaptive change, win-win is usually lose-lose. In uncharted territory visionary leadership is more likely going to come from a small Corps of Discovery while the board manages the ongoing health of the organization. In uncharted territory, where changes occur so rapidly, leaders cannot assume success until after they have weathered the sabotage that naturally follows. Those who had neither power nor privilege in the Christendom world are the trustworthy guides and necessary leaders when we go off the map. Those without power or privilege are not going into uncharted territory. They are at home. Exploration teaches us to see the familiar through a new frame and demands that we become our best selves. Uncharted leadership is absolutely dependent on the leader’s own ongoing exploration, learning and transformation.
Given all of this Lewis and Clark imagery, it is probably no surprise that I tend to think of myself as a “take the hill” kind of guy. I like a challenge. I resonate with the idea of being a leader of a mission. One of my colleagues is rather different than I am. Maybe he’s seen enough pain in lives and congregations to be skeptical of the kinds of “charges” leaders like me seem to relish. My colleague has been called to minister to a church in the middle of a retirement home. He tells me with a sigh of great satisfaction that he spends his days “hugging and kissing, teaching and ministering to some of the greatest saints you’ll ever meet.” Sometimes I am jealous of him, and I get the sense that sometimes he thinks he’s supposed to be more like me. I take the hill; he cares for grandma. And I think most of us assume that these are two different types of callings. It is common to hear talk about the differences between missional ministry and chaplaincy, between leading and caretaking. But I think those distinctions reveal both our own projections about ourselves and a convenient way to avoid what is true about all Christian organizations, especially churches: We all have hills to take, and all of our organizations are filled with grandmas. None of us in church leadership get the luxury of a single-focused call, no matter how important we think it is. None of us get to handpick our own Corps of Discovery with nothing but the best, bravest, faithful, loyal and mature. Every church and Christian organization I know is filled with people of varying degrees of competence, courage and capacity to embrace change.
We have to love the kindly grandmas and grandpas, cute little children, cranky aunts and uncles, overcommitted brothers and sisters, and sometimes irascible and often inspiring teenagers with whom God has called us to be spiritual family. Then we have to try to motivate that group to work, sacrifice, give and take on the responsibilities of furthering the mission of the kingdom as we are called to do it. We are a family that wants to sit together cozy by the campfire, but we have to get up and charge the hill (at potentially great cost). To me this is the most demanding aspect of being a Christian leader: The complexity of it all.
Christian leaders, especially, live in an emotional field filled with competing values.2 Remember our earlier discussion about the nature of a family business (chap. 12)? We love, care and value each other with a kind of unconditional love and, at the same time, we need to make decisions based on the conditions of what will further the spiritual “bottom line” of furthering our mission. We are all called to take the hill—with grandma.
The Senior Citizen Who Reoriented the Whole World Thomas Jefferson was sixty when he enlisted Meriwether Lewis for his grand expedition. And make no mistake, it was Jefferson’s idea. He had lived in France and was the young nation’s true Renaissance man. He would be the founder of the country’s first public university and as a young man had written most of the Declaration of Independence himself. But he had never traveled more than fifty miles west of the Shenandoah Valley. That lack of personal experience or the physical attributes necessary for such a journey did not slake his curiosity. His personal library contained more books about the region than any other library in the world. Monticello even faced west.5