The Leadership Journey Podcast Episode 3: Crucibles, Calling, and Existential Intensity

 

MicrophoneIn this week’s episode there is more on crucibles and we talk about calling and something called ‘existential intensity’ (which really has nothing to do with French novelists from the mid 20th-century).

As we reflect on calling, we discuss ways in which crucibles might be the birthplace of a calling or may be the testing ground for a calling; and we’ll suggest that ‘existential intensity’ is when something a leader believes at some level takes on an extra dimension and becomes part of the leader.

And there will be some questions for you to take away if you find yourself navigating a crucible experience.

It would be great to get your feedback on the podcasts – feel free to get in touch via the comment section.

The Leadership Journey Podcast Episode 2: Crucibles, Character, and how the Leader Relates to God

MicrophoneHere is episode 2 of the podcast which discusses some of the ways crucible experiences interact with the issue of the leader’s character. We also reflect on leaders’ experiences of the love of God.

Leadership 101: Call, character and competence (4)

keys-leadershipThe previous post started looking at leadership competence, the third factor that we can draw from the little vignette on David’s leadership in Psalm 78.

I suggested these eight leader competencies and the post reflected a little on the first four.

  • Determining the mission
  • Establishing vision
  • Maintaining values and culture
  • Strategic and operational planning
  • Managing change
  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Team building

What about the others?

Managing change

They say that some of the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies (diapers, if you are reading on the far side of the Atlantic). While that’s an exaggeration, but it’s worth looking at this:

who-wants-change-who-wants-to-change

I’d seen the first two parts of this, but just found the third element: leaders beware!

Even if it is not always welcome, change is inevitable. Some organisations are agents of change (fifteen years ago, who thought we’d be using the same device to make phone calls, read emails, listen to music and shoot time-lapse video?). Others need to learn to adapt to change.

To put it somewhat technically, change is needed when there is a discrepancy between the current state of things and how we want them to be. What makes it difficult is that it means something has to be left behind. Business writers Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky suggest that ‘people do not resist change, per se. People resist loss.

Which, of course, threatens to put he brakes on any proposed change. That’s until the potential gain of the change outweighs the perceived loss; or until anxiety about what will happen if we change is outweighed by anxiety about what will happen if we fail to change. For example, it may only be when the fear of having to close their doors weighs more heavily on the members of a congregation than the fear of what it might mean to make changes to the format of their services, that that congregation will be willing to change – though I suspect it would be possible to find examples of churches whose commitment to perceived ‘faithfulness’ meant closing the doors rather than changing anything.

James Lawrence uses railway analogy in describing four groups of people who respond differently to change. Radicals are the track layers, out in front, impatient for change. Progressives are the engine drivers who take a positive view of change, but realise that it needs to be worked through carefully. Conservatives are the fare-paying passengers who are wary of change but may be persuaded. Traditionalists are the brake van: they fear change.

Leaders will have to work with each of these four groups, not least in churches. For some of the radicals, change may never come quickly enough, or in big enough doses. At the other end of the spectrum, for some traditionalists, any change is a bridge too far. It’s the groups in the middle that can be reasoned with. Sometimes some of the radicals may need to be allowed to leave. The traditionalists, at least the older ones, are unlikely to leave and the leader will have to assure them that they will be cared for and valued even if they don’t like the direction the church is going.


 

Communication

Good communication is the competency that undergirds all of the other elements of effective leadership. Poor communication makes assumptions, lacks clarity, or fails to make the case for the vision, the mission or the change that the leader wants to implement.

I think one of the most basic failures of leadership (of which I have been guilty, and I have seen it happen) is the failure to communicate with the people who are most likely to be affected by any proposed change. It simply alienates people and diminishes the leader’s credibility with the followers.

Communication can be quite a complex science given the number of ‘moving parts’. It involves a communicator, a message, and an audience. The process of communication can go awry at any of these points. There can be an unclear message – say a muddied sense of mission, a clumsy communicator – say who understands neither the message nor the audience, or a distracted audience whose attention is being pulled in a hundred directions and who are only too ready to put their own interpretations on what is being said and fill in the gaps where things are unsaid.

The leader needs to be aware of these challenges and ensure that the message if both accurately sent and accurately received.


Problem solving

Leadership is unlikely to take place in the absence of problems. Businesses feel the impact of the global economic climate. Sports teams feel the impact of loss of form or of injuries to key players. Churches are not exempt from the winds of cultural change or from the internal factionalism that would be better not there, but too often is. Organisations feel the pressure of a downturn in income or the turnover of key staff.

Problems need to be clearly identified and properly understood. The more complex the problem, the more important that the leader understands its multiple dimensions. Perhaps when Mr Jones walked out in protest to the ditching of the church organ in favour of a guitar, there was more to it than met the eye; a quiet word might have revealed that he doesn’t mind guitars, but it was his great uncle who paid for the pipe organ to be renovated fifty years ago!

A range of solutions need to be drawn up and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses. Leaders need to be smart enough to anticipate possible pitfalls with their preferred solutions.

The best solution should be identified, agreed on, especially by those who are most likely to feel the impact, clearly communicated, and implemented.


Team building

Not every leader may possess all of these skills in equal measure. A visionary leader may lack the patience to work out the careful steps needed to implement the vision. He or she may be impatient with the speed of change and the resistance of the traditionalists. There is a fairly obvious case to be made for leadership teams where team members complement each other as they bring their participant strengths and leadership styles to the table.

And of course team means another dynamic in the leadership process. A team needs to be led. Its members need to be managed. It needs to have healthy systems of communication.

And what is a team, anyway? Is it different from a task group or from a committee?

(To be continued).

 

 

Leadership 101: Call, character and competence (3)

keys-leadership

Over the past few weeks, the blog has been reflecting on a leader’s call and character. A third important factor in good leadership is competence. While calling gives a leader a sense of conviction about his or her leadership, character helps provide integrity and build trust. But leadership also calls for some skills.

What about a leader’s competence? Here’s a list of eight things that need to function well for leadership to be effective.

  1. Determining the mission
  2. Establishing vision
  3. Maintaining values and culture
  4. Strategic and operational planning
  5. Managing change
  6. Communication
  7. Problem solving
  8. Team building

There is a lot that could be said about each of these eight skill areas. I’m going to take four this week and leave the others till next week.

Determining the mission

If you’re a leader, you need to know why your organisation, your church, or your team exists. Church leaders are hopefully going to see the mission of their particular church as one part of the biblical mission of Christ’s Church, even though they need to figure out the specifics of being a particular church, in a particular place, at a particular time. One way to sharpen your thinking is to ask what would happen if your church went out of business!

In their book on ‘mission drift’ Greer and Horst underline the importance of clarity and intentionality in defining mission. Their concern is primarily for Christian organisations that drift from the moorings of their original intention: a clear understanding of mission allows an organisation to stay focussed and helps guard against drift.

As Walter Wright suggests, a mission statement clarifies ‘who we are’ and provides a goal by which the organisation’s effectiveness can be measured.


Establishing vision

Closely connected with mission is vision: in fact, it’s easy to get the two ideas mixed up. Perhaps we can think of mission as what we do while vision is where we hope to arrive: it’s a picture of a desired future.

While we’re talking about it, can I share one of my pet nitpicks about vision?

How many times have you heard someone quote Proverbs 29:18 – ‘where there is no vision the people perish’ – in an attempt to persuade you of the biblical case for having a mission statement? Sorry, but I don’t think the verse is using the word in the way it gets bandied about by leader- types: the point is that when there is no prophetic vision (no one is hearing from God), there will be problems.

None of that should say that a sense of vision is not important. Some leaders are blessed with an ability to picture a better future for a church or an organisation, and that picture helps move the organisation along in its mission.

Bill Hybels is an example of a strong visionary leader. He’s about to hand over the reigns at Willow Creek Church, but not having overseen the church’s birth and its growth – not least in its influence around the world. For Hybels it started when a Bible College professor painted a picture of the early church in Acts.

Hybels describes vision as ‘the leader’s most potent weapon’. The leader’s task is to see the vision, to personify it and to communicate it.

For all that may be said about the value of an inspiring vision, it’s’ worth noting Derek Tidball’s caution in his new book on Joshua the leader: ‘Passion and visions may well be God-given, but they may equally … be misguided.’


Maintaining values and culture

Perhaps you’ve come across the saying that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. I may not have put it like that, but I think it’s a valid claim. We’ll get to strategy in a moment, but we need to recognise that strategy is going to be hamstrung if our organisation or our church lacks the right kind of culture.

Culture is the amalgam of beliefs and assumptions, ‘the way we do things here’ that shape how things are. It’s linked with values, but here’s where it gets tricky. You can have plaques on the wall listing the most wonderful-sounding values, but if those values are not really owned by the members of the organisation, that remain no more than noble aspirations.

Walter Wright suggests that ‘every organization has a hidden culture that has developed over the years that controls what is actually done regardless of the values we espouse’. How many churches say that prayer is one of their key values, but struggle to get people to turn up at a prayer gathering? Might there be a disconnect there?

This all means that the leader’s task is to reinforce the desired values of the organisation, thereby shaping the culture and thereby enabling the strategy to take shape.


Strategic and operational planning

It’s not enough to have a vision or even a clear sense of mission if you don’t have a clue about how to get from A to B. Mission without implementation is fairly futile.

Walter Wright (yes, him again – check out his book Relational Leadership) outlines a 10 step process towards implementing a vision. Each step consists in exploring a question. The first four relate to strategic planning, the next four to operational planning, and the other two are the review process.

  1. Who are we?
  2. What is important to us?
  3. Where in the world are we?
  4. Where do we want to be?
  5. How should we do it?
  6. How should we do it?
  7. When will we do it?
  8. Who will do it?
  9. How are we doing?
  10. Was God pleased?

(By the way, how many committee/team meetings would be a lot more efficient if each agenda item included questions 4-8?)


That’s enough for now – we’ll leave the other four competencies for next week. Though meantime it’s worth pondering whether every leader will necessarily have each of these abilities, whether they have them in equal measure, or whether one implication of this is a recognition of the importance of team.

Leadership 101: Call, Character, and Competence (2)

building-character

This is a follow on from the post that began discussing the call, character and competence of a leader. There is one more part to come in this triad.


That there should be a discussion of the character of a Christian leader should hardly be surprising, given the significance of the theme of character in Scripture and the Christian tradition.

James Lawrence offers a simple definition of character (‘who you are when no one’s looking’) and suggests that it is most clearly seen in small, day-to-day things, when the leader is under pressure, and when the leader is in private. Among the reasons why character matters is that ‘without credibility … a leader will have no one to lead’ and that it is character issues that most often lead to derailment.

Then there is this – from Os Guinness:

As traditionally understood, from the Hebrews and Greeks onward, character is the inner form that makes anyone or anything what it is – whether a person, a wine, or a historical period. Thus character is clearly distinct from such concepts as personality, image, reputation or celebrity. It is the essential “stuff” a person is made of, the inner reality and quality in which thoughts, speech, decision, behavior, and relations are rooted. As such, character determines behavior just as behavior demonstrates character.


It has been suggested that much of the Old Testament account of the ancient Hebrews could be viewed as ‘a story of character and character formation’. Both Old and New Testaments exhort the people of God to be obedient and holy. Special application was made to the OT kings who were to be on their guard against the temptations of wealth, horses and the accumulation of wives. In the New Testament, alongside Jesus’ general teaching in places such as the Sermon on the Mount, specific qualities are highlighted in relation to spiritual leaders.


Yet both biblical and empirical evidence remind us that while we might be disappointed at contradictions in leaders’ character, we should not be surprised. While many of the OT kings are condemned for their character failure, there is also a recognition that essentially good leaders can also be flawed.


The biblical record has a lot to tell us about the tests of character: whether it’s Joseph and David, two leaders who meet sexual temptation with contrasting responses, or Jesus himself, whose faithfulness in the face of desert temptation contrasts with the failure of his ancestors at the time of Moses.

Both adversity and prosperity reveal a leader’s character and draw attention either to strengths or to weaknesses that will have to be addressed.

Bill George noted that some of the leaders who get derailed during the course of their leadership journey are not necessarily bad leaders: they get caught up in their own success. I spoke to a leader who shared (with searing honesty) about a phase in the early days of his ministry when his public stock was soaring, but his home life was threatening to derail him.

It seems that success can be more dangerous than failure!


There are several ways in which character has a shadow side. For one thing, as Parker Palmer puts it, a leader can project either light or shadow and leaders need to pay attention to their shadow side, something that calls for a degree introspection that is not always present in leaders. Failing to understand our own failings, according to Palmer, leads us to find ways in which we can make someone ‘out there’ the enemy and so we become leaders who oppress rather than liberate.

Another, perhaps more subtle problem is that our strengths sometimes have shadow sides. For example, resilience can easily become stubbornness; discernment can become judgmentalism. Yesterday’s reflection on calling noted that a strong sense of call can have a shadow side when it means that a leader is so committed to the task of leadership that spouse and family are neglected.

Samuel Rima observed that,

The personal characteristics that drive individuals to succeed and lead often have a shadow side that can cripple them once they become leaders and very often causes significant failure.

In talking with several leaders in the course of my research I noticed some specific examples.

  1. The self-reliance that can lead to the vital quality of resilience can also make it challenging for a leader to relinquish control. The leader may become stubborn or controlling.
  2. The ability to confront (not always a comfortable task) allows a leader to deal decisively with issues, but its shadow side can become harshness.
  3. Similarly, passion gets things done. It is those leaders with passion and drive who are likely to break new ground or thrive in challenging situations, but the shadow side is the risk of burnout or the risk of collateral damage caused to others on the team.

There is this, from Leighton Ford:

Every leader has a ‘shadow’ side, like the dark side of the moon – areas that are disguised, or perhaps explored but unrecognized. I am convinced that our leadership will be stronger and the dangers of collapse lesser if we become aware of these dark areas and bring them into the light early.’


I think the best leadership is that which flows from who the leader is: in that sense it is authentic leadership. I use the term with a degree of caution. There is no doubt that people (perhaps especially younger people) are drawn to authenticity. But its shortcoming is that its reference point appears to be internal while the reference point to character is external.

So perhaps I should say that the best Christian leadership is that which flows from the authentically God-shaped character of a leader.

Which means that all of us ought to be on a constant growth trajectory.

A young church leader asked me once if I thought a lot of Christian leaders have a gap between their public persona and their private life. It was a great question and while I can’t quantify the answer, it has to be some kind of a yes!

Those of us who have some kind of public persona, whether as leaders or preachers, often come across as those who have it all together. According to our persona, we never worry (because we roll our burdens onto Jesus), we are patient and kind, our wives worship the ground we walk on and are so grateful to be married to such wonderful people, we never get angry, all the prayers we pray in our rich prayer lives are answered, we never have any doubts, questions or fears. The calm conviction that we express so eloquently from the pulpits we grace characterises every waking moment.

Whereas if only people knew that our wives sometimes despair of us (I’m reminded of the incident which Paul Tripp recounts – against himself – where he told his wife that 95% of the women in his church would love to be married to a man like him: she declared herself in the 5%!); or that some of us struggle to pray, that we don’t always find our souls nourished by our Bible readings, that our private spiritual lives may not have the vitality everyone assumes, that we get anxious, that we feel guilty, that we may lie awake at night fretting over one thing or another, that we get more angry over some things than we should, that the fruit of the Spirit is not always evident in our lives, that we have questions about unanswered prayer, that we have regrets, that we sometimes get more wrong in our leadership than we get right, we experience moments of self-doubt and self-loathing, that when we cut we bleed, that we sometimes struggle to forgive, or that we have times when we even wonder if we should really be doing this stuff.

In short – we are not perfect, nor will we be until we see Jesus and we are made like him.

None of this should be an excuse for hypocrisy, or for inattention to the cultivation of spiritual character. It should be an incentive for growth.

Ministry and leadership are a gift and a privilege but should not be understood as a ‘get off the hook’ pass in terms of the need to grow in character.


We’ll get to the third ‘c’ (competence) in next week’s post.

But don’t rush to get there just yet – not least if you are a younger leader. Character matters. Failure to pay attention can result in leader derailment with all that entails.

Leadership 101: Call, Character, and Competence (1)

gods-call-to-leadership

In his book on staying fresh in Christian leadership, Paul Mallard starts by reflecting on how Psalm 78 refers to David:

[God] chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
to shepherd Jacob his people,
Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skilful hand.

He notes these three things:

  • Conviction – the awareness that David had of being called and chosen by God;
  • Competence – David led with ‘skilful hand’;
  • Character – he shepherded the people with ‘upright heart’.

For the purposes of this post, I’d adjust Paul Mallard’s terms slightly, preferring ‘call’ to ‘conviction’.

James Lawrence, in Growing Leaders, also highlights the importance of discerning God’s call, developing Christ-like character, and cultivating competence.


All of the leaders I interviewed in my recent research referred in some way to calling. Ruth Haley Barton highlights the profound significance of being called by God: ‘it is a place where God’s presence intersects with a human life.’

Of course the most fundamental call is the call to believe in Christ and follow him. But within that call, one can find the seeds of a subsequent vocational calling. Some people have such dramatic conversion experiences that all of life is reoriented, a new direction and new priorities are set, and it can lead to a path of vocational leadership. The seeds of a call to leadership can be found in their conversion.

Often the call to leadership comes later. Sometimes it can be in the form of a ‘gradual awakening’ to one’s life purpose, though it can also happen in a moment of crisis, say in response to a stirring appeal.

Os Guinness has helpfully distinguished between two kinds of calling: what he calls an original, ‘ordinary’ calling, and a later, ‘special’ calling. The first is a sense of life purpose that comes in response to God’s call to follow him and its implications are lived out even if there is no direct, even supernatural, communication from God about a special calling.

He suggests that this latter ‘special’ calling has to do with tasks and missions given to individuals through some specific communication from God. Reggie McNeal says that ‘the call is the leader’s personal conviction of having received some life assignment or mission that must be completed’.


Much of the biblical narrative reflects the theme of God’s call. From the voice of God addressing the fugitive Adam and Eve in Eden, through the call of Abram to leave the familiar for the unknown, to the invitation of the Spirit and the Bride in Revelation, Scripture is the call of God to his people.

There are remarkable stories of individuals being summoned to a specific role in serving God. Think of Moses and his dramatic exchange with God at the edge of the Midianite desert. Or Isaiah and his life-changing vision of God’s holiness in the Temple. Or Saul who became Paul: the persecutor turned pioneer preacher.

But are these stories meant to be paradigms for today’s leaders? Can a Christian leader lead without having experienced the drama of a Moses- or Isaiah-like call? How might a leader sense the ‘call’?

Traditionally, within the evangelical world at least, there has been what you might term a tri-partite view of the will of God. Which means that God has a sovereign will – his plan for the universe, a moral will – how wants his people to live, and a specific will – his plan for an individual’s life. According to this understanding it is important to discover this specific aspect of God’s will: what is God’s plan for my life? The answer, it is suggested, lies in being able to line up several signposts so they are pointing in the same direction – the bullseye of God’s will. Typically these signposts will include elements such as Scripture, an inner sense of guidance, the advice of others, and, perhaps, circumstances. Mind you circumstances can be tricky things. For every divinely orchestrated open (or closed) door, one needs to remember that the circumstances were pretty conducive for Jonah in his escape from God’s call!

A few decades ago Gary Friesen suggested that some of the traditional evangelical understanding rests on shaky foundations and that an overly subjective sense of calling is hardly enough when it comes to surviving the heavy seas of ministry.

However it remains true that many leaders do experience a subjective sense of call, and find this sense of call a source of stability and confidence when they experience the turbulence of leadership. For example, a high profile leader told me that ‘there’s a real sense in which when I ever go through difficult times, the Lord has nearly always provided me with such a dramatic call to a particular role that I think, you can’t gainsay that, that actually happened.’

McNeal again: ‘Christian leaders certain of their call allow it to become the center of gravity for their life experiences.’


Perhaps the subjective sense of calling, for example as it’s expressed in Frederick Buechner’s famous comment about vocation being at the point where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness meet, needs to be balanced by a proactive involvement on the part of the Church and its recognised leaders. Have we grasped the implications of the Holy Spirit’s voice in community in Acts 13?


What is your view of calling? Have you a clear sense of conviction that you are doing what God has called you to do?