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Jason Byassee: The ironies of leadership

The one we all follow, as some of us lead, was crowned with thorns, and the “government on his shoulders” was the tool for his execution.

August 16, 2011

On theological grounds, it is no accident that institutions failed Jesus. They’re among the principalities and powers that rebelled against their creator (Ephesians 6:12). Yet it is striking what Jesus did when he returned from the dead and met those who had abandoned him. Precisely where we might have expected vengeance, we got patience, tenderness, restoration of sinners and repair of all that was torn.

Those called to lead Christian institutions can find wisdom here. We should not be surprised that Christian institutions have often crushed those they are called to protect. Institutions are concentrated forms of all that is human, for good or ill; that is why they get things done (after all, we got something done when we put Jesus to death). And then Jesus calls precisely such institutions, as he calls all created things, to repentance and obedience and peace. Christ is already Lord of the powers, even of those still in rebellion. Will he not then sometimes call his people to guide them?

There is deep irony involved when anyone claims to be a Christian leader. All Christians are followers first. Anyone tempted to wear the mantle of leader takes on grave peril (“better for a millstone to be tied around his neck ...” Luke 17:2). And yet what was the first thing the disciples did after Jesus’ ascension? They chose someone to take Judas’ place (Acts 1:21-22). What is the prophets’ clearest sign of Israel’s devastation? There are no leaders (Judges 21:25; Isaiah 3:1-7). Christian leadership is no necessary evil -- it is a positive good, one God calls us to enter with fear and trembling, but calls us to enter nonetheless (1 Timothy 3:1). How do we enter with faithfulness?

Remembering the ironies of Christian leadership offers us a tool to remember the activities in which we ought to engage -- those activities that, when practiced over time, shape the mindsets and character traits that equip people to advance the church’s mission. Those activities are at the heart of what transformative leadership looks like for today’s Christian institutions.

IRONIES -- integrate, remember, observe, network, inquire, experiment, strategize -- remind us that Jesus himself was a servant with a towel around his waist, not a potentate with a sword. IRONIES remind us that the one we all follow, as some of us lead, was crowned with thorns, and the “government on his shoulders” (Isaiah 9:6) was the tool for his execution. We tread, then, with both caution and courage, and with an eye open for surprise.

 

How would you name the key activities of your organization?

    The critical mindsets? The essential character traits? Leadership Education at Duke Divinity suggests these lists as a starting place.

    Activities: IRONIES

  • Integrate
  • Remember
  • Observe
  • Network
  • Inquire
  • Experiment
  • Strategize
  •  

    Mindsets: CITIES

  • Cultivation
  • Imagination
  • Trust
  • Improvisation
  • Excellence
  • Sustainability
  •  

    Traits: PITCH

  • Perseverance
  • Interpretive charity
  • Truthfulness
  • Courage
  • Humility

Integrate

Transformative leaders work to integrate ideas that seem, at first blush, irreconcilable. Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, speaks of integrative thinking in his book “The Opposable Mind.” He tells the story of the founding of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Isadore Sharp loved the small, roadside motel he first founded outside Toronto. But he couldn’t generate enough revenue there to add the amenities that business travelers wanted. Sharp also loved the large convention center he later founded in downtown Toronto. It had all the amenities with room to spare, but lacked the intimacy of his original roadside motel.

This genuine love of both business models was important. The resulting new thing was not a compromise between the two, a hybrid or Frankenstein. It was, rather, the result of what Martin now calls “design thinking.” With design thinking, one stares into a genuine mystery: Why are both models of hotel beautiful? When one stares long enough, something new appears. The result, for Sharp, was Four Seasons, with its intimate scale and business-friendly conveniences.

In another example, from his book “The Design of Business,” Martin describes Target’s success in discount retail. Bob Ulrich was genuinely taken with the success of Wal-Mart, but he believed a retailer did not have to be single-mindedly dedicated to low cost at the expense of gorgeous design and pleasant shopping. The result, for Ulrich, was Target -- a company committed to competitively low prices but also to customer service and elegance in layout, logo and design.

Christian theology knows something of this habit of integrating. Before Jesus, the biblical world was divided into Jews and Gentiles -- essentially, God’s people and everyone else. But then a new thing came into being: a body of Jews who trusted Jesus as Messiah and obeyed Torah, in community with Gentiles who did not convert to Judaism but held this same trust. What was this new thing? Church.

Or long before that integrative triumph, Jews knew two things: God had promised to be faithful to his promises to Israel, and lots of faithful Jews died without God having made good on his promises. Staring into this mystery, what did Israel come to believe? God must be planning to resurrect Israel bodily. How else could God make good on his promises? This (genuinely unbelievable) revolution in biblical thought, first visible in Daniel and then in the New Testament, soon became common in Judaism.

Or Christians, thinking with our Jewish forebears, came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth must be the Son of God and God himself. How could this be if God is one? Staring into this mystery, we integrated: God is both one and three. How’s that possible? We don’t know, and yet we hold it to be an integral part of all genuine Christian faith.

Remember

Transformative leaders help orchestrate communal memory. Not memory for its own sake, as in the stereotype of a museum with its treasures behind glass, but memory for the sake of innovation in the present day.

For example, Lutherans in 16th-century Germany sought to remind themselves of the importance of the Scriptures by emphasizing Isaiah 40:8 -- “The word of the Lord abides forever.” They sought to remember it by stitching it inside their clothes, often in its Latin abbreviation, VDMIAE. This practice, ironically enough, calls to mind the Jewish practice of posting an inscription of part of the Shema to doorposts of Jewish homes, not only in obedience to Deuteronomy 6:9, but also for family members to kiss upon entry: the Lord will watch over our going out and our coming in (Psalm 121:8).

Christianity itself is a matter of “creative retrieval,” as David Ford, a theologian at Cambridge, has recently put it. It is not a mausoleum. Nor is it an expo designed to sell the newest (and most expensive) gadgets just because they are new and expensive. Rather, Christianity is a matter of traditioned innovation: drawing out from the storehouse of common memory the perfect new thing for today.

Every time the church celebrates the Eucharist we are re-membered -- literally made once again members of the body of Christ. In this way the church may have more to learn from the military than the business community. It is impossible to teach military history without drawing endless historical analogies, and then debating about the appropriateness of those analogies. Business history is a narrower field, and history departments in business schools are rather underpopulated.

Yet if business schools do no history, everything that Christian training institutions do is an act of memory, and in this way we are more akin to the military than to enterprise. Christian innovation always has to measure itself against the witness of Scripture and tradition -- and then it must ask whether God’s people today are served well with this new (old) thing.

Observe

The innovation firm IDEO prides itself on offering the sorts of design solutions that Roger Martin describes. One such innovation for its client Bank of America was born out of exacting attention to the ways people use their banks. IDEO observers, clipboards in hand like anthropologists in the field, noticed that most banking customers don’t bother to write the cents in their check registers along with the dollars, and some even round the dollar amounts.

Tim Brown, in “Change by Design,” describes the way they saw people keeping their change in jars and overpaying power bills by writing checks in round numbers. IDEO also noticed what any observer of American financial practice must know: we are terrible savers. Staring into this twin mystery, IDEO proposed a solution: a program called “Keep the Change.” If people don’t care about the exact amount, and people need to save more, why not have the bank round expenses up to the nearest dollar and put the cents into the customers’ savings accounts?

A transformative leader who observes well must be, in Saul Bellow’s words, a “first-class noticer.” She must be willing to ask a dumb question: “Why do we do it that way?” She must not, at first, be too quick to suggest, “Why don’t we do it this way?” The objective, stubborn, three-dimensional details must come first. Ellen F. Davis, an Old Testament scholar at Duke University, speaks of a friend who teaches art to people who will never be professional artists. The key to such teaching is to pass on noticing skills: how light falls on objects at different times of day, how it refracts through dust, how deeply subtle changes matter. The goal is to teach these students to “never be bored again.” There are always more details waiting to be noticed, and as poets and mystics have always taught us, God is in the details.

But so is the devil. Amy Herman teaches professionals and leaders in fields other than art how to look at paintings. Her sessions remove people from their accustomed settings and ask them to draw on the skills of their professions to analyze and discuss the details of works on gallery walls. In one exercise, a participant describes a painting to a colleague who can’t see it but must then sketch it based on her partner’s words. The goal is not just learning to see anew; it is learning to communicate well in settings where we lack well-formed language.

Network

A Harvard Business Review article titled “The Innovator’s DNA” noted that entrepreneurial leaders spend 50 percent more time on five “discovery” activities than their less innovative peers. One of those activities is networking. Such leaders do not get to know others with the intent of marketing to them or borrowing ideas from them. They spend time with people in vastly different occupational fields than their own without a preset goal for what they will learn. They attend idea conferences. They put themselves in positions where they are not the smartest in the room and work to befriend those who are. And this is wise -- most of the smart people always work for someone else.

Steven Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” works to undo the cherished American myth of the lone innovator, sequestered in his garage, coming forth as if from the head of Zeus with something no one has ever thought of before. That does happen sometimes -- Willis Carrier, inventor of modern air conditioning, is one pure example. Yet innovation much more often comes through “liquid networks,” confluences of relationships that change enough to keep ideas fresh but not so much as to disintegrate.

The place of scientific discovery, for Johnson, is not the laboratory of the solo scientist. It is the conference room, where ideas are argued out and then cultivated communally. This is why city dwellers are so much more innovative, percentagewise, than the same number of people in rural areas. Living in one another’s space makes people more likely to find those interested in their narrow sliver of passions. At the same time, it makes them more likely to bump into those different enough to challenge and improve their thinking (See Edward Glaeser in “Triumph of the City”).

Johnson also points to the importance of “exaptation,” the development of an idea into an unexpected field. The term comes from biological evolution. For example, the improved wrist rotation in velociraptors that helped with flexibility became a means for their feathery descendants to fly. In the realm of ideas, Johannes Gutenberg saw in the improved 15th-century wine press a template for his invention of the printing press. Such exaptation is much more likely in a setting where the innovator is networking and developing friendships across disciplines and interests. (Do our publishers befriend our winemakers today?)

In the church, networking is a matter of discerning gifts. No one in the body has all of God’s gifts; in failing to get to know those unlike us, we miss out on something precious that Jesus wants to give us. Networking is especially important across racial and socioeconomic barriers. A church in which everyone is “like us” is arguably no church at all. And it is far less likely to develop the virtue of networking, and so to produce its next generation of leadership.

Inquire

Mike Royko, the great longtime Chicago columnist, had a practice he’d engage in when he was stuck on a story. He would leave his desk and head down to the Billy Goat Tavern. There, over a beer, he would tell the bartender what he was working on. If he couldn’t explain to a Chicago barkeep why his story was important, the story wouldn’t fly. But if he could survive the tender’s questions and analysis -- “Who says that?” “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” “Where’d she get the nerve?” -- then the story had legs. He’d head back up to his office and pound it out.

We all need inquiry into our work. This is why kings have kept jesters and holy fools -- to have someone around who will ask the rude question. Even more, if we are to lead, we need to inquire: “Where’d this come from?” “What problem did that once solve?” “How do our problems now differ from when that solution was devised?” As Peter Drucker once said, “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers; it is to find the right question.”

In “The Innovator’s DNA,” the authors tell the story of Michael Dell taking his personal computer apart and asking himself why $600 worth of parts should sell for $3,000. Dell’s business plan was born on that messy, part-strewn floor.

Christians have not always been the best question askers, eager as we are to give answers. In this we fail to perform Ford’s “creative retrieval.” Jewish children at the Passover are taught to ask, “Why is this night unlike all other nights?” The story of the Exodus follows. Christians ought also to marvel at that which cannot be explained but can be talked about faithfully. How is it that Jesus’ death saves us? Who is worthy to break the seal on the scroll? Why hasn’t Jesus returned yet? Our tradition is full of delicious, certainty-defying questions, and marveling at them can make us more faithful. And more innovative.

Experiment

The Rev. Rob Bell tells the story of two groups of ceramics students who were given two very different tasks. One group was asked to create the single best piece they could in a certain amount of time. The other was asked to create as many pieces as they could in that same amount of time. The irony? Those given the second instructions not only made more pieces; they also made better ones. Those trying to make the “best” were overly scrupulous, unwilling to fail, and so failed. Those students who blazed through the task without fear of failure not only produced more works in total, but also more works of beauty.

In one way this accords with common sense. What do analysts call someone who fails three-fifths of the time? If that someone plays baseball, they call him the best hitter ever. Thomas Edison famously said he never failed; he just discovered 10,000 ways that do not work.

Gerardo Marti is a sociologist who studies evangelicalism’s myriad forms of new life in North America. As he looks around at his mainline colleagues, he suggests that we take far too few risks. When we start a new venture, we fully fund it and then wait years to see if it works.

When his evangelical colleagues start something new, they take a “dandelion” approach. They start lots of new things, fund them far too little, and then wait to see which few succeed. Those that show promise are funded further, encouraged and cultivated. Those that fail are allowed to fail quickly so resources can be shifted to those that are succeeding. This requires a high degree of tolerance for risk. But failure is ultimately grace, as those who worship at the foot of the cross should know well.

Strategize

“People make strategy much harder than it needs to be,” Roger Martin argues in his Harvard Business Review blog. We often confuse strategy with aspiration. For example, I could hope to lose 25 pounds, or to increase my net worth 1,000 percent over the next six months. But how would I actually bring that about? A strategy would include a treadmill and a lottery ticket.

Martin sounds every bit like a preacher when he suggests that we imagine strategic options as “a happy story about the future.” Imagine the future you want. Tell it in delicious detail. Doesn’t that lighten the pressure a bit? For Martin, strategy is finally about choosing where to play and how to win on the way to bringing about that happy-ending story.

Churches may not be concerned with “winning” in the conventional sense, but they must and do strategize. John Wesley not only preached to coal miners and poor people, he organized them into bands to prod one another toward holiness. The ancient church did not just pray for the sick and those in prison; it also materially cared for them, and so found its worship services full of the kinds of people Jesus cherishes. Civil rights organizers in the American South were quite intentional about their strategy: demonstrate the hostility visited on black people by responding with nonviolence and have the resulting images beamed around the world via television. White Southerners’ notions of Christian hospitality were shaken to their core, and the world changed.

Christian leaders will find themselves surfing on the edge of countless paradoxes. We lead a community pursuing excellence at bearing a cross. We try to build an institution for a God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. We set up a people perched on the edge of history here in a world that is passing away. Best to revel in the complexities through such activities as those described here -- to grab on and hold tight to the hair of that donkey, because it’s riding through death to glory.