Dave Odom: Leadership at the intersection of gifts and needs

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For the greatest impact, leaders must identify their greatest gifts and apply them to an institution’s most pressing challenges, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

“Our seminary’s next president must wake up each day thinking about the economic model that will support theological education in the next generation.”

Of all the qualities a new seminary leader would need to succeed, the search committee member who told me this believed that the new president should be an innovative thinker with experience in finance.

In the Harvard Business Review article “The Secrets of Great CEO Selection,” Ram Charan, a business consultant who specializes in the work of corporate boards, describes the process directors follow when successfully choosing a new leader. They identify current and future job requirements and then name what Charan calls “the pivot” -- “a strand of two or three capabilities that are tightly interwoven and required for the new leader to succeed.”

Search committees often create a lengthy list of the qualities of a perfect leader. Indeed, leaders at every level -- from programs to denominations -- carry an overwhelming number of responsibilities. But all leaders can benefit from identifying their particular pivots so they can apply their gifts to an institution’s most significant challenges for the greatest impact.

Barbara Wheeler, a longtime researcher specializing in theological education, led a four-year study of seminary presidents that found as the best predictors of success in that role the ability to determine what tasks need to be done and the character required to do those tasks.

Good leadership development programs equip participants to look at both psychologically sophisticated personal assessments and critical examinations of a program or organization. Some years ago, I emerged from such a program and concluded that the key to my organization’s future was the development of shared projects with certain critical institutions. I also concluded that I was the person in the organization who knew these institutions and had the skill to design the new projects collaboratively. But my time was taken up with other tasks -- tasks that were less strategically important.

Naming a pivot, and then shaping one’s work around it, requires buy-in. The stakeholders need to agree with the focus of the work and the gifts needed to accomplish it. Most leaders face frequently shifting goals and resources, so selecting and sustaining a pivot requires a community of support. In my case, some of the work I had been doing was still needed. My pivot had a cascading effect of changing the pivots of others.

Almost every participant in our leadership development programs asks for help in time management. Most of them already do the basics. They turn off email to focus on a task, block out time on the calendar for critical projects, make a weekly list of tasks and so forth. All these things are helpful, but without a clear vision of what will make the most difference, the leader will continue to be frustrated.

In some ways, the challenge of identifying the pivot is more difficult for the solo leader of a smaller project or organization. The leader has many different tasks and people with distinctly different gifts with whom to share the work. Focusing on the pivot will likely result in some work not getting done or getting done poorly.

However, failing to discern the pivot and then reorganize the work accordingly will mean that the situation never changes. Eventually, the leader will burn out, and some of the work will stop.

Because the pivot is particular for both the job and the person, it does change over time. In my experience, it will certainly change at least once every seven years. Changes in economic conditions, supervisors, organizational structure and more can result in a more frequent change of pivot -- maybe as often as every two or three years. Life or family circumstances, such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, illness or death, also result in shifts in the way a leader views the pivot. Essentially, anything that might cause one to think about leaving a job or searching for a new job is a signal that the pivot for the work should be re-examined.

What is your pivot now and for the next season? How could clarity about the best use of your gifts and the needs of your organization help you and your work flourish?