L. Gregory Jones: Seven tips for cultivating traditioned innovation in leadership teams

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Each of these tips depends on, and points Christian leaders to, the importance of wisdom and growing in intimacy with God, writes the theologian.

“I like the idea of traditioned innovation, and believe it is a biblical way of thinking. But how can I learn to practice it in my leadership, and to help my team of direct reports do so as well?” The friend’s question is as important as it is complex: how can I learn the mindset of traditioned innovation as well as teach it?

The mindset ultimately depends on long-term practices of Christian formation. These practices include learning to read Scripture as a beautiful, complex narrative with inner-biblical conversations; nurturing habits that enable us to develop fluency in seeing the world as God does; and developing a Christian vocabulary so that words like “blessing,” “forgiveness,” “hope” and “hospitality” have deep resonance for how we see the world.

Even if we are committed to such Christian formation, though, we still need to learn how to practice traditioned innovation in our organizational leadership. We often have inherited, embodied and sometimes even created bad practices that undermine the very mindsets to which we want to be committed.

Here are seven tips to help cultivate traditioned innovation in your organization and, especially, among the teams with whom you work.

Begin with the end. Remember that “the end is our beginning.” This phrase is designed to keep the main thing the main thing. As Simon Sinek suggests in his TED talk “Start With Why,” organizations and people that remain focused on core purpose are those most likely to flourish. For Christians, we are to be focused on God and God’s reign. The God who is “making all things new” by the power of the Holy Spirit does so by conforming us to Christ, the one in whom the creation came to be.

Beginning with the end, the purpose, orients us toward the future and shapes us as a people of hope. In so doing, it also keeps returning us to the best of our past. It thus destabilizes the present, keeping before us the gap between what we are called to bear witness to and how we are currently living.

Remembering a phrase like “the end is our beginning” helps us stay focused on the future, on what God is calling us to be, in a way that stirs our imagination and pulls us forward. We begin with a destination toward which we are moving, rather than settling into the status quo or nostalgia for some real or imagined past.

Stay open to the Holy Spirit. Western Christians, particularly in the U.S., have developed an allergy to the Holy Spirit. We have done so for a variety of reasons, but two are particularly important. First, Charles Taylor suggests in “A Secular Age” that increasingly even believers operate with a default assumption that God is not active in the world. This “immanent frame” tempts even Christian leaders to think, live and lead as “practical atheists.”

Second, if we’re open to the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that we are not in control of our plans or our agenda. Staying open to the Spirit means preparing ourselves to be disrupted by the wild, beautiful, transformational work of God’s Spirit that blows where the Spirit will and leads us places we did not intend -- or often even want -- to go.

For example, a rural congregation in eastern North Carolina began praying that God would send them children to love -- and were surprised when the children God sent were refugees from Myanmar. By staying open to the Holy Spirit, though, they embraced those children, and discovered powerful revitalization and renewal.

When we are tempted to make decisions as if we human beings were the only decision makers, or as if “I” or “we” were in control, we need to remind ourselves to stay open to the Holy Spirit. This reframes decision making as discernment, and it focuses our attention on practices such as prayer and hospitality as means by which we become receptive to the work of the Spirit.

Practice storytelling and story listening. Traditioned innovation depends on our capacity to hold past, present and future together in a coherent story. Such engagement with story is central to the formation and sustenance of identity, whether personal, communal, organizational, cultural or even cosmic. Stories shape and articulate our sense of who we are, where we have been and where we are going. These stories are rich and complex, with remarkable twists and turns and reversals and upheavals and surprises, and yet they are coherent.

Most centrally, the practice here involves the story of God as told in Scripture from creation to new creation. We need to rediscover more life-giving ways of telling that story, as well as locating ourselves, and our world, in that story. But this practice involves our stories, too -- learning how to tell the stories of our lives and our communities and organizations, and how to locate those stories in the larger story of God.

This description highlights the importance of “story listening.” Alasdair MacIntyre notes in “After Virtue” that any vibrant tradition exists as an ongoing argument about how best to tell the story of that tradition. It is crucial for us to develop deep and wise skills of listening to one another, both in our contemporary contexts and from the accounts of forebears. We do so in part to challenge our own partial and biased renderings of the stories, and also to enrich our capacities to tell the stories well.

If a team in your organization gets caught in too much data or analysis, be sure to take a step back and see how particular decisions fit within larger and longer narrative contexts.

Plant and prune. Beginning with the end, staying open to the Holy Spirit, and storytelling and story listening all invite us to plant seeds and discover fresh new elements in our organizational ecosystems. Planting seeds is a sign of trust in the future -- that God will indeed make things new. We need to ask regularly what new things we are planting.

At the same time, though, we need to prune what already exists. We can embrace living tradition and distinguish it from dead traditionalism only if we regularly discern what needs to be left behind. Why might we do that? Because of sinful brokenness and blindness; because those parts of the past are no longer relevant for the future; because pruning would enable the future to flourish in new ways. This last point is important.

The biblical metaphor of pruning illumines the mysterious truth that good gardeners know: pruning requires cutting away healthy parts of an organism in order that it might flourish even more abundantly. And that is equally true of organizations.

Say “yes, and” rather than “no, but.” “Yes, and” is a central practice of improvisational theater, because it provides a way of keeping a story going even when other actors have turned the action in a bizarre direction. “Yes, and” keeps us focused on possibilities and new ways of telling and listening to the story; “yes, and” can help orient us toward God and the work of the Holy Spirit.

“No, but” tends to block creativity and create division, often causing people to retreat into 2-year-old battles of “me,” “mine” and “no.” Christians are called to bear witness to the resurrected Christ, the one whom St. Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 1:19-20 as God’s definitive “yes.” Christians improvise by drawing what is best in the past into future possibilities. We are always looking for third ways, for possibilities of what Sam Wells describes in “Improvisation” as “overaccepting.”

A commitment to “yes, and” leads us to think less oppositionally and more opposably. As Roger Martin’s work reveals, that also leads to more effective decision making for leaders and organizations.

I have been surprised at the transformations in the substance of my thinking, my leadership and my emotional life simply through learning to avoid, as much as I can, saying or writing the words “no” and “but.” It is amazing what our language does to us -- and can do for us.

Use humor to foster growth. When we are developing new default mindsets and habits of learning, thinking, living and leading, it is helpful to have humorous ways to remind ourselves of our old mindsets and patterns. I thought I was being clever in “instructing” others on my team how to do this -- until they started using my humorous phrases back at me. And then I began to discover how much learning and transformation I needed as well!

Two humorous phrases have proved particularly helpful in our learning to practice traditioned innovation. The first draws on the biblical story in Numbers 13 and 14, where the Israelites in the wilderness become fearful about the obstacles ahead of them in their journey toward the promised land. Rather than trusting God to guide them through the obstacles, they decide they want to “go back to Egypt.”

The past in Egypt was suffering, slavery, oppression -- and it was familiar. This temptation to get stuck in a real or imagined past -- no matter how bad it might have been -- is now described by my colleagues and me as “going back to Egypt.” Imagine my dismay one day when a colleague noted to me that it seemed I was taking up residence in ancient Cairo!

The second humorous phrase points to a tendency to dwell on the negative rather than finding the life-giving potential that lies in traditioned innovation. It is drawn from a joke about the first woman pastor at a church. When the “good ol’ boy” leaders of the church invite her to go fishing, as they did with her male predecessors, she happily accepts. But when they are in the boat in the middle of the lake, they realize that the tackle box is still back on the dock. The woman pastor offers to go and get it, and then steps out of the boat and starts walking on the water toward the dock. At that point, one man turns to another and says, “Bad enough they sent us a woman pastor, but they sent us one who can’t swim!” My colleagues and I will now simply say “she can’t swim” when one of us gets stuck in a negative reading of a person or a situation.

Cultivate hope. Traditioned innovation offers a way beyond either optimism or pessimism. It orients us to the future, as with optimism -- but not so much because of who we are as because of who God is and where God is leading us. And it keeps us mindful of our propensity for sin and brokenness, as with pessimism -- but not in a way that gets us stuck either in the present or in some longing to go back to a broken past.

We can be honest about the past and the present because of God’s forgiveness and redemption. We are focused on the virtue of hope, and in so doing, we faithfully engage past, present and future in life-giving ways.

Keeping the words “cultivate hope” in view orients us toward God and what God is doing in the world, in our own lives, and in our communities and institutions. In all of those contexts, we are called to focus on hope in our planning, in our dreaming, and even in our struggles and challenges.

In pursuit of that focus, a prayer that Maggy Barankitse prays each morning perhaps ought to be said at the beginning of each day and each meeting in Christian institutions: “Lord, let your miracles break forth every day, and let me not be an obstacle in any way.” Voicing these words, we can learn to trust that the Lord will grace us with miracles regularly, and we can become more attentive to the importance of minimizing the ways we might be obstacles to those miracles.

These seven tips can help us learn to practice traditioned innovation in organizational leadership. They cannot serve as a replacement for the longer journey of Christian formation; each of them depends on, and points us to, the importance of wisdom and growing in intimacy with God. But these tips can enable us to chart some paths forward and discover new ways of remembering, for the sake of faithful and effective leadership, and organizational renewal and vitality.