When new leaders find themselves in surprising contexts

Leaders must work through issues of identity and community, asking themselves: Who are we, where are we, and where are we going?

Mac Warford, author, UCC pastor and former president of Bangor Theological Seminary, tells the true story of an international flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco. On board was a German who spoke no English, but who was looking forward to a two-week vacation in San Francisco.

Upon reaching the U.S., his plane stopped to refuel in Bangor, Maine, before it made the final leg of its journey to the West Coast. Anyone who has been to Bangor knows that it is a small city and a bit down-and-out, but it happens to have an international airport because of its unusually long runway for the larger planes.

Waking from his nap, the German passenger saw that the flight had landed, and he assumed that he had arrived in San Francisco. He de-boarded the plane, taking with him his small carry-on luggage and, being too weary to go far, checked into the adjacent airport hotel. For the next several days, he wandered the gritty town of Bangor, believing that he was in San Francisco.

Eventually, a few townspeople in a local pub discovered his error.

Realizing that this story was too good to be true, they contacted the local newspaper and a translator. The reporters asked the German, “When did you first realize that you weren’t actually in San Francisco?” “Well,” he replied, “I was a little disappointed in the bridge!” And when he visited Bangor’s one Chinese restaurant, he also thought the guidebooks had overrated Chinatown!

The good townspeople of Bangor took up a collection and bought the man a ticket to San Francisco. Several years later, however, he did come back just to visit his new friends and the fair city of Bangor, Maine.

This story reminds me of what it’s like to be a new institutional leader: We often buy tickets to San Francisco, but after a year or two of leading an organization find that we have, in fact, landed in Bangor, Maine.

It wasn’t where we planned to go; it wasn’t where we prepared to go; and the bridge isn’t half as impressive as it is in the guidebooks. Yet, despite the fog, we find ourselves going back.

Who are we, where are we, and where are we going?

One of the most useful things institutional leaders can do to address the multitude of issues we face today is to first take the time to work out issues of identity and community. If we discover that we’ve landed somewhere other than where we’d planned to go, we need to ask ourselves several questions:

  • How are things different from how I thought they would be?
  • What will it take for me to accept where I am?
  • What resources are available in this landscape?
  • What guidebooks might be useful?
  • What can I do here? And what am I not able to do?

Once we’ve answered these questions, we can then locate good leadership within our new contexts. And then can we can begin to find the blessings of Bangor.