“Leaders are always answering the call: Act, Act, Act!” Jim Osterhaus
The Expert Consultant interrupted me, “Tod, that’s all very interesting, but I want to know what you are going to DO.” If we give you this job, what PROGRAMS will you DO to strengthen the Christian Education of our church?”
Admittedly, I was a bit stunned, and I am not sure I handled it well at all. I had been in the middle of what I thought was a thoughtful reflection about the context and challenges that our church was facing at that moment in our history. I was trying to demonstrate that I had a deep understanding of the long legacy, the great potential and, yes, the challenges we faced in a rapidly changing urban culture. But she cut me off.
That wasn’t what the Expert Consultant was looking for. Not then, and certainly not from me, the then- 28-year-old College Ministry Director who was interviewing to be the head of the Christian Education Department that Henrietta Mears had once made the envy of the nation.
She wanted my “To-Do List”. She wanted to evaluate my knowledge and expertise at getting things done. She wanted to know what was in my bag of tricks, what programs would I implement, what new initiatives would I launch. So I changed mid-sentence and launched into a long list of programs and ideas that I had. But mostly I tried to say that we didn’t need to do a bunch of new stuff, we just needed to do what we do better, more consistently and with greater awareness to how the world is changing around us. I think the famous consultant stopped listening as soon as it was clear that I didn’t have anything “new to-do”. They didn’t give me the job—at least not after that interview. But even then I didn’t realize that I was on the leading edge of a sea change in understanding the role of leadership in a changing world.
That was in 1992. I was applying to take my old boss’ position of Pastor of Christian Education. The search committee had been looking for a long time with not much luck. When I heard that the search had stalled, I asked my executive pastor and senior pastor if I could interview for the position. I was just brash enough to believe that five years of being on the staff gave me insight to actually understand the culture, context and challenges facing us.
But when the Expert Consultant interrupted me, it was clear she was not looking for someone from the inside who understood the culture, but someone from the outside who would bring in a new “To Do List”, a new bag of tricks. The Expert Consultant wanted an Expert Pastor.
They found their Expert Outsider who came highly recommended by the other Experts in the field. He brought a long “To Do List” and immediately started sending memos, calling meetings, issuing orders, writing new policies and launching new programs. He was smart (with both an Ivy League pedigree and a degree from a well-known seminary), he was hard working and certainly had a good track record of getting things done at a large mid-western church. He lasted one year.
As the Expert Outsider was cleaning out his office, the Expert Consultant came to me with a kindly smile, “Well, that didn’t work out the way we hoped, but we were wondering if you would be interested in the taking the position now.” And without even knowing it, I was beginning to “unlearn” some lessons about what it meant to be a leader that I am just now figuring out almost twenty years later.
All of my life, I have been told consciously or unconsciously that leaders are experts who “know what they are doing.” Leaders act and they act expertly. Leaders have game plans, programs, agendas, a “vision”. Whether you are running a government or interviewing for an associate pastor position you are expected to know what to do and especially to have a Master Plan of Action. And this is all represented in the “To-Do List”. Now, to be clear, I have no problems with a To Do List. The probably is not Doing, but what we do. And our biggest problem is that we start doing before we do any deep reflecting. We do what we do best before we even really know what we should do (or if anything we do will make any difference at all.)
In this series of posts, I want to offer a different kind of “To-Do List”: A To-Do List for a leader who faces an uncertain future and a changing world. A To-Do List for those who are leading organizations or communities into uncharted territory. It is based on the concept of “praxis” (or “reflective action”) and begins with the notion that if we really knew what needed to be done (understood as “technical” competence), it would already be done. But leadership in the face of a changing world, uncharted territory or an uncertain future requires a different kind of “To-Do List” that is not based in being an expert but being a learner.
Eric Hoffer wrote: "In times of great change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists."
This To Do List is a Learners List. It is a list for leaders who know that there are no simple solutions. It is a list for leaders who well understand that if the problems facing them could be fixed with a program, it already would have been fixed. So here is the first item on the “To Do List” leadership in a changing world.
Future Leaders need to be “adaptive persons” who take on "adaptive challenges." To do so means that they must have the courage to look at the brutal facts of the challenge in front of them and when asked what they are going to do, boldly declare the blunt truth: “I don’t know.”
Saying, “I don’t know” takes confidence and courage. It takes honesty and humility. It requires that people trust you and that you trust the people that you are working with. It is a really hard first thing “To Do” (indeed, most leaders NEVER do it), but it is absolutely necessary if you are going to lead into an uncertain future, uncharted territory and a changing world. Because when you say those words out loud and when they are truly believed by those who you lead, two things happen:1) The challenge ahead is seen with clear-eyed sobriety for what it REALLY is.
2) YOU, as the Leader, are then seen with clear-eyed sobriety for who you REALLY are.
Which leads to #2 on the “The Future Leader’s To-Do List”: Resign.
Which is where we will pick up the next post.