Tag Archives: Leadership

Navigating uncertainty in an age of perpetual crises

Or, Six Shifts on the Road to 2030

What if this goes on for two years?

I asked my team, stoked their fears

No more holding our breath,

Hoping for the best,

Watching our peers.

Time to embrace different living,

Find strength to keep on giving

No more easy sailing

Comfort Zone staying,

In the shallows swimming.

Time to embrace the raging seas,

“Out of your depth?” the doubters’ tease

Not aware our feet are firm

Changing our subtle form

A new army rises from its knees.

Back in September I asked my team a simple question – “What if this goes on for two years?” In the summer, the World Health Organisation President said we should expect two years of restrictions. It made me think, what would I do differently if this went on until Spring 2022? Since then we have had good news about a new vaccine, and a series of disappointing and continuing restrictions that have pushed normality over the horizon.

Amid this season it is easy to become discouraged and downhearted. We need each other more than ever to listen, be sympathetic and remind each other of our love and care for each other. However, if we raise our gaze beyond the immediate circumstances, I believe there are a number of shifts that are happening due to the fracturing of normality. I have outlined six strategic shifts that I see happening and what you can do within your organisation to help it prepare for a different world.

OPERATING MINDSET: Shift from Resources to Resourcefulness (What you know is less important than how you think)

In a hyper-VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world the speed of change means no one can cover a large enough domain of expertise to become the de facto guru. It turns out in a knowledge economy, it is not the accumulation of knowledge that gives you an edge – but the ability to extract actionable insights from the wealth of knowledge that you have access to.

A strong and diverse network with a rapid speed of response becomes more important than hoarding resources. Informed instincts become more important, and speed of adaptation becomes a competitive advantage, even in some places a survival attribute. Seek to build an open and diverse group of voices that you listen to and allow to speak into your life and leadership.

LEADERSHIP: Shift from Positional to Purposeful power (Who you are is more important than your role or title)

Old hierarchies have been overturned almost overnight. Those leaders that kept their people in line by walking past their desks and looking over their shoulder are powerless in a work-from-home world that runs on flexibility and trust. In an age where everything is available and accessible online, people are voting with their fingertips for the people and programmes they want to follow. Command and control is very hard to implement down broadband cables.

When location is irrelevant, meeting people has never been easier, keeping people has never been harder. We must stop giving orders and start listening to questions in order to motivate people to want to do what we want them to do…take 50% longer to share the vision than you think necessary. People will follow when they believe in the purpose.

ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT: Shift from Administration to Exploration (Your Comfort Zone is shrinking every day!)

At every organization there are those that are simply keeping the engine ticking over – either knowingly or unknowingly. When crises after crises hits us and business as usual becomes business unusual, what happens to the person who can only operate within a limited frame of skills or experiences? When we are off the map, and in uncharted territory the heart of the explorer returns.

It was the privilege of our earlier ancestors to go into parts of the world that weren’t on any map. That task now falls to us – but not geographic exploration, rather a re-inventing of the economic model that is built on new principles. Look to the fringes of your organisation for inspiration, there are probably people already adapting to the future within your organisation but don’t have access to the top decision makers. Find, empower, and follow these emerging leaders.

ENGAGEMENT: Shift from Assumed to Asked / Online to Engaged (What does discretionary effort look like when no one is watching?)

A key question for leaders in the future will be “What are the measurements and metrics that help you understand if your message and mission is being followed and making an impact?” In the old world we knew if people were paying attention because when we looked round the Town Hall, we could see how many people showed up and who was paying attention. In the new world we have no (immediate) idea what the organisation are thinking and if anyone is following. We have lost the most important communicator of all – body language.

We must now deliberately take the time and effort to ask people what they think and build an expectation of transparency and openness, which will enable them to be honest. Don’t take attendance for engagement, learn how to get under the skin of your organisation and get their 100% honest, unfiltered opinion. By the way, this will probably be painful!

FRAGILITY: Shift from Risk to Resilience (Only the bendable will survive!)

Much of our past thinking about the future has been to avoid risks and find opportunity. Now we can see that the events we need to navigate are too big to avoid, and the key uncertainties are timing and scale of impact. In this world we must practice our crises response way ahead of time. Resilience is the idea that we come back stronger after a severe test. We must understand the fragility of our system and what vulnerabilities could be exposed during a shock.

Those that thrive in the new world will be those that see the value in investing time, effort and money in small adjustments to build resilience ahead of the coming shocks, rather than pay massive bills after it has happened. Practice worst case scenario thinking…be brave enough to ask the really tough questions and work back from there. Small bets, less borrowing, patient growth.

VALUE: Shift from Value Extraction to Value Creation (How to make more with less?)

We must find a way to generate value without reducing our resources. Resource scarcity drove our understanding of economics in the past – get as much as possible as quickly as possible and earn as much as possible. This is a zero sum game when our resources are reducing the inhabitable portion of our planet.

People will always pay for a service or a product that they value. The organisations that thrive in the future will find a way to generate that value without contributing to the ever diminishingresources equation. It is possible but hard. Every future business case will need to explain how the idea contributes positively to the accretive impact on our natural and human capital. Our number one challenge is to leave this Earth a richer, more beautiful, more diverse place than how we found it.

There is no better way to sum all this up than by the saying of the late, great football manager Gerard Houllier who died last week and once said:

“Leadership is a transfer of emotion”

It is the heart that connects to other human beings and inspires them. If we want to make an impact in the midst of an ever changing and uncertain future we must dig deep to find our inherent values and passions and be the person who others will trust enough to share their deep frustrations and emotional struggles. If we are genuinely following this path, the rest will follow naturally.

The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you

If there is one book that has incapsulated the journey I have been on in the last 15+ years it has been Canoeing The Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. I only read it three years ago, but little did I realise I had been experiencing the reality of its challenge long before Tod articulated it for me.

It was the summer of 2017 and I was sitting in Cafe Nero riveted to Tod’s description of explorers Lewis & Clark. They set out in 1803 to map the western part of America, an expanse previously unknown and assumed to hold a water course to the Pacific Ocean. Tod interlaces this analogy of exploration with the steady marginalisation of the church in western civilisation.

The beauty of what Tod does in this book is that he is able to draw insightful parallels from their unexpected adventures in the wilderness with the monumental shifts that have taken place in society’s relationship with the church.

The gems in this book are too rich to summarise in a soundbite, they reward the thoughtful. This book deals with how to lead transformational change within an organisation when all around us is shifting. In the military they call it VUCA – volition, uncertain, complex & ambiguous. How do we lead change in a VUCA world?

What kind of leader do we need to be in order to both care for people and lead them into uncharted territory?

I have found its wisdom has remained with me these last few years. It calls us to not remain in the shallows but cast out for deeper waters abandoning our preconceived assumptions of what life would hold. Complete surrender is the goal, letting go of the need to gain approval or acceptance.

Stepping in to the unknown will mean we let go of our human resource to find all sufficiency in God’s provision – often in the unlikeliest of places & the least listened to people.

Reflecting on this book helped me to see two things clearly that I will be forever thankful for:

I need to care less about what people think of me – I surrender my need for approval

I need to care less about the problems causing the decay – I surrender my need for control

This is the fifth book review ahead of Thrive Scotland 2020, a catalyst conference starting on 9th September for encouraging Christians in the workplace.

A refreshed vision

For the last few years a small group of us have been sowing into the Aberdeen business community, with a heart to bless the city. We are refreshing our vision for 2020, you can read more below:

The Business Connection 2020 – Refreshing Our Vision

The Business Connection (http://thebusinessconnection.org/) exists to equip, encourage and empower people in the corporate sector in Aberdeen city and shire. We are a not-for-profit charity (SC045163) run by four trustees from within the business community for the benefit of the business community. All Trustees are volunteers, sourcing their income from professional employment or leading their own business or social enterprise. The charity is self-funded and relies on the donations of supporters to fund our activities. The charity’s activities have progressed over the last seven years:

– Since 2013 we have been hosting fortnightly breakfasts for workers to make friends, share stories and build relationships.

– Since 2016 we have also been hosting monthly talks on the last Friday of the month aimed at supporting the business community with helpful, thoughtful presentations on local and national issues across a range of topics.

– In 2019 we hosted the first Thrive Aberdeen conference along with 12 other Christian organisations (including Evangelical Alliance, LICC; Transform Work UK and many others) aimed at calling, gathering and celebrating those of a Christian faith in the workplace.

As we begin a new decade, we are relaunching the charity with two new Trustees – individuals of deep faith who bring significant experience across the public and private sector in Aberdeenshire.

Together we have sought to discern what the needs of the city and shire are at this moment in time. We believe that now is the time to sharpen our focus on the specific challenges facing our historic city. In order to ensure we invest the right resources in our vision we are stopping the fortnightly breakfasts for the foreseeable future.

We see that the forces that have shaped Aberdeen to be the city it has become are shifting and the city has entered a period of reinventing its identity. This change in direction has a knock-on impact on those of us employed in the city. We are asking ourselves: “How can those who care about the health and well-being of the Aberdeen business community help them influence the future direction of the city and shire?”

Alongside this focus on providing an intentional platform for influencing executive decision making, we also want to support the business community in having a more direct impact on helping organisations seeking to bless the neediest in the city and shire. So, we are also asking ourselves: “How can those of us who have benefitted from the prosperity of the region bless those who have not?”

We believe this dual pronged approach enables those in business to be a force for good – helping connect the decision makers to the workforce; and helping connect some of the most fortunate in society with some of the least fortunate. We are proposing a two-pronged approach in 2020, with a series of thought-provoking sessions from key organisations both within and outside the Aberdeenshire region on these two themes.

We invite those of you within our 280 strong network to come along and engage with our guests. We invite the key decision makers and culture shapers in Aberdeenshire to come and share thoughts on how the workforce in this region can help contribute to a better future for everyone.

We very much look forward to the year to come.

The Business Connection Trustees: Barry McAllister; Jim Grimmer; Martyn Link; Smart Masoni

A Bolder Boulder

I orginally wrote this post for the Evangelical Alliance to support the launch of their new course on Public Christianity called SENT. You can find a copy here.

The workplace can be a tough place to be, often bringing with it demanding bosses, difficult customers and complex career paths. In this mix of success and frustration it can be hard to carve out your own path.

So it is that after another exhausting day I slouch into the fading blue train seat and wonder if this is really what I should be doing with my life. I look at my emails pinging in and ask myself some questions…What is my tiny role in God’s big picture? In my struggle to get through each day am I simply surviving or building resilience? What could I do to change the culture at work? If I got the chance to say something to improve the corporate culture in the UK, what would I say?

It is into this space that we went as a group of 12 or so Christian business people in the last few months of 2018. Through the materials provided by Evangelical Alliance’s SENT course, we piloted material seeking to shape our views of public leadership. To many of us it is hard to see ourselves as leaders, let alone think about deliberately putting ourselves in the public eye. The Evangelical Alliance asked us to intentionally explore the role of the workplace disciple in the public square.

Through four sessions we were taken on a journey through understanding our worldview, unpacking distinctive Christian leadership, building our leadership competency and becoming a force for change. As we journeyed together we started to share our insecurities and hopes, we started to pray into each other’s lives, inspiring each other to be more confident in our leading.

Through the course, I often reflected on what it takes to start a movement. How do we harness individual enthusiasm and prayerfully channel this into a city-wide passion for renewal? It is impossible to tell the exact moment when the boulder’s centre of gravity inexorably crosses the tipping point and the fall is inevitable. However, we quickly see the gathering momentum as a result. This course pushed a small group of us on the northeast coast of Scotland over the edge and into the mist beyond. On behalf of all the participants, thank you for the push!

https://www.eauk.org/resources/what-we-offer/courses-and-small-groups/sent

10 lessons on having confidence in our leaders

Yesterday I read this verse in Hebrews whilst studying for a sermon I am writing at the moment on Jesus’ public humiliation before his crucifixion: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority because they kept watch over you as those who must give an account” (Hebrews 13v17).

Over the last 25 years, I have served as both a person-in-the-pew and in church leadership at four churches. I have also had many conversations with people who had little if any confidence in their church leaders. I admit that I have not always followed this instruction, so I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone. Here are 10 lessons that hit me afresh when I read this verse:

  1. Leaders will shape the DNA of a church, company or organisation whether they realise it or not, as will our attitude to them leading us (for better or worse)
  2. Having confidence in our leaders is not something that comes naturally to most people, it will normally require a change in heart attitude on our part
  3. It is a command of scripture, so we would do well to obey it and will find a blessing as a result
  4. Submitting doesn’t mean we will always (or often) agree, but it does mean supporting them by our words and attitude as far as is biblically possible
  5. Our leaders will make mistakes, we should get used to it. Sometimes they will recognise these mistakes (publically or privately), sometimes they will not. This verse is not conditional on our leaders admitting their mistakes.
  6. Complaining and moaning to others does not resolve anything (it only hardens our heart), be courageous enough to gently address unbiblical actions or attitudes face to face, or cover over with love and be silent.
  7. If we think the best, hope for the best and act for the best we will make their lives a lot easier and our own minds a lot more contented
  8. Other passages make it clear leaders do not have unquestioned authority, be clear what areas really constitute disqualification from leadership and which don’t (see 1 Timothy chapter 1 & 6, 2 Timothy 2 & 3).
  9. In a world where leadership is constantly in the spotlight (and everyone is an expert) be gentle with your leaders, always keeping your own failings and faults at the front of your mind. They will one day have to give an account for their oversight.
  10. Forgiveness, forgetfulness and prayer for their blessing will defeat a critical and bitter spirit that is rising up in our hearts from past hurts.

Father, help us to appreciate those who give of their time, effort and gifts to lead us, often without thanks for all their sacrifices. May we be easy to lead amongst the flock, being both biblically discerning and relentlessly supportive as we all follow you. Help them as they keep watch over us to know your presence and wisdom in their lives. Amen

Are you sure you want to be a Level 5 leader?

If you are into your business gurus then you will probably be familiar with Jim Collins’ book Good to Great which seeks to determine what it takes to make a great company. While some of the companies in this classic are now struggling or gone, the principles Collins draws out are as they helpful now as they were back then. 

At the heart of his book is a challenge to all leaders to aspire to something he calls Level 5 leadership – the leader who is simultaneously authentically humble and resolutely determined. He challenges us to walk in the path of someone like Martin Luther King Jr. who embodied these two leadership qualities magnificantly. Collins has coached hundreds of leadership teams on this model and he finds it resonates with people – we want to be led by fair, transparent, accountable leaders.

As I have observed many leaders first hand over the years I am left asking myself this question; Do I really aspire to be a Level 5 leader? Do I want to be this type of person? If the answer is yes and I/we do aspire to this level of leadership, here are five questions I need to ask myself before I commit to this path:

  1. Am I ready to be overlooked and treated unfairly? We work in a dog eat dog world, are you someone who will fight for every inch of respect, compensation and opportunity possible? Let’s get real, when we are not invited to a key meeting how do we react? When we find out we are not equally compensated alongside our peers do we hit the roof? When we are the last person to receive recognition are we still ok? What will be our response to these situations? The difference in our approach will show itself as the difference between fighting for equality and meritocracy in an organisation verses fighting for personal standing, compensation and profile. Are we prepared to suck it up more often than we stand up for an issue?
  2. Are you willing to not defend yourself? We live in the cut and thrust world where you will probably have enemies at some point. How will you react when it gets personal? In a conflict situation how will you respond when the arrows start flying? In positions of power we have the opportunity to seek to right personal wrongs and to push our version of events through our organisation. Will we go on the offensive when we are criticised? Beyond Broken challenges us not to throw the javelin when others attack, and by doing so we are absorbing the human cost of the offence. Will we become bitter or better leaders? To become Level 5 we should expect criticism as part of the job, expect to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Decide now that although your motives will be questioned you will always act with integrity. 
  3. Are you willing to forgive? Following on from this if you accept this path you will need to learn how to forgive people who are not level 5 leaders and are not seeking to follow the same path. When others directly oppose what you are trying to do, especially when they resort to underhand techniques to try and undermine your position what will be the story you leave in your heart? What will you do when the dust settles and you are now their boss? Will you get your own back for their treatment of you, or will you breath out, forgive, move on and start again? 
  4. Are you ready to leave alone? If we are one of those leaders seeking to take the organisation into unchartered territory, for its own benefit and survival, then we will sometimes end up in a culture war against the establishment. At those moments the temptation is to take our allies and start a competing organisation in the next door office or church building. At that moment we must decide who we will be. Will we be the disgruntled leader who seeks to destroy what they once worked so hard to build, or will we seek to begin a new story in uncontested water where our services or ministry is really needed? Level 5 leaders take the personal loss of starting from scratch rather than rip an organisation in two through splitting the leadership.
  5. Are you willing to fail? Finally, we must face up to our own failure. A couple of times in my life I have failed at things I have passionately believed where the right thing to do. At these times we are tempted to wallow in self-pity or rage against the machine. The Level 5 leader will take stock, dress their wounds, and slowly but surely get up to fight another day. This may well be the defining characteristic of the humble resolute leader, and I wonder if those two character traits can really flourish in a world where we have never known personal loss and failure. If we embrace the lessons failure would teach us we can ultimately move beyond seeking our own personal prestige to the calling beyond ourselves.

If you want to explore what it means to be this kind of leader we would love you to join us at the Thrive Conference next month in Aberdeen where we will look at this type of distinctive leadership: https://thebusinessconnection.org/thrive/