Missional Churches: The Problem with Definitions

A Review of the Current Popular Discussion

The discussion surrounding missional church concepts is robust and fraught with difficulty in defining exactly what is meant.  Is there a better descriptive terminology that contrasts an ingrown (toxic) congregation to an engaging (vibrant) congregation than the current popular attractional versus missional nomenclature? Discussions regarding the meaning of “missional” yield a confusing array of inferred theological and philosophical models for interpreting the nature of the church and its relationship to its cultural milieu.  A limited review of discussions about the missional church movement indicates erroneous assumptions: (1) that localized experience extrapolates to universal commentary on the effectiveness of a concept and (2) that inferred theological assumptions are universally shared.

One online discussion identified the challenges inherent in defining the practice of being a “missional” church.  It is one thing to review the discussion between theologians, missiologists and sociologists who utilize specific language, share a historical awareness of the development of church history and social trends and are practiced at identifying their own assumed values.  It is something entirely different to move the conversation to a popular level among practitioners who demonstrate various levels of appreciation of history beyond personal experience, specialized symbols and vocabulary and rigorous self awareness.

This article explores one discussion of what it means to be a missional church and what it means to transition from not being a missional church to being one.  The objective if the article is to review a discussion of what it means to be a missional church and extract helpful insights to help practitioners manage the challenge of change.

Ecclesia – What is it?

The discussion of what it means to be a missional church is a discussion on what it means to be the church in today’s environment.   What is the church? Every tradition accepts that the genesis of the church traces back to the work and promise of Jesus Christ;

…I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you lose on earth will be loosed in heaven.[1]

Jesus’ statement not only sets the identity and focus of the church it also outlines its mission as an interface between heaven and earth.  This priestly theme occurs regularly in the gospels from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus emphasized both the covenant nature of his presence and the interdictory nature of this presence in his description of what Nathaniel could anticipate;

Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig Tree? You will see great things than these…. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.[2]

The reference to Jacob’s vision and experience with the covenant making and covenant keeping God who intervenes in human events is clear.  There is not only a sense of having direct access to God inferred by Jesus’ statement but also a mirroring of the theme Mark uses to set our expectation for how the church would continue to powerfully operate in the presence of the risen Christ;

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…[3]

The church’s commission includes the task of being a priestly people and thus to “…stand before God on behalf of people and to stand before people on behalf of God.”[4]  Mission is not something that the church does as an activity external to itself, it is the very life the church lives in a community that demonstrates the reality of God, the promise of God, the power of God and the intention of God (i.e., reconciliation with humankind). 

Even a casual awareness of church history leads one to conclude that the work being done to define what it means to be a missional church is really not a new work or idea.  The apostles wrestled with the nature of the church and its role in missio Dei.  The post apostolic fathers amplified the debate continuing to question how the relationship between the church and its context was to be defined.  The vocabulary changes as new generations grapple with what it means to be participants in missio Dei (sending of God).  Bosch describes it as;

In attempting to flesh out the missio Dei concept, the following could be said: in the new image mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God.  God is a missionary God…. “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father than includes the church.”[5]

Bosch’s view represents a significant shift in the perspective of mission.  This shift is recognized by Guder and others when he writes about how the church has tended to view mission in the modern period;

In the ecclesiocentric approach of Christendom, mission became only one of the many programs of the church.[6]

Bosch and others contend for a different view, a view of mission that is Christocentric and sees the church as a participant in missio Dei.  The question each generation of believers is therefore compelled to ask is; to what extent does our lifestyle and behavior as a group or institution (church) accurately serve as an exhibit of missio Dei? The current engagement of the missional concept looks for ways to be more closely aligned to missio Dei. One of the respondents to the discussion board at the heart of this article captured the essence of the practical impact of the shift in thinking that missional practitioners would like to make i.e., the local church exists to transform the community rather than to sit and wait for the community to come to it. Those wrestling with what it means to be a missional church or what it means to not be a missional church wrestle with the reality of change; a changing social context, changing attitudes about the church and deliberate attempts at change to be better aligned with a definition of God’s missionary nature.  Thus definitions of “missional” emerge from this view of God’s missionary nature.   What follows is a sampling of what is written about the missional church;

With the term missional we emphasize the essential nature and vocation of the church as God’s called and sent people…[7]

Just as we must insist that a church which has ceased to be a mission has lot the essential character of a Church, so we must also say that a mission which is not at the same time truly a Church is not a true expression of the divine apostolate. An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary church.[8]

But when a local congregation understands that it is, by its nature, a constellation of mission activities, and it intentionally lives its life as a missionary body, then it begins to emerge toward becoming the authentic Church of Jesus Christ.[9]

…a missional church is one whose primary commitment is to the missionary calling of the people of God.  Missional leadership is that form of leadership that emphasizes the primacy of the missionary calling of God’s people…[10]

Today’s church has posed itself a serious challenge: to live according to its missional nature rather than simply organize around mission activities.  The challenge is something of an antidote to the church’s previous practice of piecing together a theology out of the two “Great Commissions” verses…rather than from the entire biblical story.[11]

It seems unavoidable then that the conversation engages the church regardless of the theological tradition.  At each point of engagement a gap between intent and reality may occur. It is here that defensiveness tends to arise.  A new generation of thinkers/practitioners reframe what it means to be a disciple often contrasting what they have inherited to the authentic – a move that is often disconcerting to the prior generation inevitably caught in the crosshairs of the assessment.  The gap drives home the need for transformation and its necessary antecedent – repentance for all participants. It is good to keep in mind that repentance must be recognized as a continuous spiritual discipline rather than an exceptional discontinuous crisis event.  If the practice of confession and repentance is lost from the regular expression of discipleship then the focus of the church shifts from being a priestly people to being a consumer people insisting that the church be a place of reassuring comfort and self indulgent affirmation apart from all sense of mission, service, sacrifice or personal spiritual growth. I fear that the later is frequently the situation in popular discussion regarding what it means to be missional.


Are you aware of any churches who have successfully transitioned from a typical attractional model worship service to a missional/organic model?  I am working with a pastor who has moved a church that worshipped 80-100 to a group of less than 40 people. Many people are upset. As a consultant and denominational executive I’m trying to find other examples of such a philosophy change so I can give wise consultations.[12]

I was drawn to this discussion because the failed change process described above is not uncommon to my supervisory and personal experience in pastoral ministry.  At first blush I assumed that the pastor in question had reached a point I call “the effectiveness lament”.  The effectiveness lament applies in two directions (1) it is the frustration of a leader who feels trapped by their own success and (2) it is the frustration of a leader who feels internally berated by their lack of apparent success in light of the success of others.  Pastors like other leaders in this position attempt impulsive change typically addressing adaptive issues through structural strategies i.e., they attempt to treat the symptoms by changing their structure rather than addressing flawed or inadequate assumptions/beliefs inherent in the system.  Such attempts at change always fail, typically with the results described by Williams in the quote above.

I was also drawn to this discussion because it represented a variety of practitioners from a variety of Christian traditions all wrestling with how to define missional and how to initiate change in light of their definitions.  What follows is my attempt to classify the issues that arise in the practice of leadership engaged in applying missional church concepts to their congregation.

Missional – What is Meant?

It didn’t take long for the online discussion to become mired in definitions.  Throughout this discussion it was apparent that people attach a variety of meanings to the concept of “missional”. Remember the various definitions I sampled above.

The benefit of definitions is that they allow for discussion that moves toward a goal of understanding and diagnosis.  Facilitating the discussion requires the ability to help others stay on task and not move off the subject.  For example in one discussion I facilitated for a group trying to work through how the missional concept may help them revision their congregation a participant wanted to equate the presence of a building with immobility and institutionalization.  This is a straw man argument.  While buildings may serve as a local congregation’s albatross it may also serve as a vital launching and refreshment point providing resources and support that is often undervalued and under leveraged in emerging missional movements. The presence or absence of a building is irrelevant. It is the mindset that manages or mis-manages this asset that determines whether a building is leverage or an impediment to a missional approach.

Part of the challenge of any move toward a missional approach to being the church is defining what is meant.  Donald Rucker rightly observed that the word “missional” has become a buzz word that often is poorly defined.   What follows are some examples of definitions of “missional” offered by the participants in this online dicussion.

A flimsy trend. One respondent characterized this thinking as the belief that the local church is going out of business in favor of doing non-institutional ministry in coffee shops, etc.

A contrast. Many of the respondents agreed that a missional church was more desireable than a non-missional church.  One participant summarized the contrast;

Folks, lets not miss the main point of the missional conversation. When they use attractional they are referring to the thousands of self-centered, ingrown churches that function like hospices and hospitals and sit around taking care of themselves without a care in the world for the lost. I’m sorry, but that isn’t a church. We need to acknowledge that. Failure to do so is a serious misunderstanding of the biblical word for church. It’s not both and; its either or. Either a church is missional or it isn’t a church.  Now, its the definition of the word missional that has us hung up. If you are referring to the way Viola uses it, then you have made the issue either or. I don’t subscribe to his definition because he eliminates the institutional church all together which is, to say the least, not smart in our culture. If you are using it the way Reggie McNeal or Dave Ferguson, or Roxburgh use it, then you have a definition of the biblical church which all true churches should be like.[13]

Something that draws the unchurched. This participant jumped into the middle of the issue – what makes for a biblical expression of the church?  Some authors insist that house based expressions of the church are authentic and characterizes churches meeting in other venues as institutional and therefore distracted from the real mission of the church. But landing the discussion on the form the church takes doesn’t get at the real meet of the matter as is evident in other respondents’ comments.  

The larger issue of the attractional/missional church is complex. We took an old, abandoned, rat-infested church building in downtown Worcester, MA scheduled for the wrecking ball and turned it into an “attractional” church, in that people are attracted to its worship and redemptive message. However, the majority of people who attend — and its now the largest church in Worcester — are “the least among us”, and the people are radiant with their living for Jesus in the downtown, uber-urban community. So, there can be interesting hybrids of a church that attracts in order to send out. I guess that’s partly what Bill Easum is speaking about above. [14]

So what do these terms mean?  What is attractional?  Is it substantially different than missional?  Or is this the right question?  Another respondent picked up this question;

 Guess we need to define what is meant by ‘attractional’ and what is meant by ‘missional’. It has been [asked] what is the primary door to the community of believers and faith? Answer: The Sunday morning service. But in a missional context, the primary door is engagement with the faith community (individually and collectively) away from the Sunday gathering.  I am pretty clear that both are ‘church’ but taking using different methodologies to connect.[15]

Notice that the definitions are moving in diametrically opposite directions.  For Vint “attractional” and “missional” are two methodologies each valid as expressions of the church.  However, some academics use the terms as a contrast illustrating biblically acceptable (missional) and biblically unacceptable (attractional).  The tripping point is clear in another response;

The issue is are we going to be like the Jerusalem church (attractional) and sit on our butts and care for ourselves or are we going to be like the Antioch church (missional) and send people out to change the world. Let’s not confuse the conversation by saying it is okay to be an attractional church, its not. That is the whole point of much of the missional church conversation. If we are going to use these terms we must first understand their original meaning in the conversation.[16]

Confusion over the definitions leads to a straw man argument.  If the definitions used by Hirsch and others are not honestly investigated then the use of missional versus attractional sounds as though the authors are guilty of a false dichotomy between missional and attractional approaches.  One participant stated as much succinctly and passionately;  

Please don’t let them fall into the trap of creating a false dichotomy of attractional vs Missional. The issue is what makes the church attractional. Jesus was attractional, the early church was attractional. But people were attracted for the right reasons. The church is also missional- its missionary in its nature, purpose and design. You don’t have to tear the church down to make these changes. It is both and not either or.[17]

Is there a better contrast in word choices?  How about missional and traditional? How about missional and institutional? The pastor who is the subject of the original question is purported to have created a straw man argument using the “traditional church” as the basis of his contrast.

Unfortunately the pastor I am working does not seem to agree. He sees the biblical church as being missional and the current traditional church as being anti-biblical.[18]

The discussion participants that inspired this article seemed to be in full agreement with Milliron’s assessment that attractional versus missional is a false dichotomy especially when one uses Jesus as the model of a missional approach.  Perhaps a different dissection would be helpful.  Since missional (active participation in missio Dei) is popularly seen to include infiltration into society by the church and attraction of society to the church then missional may be better contrasted with institutional.  This aligns better with an understanding or organizational dynamics and lifecycle than does the original attractional/missional dichotomy (cf. Figure 1).  It also aligns better to the words of Jesus familiar to a majority of the average church members that include both the concept of being sent and of attracting (drawing) people to;

No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.[19] (Emphasis mine)

Part of the problem is that unless one reads Ferguson or Hirsch (for example) in detail and see the meaning that they invest the word “attractional” with the discussion breaks down at the point of definitions.  Easum’s summary  does justice to the concept as Ferguson or Hirsch have used the word.  Now if we could just drop both terms we could get to the real issue – does a church primarily exist for itself or for others? How we answer this question answers the complexity of the missional conversation.

Alan Hirsch provides a much needed definition of terms in this work. He contrasts organic missional movements and institutional religion in a way that provides terms needed for diagnosis and prescription (Table 1).

Table 1: Missional and Institutional Illustrated in Contrast[20]

Organic Missional Movement Institutional Religion
Has pioneering missional leadership as its central role Avoids leadership based on personality and is often lead by an “aristocratic class” who inherit leadership based on loyalty
Seeks to embody the way of life of the Founder Represents a more codified belief system
Based on internal operational principles as defined in a missional DNA Based increasingly on external legislating policies/governance
Has a cause Is “the cause”
The mission is to change the future The mission shifts to preserving the past
Tends to be mobile and dynamic Tends to be more static and fixed
Decentralized network built on relationships Centralized organization build on loyalty
Appeals to the common person Tends to become more and more elitist and therefore exclusive
Inspirational/transformational leadership dominant; spiritual authority tends to be the primary basis of influence Transactional leadership dominant; institutional authorizing tends to be primary basis of influence
People of the Way People of the Book
Centered-set dynamic Closed  or bounded set dynamic


The contrast between organic and institutional is not between infiltration and attraction (both working in concert make up a missional orientation) but between a missional and institutional perspective as defined in Table 13. It is important to understand that the summary of Table 13 takes several chapters of historical review in Hirsch’s work to lead the reader to appreciate the development of how we view “church” today.   Understanding four distinct historical movements and the social setting that influenced these movements is critical. It is especially critical when discussing the role of dedicated buildings for the use of the church. The four movements include: (1) Apostolic; (2) Post-Apostolic; (3) Christendom (as initiated by Constantine’s legalization of Christianity); and (4) an emerging missional mode (itself an attempt to grapple with what it means to be the church in a post-modern and increasingly diverse society).  Historical classifications are always arbitrary and subject to the biases of the historian however they are still useful for the sake of understanding the ingredients that make up the context of our current discussion.  Try as we may we cannot divorce ourselves either from our own cultural or historical context. Embracing this reality is a far more productive strategy in any redefinition of what it means to be church.

Understand the life cycle of the congregation i.e., the change context

Once definitions are offered that make sense of the contrast between missional and non-missional churches a pastoral leader is then presented with the challenge of understanding his/her own congregation’s position in its growth/maturation continuum.  In other words understanding where a congregation is at in their life cycle (i.e., young and growing, mature and deepening or aging and reflecting) is imperative.  The way change is addressed changes based on the shared experience and lifecycle position of the congregation. This understanding affects the rate of change and the way change is described.  One individual in the online discussion noted;

 At one time the report from the UCC was that churches that went the “missional way” lost about 10% of worship attendees. I don’t know current statistics or formal research. There are exceptional exceptions (Trinity UCC in Chicago for growth, others that lost 50% of their members). Key issues for the UCC seems to be the comparatively authoritarian ministerial style that accompanies many missional strategies, whether it is a new church start or a change in strategy and, the big issue, just what is meant by ‘missional’ and how broadly encompassing it is (to narrow, leaves people out; to broad, represents no real change).[21]

A poorly executed change strategy results in disillusioned and disengaged followers.  But the experience shared above seems to include a normal loss ratio to change as well as an apparent big loss.  It sometimes seems that any loss of members is considered poor leadership when the opposite is true if the model of Jesus is considered.  What makes loss unacceptable is loss that results from human stupidity as evidenced in ignorance of group/change dynamics, arrogance, fear, power mongering or other characteristics evident in some pastors and their boards.[22]

Life cycle needs also emerge in another insight provided in online discussions.  When building the case for change practiced leaders understand that people have to feel their own pain to gain ownership of change.  Experienced leaders utilize questions as a way to help others move past their maladaptive behaviors and beliefs toward admission of their pain, fears, lost hopes and mis-beliefs.  This adds time to the change process but also adds urgency (a quality needed to encourage difficult steps in a change process). Another discussion participant noted;

I think we also, when having these conversations at the local level, need to listen for the context of the concerns and the heart of Gods people, where they are at in their own journeys. Should never be an “us and them” approach, rather a kingdom ministry approach. Different places and times Eccles 3.[23]

The reference to Ecclesiastes 3 reinforces the recognition that timing is critical in managing change.  Change that leverages specific rhythms of life cycle and group experience, seem to have a better survival rate.  In dealing with life cycle Ichak Adizes has an interesting observation, those organizations that are growing need consultants while those that are aging and showing characteristics of being bureaucratic sink holes need “insultants”.  This general pattern of greater intensity to get at denial and toxic patterns of behavior is visible in Jesus’ ministry for example as evidenced in his work with the religious leaders in contrast with his work with the Samaritans in John 4.

Figure 1 illustrates a common organizational lifecycle of growth, stabilization and decline. As indicated in the introduction to this paper this lifecycle is predictable around generational lines.  It does not take a full generation to lapse from a missional perspective to decline in institutionalism.  However, every healthy missional congregation faces the need to realign and rethink its orientation to missio Dei and its social context regularly.  There are two primary factors I see at work that lead to the need to reassess (1) the personal life stage of the core leadership team and (2) the changing social/generational impact that occurs when the founders’ children reach adulthood.  This infers that the idea of missional is not new.  The vocabulary is new and is clearly an adaptive attempt at reinvigorating the church that has fallen into an institutional entrapment.

Figure 1: Organizational Lifecycle and the Missional/Institutional Contrast


Conflict and Non Sequitur Responses

When pastoral leaders feel the gap in their own congregational experience regarding its missional identity it is important to identify the contextual factors that make up the change environment before change is attempted. If other change processes are in full swing the initiation of a change toward a missional approach will simply over load the system.  I call this process non sequitur because loss of congregational numbers is assigned to switching to a missional approach when in fact other factors were already at work. 

There is a Presbyterian church (PCUSA) in Cincinnati – College Hill Presbyterian – that has moved toward a missional model. The transition has been difficult and, from the time they started the transition, they have lost in excess of 50% of their members, although the results are clouded by the departure of their Sr. Pastor, 2 years of an Interim, and the calling of a new Sr. Pastor. However, from the time of the call of the new Pastor till now, they have lost approximately 50%.[24]

It is simply not possible to assign blame for the loss of congregational members on the transition to a missional model when a pastoral transition is simultaneously executed. The pastoral change alone is reason enough for the loss of 50% of their attendance. 

The speed of change also needs to be appreciated.  If change is attempted by simply dictating a new approach to congregational life without building a significant case for change or without raising the threshold of pain to the point everyone feels the need for change then needless loss and pain occur.  On writing of the experience people had in the case study that started the discussion Willliams wrote:

… I appreciate the comparison to breaking an unwritten contract. That is how the people who have left feel. On top of that it seems as if those who have left are being made to feel like second class citizens since they are not growing in spiritual maturity like the group who is in “naked obedience to 1 Cor. 14:26”. The current worship service permits and expects 2 or 3 people to speak every Sunday with everyone in the group spending time praying out loud. … I appreciate [the definition of missional church that has emerged] for that is mine, but it is not the definition of the church I am dealing with.

How is the threshold of pain raised effectively?  How are people helped to see the necessity of change that pastors often see in advance of their congregations?  What is the work a pastoral leader has to engage in order to lead successful change initiatives?

Change processing – Recognize Adaptive work

Change processing has been mentioned above.  The discussion participants pointed to the need for understanding change processing. 

That kind of radical change is difficult without having a large consensus of the church to make the change and even then it will be painful. Essentially, the pastor “broke” an unwritten contract with the existing congregants as to the culture of the church. Changing culture is huge — it’s like going home and someone changed the furniture, pictures on the wall, food in the fridge, etc – its upsetting to many. All of us who have pastored have done this in large or small ways and paid the price! Counsel on this can vary from 1) Hang in there, the angry people will leave and new people will come OR 2) Try to repair relationships and make accommodations to those upset OR 3) Work with church leadership to assess the problem, repair relationships and allow for the congregation to have more input concerning congregational change. (4. is to leave and start an organic/missional church from the grassroots). Of these, my preference is #3. There is an opportunity for everyone to learn through this painful episode.[25]

Cladis points to the need for developing leadership skills in change. He recommends what others have called an adaptive leadership style that is necessary in approaching a movement from an institutional (also read dying) congregation to a missional perspective.  There are times when what has always worked in the past fails to work in the present.  The failure was not rooted in the quality of the solution per se but rather in a failure to recognize that life is not static, it is dynamic.  The dynamic quality of life forces one to squarely face the reality that learning never stops and that the need to embrace occasional ambiguity and awkwardness is an unavoidable aspect of learning.  However, when individuals or organizations refuse to admit that what once worked well no longer yields helpful outcomes old solutions simply reinforce rather than solve new problems.

When habits and attitudes become part of the problem over time they create a systemic problem. A systemic problem is a problem that has grown larger than the individuals involved; it becomes a system of its own that is self-perpetuating.  The modern propensity to define mission as one of the programs of the church rather than the very identity of the church is an example of a self-perpetuating system of belief. The recognition that systemic behavioral problems exist constitutes the need for a different approach.  Simply raising the level of effort to reassert known solutions only worsens the situation – as is confirmed by the original case behind the online discussion that prompted this article.  Heifetz calls this new approach adaptive work.  Adaptive work is required when

…our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge.[26] 

In order to successfully engage changing environments leaders (including pastors, boards and influential members) must be willing to face the distress of adaptive work and help others engage the same. In the face of an adaptive challenge everyone must learn new behaviors all the way through at every level of the organization.  Pastors and leaders must break the pattern of leadership as solution giving and members and employees must break from the habit of defining work as just doing a job.  Everyone must accept responsibility for the efforts and sacrifice required to make adaptive changes.  What is needed to successfully engage adaptive change?  Five steps are helpful. [27]

  • Direction: Identify the adaptive challenge. Diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake, unbundled the issues that come with it.  The pastor in the original illustration apparently failed to accomplish this.  Rather than unbundling the issues he created a straw man argument that left people emotional raw and angry.
  • Protection: Keep the level of distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work. Use the pressure cooker analogy; keep up the heat without blowing up the pot.  The pastor in the original case study apparently failed to monitor the pressure…he blew up the pressure cooker causing pain and anguish.
  • Orientation: Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions. Identify which issues can currently engage attention; and while directing attention to them, counteract avoidance mechanisms like denial, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, pretending the problem is technical, or attacking individuals rather than issues.  Scapegoating is amply evident in some of the responses to failed change attempts in the online discussion.
  • Manage Conflict: Give the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand. Lace and develop responsibility by putting the pressure on the people with the problem.  Pastors who have studied the missional church concept enough to have devised a strategy to bring change are actually only half baked in their understanding.  Leaders must study the concept well enough to have so ingested its meaning as to let go of bringing a solution and take up the much more difficult task of leading others to see the same insight into the nature of the church so they come to new solutions in participation with one another.
  • Shape Norms: Protect voices of leadership without authority. Give cover to those who raise hard questions and generate distress – people who point to the internal contradictions of the congregation, department or group.  These individuals often have latitude to provoke thinking that authorities do not have.  A smart leader sees that these individuals are on the way toward an epiphany moment in understanding the missionary nature of the church.  An adaptive leader walks with them in discovery offering powerful questions and insights that lead to discovery. 

I am not sure I can overemphasize the point I made in the introduction, as a leaders in the church we face a fundamental call to adaptive work.  If belief in Christ results in transformation of the individual as is described in Paul’s words to the Romans then what can we expect to consistently face? (Rom. 12:1, 2)  If God’s promises summon us to a continuous metamorphosis do we interpret this a mere poetic imagery or as psychological and spiritual reality that causes individuals to experience times of great hope and times of terrifying ambiguity or as John of the Cross (1542-1591 CE) put it, a dark night of the soul?  If it is the latter then we can expect to go through and to help others through periods of time that seem to challenge everything we hold to be real about faith, the church and God.  Another discussion participant also emphasized this point: 

Think the key might be along the lines of creating ‘new wineskins’ for the ‘new wine’ instead of trying to pour it into the ‘old wineskins’. Transition means change and the kind of change of moving from attractional to missional is often significant and too radical (painful) for many to endure. To change the metaphor – perhaps better to build ‘alongside’ rather than ‘on top’.[28]

Examples of Missional Church Initiatives

So how did the discussion participants frame their own missional experience?  Here are six examples.  I leave it to the reader to determine how close they come to the definition of being a missional church.

Start a new church within a church.

Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, where Dan Kimball (Author of “Emerging Church”, “Emerging Worship”) made the transition. He talks about it in his books.  We began a church (the Well) within a church (Cornerstone Presbyterian) in Brighton, Michigan four years ago. Our missional focus required that we move out of the more traditional building because of constraints placed by the leadership and the facility as well as the reputation in the community of the much larger Evangelical Presbyterian congregation with a traditional worship style. [29]

Leveraging a cluster of home groups for infiltration and discipleship.

In Edmonton Alberta, there is a very missionally focused attempt to redefine the local church into cluster of homes whose families are intentional in reaching out into their local communities and yet being brought together weekly for prayer, further biblical teaching and mutual accountability in Christ. Although is is far from perfect and this does not replace the existing institution, it’s intent is to help it. There is something exciting happening in this idea. Now in this approach I had also questioned the meaning of “missional” and here is the response I received.[30]

Review existing ministry for a missional perspective and adjusting to correct the gap.

 In my missional writing I refer to the 3D Missional church as a convergence of the attractional, incarnational, and extractional models suggesting that any one without the other two has a design and purpose problem and winds up with weakness and dysfunction. For instance, “how many churches practice discipline in the atractional model alone? I also provide examples from Jesus and the early church providing all three. BTW, Roxbough is an excellent resource. [31]

Refocus perspective toward the community and act on what you see.

 The best time I have had in 35 years of pastoral ministry was when our congregation was focused on caring for others. We helped people – even people we didn’t know. We didn’t accept money, and we simply supplied what they needed out of our own resources. Because of our actions people joined us. There was attraction in the mission.[32]

As far as helping another church make that transition, I also agree that it is better to begin with the culture the church has before radically changing it. Rarely is a church culture ALL bad. A leader can start with that which is good and then begin to educate regarding God’s mission for Christ’s followers. Begin an outreach effort. Start a food pantry. Form a task force that can look into what the community needs and then figure out a way to meet the need. Start small. Discipleship is a process. There is no need to ignore people’s needs as we teach them to begin living into all that God wants them to be. Chances are, once they taste the blessings of service, they will want to do more. Eventually, with good leadership, they may be driving more change than the pastor can keep up with. And that can be a very good thing.[33]


LinkedIn group discussion: http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=1138467&type=member&item=37135143&commentID=28246119&report%2Esuccess=8ULbKyXO6NDvmoK7o030UNOYGZKrvdhBhypZ_w8EpQrrQI-BBjkmxwkEOwBjLE28YyDIxcyEO7_TA_giuRN#commentID_28246119; accessed 21 Dec 2010.

[1] Mt 16:18b-19. (NIV)  In true Protestant fashion I understand the Jesus’ authorization to be contingent upon the recognition and acceptance of his identify and to apply to all those who engage him rather than being primarily focused on a Petrine office.

[2] Jn 1:50-52 (NIV)

[3] Mk 1:1 (NIV)

[4] Leslie Newbigin. Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989), 230.

[5] David J. Bosch. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 90.

[6] Darrel L. Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 6.

[7] Guder 1998, 11.

[8] Leslie Newbigin. Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (New York, Friendship, 1954).

[9] Charles Van Engen. God’s Missionary People: Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 70.

[10] Alan Hirsch. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 284.

[11] Linda Bergquist and Allan Karr. Church Turned Inside Out: A Guide for Designers, Refiners and Re-Aligners (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 75.

[12] Dave Williams, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[13] Bill Easum, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[14] George Cladis, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[15] Allan Vint, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[16] Easum, 2010.

[17] Jim Millirons, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[18] Williams, 2010.

[19] John 6:44 (NIV)

[20] Hirsch, 196.

[21] Michael Montgomery, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[22] I deliberately chose the word “stupidity” here because its definition fits with the behaviors of toxic leaders (either lay or pastoral).  Webster defines stupidity as; slow of mind or obtuse – given to unintelligent decisions or acts.

[23] Ron deVries, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[24] Name withheld, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[25] Cladis, 2010.

[26] Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie. “The Work of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review (December 2001), 6.

[27] Adapted from Heifetz, 128.

[28] Allan Vint, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[29] Peter Baird, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[30] deVries, 2010.

[31] Millirons, 2010.

[32] Donald Rucker, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[33] Lynn Ball, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

Winning the Mind Game

mind-map“As a man thinks in his heart so is he.” Proverbs 23:7.  Does the way a person think about life and events actually create their success or failure?  Does a winning mindset impact performance? The question is critical for leaders in any field of endeavor.
Popular thinking has often asserted that we attract what we secretly think about.  The idea is more than a moralist warning against the idea one can assume a public persona that defies their innermost desires. It appears that people actually set themselves up for success or failure based on how they think about themselves and their environment.   Empirical studies verify the connection between how one views him or her self and their situation to the outcomes they produce.  Specifically depressed people tend to view life pessimistically and actually seem to attract negative events. Happy people view life with more hope and actually attract positive events. The impact of this insight for leaders is both personal and professional.

In his work on suffering and stress psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman found that some people actually learn to be helpless.  They view themselves as victims of circumstance beyond their control. The result of this learned helplessness is that thinking determines behavior or outlook determines outcome.  Said another way, an outlook anticipating success determines success in outcomes.  An outlook anticipating failure actually determines failure, rejection, defeat, and etcetera in outcomes.  The reality is that some leaders torpedo their success by the way they think.  Seligman found that individuals who think about life pessimistically produced thought processes that help produce learned helplessness in three ways.

First, they personalized the explanation of their distress in other words they blamed themselves rather than external factors.  For example: “I must be stupid because I can’t figure this out.” Or “I must be getting old because this problem is too overwhelming.” Notice that in each instance the person assumes responsibility for what is entirely outside their control thus adding to a sense of helplessness.

Second, pessimistic perspectives tend to extrapolate problems as pervasive rather than particular. If problems are pervasive they seem unconquerable – even normal or unavoidable. Statements like; “No one agrees with this decision” or “The Company always hoses the successful” indicate that learned helplessness is at work.

Third, pessimistic perspectives lead to the belief that problems are permanent instead of temporary.  If a person believes that a difficult or uncomfortable situation will not change they tend to condemn themselves and others to a perpetual state of loss.  Statements like; “they will not change” or “this will never work” indicate that such a belief is at work.

The reverse of pessimism or happiness actually leverage success in life by producing benefits like better health, frequent success, or more social engagement.  The causal efficacy runs both ways which is to say that pessimism may lead to poorer health, less social engagement and infrequent success.

The unavoidable reality is that successful leaders set a course in life that anticipates and engenders success.  Consider the characteristics of a happy person as defined in a study by Peterson & Seligman (2004).

Table 1: Virtues and their Corresponding Character Strengths

Virtue Strengths and Definition
Wisdom and knowledge Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge characterized in:

  • Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways of doing things
  • Curiosity: Taking an interest in all of ongoing experience
  • Open-mindedness: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides
  • Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics and bodies of knowledge
  • Perspective: Able to provide wise counsel to others
Courage Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of internal or external opposition

  • Authenticity: speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way
  • Bravery: not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain
  • Persistence: Finishing what one starts
  • Zest: Approaching life with excitement and energy
Humanity Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others

  • Kindness: Doing favors and good deeds for others
  • Love: Valuing close relations with others
  • Social intelligence: Being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others
Justice Civic strengths that protect against excess

  • Fairness: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice
  • Leadership: Organizing group activities and seeing that they happen
  • Teamwork: Working well as a member of a group or team
Temperance Strengths that protect against excess

  • Forgiveness: forgiving those who have done wrong
  • Modesty: Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
  • Prudence: Being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing things that might be regretted later
  • Self-regulation: Regulating what one feels and does
Transcendence Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skills performance in all domains of life
  • Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
  • Hope: Expecting the best and working to achieve it
  • Humor: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people
  • Spirituality: Having coherent beliefs about higher purpose and meaning of life

The successful are happy but here is the kicker, success did not generate happiness rather happiness generates (is causal to) success. Why? Happy people are people who pursue life with characteristically (a) positive emotion and pleasure; (b) engagement socially and emotionally and (c) a defined sense of meaning.  The good news is that a pattern of learned helplessness is reversible.

How can a leader reverse the feeling of helplessness or help others in their charge reverse these feelings?  Start with self awareness.  Look at the characteristics in Table 1; do your inner thought patterns/beliefs differ from these characteristics?  To the degree that one’s perception differs from these characteristics there is room to honestly assess why this is so and to see where mis-beliefs may actually be hindering success.  So, how have researchers determined to apply these insights to help people move from a self-defeating pessimism to success building happiness?  Employ one or more of the following exercises or coach your followers to employ them for at least a week and map what happens when you do.

  1. Use your signature strengths in a new way.  Review Table 1 and determine which of the 24 character strengths best describe you.  Now use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.  Keep a log of how you used your strength. What were the results?
  2. Three good things. Write down three things that go well each day.  Write down the causes, why did these things go well?  Do this every evening at the end of the day for at least one week?  At the end of the first week reflect on all the good things that happened the week before.  What do you see or what can you learn?
  3. Exercise gratitude. Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has been especially kind to you but who you have not properly thanked.  Once the letter is written deliver it personally to the addressee.  After you have completed this take a few moments to write out what happened.  What insight did you gain or what can you learn from this experience?

Research verifies that interventions such as those outlined above provide a measurable change in how a person views life.    Regardless of whether you are hoping for success or looking for ways to be more successful using these exercises can go a long way leading to a greater sense of positive emotion, social/emotional engagement in life and a growing sense of meaning that becomes contagious to you and to those you are around.   You can learn to be successful…or more successful!


Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions.” American Psychologist (July-August 2005, Vol. 60, No. 5), 410-421.

Nansook Park and Martin E. P. Seligman. “Strengths of Character and Well-being.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-19.

Tony Baron. The Art of Servant Leadership (Tuscan, AZ: Wheatmark, 2010), 13-14.

Leadership Capacity in the Missional Church

“I am not sure I hired the right staff pastor, he just doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with the work or fit with the personality of our congregation.”  “I hired this guy to help us leverage the missional vision of our congregation, he ended up running off with over half our people and creating havoc with our staff.”
The words are all too familiar.  We hear them routinely in congregations of every size. Sometimes the “problem” is fixable and at others, the cost of additional transition is unavoidable.  What went wrong? In every case one of three factors of leadership development was ignored.
When it comes to developing leadership in a congregation or para-church ministry it is important to remember that leadership starts with developing people – this is an especially critical factor in creating a missional culture.
Regardless of whether a leader is a full time staff member or a volunteer they each face the challenge of engaging a broader level of capacity in their ability to conquer the turbulent, ambiguous surroundings that make up the leadership context.  
Capacity is the leader’s ability to interpret and analyze situations from a variety of perspectives, cope with problems recognizing the impact of their own behavior on others and plan action that mobilizes people toward what God has for them and their organization.  Leaders who effectively leverage their gifts and calling in the congregation or para-church organization have learned how to grow in their capacity and help shape the capacity of those they work around.
Three factors are needed to determine or predict whether or not a leader has the capacity they need to effectively  leverage their role toward accomplishing their mission.
First, high capacity leaders know how to interrogate their own assumptions about reality and the assumptions of those around them.  This is called spirituality – it is the application of theological reflection.  High capacity leaders ask “why” questions routinely and probe the depths of how reality is defined in the organization.  When thinking about what kind of leader you should hire first ask questions such as;  Why is a leader needed? What values need to be evident in their behavior? What moral convictions should be evident in their decision making? How have they successfully developed leaders around them? What indications of spiritual maturity should be evident in how they make decisions or relate to others?
Second, high capacity leaders know themselves. We call this personality.  They exercise a self-awareness that understands the impact their behaviors have on others. They know how to relate to a variety of other people and seem to have an ability to understand and respond to each individual’s unique motivations.  When interviewing potential leaders ask them to describe how they persuaded and motivated a wide variety of people to make a maximum contribution to the organization. Such a leader knows to create an environment to help people determine whether they will perform or not and to design strategies to find the right people.  If you are working on your own capacity then ask your self how your last four major decisions were interpreted by those around you and what you did to help them. Did you apply a wide repertoire of behavior or is your leadership stuck in one kind of motivational action?
Third, high capacity leaders are life-long learners.  They exercise their mind, their reasoning skills, their analytical skills and their knowledge.  If you are interviewing potential leaders, ask what things they have learned in the last three months that altered their leadership behavior or enhanced their effectiveness.
Spirituality, personality and skills are essential ingredients to a leader’s capacity. In reviewing the chart below determine what aspect of capacity development you currently see the need to develop and what actions you will employ to address this developmental need.

Servant Leadership: Increasing Performance

Servant leadership is a concept first popularized by Robert Greenleaf. He applied the concept of service to corporate leadership, corporate governance and corporate mission. The concept seeks to replace hierarchical styles with an emphasis on collaboration, trust, empathy and the ethical use of power. This does not mean that leaders are not called upon to render unpopular decisions or that the responsibility of making decisions is removed from leadership. Instead it indicates that leadership works much more collaboratively (especially in times of change or uncertainty) by involving those impacted by decisions in the discovery and decision making process.
Servant leadership is also expressed in what Ronald Heifetz calls an exercise of adaptive leadership i.e., pushing decisions to those who have responsibility for executing on the decision and realizing that there are two kinds of problems. There are technical problems in which the problem is defined and the solution is known and adaptive problems in which the problem is unclear and the solution is not known. Servant leadership or adaptive leadership is especially important in facing adaptive problems. Servant leadership is in essence a commitment to serve others rather than simply increasing ones own power.

Tony Baron, Ph.D. President of Servant Leader Institute at Datron World Communications identifies seven practices of servant leaders. (Source: http://www.forthesakeofothers.com/about/; Accessed 27 Oct 2010)

• Servant Leaders seek lasting change instead of system relief

• Servant Leaders create intimate relationships instead of dependent relationships

• Servant Leaders persevere with a non-anxious presence knowing that direct reaction, deliberate resistance and destructive rumors are evidences of one’s effectiveness

• Servant Leaders inspire personal responsibility instead of encouraging perceived victims

• Servant Leaders invest in motivated people instead of adapting to troubled people

• Servant Leaders see troubles as the heart of preexisting anxiety instead of seeing troubles as the origin of anxiety

• Servant Leaders live to the applause of one as opposed to the applause of many

The characteristics identified by Tony Baron affirm that servant leadership is not an abdication of responsibility (this is often how I hear the concept framed e.g., the concept becomes an excuse for not making hard decisions or executing well). It is a means of approaching the difficult decisions and challenges of leadership with concern for people but more than that a concern for their development in every facet of who they are knowing that as people develop and become more engaged the strategic and financial goals of the company are engaged in such a way that results are propelled to new levels of success.

Finding a Mentor

How to Find a Mentor

Think back on the most significant help you have received in making you effective at work.  Did it come from a class?  Was it the result of a training seminar?  Was it an event?  Most likely you will respond like a large number of others.  The most significant shaping event that occurs in most of our lives is typically an encounter with another more experienced person who took the time to invest in our performance with an insight, word of encouragement or demonstration of a trick of the trade.  That person influenced your life informally – they were training “on the fly” or mentoring you. 

Mentoring occurs in most every organization. It is the “unofficial” training that occurs as employees provide each other with their perception of what makes the company tick, what its felt-values are; it’s consistent or inconsistent behavior and the “rules” of survival.  Such mentoring may be a powerful source for building employee engagement and identifying leaders or it may serve as the backdoor in a talent exodus. 

The point is that actively seeking out and engaging mentoring relationships provides a powerful platform for expanding one’s skills sets, deepening awareness of political interactions and enlarging awareness of market forces that impact daily decision making.  I am talking about finding a mentor. 

First: Define Mentoring

Mentoring is a powerful dynamic that is not always leveraged by emerging leaders.  In my coaching practice I often find young leaders too busy trying to prove themselves to listen to experienced leaders around them.  However, metaphorical hearing impairment is not the sole venue of inexperienced leaders.  Even experienced leaders fail to listen to younger leaders in areas they may find a little mentoring helpful e.g., using new technology.

The simple fact is that the most important learning tool any leader possesses is the ability to find and collect mentors who provide a variety of key inputs during times of decision, crises, and personal or professional transition periods and in the daily grind where experienced has found appropriate short-cuts to higher efficiency in task management.  I have found that mentors are particularly helpful in:

·         Investing the knowledge of key individuals into my workflow and decision-making processes. Such an investment of knowledge enhances or amplifies the practices that make me a more effective leader. 

·         Provides depth in my decision-making processes thus ensuring greater consistency to my company’s business objectives and values that contributes to the results that build rather than diminish momentum. 

·         Transmits the “how to” knowledge of the experience when I face situations that are new to me.  Since one of the most often cited reasons for high turnover rates in many industries is the lack of “how to do it” skills. Any relationship that accentuates practical knowledge possesses an immediate impact potential on both performance levels and feelings of employee engagement and satisfaction.

In today’s competitive business environment two things are critical to short and long term success.  First, because being a learning organization is a significant point of leverage in gaining a competitive advantage giving attention to the development of mentoring relationships with emerging leaders in your company is a way to accelerate execution of tactical and strategic goals.  Second, finding mentors is a way to position oneself for better advancement opportunities and expanding responsibility by both benefiting from others’ knowledge and the relationships that that serve as points of sponsorship. So what is a mentor?

A mentor is not a person who can do the work better than his followers; he is a person who can get his follower to do the work better than he can. (Fred Smith)

A mentor is an individual who influences others in possessing the ability to see potential in another person, tolerate mistakes, brashness, abrasiveness and the like to see that potential develop. (J. Robert Clinton)


Second: Understand Mentoring is not Monolithic

Mentoring itself is an expression of various developmental functions it is not a monolithic developmental exercise.  Mentoring is a holistic approach that recognizes workplace performance and behavior do not occur in a vacuum.  College students surveyed in July of 2001 ranked balancing work and personal life as the most significant value to career decisions. (Nan Hallock, “Customer Service Industry Incentives, Bonuses and Employee Retention.” A White Paper. Chicago, IL: International Customer Service Association, 2001.  Available at; www.icsa@sba.com.)

Mentoring includes development that focuses on personal life and development that focuses on career skills. Realize that career development cannot be separated from personal life.  Kathy Kram’s research of mentoring relationships at work revealed that;

Among the studies completed, a set of functions converges.  These functions can be summarized in two broad categories.  Career functions are those aspects of the relationship that enhance learning the ropes and preparing for advancement in the organization.  Psychosocial functions are those aspects of a relationship that enhance a sense of competence, clarity in identity, and effectiveness in a professional role. (Kathy Kram.  Mentoring at Work.  New York, NY: University Press of America, 1988, 22.)

Table 1 illustrates the primary functions of a variety of mentoring activities.  As you survey this list what functions could you see yourself operating in as you relate to the people who work around you?

Table 1: Mentor Functions Defined

Ministry (Career) Functions

Personal Development (Psychosocial) Functions

1.      Coaching – skills, insight to informal and political processes.

1.      Discipline – habits.

2.      Trainer – knowledge

2.      Role modeling – values

3.      Sponsorship – opportunity for advancement

3.      Acceptance and confirmation – self-differentiation in a relationship in which conflict is safe

4.      Protection – reduction of unnecessary risks or criticism

4.      Counseling – advice on personal concerns

5.      Exposure and visibility – preparation for greater responsibility

5.      Friendship – a sounding board, perspective

6.      Challenging assignments – development of technical or managerial skills

6.      Divine contact – guidance in decisions


Third: Recognize that No One Mentor will Do It All

It should be obvious that no one mentor cannot function in all 13 mentoring functions at the same time.  What does this mean?  It means an individual will have a variety of mentoring relationships over time each serving a different function in his or her life and developmental process.  Ideally these mentoring relationships enjoy a full constellation of age and life experience.  Mentors may be peers (people similar in age and life experience) or older more experienced individuals.  Kram’s research demonstrates that in the professional context it may be best to seek out a variety of mentors.  She notes,

Given the limitations of mentor relationships, the fact that they are relatively unavailable to most individuals in organizations, and their potential destructiveness in certain situations, it is risky to rely on one individual for all developmental functions.  Relationships with peers can also offer developmental functions, and individuals should develop a relationship constellation that consists of several relationships, each of which provides some career and/or psychosocial functions. (Kram 200)

The concept of a mentoring constellation is helpful to both mentors and mentees.  For mentors the constellation relieves them of having to be omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent. Nothing makes me run faster from an individual who approaches me for mentoring than the feeling that they expect me to answer every issue of life.  Conversely nothing makes me drop a request for mentoring than seeing that the person I may consider approaching views themselves as the ultimate gateway to my future success or failure. 

Four: See Mentoring as a Continuum

Finding a mentor or mentee also involves seeing mentoring as a continuum (range or variety).  Direct personal interaction with a mentor is classified as an active mentor.  Indirect interaction with a mentor is classified as passive mentoring.  For example Abraham Lincoln serves as one of my indirect mentors in leadership and decision making strategies through his writing and memos written during the civil war.  I gain tremendous insight into how to correct subordinates, how to communicate in conflict and how to remove or place leaders in strategic positions.

Other mentors have direct influence.  For example Dr. J Robert Clinton of Fuller Theological Seminary is one of these for me.  He is an occasional mentor in my life.  We meet once or twice a year sometimes with gaps of years between meetings.  During these times I ask specific questions about leadership or personal development and we discuss his insights and experience as they apply to my situation.  The mentoring continuum is illustrated Figure 1.  The point is that mentors not only serve different functions in life they also exhibit a variety of levels in relationship.  Why is this important?  It helps set appropriate expectations about the degree of involvement to expect from a mentor and the type of outcomes that will emerge from the mentoring relationship. 

Table 2: Mentoring Continuum

Mentoring occurs along a continuum of involvement in terms of mentoring types and functions.  This categorizes mentor involvement into various types depending on the kind of empowerment, deliberateness, depth and awareness of the effort.

Active Mentoring


Occasional Mentoring


Passive mentoring











Challenging Assignments





Acceptance Confirmation

Spiritual Guide

Divine Contact


Role Modeling

Spiritual Guide

Divine Contact

In mentoring others, understanding this continuum is important in planning the kind of empowerment, deliberateness, depth and awareness of the input you intend to give to a Mentee.  For example, if you observe a team member in need of coaching, your time commitment and the nature of the empowerment you seek to provide is both more intense and more deliberate.  Plan to meet a specific need (deficiency) through specifically designed input (role play, simulations, instruction, exercises etc.).  This requires preparation and planning on your part.  Simultaneously however, your coaching efforts may be modeling good coaching for other Managers.  This does not require a deliberate approach or direct definition between you and the other Manager.  However, to the degree that you are aware of the developmental level and empowerment needs of the other Manager you can design your coaching efforts in a way that provides the maximum role modeling impact.

Five: Recognize the Stages of Building a Mentoring Relationship

So, how is the mentoring relationship established?  How does one find a mentor?  First, be aware that active mentoring is characterized by six stages of relationship development (the mentoring lifecycle).

  1. Attraction: a mutual respect or recognition of potential in another’s skills or abilities.  This usually occurs in a period of six months to a year when the relationship becomes important to both participants.  All active mentoring must begin with some degree of attraction to be effective.  Here in is the danger in assigned hierarchical mentoring relationships (such as assigned coaching or remedial training).  If no element of attraction exists then the relationship will simply be ignored at best or develop into an active or passive hostile resistance to the relationship.
  2. Initiation: approaching a mentor or mentee with a plan for development and a request for assistance.  I do not recommend open ended engagements.  Plan on a period of 3 to 6 month increments with a specific review of the results of the mentoring relationship at the end of each period.  This allows the mentor and the mentee to identify and celebrate progress and to adjust to changing situations and needs.  I have experienced mentoring relationships that last up to 5 years in 6 month increments.
  3. Cultivation: the relationship is defined in functional terms.  The objective of a mentoring relationship is that both individuals continue to benefit from the relationship.  When this occurs cultivating the interaction provides opportunities for more frequent and meaningful interaction.  At this point emotional bonds (loyalty, respect etc.) and intimacy (the degree of disclosure and openness) increase.  In cross gender mentoring relationships this stage introduces the greatest risk.  There is an inevitable sexual tension that arises in cross-gender relationships.  Recognizing this internally and defining clear boundaries to the conversation and location of meetings is essential.  Careers have been destroyed by unclear boundaries and naiveté in cross-gender relationships.  Two dynamics are important in cultivation:
    1. Responsiveness: determines whether reciprocity (give and take) exists in the relationship.
    2. Accountability: determines whether follow-through on insight and training will occur.  This definition must be mutual even if the empowerment is defined from a mentor who imposes a development plan aimed at improving productivity.  If a supervisor is utilizing a mentoring function in the course of bringing about remediation of poor performance the employee being mentored must demonstrate a willingness to respond to the coaching or training by practicing new behavior or changing work patterns from the ineffective to a new more effective pattern.
  4. Empowerment: outcomes in the mentoring process are defined.  The full impact of the mentoring process becomes evident.  The senior manager may develop a reputation as a key company mentor or effective trainer or desirable sponsor.  The Mentee experiences greater effectiveness and gathers respect by association with the mentor but also by virtue of his or her growing effectiveness and productivity.  Empowerment may be evidenced in as short a period as several weeks (as with skill development inherent in coaching and teaching functions) or may take months or years to become fully evident (as with sponsorship functions).
  5. Separation: may be a deliberate strategy for moving the mentoring relationship from an active to an occasional to a passive role or an involuntary event that significantly alters the structural role of the relationship.  It may also be initiated in the emotional experience of the relationship for example the Mentee may no longer want guidance but the opportunity to work autonomously.  The mentor must demonstrate the emotional intelligence and the awareness of the developmental level of his or her Mentee to respond positively to this change in the relationship.  Kram points to other possible causes, “Job rotation or promotion limits opportunities for continued interaction; career and psychosocial functions can no longer be provided.  Blocked opportunity creates resentment and hostility that disrupt positive interaction.” (Kram 49)
  6. Redefinition:  an indefinite period after the separation phase when the relationship ends or assumes a significantly different character.  This dynamic is the synthesis point with the concept of situational leadership.  The separation strategy is built on the development level evidenced in the behavior of the Mentee(s) as response is made in the mentoring relationship.

The presence or absence of these dynamics is one means of determining the type of mentoring relationship that exists.  Why is this important to understand?  To the degree that the mentor is deliberate in the definition and use of mentoring models their effectiveness in developing others increases.  The presence or absence of these dynamics also predicts the success of the mentoring relationship.  To the degree that the mentee is aware of all these dynamics the ability to identify appropriate mentors and establish positive relationships that become more productive over time exists.

Six: Don’t Sweat Rejection be Persistent

One last word on how to find a mentor; realize that two in ten leaders may appreciate or have the capability needed to be an effective mentor.  This means that two in ten will most probably turn you down.  Do not despair in rejection.  Press through the embarrassment of rejection to find the mentor that you need. Talk to your peers, expand beyond known networks.  Positive mentoring relationships not only enhance skill they contribute dynamically to a sense of personal identity and satisfaction.

Leadership and Vision

Point: vision is not simply a fancy slogan or wild-eyed dream, it is a passion to change or impact lives that focus energy, inspires action and provides a reason to endure hardship, setbacks and disappointments that inevitably accompany any objective worth pursuing.
“I just don’t think I am much of a leader,” said one of my clients (I will call Bill for the sake of this article), “I don’t have vision I like to work behind the scenes and I am not that inspirational.” I was admittedly surprised by this self assessment especially in light of the description this client had just given me of his dream to build a camp where youth who were confused, unsure of themselves, living in a beat up self esteem or who had experienced abuse could go to find new direction and foundation in life. In fact I listened to Bill outline the broad points of the program or process on which the camp would someday operate.

“I like to build things with my hands; I am not the greatest public speaker. I don’t know what I am doing in leadership and I am not sure I should continue working with youth.”

The pathos I heard on the phone was not new, the discouragement the deep process of reassessment and the reframing of identity characterizes the development of a vision. It is part of the testing of character (endurance, integrity, motivation, compassion, humility, discipline etc.).

“So, what is vision exactly?” I asked. The question lingered in the silence. I recognized that some deep insight into how Bill viewed himself was occurring. “What is leadership?” I asked after a pause. There was a sense that my client was on the verge of a significant series of epiphanies that would open a new vista of perspective in how he viewed himself, the people he worked around and the youth he so desperately wanted to impact.

The silence did the job of leveraging the questions deeper. “I don’t really know that I know” Bill responded. “I know that I am not like Tom. Tom can inspire people by walking into a room, he speaks with such authority and in minutes he generates energy. I walk into a room and engage one person at a time by comparison I don’t feel I generate much of anything. I can’t outline a big vision I want to work with my hands.”

“So, how many years out is the idea of the camp you outlined earlier?” I asked. “Oh, wow, um…maybe 10 years” he responded. “And how many years do you think the camp will exist when it is built? Ten? Twenty? Thirty?” I asked. “Hmm…” Bill’s response seemed to be echoing from the depths of his soul.

The power of leadership and vision is an undeniable part of any successful organization. In both academic assessments of leadership and in informal reflections of the nature of leadership both of these concepts exist somewhere. In my work with leaders and organizations it is painfully evident when leadership and vision are absent. Without leadership and vision organizations exist for themselves cannibalizing their own resources and people to simply exist. When I am around such an organization I can’t help but picture Jaba the Hut of Lucas’ “Star Wars” fame i.e., a big blob of consuming pointlessness that has turned completely toxic encouraging betrayal, intrigue and self-absorbed corruption that is no longer capable of even remembering what the point of the organization is much less capable of returning to the mission.

“I see the camp as impacting youth for a life time and I hope it continues well after I am gone.” The answer came slowly almost reverently as though Bill was feeling the weight of responsibility that came along with his dream to impact youth.

As we talked I asked Bill to complete several sentences for me. I designed these sentences to contrast leadership types and to point out that there was no such thing as a solo leader. In fact the idea of “leader” when speaking of organizations has rightly given way to the concept of “leadership” in research. There are a variety of leadership styles and approaches, personalities and talents that comprise leadership. In Bill’s case I wanted him to see that while some leaders have profound symbolic presence others have profound practical presence and that both are needed.

“Bill,” I said, “complete this sentence…Paul and __________________?” “Barnabas,” he responded. (Paul was recognized as the spokesman the orator the one who outlined a significant part of the theology of the early church, yet it was Barnabas who had first recognized Paul’s “conversion” and sponsored him first in Jerusalem and later in Antioch as Christianity picked up momentum outside Judaism among multiple cultures of the Roman Empire.)

“Ok, how about David and _____________________?” “Nathan,” he responded. (David was king of Israel ca 1000-961 BCE. As the political and symbolic leader of the nation he needed and was profoundly influenced by Nathan a prophet, someone who could lead David to reflect on the impact of his own actions/behavior on others in a way that leads him to change those behaviors.)

“You know Nehemiah right?” I asked. “Sure,” Bill answered; “he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem after the return of the exiles from the Babylonian deportation.” “Ok, so, like you, Nehemiah was someone who worked with his hands in living out and describing a vision for his people.” The sudden felt silence on the other end of the phone told me that Bill was having an “aha” moment. “Here is the question, how do you complete this sentence; Nehemiah and _______________?” “I don’t know” Bill said. “Well then that is your assignment; find out what kind of person Nehemiah needed to work beside in order to fulfill the vision he had for the well being of his people.”

Bill will find the priest/prophet Ezra who led the first exodus from Persian back to Jerusalem when he investigates. Ezra’s vision for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the resettlement of Israel was stalled because of local political opposition. Without Nehemiah’s passion for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem to serve as an anchor of stability Ezra’s vision would have ended in shambles. Both men saw the plight of their people and both men acted with great courage, tenacity, persistence, passion and spirituality to address it. But they approached the task from completely different means of getting to the end goal.

Vision is not about hype or great emotional surges of enthusiasm. Hype and enthusiasm drop like flies in a cloud or insecticide when trouble or resistance arises. Vision is a passion driven by the sight of something that needs to happen stirred in a person who has the courage to address injustice, need, or opportunity that requires a persistent effort to overcome known and unknown obstacles. Vision is not for the weak or the slick. It is for that man or woman whose character is available for the reshaping and deepening that inherently results from pursing something of great value. Vision is one of the hall marks of leadership and Bill will discover that the vision he has can result in transformed lives and will require more than he currently realizes. Why will Bill pursue the vision he has? Because he has seen what it means in the life of a young person’s development to have a mentor who believes in their capabilities, helps them discover their personhood and who affirms that opportunities exist if they will see them.

What is your vision?

The Barnabas Factor – Catalysts who Identify and Develop the Right Talent

Who are the innovators in your organization? More importantly who are the mentoring innovators who discover and develop the latent talent of others in a way that provides the impetus to organizational effectiveness, efficiency and growth? Surprisingly, while many organizations tout their need for leaders they exhibit the kind of behavior that limits leadership from emerging. Talented people whose discovery and development rises out of now where usually trace their emergence to the mentoring of a unique type of leader. I call the work of these leaders “the Barnabas Factor” after its namesake in the Acts of the Apostles. I routinely read in the Christian scriptures (1) to help me define my life’s mission and purpose and (2) for their case studies into leadership situations and actions.
Barnabas (whose name was actually Joseph) “earned” the knick name Barnabas because his behavior consistently demonstrated the ability to identify potential in others and provide a mentoring relationship that encouraged their emergence as highly effective contributors. In fact Barnabas demonstrates five critical characteristics every organization needs to remain vital and innovative in their social context. This article is the first of several that will follow in which I explore this interesting leader.

Barnabas was an early adapter/change agent. Barnabas was an expatriate, part of the Jewish Diaspora who hailed from Cyprus operating in the early church in Jerusalem. As in any group those who are “in” and those who are “out” or “on the margin” exist in various levels of tension. The identity Barnabas had as an “outsider” or immigrant or expatriate is significant in today’s context for global organizations or organizations that find themselves in a globalized urban situation and a multi-cultural context. Cultural groups do not normally integrate rather they exist in an uneasy tension. It takes someone of unique cultural perspective to bridge the gap between cultures in a way that helps construct a new way of seeing. According to the biblical record Barnabas was significant in two prominent cultural bridging events the first between the Judaic Jews and Hellenized Diaspora living in Jerusalem (Acts 4:36-37) and the second between the multifaceted Jewish community and the Gentiles of Antioch (Acts 11:19-29).

Barnabas exhibits a cross-cultural perspective i.e., the ability to explore and adapt the assumptions, language, customs and logical forms of a culture alien to his own while assessing the extent to which faith in God has impacted those assumptions, customs and logical forms. Some readers may object that the fact I include a level of assessment in my definition of Barnabas’ skill set negates his credentials as a multi-cultural man. However, the idea of assessment is central to the biblical text and to organizations attempting to negotiate contracts, employment agreements, risk mitigation etc. If these routine organizational tasks are attempted by someone who only exhibits a mono-cultural perspective then these common organizational functions exhibit ethnocentrism, a naive absolutism about one’s own cultural assumptions, superiority, denigration of the other and pejorative dismissal of another because their dress, communication style, language, family systems, business practices etc., are different.

As an early adapter or change agent Barnabas’ cross-cultural perspective offered a critical identification of two important turning points in the development of early church and helped launch the church’s existence from a local subset of Judaism to a global and multicultural movement anticipated by the Jewish prophets (cf. Is. 49:22-23). First, Barnabas recognized the need for a critical capital infusion at a point of growth that had outstripped the church’s ability to maintain its growing membership (Acts 4:36-37). Barnabas did not just throw money at problems he modeling a strategic investment into the mission of the early church that (1) helped define its organizational culture and (2) contrasted the vital aspects of its mission from the diffusive forces that vied for power as self-aggrandizement at the expense of the mission.

Second, Barnabas possessed the cross-cultural skills needed to read the degree to which the Gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:19-29) had actually contextualized the message of the early church. By contextualized I mean the way in which the believers in Antioch had understood the meaning of the message of the early church and had rethought their cultural assumptions, allegiances and values.

The ability to read the depth to which the real mission of an organization is understood or contextualized or believed by new markets or new employees is vital. In the absence of this ability organizations impose procedures, policies and punitive reactions that disenfranchise emerging leaders (and/or deflate emerging markets).

Organizations without a Barnabas often miss critical moments of change in their organizations and end up rejecting new or different people or markets/opportunities. When organizations fail to recognize critical moments for change they end up “circling the wagons” in a defensive maneuver designed to protect the familiar from the unfamiliar. The end result predictably is that organizations lose their vital connection to constituency or emerging markets. Barnabas seems to have spent significant time negotiating for change as a means of explaining his insights. Barnabas was mere claqueur of the latest fad he invested his personal resources and time in strategic moments. Many organizations have those around them that insist on following the crowd under the name of innovation. Few organizations know how to listen to those who see the next big thing and are willing to invest in it. Those organizations that do know who to listen to the catalysts or early adapters also have the discipline needed to get the most out of these insights and financial infusions.

In light of Barnabas’ early adapter/change agent character one other unspoken characteristic must be mentioned. Barnabas never invested himself or his resources in movements, people or opportunities that did not demonstrate the potential to make significant contributions. His presence in every situation we find him follows a series of actions that verify the potential. Barnabas never experienced a con or a rip off because he seems to have insisted on the actions and character that verified potential prior to making an investment in it. Barnabas did not need to generate success, he lived successfully and as a result he was simply not a target for charlatans. His apparent insistence on evidence prior to action provides a significant leadership insight for leaders in any sector.

Helping Employees See Incompetence

Why is it that people possessing low competence in any set of skills often do not recognize their incompetence and assess themselves as having a much higher level of competence than they actually possess? I was hired to help a supervisor enhance his skills.  In my initial interview and in watching his performance on site I noted that he did not possess even the most fundamental of skill in planning, relating to employees, problem solving, conflict resolution or assessing performance. This is why his response to a self assessment of capabilities surprised me. How was I to help him recognize his need when he possessed such an inflated perspective of his capability?
Tom is an office manager in a small professional business (less than 50 employees). He is a confident and pleasant person but after encountering repeated conflicts with the owner of the business and other employees he was directed to seek out coaching on his leadership and management skills. In our conversations about what he was facing and what he had done to address his challenges it was quickly apparent that while he was a competent employee with experience at supervising others he had not developed several critical supervisory skills.

I supposed that Tom’s difficulty in defining what skills he was missing resulted from his lack of exposure to larger organizational dynamics and the relatively flat and fluctuating organizational design in the business he presently worked. Pam, the owner of this business was entrepreneurial and sales focused. Pam could add new business to the work load of her team at a rate that consistently outstripped their ability to keep up. Structure and policies felt more constrictive than helpful to Pam hence she had delegated the operational structure to Tom and Tom had done a sufficient job putting the basic structures in place based on the model of Gerber’s E-Myth. However, while the structures existed on paper they were not followed in behavior.

Pam’s employees were well cared for and had an intuitive understanding that they had to meet high expectations of performance, appearance and loyalty. Because of Pam’s care for them (they had great benefits in profit sharing, healthcare, retirement, professional training) the employees loved Pam but also dreaded her entrepreneurial vision that felt more like sudden and undulating upheavals of normalcy that would emerge and subside with both the frequency and unpredictability of a southern California earth quake. Pam had bought the business right out of college from a retiring professional that had given Pam her first internship. He saw Pam’s potential and worked out a fabulous retirement for himself in the sale of the business on the sure bet on Pam’s abilities. Tom was floundering in (1) his inability to successfully engage and negotiate conflict between employees and (2) an inability to apply policy consistently in performance and assessment of performance. His assessment of his peers abilities was surprisingly inaccurate to what I observed when I was on site.

Tom described himself as vice president material – the assessment floored me, I was stunned. How could a person who barely met the qualifications of a supervisor feel he could function at a corporate level in the C-suite? This was more than a lack of exposure to larger organizations this was a significant lapse of self awareness. Tom felt slighted by Pam’s failure to recognize his true talent and felt that Pam had torpedoed his career potential by removing some of his supervisory responsibilities from him. Tom was assigned to design processes, check them to regulatory requirements and maintain the documentation of all operational and human resources procedures. However, Tom was removed from direct supervision of the other employees. When personnel issues arose Pam stepped into the gap often reminding Tom that he needed to work on his people skills. At this point in the conversation I knew that Tom needed some fierce feedback.

What explains this gap in self assessment? Justin Kruger and David Dunning’s study on self awareness posits that individuals who utilize incompetent methods to achieve success or fulfillment diminishes their ability accurately assess their own abilities or to realize their own self deception. As a result Kruger and Dunning made four predictions:

Prediction 1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria.

Prediction 2. Incompetent individuals will suffer from deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it—be it their own or anyone else’s.

Prediction 3. Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of social comparison information. In particular, because of their difficulty recognizing competence in others, incompetent individuals will be unable to use information about the choices and performances of others to form more accurate impressions of their own ability.

Prediction 4. The incompetent can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that they have performed poorly.  (Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessment” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1999, Vol. 77, No. 6), 1122.)

I could see all four problems in Tom’s situation. Not only did he fail to recognize his incompetence, he could not see competence in those he was supposed to be supervising. As a result he cut off their suggestions for improving performance or morale and reverted to an enforcement of rules that often had no direct bearing on the situation in which he sought to apply them.

The most hopeful insight Kruger and Dunning provided in their study was that the incompetent can be trained to be more competent thus enhancing the metacognitive skills needed to gain a more accurate assessment of their own and others performance. I began to work with Tom by providing the exercises he needed to gain supervisory skill and a more accurate picture of his own inadequate performance.

What recommendation do I have for employers? Pre-promotion training must be a critical component to talent development to avoid both overinflated self assessment and exceptionally poor assessment of the performance of others. Expose potential supervisors, managers, or executives to the challenges, skills and knowledge base they will need in succeeding at a functional role. Provide training in skills and test knowledge prior to promoting people to new responsibilities. If this is not done a very real risk of exists of driving true talent out of the company because supervisory or management talent cannot see their own incompetence nor recognize competence in others. Even more alarming is that a lack in metacognitive skill means they will not learn from experience. Experience will only reinforce their inflated self-assessment thus compounding the problem for employers.

What if Tom already exists in your company? Engage him/her in the training, testing and coaching needed to enhance their metacognitive skills i.e., the ability to reflect on thinking as thinking and to determine one’s relative level of competence or incompetence in any given domain of knowledge. The predictable result of not intervening in the incompetence of supervisors, managers or executives is passive contribution to continued poor judgment and all its legal, interpersonal, financial and customer impacts. Why does it seem your employees are not learning from experience? They may not possess the cognitive tools, yet, to recognize that there are lessons there to learn.

Aspects of Leadership Development

How do leaders develop? Since research has completely discredited the idea that leaders are born (or become leaders by some innate characteristic or right) and that class room input is not that useful since most of the content delivered in classrooms rarely makes it into practice then how is it that leaders emerge from among us?
I observe that in the best case we recognize leaders through the convergence of three factors that ebb and flow like a tide sometimes raising in synergistic force that propels a person to a unique influence in the lives of others and that sometimes ebbs causing influence to recede and a time of exposure and reflection emerge when new insights are germinated and given a chance to alter the landscape of the personal experience and insight. As I see it character, acquired skill and circumstance (what some call opportunity) converge and dissipate constantly in life providing the situation in which influence, recognition and results align to render the recognition that one is a leader.

Convergence is the best case because I have to admit that plenty of historical examples exist of leaders who emerge simply because those around them abdicated their personal responsibility to these three factors – as Lipman-Blumen observes, toxic leaders are made by their followers in just the same way good leaders are recognized and empowered by their followers.

Of the three factors I see character as the most significant. It is certainly the one thing over which the potential leader has the greatest control. How one chooses to invest their time, energies, emotion and mental capabilities determines whether a potential leader will (1) recognize the opportunity to lead; (2) have the insight, knowledge and tenacity needed to engage the task; and (3) possess the capability of winning the right to gain other’s attention and trust. By character I mean those virtues that are recognized as beneficial for the social good. Lists of virtues are as abundant as the writers who think about them.

For brevity I prefer to use the four cardinal virtues of Greek thinking because they serve so well as expansive categories:

• temperance: σωφροσύνη (sōphrosynē) – self-discipline, strength of will or strength of mind

• prudence: φρόνησις (phronēsis) – discretion, good sense, forethought or acumen

• fortitude: ανδρεία (andreia) – courage, staying power, grit, resilience

• justice: δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē) – evenhandedness, impartiality

A person of character demonstrates the temperance needed to be prepared, the prudence needed to read the situation and others with relative accuracy, the fortitude needed to step up to meet challenge or change with courage and the justice needed to provide a common hope which is the foundation for action in the vision of a mutually beneficial and preferred future. Reliance on virtues suggests that leadership possesses a strong moral center from which ethical decisions are made and choices are evaluated.

Acquired skill is a function of learning. Learning is sometimes described as experience and it makes sense to assume that someone who has engaged a task, situation, life or people for a longer period of time should also have acquired unique insights that provide wisdom for navigating challenging and unknown situations in life.

However not everyone with time served in life possesses experience or learning. It is quite possible to flow through life without any of the critical reflection, synthesis or curiosity needed to catalog insights or information into retrievable and applicable knowledge or wisdom. Without critical reflection that tests one’s assumptions or observations insights either degenerate to hasty generalizations or evaporate for lack of effort to retain their significance. Those recognized as having made a difference in the lives of others and their organizations seem to be people who make a habit of the rigor of learning from all their experiences – good or ill. They possess a curiosity that seeks to understand so they investigate and they test their insights in real life. They become more proficient, more insightful, and more capable by continual reflection and practice.

Circumstance is a word that holds a greater sense of recurring potential than does the word opportunity for me. Perhaps that is because when people talk about opportunity relative to leadership they seem to talk more about privilege than recognition of chance occasion to risk stepping out in practice of what one has learned. For example when one ascribes their lack of accomplishment relative to another as a problem stemming from their never being granted an opportunity it is often followed by an embittered commentary on how the other was granted every chance to succeed. I have no doubt that privilege (opportunity stemming from affinity to someone in power) occurs regularly. However I find that leaders can see far more opportunities arise because the situation or circumstance in front of them provides the arena they need to put their acquired skills, abilities and insights to work among those who want help in making sense of what they face. The need to put skill, ability and insight to work does seem to open new doors of opportunity. It appears that Jesus’ statement that those who are faithful in little are indeed given much.

How is it that emerging leaders recognize these opportunities? Often they don’t at least not in the way that is later described when those around them write reflectively about what occurred. I find that leaders step up to what we call opportunity in hindsight because their sense of justice, temperance, prudence or fortitude was summoned to action because they saw a chance to make a difference by applying what they had learned through life. This is what I call the convergence of character, skill and circumstance.

This pattern of convergence seems to hold true in my experience which is of course still being tested in life. The pattern causes me to reflect on my own habits, perspectives and attitudes. It causes me to ask myself to what degree I pursue contribution to others as well as success (my own sense of accomplishment). It summons me to ask the degree to which I exercise my own virtues, learning and vision. It also allows me to determine what opportunities I will invest myself in and which ones I will turn down. Virtue leads me to seek a return on my time and energy not just for my own inurnment but also for the benefit of those I serve as a leader.

Gender and Ability

I am still amazed at the frequency of times I encounter managers and leaders who discount the talent, skills and abilities around them because the human packaging happens to be the wrong gender.  This gender bias is often masked in poor performance marks that have more to do with conflicting gender stereo types than actual performance. 
One female executive described a poor performance review that tagged her for demonstrating an  undercurrent of insubordination.  When she asked for information on what characteristics seemed insubordinate she was told that she often was too direct, too objective and just did not meet the demands of executive level work.  Her unit was out performing those of her peers and the same qualities in her male counter parts were considered the formula for success.

Studies consistently indicate that the gender gap is not defacto a talent or ability gap.  It does appear to be a socialization gap in both some males (who assume women are less capable of sustaining performance in high pressure or highly competitive environments) and in women who fear that their more public or powerful characteristics (direct communication, flexibility to new approaches, directive and commanding management style, orientation towards the general benefit or tendency to take direct action to get things done is either too “girly” or inappropriate female behavior in the work place.  The irony (and tragedy) of the no win assessment is painful.

In my observation company’s that minimize gender bias are better run (fewer employee claims, lower turn over and better financial strength), seem to have better competitive and cash positions and have a culture of innovation and collaboration.  Mind this is only anecdotal, but as an outsider who spends time in numerous different companies and industries it seems to be a non-exclusive pattern (meaning that not all highly competitives and positive companies are run by or have significant number of women in key leadership roles).

So, I contemplate ways to help organizations break out of the pink curtain and discover the full depth of talent and ability that exists in their own ranks, and to invest in that future purposefully.