Goal of Leadership

This week’s reading was brutal. Our cohort had to read, not one, not two, but three books in a matter of days. They weren’t easy ones either. Absorbing the material from Simon Walker’s The Undefended Leader trilogy was like drinking from a leadership fire hydrant. This is not to say that the arduous reading was not enjoyable. In fact out of all the leadership books I’ve read, this one stands out as one I will continually refer back to and will recommend to those aspiring to be better leaders. As I write this, I’m aware this opinion may have an expiration date. With so many books on leadership, I’m beginning to be convinced the academic ideas and concepts on leadership, which is fairly new, are varied, sometimes contradictory and can get far afield from each other. 

For instance, we learn from Brene Brown1 and Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries2 that daring leadership requires empathy, that effective leadership require transparency and self-compassion. Contra Brown, Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve tells us not to engage in empathy. In fact, he devotes a whole chapter decrying the potential pitfalls of this, putting it on the same level as ‘emotional coercion.’3 Then there are the joys of discovering that some of these experts agree, i.e., Kets de Vries’ ‘accepting our shadowy side’ with Simon Walker’s ‘leading out of who you are’ which aptly is the title of the first volume of his 3-part series on The Undefended Leader.

As I’m writing this, I’ve yet to decide exactly what direction to take this since there is so so much to unpack. Do I write about the need for leadership in these turbulent times? Do I pick something more aligned with my dissertation? Or do I wax about the alphabet (PSC, RSC, PSX, etc.) soup of leadership concepts Walker theorizes are the ways we understand leadership? After giving it some thought, I decided to write about what the reading has caused me to reflect  on the most — and it’s this: What is the goal of leadership?

My own understanding of the goals of leadership had always been tied directly to the organization’s mission (ideal) and vision. Purportedly we apply all our skills and resources to accomplish the mission and vision. The mission is grand, once for all, and the vision is what gets us there. While there’s a lot of wisdom in that, I felt, after reading Walker, that perhaps that view was too simplistic and runs the risk of becoming too ethereal for followers to follow. 

Having worked at Biola University for over a quarter of a century (I know, that’s a very long time), I find that most of its employees, to my dismay cannot recall, much less utter the mission statement that is frequently promoted in internal memos, missives, ads, campaigns, etc. Biola is proud of its 111 year heritage and makes every effort to let the world know that our mission statement remains unchanged since its founding. And yet I feel our staff, faculty and students do not mention it nearly enough about this being a reason for belonging to an institution as much as I do. Does this make me a leader—because I care so much about this?

Walker admonishes the leader about feeling trapped in ‘idealism.’ It’s one of the things that drives leaders. In my case, it has become foundational in all I do as a leader and has become indistinguishable from the mission. The danger in this, according to Walker is when a leader looks at the ideal and discovers that the world does not conform to it, a cognitive dissonance develops in the mind which may lead to mental and emotional stress.4

Is the goal of leadership success? Success in accomplishing projects, meeting enrollment goals, staying within budget, etc.? Sure, but these all could be attained by formulas and technique; things delegable. Walker offers something better. He writes “that the only proper goal of leadership is this: to enable people to take responsibility.”5 That’s it. 

Up until this point I had not considered some of the possible ways to frame my understanding of leadership. I had always thought leadership was based on a single dimension of skill, charisma or vision. Walker has provided a way to lay foundations to which I can build my own set of leadership concepts that work in my present context. As I’ve mentioned, there is so much to absorb in these three books that I’m glad this is the last reading of this sort for this semester because I will now have the chance to ruminate on what it means to enable people to take responsibility. 

Stay Curious

As I write this there are no less than seven stories in this morning’s paper lambasting the intemperate excesses of large companies that have resulted in large scale privacy loss, antitrust violations and billions worth of lost capital. Not surprisingly, Facebook, one of the four horsemen in Scott Galloway’s book The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google is being investigated by the state of California for its mishandling of the Cambridge Analytica case which compromised data from as many as 87 million of its users. The company is also facing antitrust lawsuits in Europe over the dubious way it acquired WhatsApp in 2014.1

Then there’s SoftBank, a money machine, popular for infusing exorbitant amount of cash to help technology start-ups thrive, with literally nothing but a vision, also on front page (top half) for losing $9 billion in the last quarter.2 How did Masayoshi Son do that? He doubled down on a shaky pre IPO deal with an overpriced workspace sharing company called WeWork and a cash-strapped, ride-hailing company we all know and love, Uber (a possible contender for the Fifth Horseman)3

Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at the New York University School of Business warns us about what big companies, if left unchecked, can do to inflict harm on us, consciously or unconsciously. Take for instance our affinity towards Facebook. Are we willing to trade our privacy for fleeting connections in virtual space?4 Why do we allow these mega corporations to act with impunity? Is Google’s motto “Don’t Be Evil” sufficient to stem the inequities these businesses foster? 

I believe the real reason why we allow these companies to run unabated is our love for their products. Galloway made allusions to Google having god-like characteristics that hold a sort of religious sway over us.5 What he failed to connect is that we have actually become our own gods. This is more befitting of our times. God created us in his image. We decided to return the favor. Their products will help recreate ourselves to be better than our former selves. With the aid of AI we can gene-edit human beings into our own likeness and obtain the materials delivered to us in a week’s time—two days if you’re an Amazon Prime member. Then we snap a photo of our successes, using our iPhones of course, post it on Facebook to broadcast to the whole world that we matter. 

This is the future I’m afraid. But it doesn’t have to be. As an aside, it would not be fair to say that the Four Horsemen have not contributed anything positive toward human flourishing. The benefits of technology are obvious; and Galloway is not naive not to acknowledge that. But since we live in a fallen world, it takes more effort to prevent abuses than to unflinchingly continue toward progress. His tips for thriving in the apocalypse are worth noting. The one that stuck with me is about staying curious.6 “Curiosity is crucial to success” is the short but enduring quip from Galloway. Curiosity can take many forms. It’s true, trying to resist the avalanche of change will drown you. Galloway said “Successful people in the digital age are those who go to work every day, not dreading the next change, but asking, ‘What if we did it this way?’”7

For me that means continued learning—learning how to be a better leader to guide my organization through the challenges and threats these Four Horsemen bring about.

Common Ground Leadership

Reading Manfred F.R. Kets De Vries’ Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership was like embarking on a backpacking trip. One had to slog through the initial rough terrain, enduring steep switchbacks before reaching breathtaking mountain-top vistas. Except I thought this book’s trailhead started in the dumps. I was almost tempted to use my newly acquired skill I learned from Pierre Bayard and talk about a book I haven’t read. But just like backpacking I trudged, one foot in front of the other until I reached familiar footings that gave me time to reflect on important things about leadership.

As I was reflecting on why I was having a tough time connecting with Kets De Vries’ ideas I decided I’d better review his presuppositions to gain proper perspective. The author is not opaque and states them clearly in the beginning. He uses three frameworks in this book: (1) Psychodynamics, (2) Evolutionary Psychology and (3) Neuroscience. Indeed, these are fascinating subjects and as much as I’m tempted to quibble with them, I’m afraid I’d only end up contributing to the “dystopian worries”1 the author warns us about.

However, as I read through the material I began to pick up things I found familiar with my own research. And that is the whole idea of common ground. The idea of ‘common ground,’ at least in Christian Apologetics, purports that there are transcendent basic human values shared among humanity from the beginning of time. In worldview terms, it’s understood as being able to answer five ultimate questions: the question of origins, identity, meaning of life, morality and destiny.

So it was refreshing to discover that Kets De Vries addresses these important issues as part of a developing leader. For instance he connects our goal in leadership to life’s purpose. He says “Many studies have shown that having a purpose is good for our mental health.”2 This idea of adopting a purpose comports well with another expert, Edwin Friedman, in which he analogized a human cell undergoing the process of specialization3 that aids in the function of the organism. To be a good, self-differentiated leader we must answer the fundamental questions in life for ourselves: Who am I? Why am I here? What is life all about? What’s the meaning of my life? Kets De Vries said that if we avoid these questions, life becomes superficial and empty.4

Another exciting discovery for me in reading Kets De Vries is his allusion to what sociologist Peter Berger calls ‘signals of transcendence.’ Again, very much related to the whole idea of common ground (common grace for the Reformed), Berger thinks that there exists timeless, transcendent truths that evoke a sense of soul-searching in a person who unwittingly comes face to face with realities of human experience. I’m guessing Kets De Vries is not a believer. And yet it’s refreshing that he includes concepts in his leadership training that ultimately finds its source in God. Values such as hope5, play6, humor7 and order8 are all what makes us human9. These are the things that connect us deeply with those we are trying to lead. If we are wise, we will seek to establish common ground with those we are trying to influence, whether that be in our own families or in organizations that count on us to lead.

Nuanced Juxtapositions

O wow! Reading Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve was like drinking from a fire hydrant — there’s just so much to assimilate. I found myself highlighting many parts, frequently re-reading sections, trying to comprehend his ideas about leadership. Then there were the familiar concepts we’re told not to emulate, such as empathy and togetherness.1 There was a welcomed subversive theme in his writing, doing away with the old, ineffective ways of dealing with organizational issues that looked to external regressive forces.2 But instead he asserted that the way forward is to look into our “self” and become what he calls a “self-differentiated” leader.

There were also what I call the nuanced juxtapositions of commonly amicable words that made me think harder about them. Side by side words such as peace over progress, flexible or wishy washy, rigid or principled, selfish vs. self-‘ish,’ genius or madness, etc. Not only were they clever, but I found the literary approach helpful to discern more carefully my own attitudes and behavior in situations that trigger my actions. Choosing one over the other makes a big difference in how we become mature.

There are too many good lessons that I’m afraid I can only put to practice some of them. The following are the ones that resonate with me in my present leadership context.

Anxiety. There’s the garden variety kind of anxiety that many of us are familiar with and experience with some regularity. Some of what triggers may be due to unmet goals, missed deadlines, etc. Then there’s the unacknowledged anxiety. This is much harder to deal with because it lies beneath the subconscious. If not dealt with properly, it leads to empathy,3 which then leads to a spiraling regressive triangle4 relationship. Fortunately we have a third member of the triangle who can break in at any point and redeem the broken relationship. That person of course is Jesus. He invites us to come to him, to trade our burdens for his because they are light and he will give us rest.5

Self-Differentiation. Friedman makes it very clear that a good leader is one who is self-differentiated. He describes that person as

“I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”6

Friedman says we never get there but rather it’s a life long process that we must persevere through. I see this person as fully mature, well-balanced and secure. So the key to a successful family or organization is having a leader who is self-differentiated. I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s admonition to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought…”7 There is the implication that there is a desirable and expected state of who we are as individuals. A mature person does not think lower or higher than he or she actually is. In the same passages Paul exhorts us to fulfill our calling by exercising our gifts. This parallels Friedman’s idea of “specialization” in which members contribute to the good of the larger society.8

Like I mentioned earlier, there are so many helpful concepts on what it means to be a good leader. These two takeaways are what stuck with me.

History: His Story

Reading this new historical tome by Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads reminded me of my favorite quote which sums up the atrocities in the Middle Ages: “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”1 It’s a gruesome picture but in many ways accurate.

Frankopan’s project in this book was to attempt to write world history, not necessarily from the point of view of the winners, the “accepted and lazy history of civilization” but from alternative sources. He does have a point. I admit, my own knowledge of world history came from the “lazy” perspective where 

“Ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry crossed with democracy in turn yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”2

I suspect I’m not the only one and many of my friends, from the learned to the simple minded, especially those who grew up in the West, subscribe to this incomplete view of world history. I was intrigued and a part of me couldn’t wait to get to the end. I was patient and managed to read through the conclusion. Did Frankopan succeed in his goal to “rewrite” world history? Was he fair and objective, writing about events as it actually happened? 

I am no history buff, and so anything he wrote I took at face value. To my surprise and delight I thoroughly enjoyed it. Did I agree with everything he wrote? Not necessarily, but that’s neither here nor there. No one agrees 100% with everything anyone says. We all get some things right and some things wrong—no is perfect. The following are some of the highlights I gleaned from the book which I found helpful.

  1. I learned a lot. This is perhaps the thing I am most grateful for. For instance I didn’t realize that Christianity in the 3rd century was being compared to other religions in Persia to see which religion was “superior.”3 Nor did I know that “the barbarians were at the gates” more than once in history. I learned about the “steppes” and the beginnings of the Low Lands. I learned about the etymology of “slaves” and a closely related word in Italian “Ciao.” I leaned about the two shots fired in the summer of 1914 that changed history and divided nations that really did not want to go to war. Much of this has given me a renewed desire to visit these historical sites and actually have something to say about what happened at these places.
  2. Need to be careful about bias. It should not be a shock to anyone to learn that history is written by the winners. That’s obvious. But if what is meant by “history is written by the winners” is that there is a pervading bias, a triumphalist tone in the reporting of history, then that is entirely something else. The important thing to ask is: Is it true? Are the facts being reported comport to the actual events? We all have bias. It’s unavoidable. The important question is: can we admit and set aside our partiality enough so that we can look at things objectively?
  3. God is in charge. Frankopan’s view of world history is more depressing than I think it actually is. He hardly mentions the great Christian movements during the Middle Ages (Dark Ages for the pessimists). There’s almost nothing mentioned about the centrality of Israel in world history, which I find curious. I don’t deny that many horrible things were done in the name of Christianity throughout history. But I don’t find that troubling because we see the same kinds of things reported in Scripture. Humanity, created in God’s image, rebelled against God in the beginning. We’ve needed a savior ever since. God has a strange way of superintending human events. For example, God used Cyrus II, a pagan king to restore Israel in 6th century BC. Or how about God allowing the Israelites to “plunder the Egyptians” centuries before as they escaped their captors. 
  4. Abject humility. Since we don’t have God’s perspective we have to admit our ignorance about how world events shape history. Sure, we have some knowledge about it but we can’t authoritatively claim we know for certain how certain events will turn out. A practical application of this was already pointed out by Frankopan’s work. For example, throughout history, believers were sure the apocalypse was near, but it never happened. Extending this a bit further, it now becomes pointless to argue for a particular view of eschatology. When folks ask me if I’m “pre-trib, premillennial” or “post-trib,” “amill”, etc., I just shake my head and say “I’m optimistic.” Then I get a chuckle. All I know for sure is that Jesus is coming back again. Until then, I’m going to remain curious and humble about world history.

The Provincial Farm Boy

Political theologian William Cavanaugh asks a provocative question: “How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about?”1 That is a stunning way to start a book. Cavanaugh is asking what in human nature compels us to act. It’s an important question once we stop and consciously think about what motivates us to do certain things. Does knowing what and how to do things make you do it? How about we raise the stakes and ask ourselves this: If we know what and how to do important things (i.e., organize personal finances early to minimize stress during tax season), are we more compelled to do it?

The answer to this is at the heart of why many new years resolutions fail. We know the health benefits of diet and exercise. We know how to do it, but we don’t. Then we spend the rest of the year nursing our self-doubt, convincing ourselves that mustering more willpower will yield a better result the following year.

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work makes the case that concentrated  pockets of time devoted to our undivided attention on projects will yield success. Moreover, he concludes that  spending less time performing these ‘deep work’ activities actually produce more output, not less. Newport provides a treasure trove of valuable tips, insights, research and practical suggestions to help the reader unlock her potential. Tools such as ‘stacking,’2 scheduling techniques,3 how to manage e-mails are worthwhile but what stimulated my interest more than anything was the section on willpower, desires and habits.4

With some of these ideas in mind let’s go back to Cavanaugh’s question. What could possibly persuade a provincial farm boy to enlist as a soldier to do things he normally would not, such as killing another human being? On its own merits, it’s difficult to imagine what might persuade “Cavanaugh’s soldier.” Was it a pamphlet or some info session he attended that convinced him? Did he take a class or read a textbook on the philosophy of soldiering to incline his will to enlist? I doubt it. This silly thought experiment exposes the unwitting assumptions we have surrounding our actions. 

Let’s shift a bit and apply this to our faith. Do we fail in our sanctification because we lack enough willpower? Are our desires not strong enough to overcome spiritual malaise? Christian leaders and pastors today bemoan the slow death of Christianity in the West, that is, unless some kind of revival takes place. I suspect what is meant by revival is some supernatural force by the Holy Spirit that transforms an entire generation to Christlikeness. No doubt, God can perform miracles such as this but the problem lies with the church. There exist a ‘monergistic’ relationship between God’s work and ours. Yes, God is responsible for our transformation, but He still expects us to do our part. So we can’t sit idly, pray for the church to be influential in society again, and expect God’s kingdom to move forward. 

James Hunter in his book “To Change the World” points out that Protestants have steadily increased in number, church attendance and participation over the last 175 years.5 But that fact has not stopped the steady decline of Christianity in the West. So if the answer is not in acquiring more knowledge and experience. If it’s not in summoning up more commitment or somehow fan our emotions to make us obedient followers of Christ. Then what?

Perhaps the answer is in the unpopular and uncelebrated notion of practice. Just like a muscle, our bodies must be trained to do things in pre-cognitive ways. Done enough times, it becomes habit. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that educators since the Enlightenment have viewed individuals as primarily thinking beings. We are not just “brains on a stick” according to philosopher James K.A. Smith. He adds that providing people with a Christian worldview is inadequate and that there are other ways of knowing, contra the intellectualist view which assumes that what I do is the outcome of what I think.6

So, not surprisingly, the apostle Paul was spot-on in admonishing us to “work out” our own salvation. The challenge for the church, especially in the West is to start reordering our priorities. We don’t get rid of instruction. We just supplement it with practical application. There is no winning formula. But I imagine we can start with this: For every unit of orthodoxy, there must be an accompanying unit of orthopraxy. I may be way off but hopefully you get the point. 

If we continue in the welcomed challenge of ‘deep work’ required to become more like Christ, then perhaps we may one day be like the provincial farm boy who enlists in the service of God’s kingdom, fully persuaded that all he does is for his glory.

Where is the Hope?

Ross Douthat, writing in 2012, could have waited just a few more years before penning Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics to include forthcoming distressing events, nicely rounding off his jeremiad observation of Christian decline in the United States. In a few  years he could have included on his list the increased reports of shootings (police against citizens and vice versa), the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit, the U.S. Supreme court striking down DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) which eventually led to gay marriage being the law of the land. Add to that the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch on duty who claimed self defense in the shooting death of an unarmed black teen named Trayvon Martin, stoking renewed racial tensions causing several riots in other cities with demands of justice.

Another critical event Douthat could have included in his book had he waited is the rapid decline in sexual mores. In the 1960’s, the idea was to liberate sexual constraints in the name of progress. To simply say that has changed is an understatement. Since the legal adoption of gay marriage in 2015, our culture now entertains issues of transgenderism, gender dysphoria, non-binary, gender reassignments, etc. The language surrounding this particular issue is confusing, even to experts.

Douthat’s observation of culture decay in the U.S. is a sobering reality that ideas do have consequences. However, and I confess, having studied apologetics at a graduate level, most of my conclusions explaining Evangelical drift is from a social context that seeks to define truth in relativistic terms or an outright rejection of the existence of god. i.e., atheism. Douthat on there other hand is keen to discern that this is not always the case:

“The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul.”1

James Davison Hunter in his book To Change The World makes a convincing case that our cultural challenges cannot be mitigated through a simple “change of hearts and minds”2 either. Hunter, I believe, overstates his case because in the end he advocates for a “faithful presence within” mindset which is itself an indication of a changed heart and mind. Other experts chime in with their panacea. Rod Dreher proposes that authentic renewal “will have to happen in families and local church communities,” a grass-roots movements retreat, harkening back to the days of the Benedictines in the 10th century, forming communities that extolled the virtues of order, work, prayer, hospitality and a balanced view of life.3

I had a chance to interview Timothy Muehlhoff, professor of communications and author of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence  in a Post-Christian World. He wrote the book partly in response to Deborah Tannen’s description of our current culture as being the argument culture. Argument culture according to Tannen is a disposition “that urges us to approach the world, and the people in it, in an adversarial frame of mind.”4 I asked him what he thought would be effective in helping turn culture around. He said the solution is for believers to start showing neighborly love and compassion.5 This is easier said than done, but is there any better way? After all this is exactly what the Lord commands of us. In chapter three he expounds specifically what neighborly love and compassion looks like.

Ross Douthat, Os Guinness, Rod Dreher, James Davison Hunter, Vincent Miller and other Evangelical leaders offer timely humble answers to our post-Christian world problems. We may see things get better with the coming generation or not. But we must never lose hope. Even as a self-identified pessimist, Douthat offers great hope:

"In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith”—the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilization. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud. But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterton noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”6

And yet our best hope is Christ.

"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."7

Solitude in Journaling

I still remember vividly the time when one of my colleagues looked at me with derision when I mentioned nonchalantly that I did not have my phone with me. She had texted me just a few moments prior and had expected a quick response. I do not recall the content of the message but to her it was urgent and therefore important.1 I was stunned by the look of bewilderment in her face upon learning that I had left my phone unattended somewhere in the office. After that awkward moment, I realized then that I had come face to face with what Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World identifies as a person hooked on the “digital attention economy.”2

The demands of life in our modern world are difficult enough without the added pressure of constantly checking our digital devices for updates. This is one of the reasons I have learned early on to adopt a lot of suggestions in Newport book. He calls for more people to join the Attention Resistance3, to be more minimalist in their adoption of technology.

Perhaps the best tool or discipline that has helped me personally to remain focused on the important things in life, while at the same time help mitigate the constant distractions from social media is journaling. Newport calls this the practice of writing letters to yourself. He writes on Moleskin journals; I type mine on a document on my laptop. He writes topically; I write about my random thoughts at random times. He writes to himself on an irregular basis; I try to write regularly. Some of his writing gets included in published works; mine will never see the light of day.

I have maintained an electronic journal since 1989, right around the time the Mac was invented. Transitioning from the typewriter, in which a lot of my college papers were written, to this new invention whose primary benefit at the time was its ability to save work and allow editing was a treat. It was also during this uncertain period of my life that I decided to adopt the discipline of journaling. Most people who journal write using the traditional method—pen on paper. I do mine on a Word document I keep on the cloud. That is intentional. I have given some thought about my preference of typing my thoughts on a computer because it provides some advantages. This is in deference to Newport’s admonition to ask this question before adopting new tools: “is this the best way to use technology to support this value?”4 In my situation, the answer is yes. The value is in my ability to search the past more easily and systematically. I share some of those values here.

Format: Every new entry starts with the date and time. The date and time helps me locate and situate myself in history. I want to be able to capture the moments of my thoughts. This way I can better compare how I felt and imagined certain things between periods of my life. Did I mature in my thinking over time? Have I become a better person compared to a year ago?

Setting: Here I describe the place where I am, the weather and other relevant events around the time of writing. Again, this helps me not just get reacquainted with my state of mind, but helps me recall how I felt, getting connected emotionally with the content of the entry. I spend time trying to describe in detail where I am sitting, the room I am in, the noise level, the colors of the room, the people around me or absent from the place. Is it sunny, cloudy, raining or humid, etc. All these descriptors help me relive those moments, good or bad.

Content: Since I have determined in advance that this journal is not going to be shared with anyone I am free to include anything without fear of being judged. This is between God and me. I have no restrictions as to whether I write formally or informally; coherently or incoherently. I incorporate my best ideas and half-baked ones, joys, despairs, prayers and answers to them, lessons I’ve learned and habitual sins I struggle with. Most of the time it’s crying out to God for help.

Practice & Solitude: Writing is not only a good skill to have, but it is indispensable for leaders. Good leaders communicate constantly and clearly to their constituents, keeping them informed of goings on at the organization. I have found it extremely helpful to accustom myself to the habit of writing, expressing my thoughts and ideas to keep me mentally, spiritually and emotionally sharp. Since solitude is more about what is happening in the brain5 as opposed to the environment around us, writing gives me the space to be creative and explore original thought.

Cal Newport has given us shape and form to some of challenges of our hectic modern lives. He asks us to always check our value system, is what we are engaged in shaping us into better people, contributing to human flourishing? In a Christian context, are we doing things that contribute to loving others as ourselves? To be a digital minimalist is to say like the Apostle Paul said “…but I will not be enslaved by anything…”6

Undulating VUCA

Reading Jennifer G. Berger and Keith Johnston’s Simple Habits for Complex Times brought back bad memories and good ones as well. Bad because of the avoidable mistakes and anxieties in leadership I had made years ago when I managed a university campus bookstore; good because of the lessons learned.

At the height of my career I was on top of the campus retailing world. I was innovative, charismatic and confident about my profession. I was respected among my colleagues, traveled to take part in industry conferences and made real contributions to constituents. They even elected me to serve on boards and eventually ascended to the position of president of our state association. I enjoyed recognition and influence, which in the end, and in retrospect amounted to nothing more than an illusion.1

Prior to the internet boom and before e-commerce was even a word, college bookstores were prominently part of the university landscape and ethos. Not only was it the only place to purchase textbooks and myriad of university logo tchotchkes, it provided a whole lot of intangibles as well, i.e., school spirit, social connections, etc.

In 1994 Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com. As the popular aphorism goes, the rest is history. The writing was on the wall. At that point it was only a matter of time before the publishers, along with the bookstore industry would struggle to reinvent itself. It was a tumultuous period to say the least. Many bookstores could not compete and had to close. Some got leased to larger conglomerates that provided the market share and margins just to survive, much less thrive.

In the midst of all of this, the bookstore I was managing employed best practices, lowered prices to remain competitive while providing great service and selections. Despite our best efforts, leadership decided to lease our college store to a third party vendor. I was crushed. Looking back I’m convinced we did not have all the data to make a wise decision. The only thing that ran through my mind was “who is to blame.” I did not know it then, but my mind set as a leader was naive and immature, arrogantly thinking I had it together. Berger identifies this form of mind as “self-sovereign.”

The world is a volatile place and this is out of our control— nothing can be done. Ambiguity is the fault of the leaders, who should have the power or the good sense to make things clear. Complexity is mostly unseen. When people talk about interconnections or shades of gray, the self-sovereign mind may well reject those ideas as absurd (or intentionally misleading) ways to somehow make the situation come out to that person’s advantage.2

In an ironic, undoubtedly, providential turn of events, my bosses thought it was good to put me in a cohort-based leadership program at the university. Everyone in the group knew what was going on with the bookstore, and it was one of those elephant in the room type of thing no one dared bring up. I had mixed feelings but felt affirmed because my leaders remained confident in my abilities. One of the most important things I gleaned from being part of the leadership cohort was the importance of diagnosis. This is akin to Berger’s idea of asking different questions; not the kind people ask in the hopes of funneling the other person to the preferred answer. Highlighting the importance of diagnosis, Ronald Heifetz in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership says that “The singly most important skill and most undervalued capacity of exercising adaptive leadership is diagnosis.”3 As leaders we are prone to action, but experts are saying we must stop and see the bigger picture first.

As I mentioned in the beginning, there were good memories as well. Good, not in the sense that I enjoyed the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA).4 Not at all, however, what I did take away from the experience was the importance of looking for the learning moments.5 That is what kept me sane. I considered that time of my life a “wilderness” period, uncertain of the future, where rational things seemed no longer to make sense. Was the transition into leasing smooth? Was it even the right decision? If there is another important lesson learned, it is the fact that these are not the right questions to ask in a complex system.

The Gospel Revisited: Charting a New Way Toward Culture Change (Part 2)

In my last blog post I sought to bring to the fore some of what ails our beliefs and behaviors of Christianity in the West but more specifically in the United States today. In this post I would like to continue where I left off; and that is to offer a hopeful way forward for the faithful.

Hardly any Evangelical leader today would argue that we are currently living in a post-Christian and post-truth culture. In the last ten years we have seen a myriad of books that have been published to counter the cultural slide; titles such as Renaissance by Os Guinness, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and To Change The World by James D. Hunter come to mind. These modern day prophets, in their speaking and writing have warned, consoled and provided a new fresh way to view the world in the context of Christianity today.

If we grant the premise that we ultimately are what we love1, our understanding of how culture’s devolvement may simultaneously help us recover a proper vision of God’s kingdom. It is this understanding, an awareness, that counts as the first step.2 To illustrate this, one of the joys in my life has been teaching my son how to play competitive tennis. My family encouraged this sport in him as soon as he began walking and after years of practice he now is able to keep up with college-level tennis players. However, every once in a while he experiences a bad streak in his game in which his forehand strokes, his main competitive advantage, fail him — and fail him badly. When this happens I, as his coach, would tell him two things: (1) explain the mechanics of his stroke, what makes it work and what causes failure; and (2) physically demonstrate the proper correction, a slight tweak in how he grips the racket in order to hit the ball with enough spin and pace.

This analogy highlights two important things in our approach if we are to redeem culture for Christ: belief and behavior. This dynamic tie in respectively to the two things I mentioned above. Belief here is defined as propositions that are true and justified. It’s what counts as knowledge. Behavior on the other hand is the practical way in which one acts or conducts oneself. No one doubts the ineluctable relationship between belief and behavior in the sense that proper belief produces proper behavior. Taking this further, the common view argues that to correct a bad behavior one must correct the bad belief. This is an idealized way of looking at connection but we know this is false. Because if this were true we would not be discussing culture decay. James D. Hunter astutely observes:

Consider, first, the fact that communities of faith have been a dominating presence in American society for the length and breadth of its history. There is some evidence that suggests that there are even more Americans who are worshipping as part of a congregation today than in the past.1 As late as 1960, only 2 percent of the population claimed not to believe in God; even today, only 12 to 14 percent of the population would call themselves secularists. This means that in America today, 86 to 88 percent of the people adhere to some faith commitments. And yet our culture—business culture, law and government, the academic world, popular entertainment—is intensely materialistic and secular.3

For far too long we have fought the culture wars with more education (belief) at the expense of forming behavior, thinking that if we only taught a generation rightly all will be well. We forget that in the politicization of education, it is downstream from culture as other social structures are. In other words, our educational system, institutions curriculum, frameworks, organizations, etc. are a result of the forces that have shaped culture. Perhaps the solution may be found in shining a light to the oft-neglected part of the equation: behavior? Rick Warren, pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life, expresses this sentiment concisely in a statement he has often repeated:

I’m looking for a second reformation. The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs. This one is going to be about behavior. The first one was about creeds. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what the church believes, but about what the church is doing.4

Warren is absolutely correct in his invitation and challenge to this generation. We know why, but do we know how to behave? What resources can we draw upon that will help us in the formation? In this short blog, I regretfully have not found enough time and space except to mention the first step in our project to improve culture, and that is a thoughtful awareness of the nuances of the challenges that keep believers in a cultural cul-de-sac.