Allow me to apologise. What follows is hastily put together. It lacks references, bibliography and may be slightly incoherent. I am leaving the country in a matter of hours and I am so excited I’m currently performing La Macarena while typing. It is not a visual symphony. I, however, do not care.
In the beginning. God: “It was good”. Collins: “Meh. It could have been great”.
Over the last decade, Collins writings have been at the heart of many leadership courses I have attended and also been the inspiration for many of many structured and details oriented colleagues. Built to Last was the first book Collins book I read, and like many leadership books at the time, none forecast the looming Global Financial Crisis and the devastation that would occur to many of the companies whose CEO’s, CFO’s and other acronymic leaders were influenced by Collins initial work, and then Good to Great. A book that sold in overwhelming number worldwide.
I have participated in details exegesis and hermeneutic application of Good to Great, and its social services iteration, in two denominations. Both times I have come out wondering about its efficacy in church contexts. I determined that one’s ecclesiology would drive the answer.
I can not speak for other organisations, including social service, because churches are complex communities of faith who often have trouble determining what their contextual purpose is and whether it is even justly appropriate to determine who will be in and who will not be when it comes to leadership.
In saying this, it may appear to be a denial of leaderships general common sense. However, over the years I have watched church leaders read Good to Great and then observed them interpreting the material in such a way that they believe the book is patting them on the back because it describes how they already operate. It is called the Barnum effect. It is the result of an operational principle being so vague it can be interpreted as a positive affirmation by almost anybody because the specific contextual practice of the principle is not laid out. Assessing the appointment of the best people can only be determined by the employer. I have yet to meet a pastor who claims to have been terrible at appointing the right people – when observably they have. For me, this was the weakness of the material. Indeed, it offers sound general principles, but they are open to broad interpretation, and to some extent, abuse; notably, “First who, then what”.
From a research perspective, there is one missing element in the book’s claims; namely, counterexamples. As one colleague pointed out a few years ago, Collins looked at what great companies had in common, but did not appear to look for companies that had the same qualities, but were not great, or even mediocre. I have not been able to look deeply this week, but a quick romp through Google has revealed that many of Collin’s top companies failed, and of those still operating few have performed in a great way. I guess it is a reminder that luck (read “Tipping Point”) and internal and external forces outside a companies control can have devastating consequences. In churches, it can be the discovery of one child abuser – greatness evaporates in a moment.
The seven basics:
- Level 5 Leadership: humility and resolve
- First who, then what: selectivity and flexibility
- Confront the brutal facts: realism and optimism
- The Hedgehog Concept: simplicity and purpose:
- Culture of Discipline: discipline and measurement
- Technology Accelerator: purposeful technology
- The Flywheel: Continuous Improvement
These are all good things to ponder, and they have been well-pondered over the years. The one that stands out in my context is, “confront the brutal facts: realism and optimism”. Because Christianity is rarely celebrated in New Zealand, and the church is in decline, facing the truth while remaining hopeful is perhaps one of the key practices of discipleship. Our sanctity is revealed most clearly when, in the hardest of times, we do not lose hope. Habukkuk 2:3 is a constant reminder in my own leadership role.
“For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come
and will not delay.”
Moreover, the principle I struggled with most was, “first who, then what”. On first blush, it makes sense, but I have observed it in action, and it is often used unjustly. The whole idea of the ‘right ‘ people on the bus runs counter to everything Jesus did. Take a good look at Jesus’ disciples. In Luke 5, people tear the roof of a house to get a person to Jesus; a sick person, an unclean person, a disposable person. Certainly not the right person. I am probably a little harsh, but the more time goes on, the more I am aware that Christian leadership is premised on an upside-down ethic that limits our behaviour and realigns our understanding of success. It reminds us that when God says we are created just right when our true selves experience God’s being, we need to be careful when we start aiming for greatness because I am just not sure in whose image that greatness is made.