Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Leading Through Uncharted Territory

Written by: on February 27, 2019

A friend of mine tells the story of a time when he visited a friend who was a jet fighter pilot. The friend took him to where he would do his training in flight simulation. The jet fighter pilot was a master, but still practiced for hours everyday in the flight simulators. They looked like giant video games. My friend was puzzled by the amount of time the pilot spent “playing video games” in the flight simulators, and so he asked him why he spent so much time doing that when he could be in the air or doing any number of other things. After all, he was already a master jet fighter pilot. Why the need to practice so much. And the pilot’s response was, “In a moment of crisis, we do not rise to the occasion. We default to our training.” This has been an important story for me to think about at a spiritual level. This is why we Christians engage in spiritual practices and disciplines. This is spiritual training. Or as Mike would suggest, it’s preparation for spiritual battle – the armor of God. When crisis in life hits, I cannot expect to rise to the occasion with wisdom, patience, grace, faith and hope, if I have not been training myself to respond in that way all along. I will not rise to the occasion. I will default to my training. If my training has been rigorous in the spiritual disciplines, I might respond to the crisis in a way that reflects the character of Christ than if I had not been engaging in spiritual practices. Instead, I would respond with panic, anxiety, argumentation, etc.

There is a power that comes through training and preparation in any aspect of life. There is a kind of spiritual power that is given, by God’s grace, when we open ourselves to God through spiritual disciplines. There is a power in knowing that God holds the future in a time of crisis, and that “knowing” is not simply an intellectual affirmation, it’s a deeper kind of “knowing” that comes through training in spiritual practice.

Berger and Johnston’s book is a work along these lines. The authors believe that moments of leadership actually happen not when things are smooth sailing, but in moments of crisis. These are the opportunities to bring change to an organization where it’s needed. They suggest that, like the jet fighter pilot, the training of the leader is what is critical. When the leader has entered uncharted territory and the future is untold, a leader can be trained through disciplines to navigate those crisis moments effectively.

The book reminds me of the work of Ronald Heifetz who writes about adaptive change leadership. There are times in which leaders face situations where the answers to the problems are clearly in view. The challenge is more about execution than it is about knowledge or understanding. These are technical problems, according to Heifetz. They require technical solutions. For example, a company loses a manager, what do they do? They hire a new manager. That’s a technical problem with a technical solution. Adaptive challenges, according to Heifetz, are much more difficult to navigate, because they are the problems that can be seen but there is no clear solution in view. For example, an aging church is struggling to reach the next generation. They try a technical fix – introducing a modern worship service to the congregation – but to no avail. Theirs is an adaptive problem that cannot be solved with a technical solution. It is where the answer to the problem is not clearly in view, where we are out beyond our comfort zone, in an unknown context. Tod Bolsinger, in his book Canoeing the Mountains, likens this to the experience of Lewis & Clark arriving at the base of the Colorado Rockies with canoes, expecting an all-water route from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean (Moses leading through the wilderness would be another fine example). In this situation, through the right kind of training, the adaptive leader can figure out how to navigate this territory and find solutions to complex and unknown problems.

In a uniquely practical way, Berger and Johnston suggest three habits for leaders that will help them with these kinds of “adaptive” challenges. The authors believe that knowledge is not enough. The leader needs to be trained to address and adapt. Leaders need to learn how to think, engage, and act differently. The authors write: “Thinking differently in a complex situation means taking a different approach to cause and effect. In the predictable world, you can figure out the relationship between cause and effect and, over time, seek to repeat it…In the unpredictable world, the leader holds a vision of the future as a general direction rather than a specific destination.”[1]In my work, we are also in uncharted territory in an unpredictable world. We are embedding ourselves in a community, doing ground research to see where the gaps are for children and youth, and seeking to address those gaps with new solutions. So all of the program work that we are doing requires thinking differently. Hardly anything that was useful for running a church matters in this work (though many of my skills are transferable). It is challenging, but glaringly necessary.

The authors suggest three habits of mind to help them know how to think, engage and act differently for a different world:

  1. Ask different questions
  2. Take multiple perspectives
  3. See systems

These three practices are quite helpful for any leader in a system (which is every leader) in order to navigate an unpredictable world. Asking different questions is hard for me because I get used to asking the same questions when facing a challenge. Nevertheless, I tend to be curious and not too shy, so I am eager to work on my skills in this area. I am grateful for my work in the Presbyterian tradition, which has taught me the skill of taking multiple perspectives because my tendency is to run out and do whatever I want without considering other perspectives. I tend to just think that my ideas are awesome and that everyone in my charge will agree! But it’s important that I even hold my thoughts and ideas generously as I gather multiple perspectives. The idea of nudging systems is an interesting one and worth consideration, though not all systems theory leaders would agree that small incremental change will actually change the system.



[1]Berger, J., & Johnston, K. (2015). SIMPLE HABITS FOR COMPLEX TIMES. Leader to Leader, 2015(78), 25-30.



About the Author

Chris Pritchett

5 responses to “Leading Through Uncharted Territory”

  1. M Webb says:

    I like the fighter pilot analogy that in the time of crisis “we default to our training.” Thanks for the Armor of God promotional plug! I totally agree. I make it a daily practice to intentionally put on the armor in preparation for the daily spiritual battle. It is not a one time and we’re done for the day. I’m always checking it, ensuring there are no vulnerable areas left unprotected, and conscious that I am wearing it. It is kind of like wearing the Marvel- Iron Man suit. You can learn how to put it on and get comfortable with it, but every time you move you know it is there. You can feel it, it has weight, it is tight in certain places, it has super power, cool tech tools, and the voice in your ears is the Holy Spirit (not the computer voice, lol) who is helping you observe, orient, decide, discern, and act towards each right and wrong you might encounter during the day.
    You should think your ideas are awesome, because they are! When you are wearing your full armor of God, abiding in the Vine, and bearing the fruit of the Spirit produced by Christ-in-you is definitely a great way to lead and minister. The world might call life unpredictable, but we know that with God’s Power, Presence, and Knowledge that nothing is too big or unpredictable for His sovereign plan and will for your life.
    Excellent post Chris.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  2. Dan Kreiss says:


    I believe that your ideas are awesome and may even be the ones that should be utilized. However, I think you have captured the essence of this week’s text in acknowledging that holding multiple perspectives and being generous with your understanding will equate with stronger leadership in complex times.

    Your illustration of ‘defaulting to our training’ is well stated and useful in considering this week’s writing. Thanks for your faithfulness.

  3. Great example, Chris!

    You really captured my attention right away with your example of the fighter jet pilot. It’s true! In the midst of uncertainty, we always fall back on our training. This is why our training needs to be diversified enough to provide us with various answers.

    What has been the most surprising answer to your questions during your ground research phase? Do you think that the majority of leaders are trained to ask different questions or fall back on preconceived presumptions? How has this hurt Christian organizations specifically?

  4. Chris,

    Welcome to the VUCA world mate! Your diving into a completely new context in Carpinteria to develop grassroots presence from the bottom up is a daring and unusual opportunity. I love the idea of being embedded in community, and using that as a contextual place for allowing God’s grace to flow through and with you to others. Berger and Johnson’s book should give you a good framework.

    Thanks also for your mention of Heifitz who is new to me (as my formal education was from sooo long ago!!). I just read The Practice Adaptive Leadership yesterday for my research paper this semester and loved his approach. It will definitely colour the way I approach the solutions I am creating for my dissertation.

  5. Shawn Hart says:

    “In a moment of crisis, we do not rise to the occasion. We default to our training.” Whoohoo buddy…THAT WILL PREACH!! In fact, I hope you have preached that sermon. I hope you don’t mind if I use that illustration and preach that sermon.

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