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

The Best Job for the Tools

Written by: on September 19, 2019

Cal Newports, Deep Work (1) , reminded me that being comfortable in my own ministry skin is a pleasant place to be after years of self observation through eyes of everyone else. It means I read leadership books or theology material with a degree of detachment because I’m not looking for the idea, concept or principle that is going to revolutionise my ministry or leadership abilities. Rather, I am looking for small shifts and tiny moments that help me be myself in the most useful way to others. But knowing ourselves – our best selves before God, at this moment, requires the deep work of spiritual formation as the platform for deep work on the mechanisms of our ministry leadership.

After concluding my school years I became an apprentice mechanic fitter with the railways. At the end of my training I pronounced to an a Locomotive Maintainer, which simply meant I repaired broken locomotives. A big part of the training was to understand your tools and when to use them. On any job particular job in the field I would carry a small bag holding what I needed, even though I hadn’t seen what needed to be done. I was given enough information to assist me in making decisions regarding what to carry with me. And, part of tool choice was knowing what job really was. Over the years I learned that the real job was not what people told me. More often than not I was given symptoms, and symptoms are not what need addressing – the problem is. Tools that fix symptoms don’t fix problems. Symptoms are merely distractions. Contextually, I think this is what Newport is getting at when he talks about draining the shallows and removing distractions.

I can still remember spending an infuriating amount of time looking at my tools and wondering what to take. By the time I was a master tradesman, my intuition was honed through long hours of pondering in the early years and still failing to see the bigger picture. Over time I developed the ability to choose quickly because the hard work of learning and intuiting had been done. These days, leadership is little different. Every book I read is little more than an addition to a large collection of tools. Like fixing locomotives, the trick is to know what tools to draw upon and which to avoid.

This book is different because it is not really a tool, but rather a lesson in tool use. Newports, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World encourages that journey of giving time to understanding and reflecting on the important and not the urgent. Getting the job done is important in most settings, but getting the right job done in the right way requires distraction free thinking with focussed ‘seeing’ that takes time to develop – it takes practice. Newports worrying thought is that focussed clarity is rarely a feature of modern leadership consumed with reactionary and distracted tool use: short term successes for long term failure.

I am a natural thinker so Newports book makes sense to me. I find it easy to carve out time to attend to what I see as important vs extraneous. However, there is a ‘who’ and ‘what’ question to address when it comes to discerning the ‘important’ from ‘distraction’. My colleagues are very different from me, so the ‘who’ will determine the ‘what’ when it comes to deep work. That being the case, it has reminded me to remind staff that deep work is something they all need to do, but in their own way, given their personalities, aspirations, work requirement and outcomes. But as a leader of staff, such an encouragement comes with honouring of that deep work as important and not merely a distraction from short term shallow gains.

The book is something of a precursor to Digital Minimalism (2) which contains a greater unpacking of the need to lock down the internet, refrain from social media and get your head in the game of a distraction free life, with the emphasis being on freedom. So, having read the the later book, there was a feeling déjà vu. However I am putting it on the list of books staff should read for their own personal leadership development.

1. Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
2. Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology. Penguin, Kindle Edition, 2019.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

5 responses to “The Best Job for the Tools”

  1. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Wow, what a renaissance man, a pastor, theologian, scholar, and a Locomotive Maintainer! Really enjoyed your analogy of assessing the situation in order to think through the right tool for the right situation (often despite confusing and conflicting symptoms). You are a great thinker and inspire all of us to think differently. Your quote, “Getting the right job done in the right way requires distraction free thinking with focussed ‘seeing’ that takes time to develop – it takes practice.” is another pithy jewel. I am going to ruminate on this and see how to apply this in my life and leadership. Thanks again!

  2. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thank you, Digby. Your post reminded me of Ronald Heifetz’s thoughts in “The Practices of Adaptive Leadership.” Heifetz talks of getting on the balcony above the dance floor to get perspective so that one can diagnose then act. I fear we do a lot of frenetic acting without serious diagnosis. I too am adding “Deep Work” to my tool belt!

  3. Mario Hood says:

    I like the tool metaphor and will use it in the future and not give you credit 🙂

    Along with leaders, I think this is a good book for young people to read (well everyone) for the online world is becoming more real to them than the offline one.

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