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.”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:
- Ask different questions
- Take multiple perspectives
- 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.
Berger, J., & Johnston, K. (2015). SIMPLE HABITS FOR COMPLEX TIMES. Leader to Leader, 2015(78), 25-30.