Re-considering 2020 as ‘pure joy’? Seriously?

By Rick James

2020 has certainly been an awful year for many of us. How many times have I asked myself ‘When will we get out of this?’ or ‘How can I get out of this?’ Maybe these are the wrong questions. Perhaps I should be asking ‘What can I get out of 2020?’

I often wonder what those strange verses in James 1 mean. He exhorts us to:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,  because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything”.

I don’t think this means I have to consider the trials themselves as pure joy, but if they produce perseverance and maturity then perhaps what comes out of them is net gain. Dealing with any suffering takes perseverance, preferably with the support of others around us. We may realise we cannot solve this problem, we cannot fix things. For many of us this is tough to take. And our response is almost passive, allowing God to “Let perseverance finish its good work in you”.

2020 hold the possibility of being a profound turning point in many ways. It could prove a transformational time in our personal relationship with God, in our relationships with others and in our leadership. Our dashed hopes this year may reveal what we actually put our hope in. As our idols come into the light we may be better able to let them go. 2020 can lead us to an appreciation of life, restored relations with those around us, recognising personal strengths we did not know we had and realisation of new possibilities. Such post-traumatic growth can be considered as pure joy.

Looking back on 2020 reflect on:
What has God been trying to do in me in 2020?
What is 2020 revealing about you? What idols or attachments have come into light?
What has God been trying to do through me?

Becoming a ‘non-anxious’ presence

By Rick James

2020 has locked many people, organisations and even societies into a downward spiral of anxiety. Many of the things we relied on, can no longer be taken for granted. Many of our ways of working, our programmes, our jobs and even our organisations themselves are at risk. A low-level fear is endemic. The only way to break the spiral of anxiety is the introduction of a ‘non-anxious’ presence. That is the role of leaders today.

Leadership theory agrees. When Bain and Co asked the question ‘What makes a leader inspiring?’ they concluded: “one trait matters more than any other. It is centredness: the ability to remain calm under pressure, empathise, listen deeply and remain present”. (Garton, 2017, HBR).

Not surprisingly, the Bible was there first: Colossians 3:15 says:

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

Only as we create space to allow the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts we can become the leaders – the centred, non-anxious presence – that people around us need today.

  • But how do I genuinely ‘let the peace of Christ rule in my heart? What is currently ruling?
  • This week what can I do to enable me to receive this gift of peace?

Measured on trust

By Rick James

Most metrics we use to measure leadership are misguided. Hopefully 2020 will rid of ridiculous notions that leaders should be judged on measures such as annual income raised or numbers/members attending. Otherwise, every leader will be a major failure in 2020, through no fault of their own.

It has become even more obvious in this crisis year that what really matters with leadership is whether people trust them. This is even more than the decisions they make. Trust is therefore a much better metric of leadership performance. Trust is certainly not the same as popularity, but involves judgements we make, often subconsciously, about whether: 

  1. Leaders listen well and genuinely understand others’ realities. Do people feel that leaders are ‘on their side’?
  2. In the face of such uncertainties, leaders have the courage to take difficult decisions. Are leaders willing to experiment with new initiatives, willing to try and fail and quickly adapt?
  3. Leaders are assured enough of their own identities to be open, vulnerable and OK with not having all the answers. Are leaders looking after their own spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health enough to be consistent and reliable?

While we cannot control how much people trust us, we can control our trustworthiness. 

So this week, which of these three areas can I work on to increase my trustworthiness?

Liberated from the myth of control

By Rick James

2020 feels like an Ecclesiastes moment to me. The current pandemic and its likely consequences are revealing to me how much of what I do, how much of what I desire, where I put my hope is like smoke (closer to the Hebrew word ‘hevel’ from Ecclesiastes rather than ‘vanity’ or ‘meaningless’ as some older translations put it).

Like smoke, our work and our leadership are transitory and temporary. They will not last for ever. And like smoke, they are impossible to grasp and control. The more we try, the more elusive they seem to be.

Perhaps one of my big lessons of 2020 is that we are NOT in control. That our ‘effectiveness’ is not actually in our power to manage. Despite our black and white job descriptions, our sense of responsibility, we are not masters of our own destiny, let alone the destiny of the initiatives we lead. This is quite humbling. And also quite liberating. It is not all about us. Ultimately it is God’s work and responsibility. I’m reminded of the quote from poet TS Eliot “Ours is only the trying, the rest is not our business”.

Looking ahead to this week, what big tasks await us? Since we are not in control of the outcomes, how do we invite God’s transformative presence into these situations?

Identifying blind spots and hot spots

By Rick James

My colleague, Nick Wright, developed a really interesting exercise to use with top teams when developing a strategy. When we look at ideas for future direction, who we are in relation to what we are looking into will influence what we see – and what we don’t see – how we do it and what conclusions we draw from it. This is because our subconscious assumptions, biases, filters and defence mechanisms create blind spots and hot spots.

Blind spots are what we are not thinking about. They touch on what is invisible to us. They are concerned with (un)awareness. They are created by our beliefs. They reflect the paradigms we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel mind-bending. Hot spots are what we are not talking about. They touch on what is sacred to us. They are concerned with relationships. They are created by our values. They reflect the passions we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel heart-wrenching.

This week in looking at a current issue, think about:
Blind spots: What are we assuming? What appears self-evident to us and why? How can we draw in contrasting perspectives and ideas?
Hot spots: What are we avoiding? How will we handle power dynamics and vested interests? What will we do if we feel threatened or defensive? How can we hold robust conversations that feel safe?

Good questions to explore trust in teams. Here is a good way to start sensitive, but critical, discussions within a team. First get individuals to finish the sentence:
– What I most value about this team is….
– What I would like most from this team is….
– My work would be much more productive if….
– I would have more fun at work if….
– I feel frustrated when….
– I feel really motivated when….
Then facilitate a discussion drawing on people’s different responses.

Get to the heart of the matter

By Rick James

Last year I reviewed a five year change process with a large Kenyan church. They made massive shifts in the nuts and bolts of their organisation reviewing their patriarchal constitution, developing much needed policies. The process of addressing them, however, brought to the surface more fundamental issues of relationships, culture and trust. To bring significant change needed attitude and behaviour change. 

For me the most powerful moment was mid-way through. The constitutional review had ground to a halt due to the lack of trust amongst the board members and leadership. It was only when the board themselves acknowledged that they were the source of the problem; spoke openly to each other; forgave and prayed for each other that they were able to develop the reservoirs of trust needed to deal with such a sensitive topic. 

Any organisational change process needs to get to the heart of the matter. This case study reaffirms that for any organisation to change, individuals must change too. Major OD often requires deep, personal transformation of leaders, far beyond rational logic or knowing the theology of servant leadership. This goes deeper than brute logic. It is a work of the Holy Spirit.

This week:

  • How might we adjust our current change initiatives to focus more on personal change and building trust? 
  • How might we create more space for the Holy Spirit to transform underlying attitudes (which drive behaviours)?

Listening and stretching out our hands to God

By Rick James

How are we leading in this crisis? Who are we depending on?

I was so impressed by how the Ethiopian President, Abiy Ahmed, responded. In the face of COVID-19 he gave his public blessing to a call for a national month of prayer. He attended the launch day entitled ‘Ethiopia will submit herself to God’. The Speaker of the House and various Government Ministers were also there. They took this verse from Psalm 68:31 as a challenge, inspiration and prophesy – “Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God”.

Perhaps with such leadership, it is no surprise President Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. His wife, Zinash, released a beautiful and haunting worship song last month, pleading for God’s mercy. She sings about God not abandoning us during this time when the world is terrorised by bad news.

As you listen to Zinash’s song, called Maren (God’s mercy)

  • Take time to be still, stretch out your hands towards God;
  • Imagine sitting with Jesus, what would he be asking you? What would he be saying?
  • Allow the Holy Spirit to breathe life, energy and direction into your leadership.

Shaped in the waiting

By Rick James

None of us likes waiting. Unfortunately the Bible is littered with examples of waiting, whether we look at Moses and his calling, the people of Israel in the wilderness, and even Jesus before his ministry.

Waiting is not much fun, but it seems to be a crucial part of our necessary development. It forces us to confront who we really are. Last week I was feeling that I was slipping further behind on my work. Then suddenly my hard drive failed and I lost a number of files and a number of days work. It was a small thing, but quite disturbing. I realised how much I need to feel on top of my work. I tried hard to be calm and peaceful. While I felt my efforts had worked, my family said otherwise!

In the midst of this COVID crisis, we are all waiting – for the threat to be gone, for the restrictions to be lifted, for ‘normal’ life and work to resume.

Psalm 27: 13-14 says:
I remain confident of this:
 I will see the goodness of the Lord
 in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
 be strong and take heart
 and wait for the Lord.

This week consider:
What are you learning about yourself in the waiting?
How are you being shaped by this waiting?

Shaped in the crisis

By Rick James

All our certainties and even assumptions about the world are in the air. Everything is unsettled and in a state of flux. It’s deeply uncomfortable, distressing and threatening in so many ways.

Yet these are also opportunities in this crisis. Usually, our organisations are highly resistant to change. They change as little as they have to. But now, everything is more fluid and flexible. It may be possible to shape our organisations in directions we have only aspired to before. In the wilderness, we need to head in the direction of the Promised Land.

I work part-time at a University and finally we are taking the leap towards online learning, having spoken about it for years. I am also apart of a consultancy charity in the UK. We are now putting into practice our previous intentions to work through local consultants in Asia and Africa. My local church has said for years “Church is not a building – it is about who we are and what we do in community” – but now we are making that a reality.

This week, think about the organisations you are a part of:
Where is their ‘promised land’?
How can this crisis help them move in that direction?

What makes people trust me?

By Rick James

People follow leaders they trust. I believe that trust is the most valuable, but fragile, asset of any leader. But what does it actually mean and how do we build trust? Most researchers on trust emphasise that we trust people who we think are:

  • Competent – they are good at what they do
  • On our side – they support us and want the best for us. They are not ego-driven. It is not all about them.
  • Full of integrity – their actions match their words. They are honest and admit when things go wrong.

It is fairly simple to know what makes people trust us. It is fairly difficult to put into practice!

This week with the teams I work in, what can I do to:

  • Improve my competence, knowledge and skills?
  • Show people that I am on their side?
  • Demonstrate my integrity and honesty?