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?

Choose how you travel

By Rick James

These really are unprecedented times we are living through. In the midst of so much uncertainty I really appreciated Elaine’s reminder from Philippians that we should not be anxious about anything – even at a time of global crisis. It reminded me of a story that a good friend of mine, Mick Miller writes about in his forthcoming book ‘Choose how you travel’:

Three people travel on a plane from London to the USA. One is an elderly lady visiting her sister in New York; next there’s a middle aged man who’s heading off on holiday with his wife and kids; and finally there’s a businesswoman. She frequently flies to America.

The elderly lady has never been on a plane and she’s terrified. She worries her way through every minute of the journey, tightly gripping her armrests as if she might be sucked out of her seat at any moment.

The middle aged man has flown a few times before but doesn’t enjoy it. To take his mind off the whole experience he downs several large vodka tonics and a few beers. He ends up shouting at his kids (because they’re stressing him out) and gets into a row with his wife when she objects to the amount of alcohol he’s consumed.

The businesswoman remains calm and relaxed the whole way. She has a meal, watches a movie, then sleeps soundly for the rest of the flight.

All these people fly on the same plane and they all reach the same destination at the same time. But how they travel is completely different.

We can choose how we travel. Jesus said: ‘Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.’ John 14:1 NLT

This week:

  • What areas of our lives do we need to entrust again to God?
  • What would it look like to be a peaceful, non-anxious presence in our workplaces, our communities and our families?

Learning from the geese

By Rick James

This morning I was watching a flock of geese flying in their V formation. I thought about how they flew together as a synchronised team in the same direction. I thought about how each bird flies slightly above the bird in front, resulting less wind resistance for their colleagues and about how the birds each take turns in the leading role because it is so tiring.

We think we are so advanced as humans. Yet few of our own teams or organisations appear so coherent. Sadly in my experience they are more often characterised by conflict, confusion and sometimes chaos. Christian organisations are no better than secular ones. We argue endlessly about direction and strategy. We often leave one person to bear the brunt of leadership. And then we wonder why they get so exhausted and increasingly autocratic.

Maybe we could learn about strategy and leadership from simple geese. In our organisations, how can we move in the same direction? How can we organise in ways that share the leadership burden?

This week, what practical actions can we take to learn from the example of geese?

Seven lessons from 30 years meddling with strategic change

By Rick James

An old, established mission agency, facing the need for fundamental change, asked me last week to present myself and my learnings about strategic change. I said if they were serious it would need:

  1. Tough decisions – The word decide means to ‘cut off’ other options. Strategy is more about what not to do or stop doing. It is a clear direction of travel, not multiple ones.
  2. Strong motive for change – Intellectual assent to the need for change was not enough. It needed a sense of crisis, that ‘business as usual’ would result in disaster.
  3. Leaders open to changing their own attitudes and behaviours – An organisation’s openness to strategic change is directly correlated to leaders’ openness to their personal change.
  4. A united top team – To take and implement tough decisions, the top team needs to be operating with huge levels personal trust. Are people in top team prepared to attend to their own stuff which lies beneath and open themselves up to God’s presence?
  5. The Holy Spirit to bring human change – We do not change fundamentally through brute logic. It the Holy Spirit who transforms hearts and minds, and deals with our hurt, resentments, self-interests, and frustrations.
  6. Trust from staff and stakeholders to implement change – A major strategic shift will be painful for many people who are accustomed to past ways of doing things. Hurts need managing compassionately. In the end it may come down to whether people trust the leadership to take them where they may not want to go.
  7. Time and effort – Major change does not happen overnight. It may take 5-10 years of careful and intentional work. It takes commitment to see such change through.

This week, think about a change your own organisation wants to make. Which of these areas needs strengthening?