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Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm
By Mark Sayers, Jesse Lipes
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2014 Mark Sayers
All rights reserved.
NEW LEADERSHIP IN A CHAOTIC CULTURE
Paris was vaguely aware that it had a terrible cellar under it ... which teemed with ... gargantuan sea monsters.
—VICTOR HUGO,Les Miserables
Myth is unmasked by the Word of God.
—HANS URS VON BALTHASAR,The Scandal of the Incarnation
THE CREATIVE LEADER
* * *
He sat silently as he looked out upon the French countryside, now bathed in darkness. It was almost one thirty in the morning. No one spoke. In the morning he would finally see Paris.
It was the culmination of a dream. The mecca for every artist. Somehow after all of this he still felt like an artist, despite the political responsibility now resting on his shoulders. He was no longer the outsider looking in, he was at the top. Yet, he knew that many of them still looked upon him with contempt in their eyes. Their looks, their intonations, their expressions made him aware that he did not fit. He knew they resented his leadership. He exposed their prejudices, brought to the surface everything that they despised. He was a foreigner, not born into privilege like them. He did not speak with their clipped, refined accent. They played by the book, followed tradition, and valued cool efficiency.
He stayed up late, hated paperwork, and was bad with details. He was emotive and unconventional. They went home to their neat houses in the suburbs with their perfect families. He, in contrast, lived a bohemian bachelor's life. While they were falling asleep next to their respectable wives in their respectable homes, he was up half the night, engrossed in music, watching films, and talking art.
That is why he kept them at a distance, surrounding himself with friends and workmates who were different. He preferred spending time with artists and visionaries rather than bureaucrats. He was more at home with animals, out in nature, with ordinary people, away from their backbiting. He was not interested in maintaining the status quo. Instead he dreamed of creating a new future for others. He understood that through harnessing the potential that new media brought, he could change things, allow people to live rich, communal, authentic lives connected to the land.
Still no one spoke. In the distance there was the dull music of a thunderstorm.
They arrived in Paris at five in the morning on an early flight. They had one day to see all that they could. He was flanked by two friends, one an architect and one a sculptor. They flew around Paris in a car, drinking in the feast of art and architecture. They traveled down the Champs-Élysées, on to the Trocadéro, and then to the Eiffel Tower. He became elated at the beauty of the opera house. Although he had never seen Garnier's masterpiece, he knew every square inch of the building by heart. He was in a creative's heaven. An artistic tour of Paris could not miss the bohemian neighborhood of Montmartre; here the creative leader and his friends visited the Basilique du Sacré Cur. Atop the church high above Paris was a statue of St. Michael dressed as a knight, battling the biblical monster Leviathan—a metaphor for the battles that would come to define the creative leader's life, and the entire trajectory of Western culture.
Later that night when he was alone with his friend the architect, he said, "Wasn't Paris beautiful? ... In the past I often considered whether we would not have to destroy Paris." Adolf Hitler then went to bed.
HOW LEADERSHIP AND INFLUENCE CHANGED
* * *
This book is about leadership, influence, and creativity. When we talk about leadership in the West, Hitler's influence haunts us, palpably present though unmentioned. He is the model of leadership that we wish to avoid: a model of leadership rooted in power, abuse, violence, and coercion. The image of Hitler, standing on the podium in full military attire, spitting out venomous rhetoric, urging people on with a show of authoritarian force, changed at a fundamental level the way that we think and feel about the way leaders exert their influence. Public speaking was irrevocably altered. No longer would leaders simply tell people what to do. Any public figure making exclusive claims seemed to now be treading on dangerous ground. No longer would people look to those in authority as messianic figures with the ability to rescue society from the storms that face us. It was almost as if the poison that Hitler released into the world had infected our idea of leadership itself. The idea was seemingly tainted. It is therefore no surprise that we have turned to what appear to be new models of leadership.
WHY WE WANT TO BE ACTIVISTS, CREATIVES, AND INFLUENCERS, BUT NOT LEADERS
* * *
Today many of us want to influence, but not many of us wish to lead. We describe ourselves as activists, consultants, creatives, and entrepreneurs. We shy away from calling ourselves leaders, or even worse: managers. In the past, certain jobs carried a sense of prestige that flowed from their authority and responsibility; doctors, judges, clergy, bankers, and professors held tremendous weight in society. Their social influence was rooted in their perceived trustworthiness, their respectability. Virtually no one today desires respectability above all else. Such a term seems daunting. Ask yourself if you would rather that people described you as respectable or as cool, fun, and creative. Today, most people prefer hipness to prestige.
When we are given leadership positions, we try to dilute the hierarchical overtones of our roles with ironic job titles. The business magazine Fast Company has made popular such a practice by researching innovative companies and reporting actual leadership titles such as Head Monster, Master of Disaster, Crayon Evangelist, or Idea Ambassador. Pastors have not been immune to this trend. When asked about their roles, many downplay their jobs with all kinds of rhetorical wriggling. When we do have to lead, we attach a caveat to any hint of traditional leadership, which downplays our authority. We have "rockstar CEOs," "hipster pastors."
While we may have an aversion to leadership and organization, we still wish to influence, to effect change, and to create meaning. Technological advances like social networking have given us the impression that we can now have influence minus responsibility, leadership, and organization. Ori Brafman's book The Starfish and the Spider attempts to show how companies can be leaderless. Books such as Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, Seth Godin's Tribes, and Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams's Wikinomics describe a world in which traditional modes of leadership and organization are superfluous, or at least are outmaneuvered by online mass movements. Shirky explains it as, "Never have so many people been so free to say and do so many things with so many other people."
FROM LEADER TO INSPIRER
* * *
Journalist David Brooks, writing about this reimagined era of influence, notes that in this new environment, the leader "is no longer a chess grand master, an imposing, aloof figure moving pieces around the board. Now he or she is likely to be portrayed, and to portray himself or herself, as an inspirer, a motivator." Brooks argues contemporary influencers "want to show they are playful free spirits.... They are creators. They ... experiment and dream." The desire to avoid being seen as "normal" or "mainstream" is paramount. Our desire to be different flows down from leaders into their organizations, shaping corporate culture and especially reshaping how we arrange our buildings and workspaces into open planned offices that seemingly eschew the hierarchical implications of closed offices. A kind of bogeyman model of leadership operates in most people's minds, a set of Hitlerian cultural values to avoid.
OLD ("BAD") LEADERSHIP VS. NEW ("GOOD") LEADERSHIP
* * *
Today, if we do have to lead, there is an unspoken yet powerful set of attributes that we must conform to. To put it simply, there are a set of leadership attributes that are passé that we will call the mechanical and a grouping that are in fashion that we will name the organic. I choose the terms because they represent the widespread yet rarely articulated mood in our culture in which we prefer the natural, the warm, and the authentic rather than the cold, calculating, and the mathematical. So we watch commercials by technology giants filled with human faces, images of nature, and earthy folk music. Corporate coffee chains sell their coffee in a way that makes you feel like you just handpicked the beans yourself with the Ethiopian coffee farmer. The Christian philosopher Roman Guardini noted that this move reflected the desire in Western culture to find a new ethical way from the traditional Christian conception of biblical revelation to the natural, in which anything natural was automatically good.
As we will discover, despite Guardini's warnings, so much of the contemporary Christian church has bought into this dualistic view of life and leadership.
Our culture has come so far toward the values of the new organic leadership listed above that they are unquestionably taken as correct. Countless books are written urging CEOs, leaders, and pastors to make the move personally and organizationally from the mechanical column to the organic column. Leaders must be more creative, more innovative, more relational, more spontaneous, more instinctive, more authentic. Organizations must become networked, more flexible, more fun, more fluid. The fear is that if we do not make this shift, leaders and organizations will fade into an obscure death. Thus, to make these changes leaders must embrace their hordes of consultants and experts to secure this much-needed transition.
WHAT IF THE NEW IS NOT NEW?
* * *
These organic values represent the ideology of our day. They tell us something profound—not so much about how the world works but rather about how we want the world to work.
We are told repeatedly that such values will not work in our time because they were shaped by a particular moment in history, the modern era. Yet the question that very few ask is: How have the highly prized organic values been shaped by our moment in history? What do they tell us about our unacknowledged prejudices and flaws? Is there a downside to our new mode of influencing, our trendy, "innovative" style of leading? As we will discover in this book, history tells us that there is.
HOW WE GOT IT WRONG
* * *
My entire life in ministry has been shaped by attempting to live out the values embodied in the right-hand, organic column. I can still clearly remember the moment when it all fell into place for me. It was the early to mid-nineties and I was young and fresh into ministry. I was attending a conference on mission in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. The overwhelming theme that came through at the conference was that we were in "postmodern times"; out with the old modern era, in with the new postmodern era. Being the son of an architect, I had heard my dad use the word postmodern to describe buildings, but I had no idea what the term meant. The various speakers at the conference used the word to describe drastic shifts in our current culture. Gone were the modern period's values of reason, objective truth, homogeneity, and progress (the mechanical column), and rapidly replacing it was the postmodern period; one characterized by emotion, subjective truth, pluralism, and a suspicion of progress, structure, order, and control.
What was most shocking of all was the revelation that the church, particularly the contemporary evangelical church, had it wrong. The speakers shared their belief that the contemporary church was deeply shaped by the values of modernity—its systems, structures, and orientation. An orientation more informed by mechanical efficiency, models taken from the business world rather than from the Bible, and cultural cues shaped by marketing and mass culture. With the coming of the postmodern era, the contemporary evangelical church would find itself horribly irrelevant, conference speakers assured us. The solution was to first examine and deconstruct the ways in which contemporary Christianity had been co-opted by modernity. Second, to reach the new "postmodern generation" we must extricate ourselves out of the mechanical vices of the modern era and "incarnate" into postmodern culture; we must become postmodern Christians, postmodern churches, and postmodern leaders.
My head spun, not in shock but in delight. For someone who loved Jesus but felt culturally alien in the contemporary church, this was great news. For someone who at high school preferred alternative and indie music to mainstream music, who did well at art, drama, and literature but poorly at math, science, and well ... generally that whole being organized thing, this was a ticket to freedom. For someone whose friends were miles from mainstream Christian culture, the rapidly oncoming influence of postmodernism was very welcomed. This was some kind of heavenly news. History was seemingly tilting in my favor. Freed from the mechanical vice, I could finally breathe.
This conference was just the tip of the iceberg. The trickle of Christian books announcing the coming of the postmodern epoch turned into a flood. I devoured most of them. At the time I was at a traditional church, so to reach this mysterious emerging group I decided to plant another congregation—a postmodern one. We ditched anything that seemed to reek of "contemporary church." Out went singing. In its place: experiential, multisensory worship. The traditional sermon went too, replaced by dialogue and clips from movies. We even changed the physical space in which we met, for a while creating an indoor faux-forest in which we sat around, elucidating upon the mysteries of Scripture, while ambient techno chirped along in the background. This was postmodernism in action. It was fluid, it was organic, and it was life-giving.
Soon what I was doing was discovered by older heads, who were proclaiming a new missionary approach to our postmodern culture. I became a supposed example of a genuine postmodern doing a new kind of ministry—a vision of the future. Still unformed and largely untested as a leader, yet with a whiff of the new circulating around me, I began to receive speaking engagements and invitations to speak into the future of churches and organizations. I was sought out to interpret the landscape of this bold, new, postmodern terrain.
Through the postmodern movement, an alternate Christian universe was growing up alongside mainstream church culture. Where the latter was steeped in theological structures and dogma, the former was defined culturally. It took very seriously the culture we inhabit and to which we are called to witness—the postmoderns. For the church to have any relevance in this new era, it was vital that it relinquished older patterns and structures and embraced the postmodern. Thus the word postmodernism seemed to take on a power of its own in the Christian world, operating something like the Jedi mind trick, used to justify any kind of reformist agenda.
The organic values stem from this postmodern era. Dogma gave way to flexible exploration, hierarchy was replaced by a network of laterally defined relationships, authority and authoritative claims were viewed with suspicion. Eventually, we believed that mainstream culture would disappear altogether, replaced by the way more appealing, easier-going organic principles.
Still green and in my early twenties, I traveled to the United States to speak about this brave new postmodern world to an American evangelical organization. Soon America would join this conversation, where it would expand and amplify, spawning whole movements and vast libraries of books. For the next fifteen or so years, I lived out the conviction that the postmodern world had changed everything. Through my leadership I would attempt to embody the organic values in a variety of missional movements and innovative plants. Yet, something was amiss. The organic values were not delivering the idealized world that they had seemingly promised.
I had delivered speeches. I had started ministries. I had embodied the fluid, the creative. I could criticize the status quo like a champion. I was a poster boy for a new kind of young, emerging leader. Except that after a decade of launching, birthing, and pioneering, there was little left standing.
SWAMPED BY CHAOS
* * *
I was confronted by the surprising fruitlessness I felt after I took a position as the senior leader of a missional church renowned for its creativity and innovation. I had been with the church for some time, yet now leading the church I began to wonder if we would survive. We embodied all the highly esteemed organic values, yet chaos seemed to be overtaking us. Despite the alarm bells I ignored this reality, insisting that the organic values would eventually become a catalyst for growth and change within the church.
One day not long after the birth of my first child, my wife, Trudi, turned to me and asked if our church was going to be around when our daughter was fourteen. I was silenced by this question as I was forced to confront the answer: a resounding no. Although strong on the fluid, the relational, and the creative, we did not have the organizational strength or resilience to continue. We were recognized for our revolutionary spirit, our imagination, hipness, and creativity, but we didn't have the structures and the leadership to sustain, cultivate, and grow it over the long haul.
Excerpted from Facing Leviathan by Mark Sayers, Jesse Lipes. Copyright © 2014 Mark Sayers. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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