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LEADERSHIP COMMANDMENT #1: THOU SHALT CLING TO THE VISION
This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, "Who made you ruler and judge?" He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert. (Acts 7:35–36)
Big Idea: Where there is no vision, the people don't follow. It is as simple as that. Vision for a better future, conveyed with genuine passion, is the great motivator.
Lack of vision can kill any organization, no matter how great it used to be. And if it's already dead, you will never bring it back to life without a megadose of fresh vision.
I had a frustrating lunch recently with a senior pastor who was nine years into his leadership journey at his church. I enjoy encouraging pastors, but this meeting was a vivid illustration of the vision problem. He's an older man in his fourth church, but sadly, the church has been on a death spiral for decades—and it's been a long, slow, and painful demise. At one time the church was over a thousand strong, but now it's down to one hundred adults, and there's hardly a young person in sight. This pastor wasn't the cause of the decline—it started long before he arrived on the scene—but he seems to be doing little to stop it. I probed and listened and tried to be of help. What I really wanted to do was stand on top of that lunch table and jump up and down, screaming, "They need vision! There is nothing out there in the future that is compelling people to get excited. Vision is a magnet—it draws people to our cause. People follow vision that is communicated with passion!" The body is lying on the gurney in the ER, gasping for its last breath, and the diagnosis is clear: "Terminal because of lack of vision."
People have to want to be helped. In the case of this pastor's church, the congregants suffer from organizational arrogance: They act like the problem is the fault of all the people who aren't coming to their church. The excuse often sounds like this: "We haven't changed in forty years; society has gone down the tubes. We are staying faithful to our calling." The sad thing about that lunch meeting is that the pastor has a complete lack of understanding about why the church is failing. It is a visionless place. Young people and young married couples stay away in droves. He told me about a small tweak that he is making in the programs, but his description showed he was in "maintenance mode"—totally visionless and clinging to something that no longer exists.
As we finished our long lunch, I could tell that he didn't really want honest feedback on the problem. I concluded that he is coasting to retirement, he does not want to rock the boat at this stage in his career, and he lays the blame at the feet of the people, not at his own lack of leadership.
Where there is no vision, the people won't follow. Vision for a better future is the great motivator. Job number one for leaders is to cast vision. In the book The Leadership Challenge, the authors write, "Leaders are pioneers. They are people who venture into unexplored territory. They guide us to new and often unfamiliar destinations. People who take the lead are the foot soldiers in the campaigns for change. The unique reason for having leaders—their differentiating function—is to move us forward. Leaders get us going someplace."
Moses was given a vision from God that first day at the burning bush. It was a vision of the Promised Land. In Exodus 3:7–8 we read: "The Lord said, 'I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.'"
Another way to look at vision is what I call the "passion factor." People follow passion, not facts. If you set yourself on fire, people will come to watch you burn. People follow leaders who know where they are going and who convince others to go with them. Ronald Reagan was known as that kind of a leader. As president he was called "the great communicator." And what did he communicate? Reagan communicated a fresh vision for America that would end the Cold War. Steve Jobs was a technological visionary who changed the world several times over through his products. Nelson Mandela is a political visionary who changed the face of South Africa. Vision for the future is the goal—the prize—the motivation that the leader keeps in front of the people. For Moses, the vision was to reach the Promised Land, and barriers kept the Hebrews from that goal for forty years! People follow leaders who are going somewhere they wish to go!
Catharine is an amazing visionary leader in our ministry in Uganda, East Africa. She leads a ministry called Hope Alive!, which serves "child-headed households." Frankly, up until the time I visited Uganda, I was not aware how many families in Africa are parentless. Often, the oldest sibling serves as the parent because the actual parents died of AIDS, disappeared in the war, or just abandoned the children because of extreme poverty. In many cases there never were parents—just a mother who kept having children for whom she could not care. These are the fragile little family units we call "child-headed households." The family might consist of a twelve-year-old brother or sister taking care of his or her siblings and trying to find food and shelter. Catharine became aware of the problem after visiting many villages and finding these little households. What she witnessed firsthand broke her heart. One of the biggest problems is that the children cannot go to school because they do not have shoes or school supplies or the minimal amount of money required for school registration. They have no money. So Catharine began to raise money, supply those things to give some structure to these fragile families, and provide some basic food, necessities, and the registration fees for school.
You might think that it was easy to start helping these kids—that they would welcome Catharine's help with open arms. That was not always the case. In the past, people had betrayed these children, making promises and later vanishing like the morning dew on a hot summer day.
Catharine made a trip up to northern Uganda and gathered hundreds of children under a grove of trees to talk to them about a vision for going to school. Unlike some American kids who may not like school (like me when I was a kid!), these kids would give anything to go to school. There is nothing else to do in their villages. And without school, they are destined for poverty and are left behind in every way. Catharine told them her vision of what she wanted to provide for them. To her surprise, when she finished, there was no response and no enthusiasm—the children just sat there with blank stares on their faces. At that point one of the older boys stood up to tell her, "These children have heard too many promises. They have no hope that anything will change. You will not come back to our village. What you say is what we need, but we have no hope that anything will change."
Catharine proved them wrong. She did come back! Month after month, she and her team came. They now supply the children with shoes, textbooks, shelter, and school registration every year.
The transformation in the countenances of the children was striking when Catharine came back as she promised. In their faces and on their tongues was hope! Years have passed in which Catharine has faithfully fulfilled that vision. The children even wrote a song to Catharine to thank her for the vision that she brought to their lives. Here are the lyrics to "We Are Children of Hope":
We are happy, very happy to receive you our dear visitors;
We welcome you to our project of hope, Hope Alive!
Aunt Catharine, you are here.
Keep, keep on coming and promote our project of hope, Hope Alive!
We are the Children of Hope,
O God, hear our burden;
We cry out to You,
We are the Children of Hope.
Catharine created a vision for the ministry. If you are the founder of the group you lead, then you pursue your vision. But most of us inherit vision or create new vision from the ground up. The pastor I referred to at the beginning of this chapter is in a typical situation. He, like most pastors, did not plant a church but inherited a congregation. In some cases pastors go to churches that already have a compelling vision in place. The search committee looks for a leader to help it fulfill the church's existing vision. But I've observed that this is not usually the case. Most new leaders taking on a new assignment have to get to know the situation and then begin to cast a new vision for the future. I find that search committees, by and large, look for leaders with fresh vision. Most of us have to begin by asking God to help us create new vision from scratch.
Vision Has to Endure over Time
When do people need vision? When did Moses have to cast vision? How about at the beginning, the middle, and the end! We don't know a lot about what Moses did during his forty years in the wilderness between the ages of forty and eighty, but I am convinced that he got the vision. By the time he went back to Egypt to deliver the Israelites, he was clear about the future, and no matter what happened, nobody was able to wrestle that vision out of his heart. His example has been a constant reminder to me that I have to do the same thing with my people. Yes, there are many other important principles that I cover in other chapters of this book, but I believe the number one desperate need is for people to hear a compelling vision from their leaders.
Moses Cast Vision in the Beginning
Moses asked the Israelites to leave their homes in Egypt and to go out to a new land "flowing with milk and honey." He promised an abundant land where they would no longer be slaves. Can you imagine how amazing that must have sounded to them? It sounds like the days of the Oregon Trail, when the promise of land, peace, and freedom drew thousands to migrate west across the new frontier of America. Moses got the people to move out by sharing God's vision for a better future. He was so good at delivering the vision that they left everything in Egypt to follow his lead.
Exodus 6:6–8 says this:
Therefore, say to the Israelites: "I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord."
Moses Kept the Dream Alive for Forty Years
Throughout his leadership in the desert of Sinai, Moses painted the vision of the Promised Land. Yes, the Israelites followed him out of Egypt, but as is usually the case during the test of time, they lost faith. The journey was more difficult than they expected, and it took longer than they'd imagined. Most change initiatives I've been a part of exhibited both of those characteristics. The toughest time is in the muddle of the middle. The people forgot the deliverances of God and the promises of God, and they grumbled.
Like Moses, I have found it most difficult to keep the vision alive in the middle years of my leadership. To start off fresh and new is easy. It's so inspiring in the front end of a new leadership assignment to generate vision. That's exactly what people expect of the new leader. I was so full of vision in my first year at my current role that we held vision banquets all over the country to roll out my plans. Those were exciting days. But what happens after the seven-year itch? I am now approaching two decades in leadership in my ministry, and it is at this point that I find it the toughest to keep the vision alive. Again I admire Moses for staying close to God and keeping the vision alive for forty years. With great patience he continued to remind the Israelites of where they were going: "I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River. I will hand over to you the people who live in the land and you will drive them out before you" (Ex. 23:31).
Moses Made Sure the Vision Would Not Die
Moses poured the vision into his protégé, Joshua, at the end of his career—when we fast-forward to the end of Moses' career, we see him transfer the vision to Joshua.
Moses knew that he would not set foot in the Promised Land, and it became clear to him that Joshua would succeed him. He knew how uncourageous most of his followers were, and he also knew that leaders make things happen, so the younger leader Joshua would have to run with the vision. Clearly, Moses imparted the dream and vision to Joshua. Here we witness the transference of vision from the older leader to the younger one. Moses accepted Joshua, endorsed his leadership openly, and believed in him.
We read about this in Deuteronomy:
Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, "Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their forefathers to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged." (Deut. 31:7–8)
Moses Repeated the Vision in the Final Days of His Ministry
I recommend that you read the entire chapter of Deuteronomy 33. It describes one of the great moments in the life of Moses. This chapter contains what is known as "the blessing of Moses," a passage that records Moses pronouncing his blessings on the twelve tribes of Israel before his death. He recited both the past history of the Israelites and their bright future. He also summarized the attributes of each of the twelve tribes and their leaders. How is this for passing on a grand vision?
The eternal God is your refuge,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.
He will drive out your enemy before you,
saying, "Destroy him!"
So Israel will live in safety alone;
Jacob's spring is secure
in a land of grain and new wine,
where the heavens drop dew.
Blessed are you, O Israel!
Who is like you,
a people saved by the Lord?
He is your shield and helper
and your glorious sword.
Your enemies will cower before you,
and you will trample down their high places. (Deut. 33:27–29)
Sometimes I struggle to keep vision at the forefront of my own leadership. There are so many other demands and things that tend to distract me. I recently gave my annual state of the ministry address for a big gathering of our stakeholders. I know that a lot of pastors, CEOs, and other leaders give a similar talk at the beginning of each calendar year. I've been doing this address year after year, and I also know that people want to see what I have to say about the future. I know that they want to be excited about a positive future. Who would want to listen to a leader who shares nothing but gloom and doom?
I am usually on fire about the future. Most of my people know that I am a visionary, but this past year my message fell flat. Honestly, the weight of people problems and organizational hassles blew out the fire of my vision. So many distractions pull us leaders down. Instead of soaring with eagles, we clean up after messy pigeons. And I know that part of the reason was my own ambivalence about our future. I have led us through so much change, and I've found that the future is a moving target. So I have to paint a different future because the world is changing. Unlike Moses, who had a concrete piece of geography as the end goal, often our goal is much more uncertain. In the world we navigate today, I feel like the finish line keeps moving!
Excerpted from The Top Ten Leadership Commandments by Hans Finzel. Copyright © 2012 Hans Finzel. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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