Simple Solutions within the Complex

Last year I posted several Leadership Minutes about Proficiency and Competence in which I spoke of a leader’s need to work to the point where one knows their craft so well that their proficiency is based in the subconscious, that is, that they are unconsciously competent (a UC). You can review those videos online or at curtis.net [ Video 1 ] [ Video 2 ]

That being said, I recently heard a story that ties into this same idea of so deeply knowing what you do that the answers come quickly and easily, at time bewildering your direct reports. Simple answers come to the proficient leader that is always practicing, studying, and thinking about her craft.

The story was widely circulated in the early 2000s. It appeared online and in emails in many different versions. It goes something like this.

A philosophy professor gave an unusual test to his class. As they watched him, he lifted his chair onto his desk and wrote on the board: “Prove to me that this chair does not exist.” The class went to work, composing long complex explanations related to perception, existentialism, epistemology and the like. However, there was one student who took less than thirty seconds to answer and handed in his paper before many of the students even began to write. This obviously attracting surprised glances from his classmates as well as his professor. The following week the class received their grades for the test. The student who took less than thirty seconds to answer the test received the only “A” grade in the class. His answer was simply, “What chair?”

 
The story is one of a multitude of similar urban myths which poke fun of high-minded academia, in which an apparently very difficult or impossible question is destroyed by a terse comprehensive answer.

As a leader, proficiency in your craft comes only with long term, repeated exposure to the decisions, the systems and the circumstances with which you deal. The highly proficient leader can see the simple, encompassing answer within the complex. For the committed leader, proficiency — that is being an unconscious competent — is attainable if he or she is willing to put in the time.

I made a quick video related to this post. You can view it HERE. If you like it, please share it.

Fluent Leadership

Leadership is a language. It is entirely about communication. To be fluent in a language is to be able to communicate effectively as a natural process, convey to others the intent of your words, and enabling the hearer to create action. The bad news is that many who are leaders have not yet acquired the fluency required to precisely convey their desires. This frustrates the direct report and hinders forward progression in the organization. The good news is that fluency can be obtained through practice and saturation.

Think about how a child learns. She surrounds herself with those who know more than she does and mimics their actions. When she sees how one does a specific task, she tries to mimic the action that accomplished it. Though her arms may not have the dexterity or agility of the one she watches, she tries none-the-less. When the parent speaks, though she does not completely understand what is being said, she tries to make the same noises as the parent. Eventually, she will acquire both the physical dexterity and the verbal articulation that she needs to become an articulate woman of action. This takes both time and countless hours of practice.

It is the same with the leader.

If you are new to leadership, you would do well to surround yourself with those who have been in leadership for some time. The more effective the “parent” the better. Begin to mimic the actions that you see in them and apply those actions to your life and organization. Begin to listen to their speech, their vocabulary, and mimic it. It may seem unusual at first, but that is how we learn. Before you know it, you will begin to see that you have become fluent in the language and proactivity of leadership. You will realize that over time you have become a bit of what you have mimicked. Isn’t that how it is with the Christian life? We mimic Christ as we become Christlike. Should it not be the same with leadership?

Perhaps you have been a leader for some time. If so, I have a question for you. Who is mimicking you? Are you mentoring another? Are you equipping the next generation of leader? Regardless of where you are at in your personal leadership journey, remember to surround yourself with godly examples of what you would like to become. Before you know it, what you saw in another someone else will see in you.

Connected

I just accomplished in four minutes and fifty-three seconds what ten years ago would have taken days. Why, because I am connected. You see, the information that I needed for this afternoon’s meeting was easily found with a web search and a few clicks. The system that we call the internet has transformed culture, increased efficiency, and made me a much better researcher. That’s what efficient systems do.

Consider the bigger question: How would you develop such a system? Imagine it’s you in 1969, sitting at the table, and someone posits the question: How can we put the entire corpus of human understanding into one place, and access anything we want in under five minutes? Every needed component was there in 1969, but to conceive of, articulate and begin to build the system would have been quite impossible. Systems as transformational as the internet build with time. I would hope that if I had been in that meeting in 1969, I would not have tried to envision the modern understanding of the internet. Rather, I hope my response would have been smaller; something like, “Hey John, you have a computer at Stanford right? I do too, let’s see if we can get those things connected over a wire!” That’s exactly what happened. On October 29, 1969 Stanford and UCLA connected computers for the very first time. It was the “great first connection” known as Arpanet.

The internet sprang from that first connection, and as powerful a force as the internet has become, if we all turned off our computers at 12:01 GMT tomorrow, the internet would instantly cease to exist. It is only alive because of connections.

We have all taken part in the increased dialog about church planting. We have heard that the church planter is the top of the food chain and that all of our organizational structures exist to support them. However, let us suspend all thoughts about the church planter for now, and consider the system that we hope to create. Systems cannot exist in a vacuum, and the more focused a system is the greater chance it has for success. If we look at the entire system, like the discussion of the internet, it is overwhelming and non-realistic to think we can grasp its scope. However, if we search for the “great first connection” the system will form itself and it will be healthy and stable.

Back to the church planter…

Many of you are vested in church planting. Some of you have the ability to arrange funding for those church planters. Think before you act, it may not be the healthiest option to open the financial dialog first. The healthier path may be to formulate the connections. Many of you have heard my soapbox schpeel already, but for those who haven’t, here it is:

The church planter out there, although you may never meet them, they are top priority and we exist for them. This philosophy must carry through in all that we do. It is our responsibility to care for him and his family, perhaps not directly, but in our actions and systems. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that throwing money at something means that we care. On the contrary, it seems disingenuous. If we care we must move deeper into building connectedness. Ask questions like:

• In what local supporting pastor does this family find their spiritual covering and accountability?

• Does that same church support them financially?

• Does this family have the skills or connections for some level of self generated support?
(If a planter cannot raise some support for himself, do we really think he can plant a church?)

• Does he have financial support from other local churches, the association or state convention?

If the local field, friends, and sending church do not support him, why should you? He may be a risk.

Now, don’t misinterpret my thoughts. If the end goal is health and longevity of the planter and his family, we undermine the work of the church planter if we fail to ask these questions. Think resolutely on this: If you provide funding without the connectedness, helping the church planter formulate those connections will be more difficult. If you fund immediately, other partners will abdicate their responsibility. However, if you walk with him through the other connections, your funding can be icing on the cake. The healthiest churches in America will be those that another church has connected with and planted. If our state and national agencies can work to support the local partners, the church planter and his family will be protected.

One final note: You are key to his success. If in your thinking, planting a church means filing paperwork to get funding for a church planter, you are derelict in your duties. Invest yourself in that family, walk them into their first great connection, make it a local one, and watch as other partners connect into the great system that is a church plant. That system will transform the culture, increase efficiency, and make that man a better church planter.

Leadership by Example

Once again, I was asked to write a short for STAR News, a magazine for Law Enforcement Personnel. Here it is…

Leading by example is nothing new. For thousands of years individuals have looked up to their superiors. When the example of integrity and excellence was present, they were inspired and challenged to be more than they themselves thought they could be. When it was not, the lack of example has led to frustration and even disdain for the superior. This interesting quote comes from Onasander, a Greek philosopher from the first century A.D., and shows that even 2000 years ago men wrestled with these very issues.

“Most men are distressed when placed under the command of ignoble individuals. For no one voluntarily puts up with submitting to a master or a leader who is inferior to himself.” (Onasander, The General 1.17)

My challenge to you is two-fold.

First, be an individual marked by excellence. It changes your environment as well as the people around you. The level of professionalism will rise and you will be responsible for it. Live a life of excellence in everything you do. Remember, Family, Faith, Country and Department. Each need true men and women of excellence to set the tone for tomorrow.

Second, be careful whom you allow to be your example. Our vehicles have backseats filled with individuals who failed this test. Even on the department, be wise. The example you follow sets the path for your future. There are so many quality men and women in our department who do it right! Find one, and learn from them. Excellence is learned, and while you are learning others will learn from you.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalmist (3000 years ago) states that God has led him into a life of excellence by witnessing the examples that had been set for him. God’s mercy and grace had led him to a life of being an example to others. With that, he is able to confidently say in Psalm 71:7:

“My life is an example to many, because you have been my strength and protection.”

One final note: On this job and in life, everyone is a leader. If you started this article thinking that it only applies to your superiors you are wrong. You are a leader. All of us are. There are many people looking to you for quality decisions and a life of excellence. Read that again: There are many people looking to you for quality decisions and a life of excellence. Don’t let them down. Fulfill the roll.