We’ve had a failure to adapt.
That’s the view of America’s military leadership from World War II to the present, in Tom Ricks’ detailed study, The Generals. The nature and tactics of war changed after World War II and Korea, but our country’s military leaders didn’t adapt. Our generals continued to fight “line wars” long after our foes shed their uniforms and became shadowy guerrillas and non-state terrorists.
As a result, for a half century, we’ve won first battles, only to lose wars. That pattern is the outcome of fighting new wars with old rules of engagement.
The new international battlefield has evolved into a fluid arena with complex goals: Our military tries to defeat our foes, while also trying to befriend and protect civilians.
These opposite challenges are difficult to balance. Ricks noted, after Vietnam, the American military organized top-down training to increase adaptability. Those classes received mixed responses from traditional warriors who didn’t sign up to make friends. The old soldiers understood “either-or” rules but struggled with “both-and” applications.
Failure to adapt explains why so many ministerial, political and military leaders still lag behind today’s challenges. Our world has turned corners, but our leaders have missed the on-ramps. Our churches are often stuck in place and caught between tensions. Technology has created an interconnected world, new generations have emerged and our local ministry settings have become diverse.
In this new mix of challenges, traditional congregational leaders still use “one-size-fits-all” leadership approaches. It’s time for agile leaders.
In some church circles, it’s heresy to suggest unlearning old practices. Plus, it’s always tough to discover creative ways to lead flexibly. To make the chasm wider, there’s no single effective resource for expanding leaders’ adaptability:
• Leadership schools have no consistent definition of leadership to build on, leaving us rootless.
• Leadership gurus list two dozen things for us to do, overwhelming us with minutiae.
• Seminaries steep students in tradition, minimizing flexibility.
• “Visit-a-famous-church” expeditions show how to lead in that single setting, leaving different contexts to fend for themselves.
• Peer groups are limited by the least gifted person in the circle, slowing breakthroughs.
One-size-fits-all leadership no longer works. Adaptive leaders are needed now. The old, old story deserves to be told in new, fresh ways.
Charting adaptability profiles
What’s your leader agility? Let’s start at street level — the adaptability of your church and your own adaptability potential. Use the Adaptability Profile, an agility continuum, included below to help you understand the change potential of your church and its match with your own adaptive leadership preferences.
In this space, let’s focus only on the more flexible half of the Adaptability Profile. Remember, adaptive churches, by definition, aren’t the “frozen chosen” with no intention of ever changing. They are always modifying, morphing and moving. Adaptable leaders stay flexible — bridging, exploring, and inventing — to build and maintain congregational momentum.
• Modify-adapt churches with bridging leaders. These “then-and-now” congregations live astride two competing systems — the traditional and the new. As such, modify-adapt churches are communities of reform and balancing acts for leaders. Modify-adapt churches appreciate and build on stability and tradition. But they also slowly stretch and adjust to new ways. They use their pasts to move into their futures. Think of the Jerusalem church after Pentecost.
Bridging leaders understand both systems in modify-adapt churches. With lay leaders, they look back and modify incrementally. Bridging leaders serve as stewards of heritage’s strengths, are comfortable with planning and deliberately apply an “inch by inch tomorrow’s a cinch” mentality as they bridge to immediate opportunities. These leaders and churches tie past and present together and patiently move forward step-by-step. For bridging leaders, faith is building on overarching common callings.
• Morph-adapt churches with exploring leaders. These “now-and-next” congregations are steadily and deliberately renewing as they reach across two worlds. Morph-adapt churches are transforming communities. They recognize where they are and where they hope to go next. Their new ministries emerge from small tests with a “fail fast, learn better” mind set. They see ministries as frontiers, reshaping themselves as they morph from now to next. Think of the Macedonia call and Christianity’s transformation into a global faith.
Exploring leaders are bifocal, mix-and-match masters. They see ministry as a faith laboratory, regularly unfolding and always expanding. Two-world living is mostly comfortable for these leaders; they don’t get overwhelmed with the tensions between overlapping paradigms; they enjoy the adventure of blazing new trails. They act strategically and practice faith as discovery.
• Move-adapt churches with inventing leaders. These “next-and-beyond” congregations are forming communities. Move-adapt churches feature fresh beginnings in new molds, and they are moving quickly. They live comfortably on the tightrope between two overlapping futures. Even creative ministries and new church starts, with their promising futures, are challenged by surprises. The “next” sometimes arrives so quickly for them, they are pushed over horizons into a new “beyond” they hadn’t imagined yet. But in the face of uncertainty, move-adapt churches keep their ministries lean, focused, and moving ahead briskly. Think of the Christian movement after the Macedonian call.
Inventing leaders begin with creativity, respond quickly, sketch futures in broad strokes, and emphasize healthy growth. Harvard Business School correctly identifies these fairly rare “fast-adapt” entrepreneurial leaders as a stretch for conserving institutions, like many churches. What comes after whatever comes next, while generally stressful, is exhilarating for these leaders. Inventing leaders press fast-forward buttons to unleash futures; they also sense when to touch pause buttons to regain footing. Inventing leaders practice faith as risk taking.
Where did you find your church on this continuum? Which of these adaptability niches best fits you as a leader? Are these adaptive matches creative and effective for you?
Just-in-time adaptability labs are needed now. We need ways for leadership experiences to tutor us in applying discoveries from our disasters and triumphs. I described adaptive leadership resources in more detail in Growing Agile Leaders: Coaching Leaders to Move with Sure-Footedness in a Seismic World (Coach Approach Ministries, 2011). In summary, if we learn to adapt to new circumstances, we will face exploding futures with agile confidence.
With certified coaches as thought partners and with an array of accessible resources, leaders will thrive amid today’s “between-times” tensions. Adaptive leaders will grow in agile directions — deepening our sense of identity, expanding our creative boundaries, living in two worlds without anxiety, broadening our solution-finding capabilities, focusing sturdy theology on the future, and applying team wisdom.
The truth is plain. Our churches and leaders can’t risk any more failures to adapt.
Bob Dale ([email protected]) is a leader coach in Richmond and a retired seminary professor and denominational worker. He also is a trustee of the Religious Herald.