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Thinking Out Loud

A Leadership Notebook: When the Circus Comes to Town

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 19, 2015

TOLLeadership-022015Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

“Strategic planning is really important,” I said. “But, sometimes as a leader you’re really more like the ringmaster of a three-ring circus than anything else. And you’re just trying to keep the lions from eating the clowns.”

My comments were made in the context of a Skype conversation with students in a strategic leadership course at Duke Divinity School taught by Dr. Craig Dykstra and Dr. Greg Jones. They asked me to reflect on various factors contributing to transformational thinking in a religious institution. By the way, I refused to say who I think the lions and clowns might be. Some lions are pretty funny, and some clowns can be scary.

The point of my reflections was not to detract from the importance of strategic thinking or of planning sweeping changes in an organization. Far from it. Strategic thinking and long-range planning are crucial to the health of an organization. But I did want to raise up an aspect of planning that sometimes gets overlooked.

What I would call “big picture” planning is very important. When we plot out major strategic shifts, our planning can energize an organization. Such “big picture” planning can inspire an organization. It certainly can help a group of people break out of old patterns and imagine new possibilities for themselves. It can assist an organization to transform threats into opportunities.

However, the accomplishment of “big picture” plans requires hundreds, maybe thousands, of much smaller day-to-day steps forward. Yes, we must see the big picture, but we achieve great things by achieving many small things, steadily, one step at a time.

One of the most common mistakes organizations make related to strategic planning occurs after the “big picture” plan has been adopted. Often they print the strategic plan. They place it in some sort of attractive folder. They make sure every office has a copy. They place the bound strategic plan on a shelf. Then they move on as though nothing has changed.

Well, of course, nothing much will change in this case because they have neglected to chart the small goals that need our attention in order for the “big picture” to become a reality. These small goals, if I may return to my circus analogy, might include developing a better system to ensure that the trapeze artists stay in shape, or create a more reliable breakdown and setup process to transport the circus tents from one city to another.

Keeping tabs on the small goals and gains (and setbacks) also helps us make the necessary adjustments in our plan that inevitably crop up in light of unforeseen developments. Charting the small goals and gains (and setbacks) also helps us keep our eyes on the relationship between dreams and realities. A few years ago, following a catastrophic financial crisis in a seminary, for example, I asked a colleague who knew that particular seminary well what had happened. He said, “Every day there was a circus parade, and nobody was cleaning up after the elephants.”

Great successes in organizations usually require strategic thinking, as well as good fortune, but great failures often have as much to do with a lack of attention to relatively small matters as they do with a lack of vision.

When Ellis Nelson was president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, he wrote a little book with the rather unpromising title, Using Evaluation in Theological Education (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1975). In a section on “Developmental Decisions,” Nelson discusses the tendency of many leaders to assume that once a direction is determined, all that is necessary is for an organization to more-or-less automatically move in the chosen direction. A few years ago a faculty colleague in another seminary expressed this misunderstanding when he said that the job of administrators is “to watch the machinery work.” In fact, according to Nelson, it is at this point when an organization has charted the direction for change that the organization is most vulnerable. In essence, the leadership of the organization has made a wager that certain changes will produce better results. They are making this wager on the basis of hypotheses which may not yet have been tested. They may not know precisely how to make the small changes that will lead to the larger transformation they are seeking. They almost certainly do not know what the unintended consequences of their changes will bring. “So we are now in a zone where anxiety reigns,” wrote Nelson.1

Drawing on the research of David Braybrooke (an ethicist and philosophical thinker) and Charles E. Lindblom (an economist and political scientist), Nelson examines how “the mind” tries “to project from the immediate past into the immediate future with minimum risk to the seminary and maximum opportunity to move ahead.” According to Braybrooke and Lindblom, the secret to navigating an organization toward real and lasting transformation is the employment of disjointed incrementalism. They believed that “sure progress in human affairs proceeds by small steps taken in a prudential mood with pragmatic reasoning.”2

Nelson’s lesson is perhaps more important today than it was in the nineteen-seventies. In a time when churches and seminaries feel besieged by cultural shifts beyond their control and often beyond their understanding, and in the midst of financial and social instability, making appropriate and sometimes big strategic changes may be the only way for some religious organizations to survive. However: “If a seminary (or a church or other organization) launches out on a great new plan and fails to deliver the goods, such a school suffers for a generation or more from the memory people have of its failures.”3

Fear of failure can, however, prevent leadership from making the bold changes that can lead to an organization’s viability and excellence. Indeed, anxiety can itself cause catastrophic failure by inducing paralysis when purposeful innovation is most needed. In other words, freezing in place before a threat may not be a better option than trying to escape it by jumping in the wrong direction.

This is where Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s “progress principle” makes a creative advance on disjointed incrementalism. The gap between an organization’s present location (faced by various threats) and its strategic ends (where it converts environmental threats into opportunities and achieves a stronger position) lies in the work of “managing for progress.” As Amabile and Kramer observe, this is the next step after what Jim Collins describes as “getting the right people on the bus.”4

While keeping in mind the organization’s strategic ends, good leaders help the people in their organization succeed with lots and lots of small wins. This produces greater buy-in to the organization’s strategic goals and greater care in attending to the day-to-day steps necessary for success. These small (incremental) successes fuel the enthusiasm of those in the organization to greater ends. Encouragement in achieving relatively small goals translates into much-needed energy toward the large strategic vision of the organization.5

Obviously, this means much more than just keeping the lions from eating the clowns. It even means more than attending to tent transportation and the fitness of our acrobats.

It is a reminder that the small stuff is worth sweating.

1Ellis Nelson, Using Evaluation in Theological Education (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1975), 63.
2Ibid., 63.
3Ibid., 64.
4Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2011), 10.
5Ibid., 20-41.

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