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Thinking Out Loud

A Leadership Notebook: Almost Anything Can Work a Little Better

by Michael Jinkins | May 01, 2015

Editor’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!

Nothing WorksWhen it comes to amazing insights for leadership, nothing beats an insight from Loren B. Mead which I first came across years ago in a little book he wrote titled: The Whole Truth About Everything Related to the Church in Twelve Pages (if you don’t count the introduction and conclusion). It was first published by the Alban Institute in 1988.

This book has been on my list of required texts for several courses. It is – for obvious reasons – a favorite among students whose written reviews of the book have sometimes rivaled the book’s length.

The first two chapters alone were worth the $6.95 I paid for my copy of the book. In fact, the titles of the first two chapters were worth the seven bucks:

Chapter 1: “Nothing works”

Chapter 2: “Almost anything can work a little better”

The theological astuteness of chapter one brings to mind the historic doctrine of the church, “original sin,” which teaches us that everything is broken. Maybe it is not all broken. But all is somehow broken.

Mead said of this point, “I keep running into people who think what they are doing or inventing will work. It won’t. Nothing works. If you begin there, you have a chance. Understand that. Savor it, even.”

Not only is this a profound restatement of the doctrine of “original sin” with which anyone in leadership can immediately resonate, it is also a wonderful expression of humility. Those who pretend that some things really do work, Mead reminds us, are lying. He says this with a twinkle in his eye and the most delightfully wry smile, but he is not joking.

We live in a fallen world. It really is fallen, not just stumbling, not just tripping and regaining its balance at the last moment, but fallen. Splat. The world is splayed across the sidewalk, its coffee spilled, its Danish bouncing out into the traffic. Oops, there goes a taxi now crushing the warm pastry and splashing the world’s face from a puddle into the gutter to boot. And when the world falls, it takes everything down with it.

“Nothing works.”

Mead’s next point is just as important: “Almost anything can work a little better.” He continues:

“Does that surprise you? Nobody talks about this one, either. What this means is that the grass is not greener in the next pasture, but that the dry, brown, mangy stuff peering out of the cracks in the clay of your front yard might, just might, have some life in it. It may take some weeding and some digging, some watering and some fertilizing, but it’s got some chance of life. What’s more, it’s likely to be the only chance you are going to have to grow a lawn.”

Among the other ten chapters in the book (the ten pages in which we learn everything there is to know about the church) are the following points:

  • “There are no quick answers”
  • “There may not be an answer”
  • “There’s no such thing as strategy – just tactics” (I would quibble with him over this point, but he makes a valid argument.)
  • “There are no big deals anymore”
  • “Money won’t solve your problem”
  • “A new bishop (or pastor or executive) won’t solve your problem”
  • “You can’t get there from here”
  • “You won’t get anywhere if you don’t start from here”
  • “Ministry is the journey, not the destination”

But as interesting and often wise as all of these one-page chapters are, Mead’s great insight is right there in chapters one and two: “Nothing works” “Almost anything can work a little better.”

There are two serious observations I want to make about Mead’s message.

First: I have never read these chapters aloud that the room full of leaders with whom I was working didn’t laugh out loud. Sometimes the laughter began with a few snickers of self-recognition before it grew into full-fledged belly laughter, but every group to whom I have presented this insight have laughed. They immediately see the humor in themselves and in the organizations they lead. As became clear in the conversations that developed in the workshops and classes in which I’ve used Mead’s book, the leaders found hope – sometimes significant hope – in his wisdom.

This has helped me to realize that often the most important thing we can do is to reframe a situation in which we find ourselves in ways that draw out its implicit humor.
Seriousness is not a sign of organizational health. Really. And a lack of humor (or chronic seriousness) certainly doesn’t contribute to the health of those in leadership. Even as a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence, a sense of humor also points toward institutions and leadership that possess the right combination of humility, self-awareness and the smarts necessary “to make a real go of it.”

Second: There’s just no substitute for reality. And when we hear those words, “Nothing works” and “Almost anything can work a little better”, we have the sense that we are looking right into the face of what is real.

The older I get the more suspicious I become of those who make any kind of claims about efficacy (though I, along with Garrison Keillor and many, many true Calvinists, remain a true believer in the efficacy of oat meal). The larger the claims to something working, the more suspicious I am. Massive, all-embracing solutions leave me cold. And the very prospect of utopias makes my skin crawl. Yet, I am more optimistic than I’ve ever been that we can get something done. Something. Not everything.

Mead is, if anything, even more suspicious than I am that everyone who makes gigantic claims is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. The idea that “Nothing works” but “Almost anything can work a little better” is not, as he readily admits, “very exciting. It doesn’t sell very well.” But I think he is right, and, as he says, it isn’t all bad news. “The good thing,” he says, “is that this gives you a way to go.”

Indeed it does.

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