Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership


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Social Disruption and Isolation – opportunities for a new depth


The COVID-19 virus intrusion is what Nicholas Taleb called a black swan event. Black swan events are a rare and unpredictable shock to a system with extensive consequences throughout the system. For example, the COVID-19 virus has already changed the way churches meet, the way food is secured, the way social interaction occurs, and has had a growing negative economic impact as businesses close and scale back their cost structures. Black swan events are defined by periods of high uncertainty and volatility.[1] It is the uncertainty of a black swan event that makes the recovery of “normal” a difficult target. This black swan event has imposed the social distancing strategy designed to limit the transfer of the COVID-19 virus from person to person. This has imposed a time of isolation for many people.

I have wondered about how to leverage the disruption and the isolation and what my horizon should be as a leader looking forward. Should I take a short view assuming the current disruptions are short term and the propensity toward stasis will nudge our experience back to a known sense of normal? Or do I take a long view and look at the current disruption and isolation as a push toward innovation? In my reflection, I was reminded of the work of Dr. Bobby Clinton, one of my mentors, on the way leaders develop. Specifically, how leaders mature. He identified several maturation processes one of which was isolation processing.

By maturation, Bobby meant the deep process that forces leaders to evaluate life and ministry for its deeper meaning. This evaluation reflects on what life is about and what ministry accomplishes. The purpose seems to be to shape one’s focus toward a whole lifetime of effect around what is ultimately important.[2]

Bobby recognized that isolation is the process by which a leader is set aside from normal activity so that the leader has an extended time in which to experience God in a new or deeper way. The isolation process in Bobby’s heuristic may be initiated voluntarily or involuntarily. Regardless of the way an isolation period is initiated the potential for experiencing a call to a deeper relationship and experience of God is possible. The lessons a person may experience in isolation times include dependence on God, learning about the supernatural, an urgency to accomplish their life purpose, deepening of one’s inner life, especially intercessory prayer, and lessons on spiritual authority.

The benefits of isolation are not automatic. They are dependent upon two variables, the amount of time spent in isolation and the response of the person in isolation.[3]

Among other things, this time of isolation exposes what Bolsinger describes as being imaginatively gridlocked in a pattern of trying harder at things that are not making an impact.[4] The challenge presented by the COVID-19 virus is an opportunity but to see the opportunity we must develop an adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity starts with the recognition that we don’t know and forces us to reevaluate what our core values are i.e., to strip away the traditions that have developed initially as support but now impediments to our mission or purpose. Are you willing to let go of “expertise” and learn as you go? Many of us conceptually recognize the need for adaptive capacity, now we are forced to step into it.

So, what is the time horizon you are using to evaluate the new normal? Is it just getting through the immediate crisis to go back to business as usual? Or, are you using the isolation to ask God to help you completely rethink how we do things, how to get at our real contribution of the truly important things? According to Bobby time and your response are the two variables that will determine whether you enter a new adaptive innovation or simply fall back into whatever normal was before the crisis.

[1] Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/finance/487579-coronavirus-and-price-discovery-during-black-swan-events. Accessed; 17 Mar 2020.

[2] J. Robert Clinton. Leadership Emergence Theory. Pasadena, CA: Barnabas Resources, 1989, 273.

[3] Clinton 273-386.

[4] Todd Bolsinger. Canoeing The Mountains: Christian leadership in uncharted territory. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

 


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Why Do I Write?


I am working on a new book on management. One of my readers, a business professor, called to ask a few questions. “Why are you writing this book?” he inquired. “Is it a vanity project now that you have retired or do you have an audience in mind?”

I found the question interesting. “I have an audience in mind,” I replied. “New or frustrated managers who may or may not have the benefit of an MBA often find that they need help not with ratios or business acumen but now to turn their insight or their mandate into action. One of management’s core tasks is to humanize the work people engage in and to turn ratios and business goals into developmental coaching that respects others.”

“That’s interesting,” he replied, “humanizing work.”

Our conversation continued, he asked questions about the kind of feedback I wanted and how candid I wanted him to be.

But, as I left the conversation I pondered his initial question. “Why?”

I don’t need a vanity project. My wife, a financial planner, made sure that when we retired we had defined the kind of financial future we wanted and had put the money away to live it. I find a new sense of purpose and relax in retirement. The relax rests on the fact that I don’t need to turn down potential coaching/mentoring clients because they cannot pay my fee. I am not keeping a pipeline full or working to keep a business thriving. The purpose comes from the drive I have internally to help emerging leaders develop spiritually, emotionally/psychologically, and in skill. My life’s purpose is to help leaders and others develop.

Why wouldn’t I write at this stage of my life? I have time, I still engage a wide variety of leaders i.e., younger, cross-cultural, peers, men, women, non-binary, native English speakers, non-native English speakers, ex-pats, non-profit, business, and public sector. I have experience.

That got me thinking. I have a tripartite opportunity to invest in emerging leaders in time, engagement, and experience.

Time. I could use my time to simply meander aimlessly through my twilight years focused entirely on myself – augh, that sounds awful. Time is a powerful aspect of the stewardship I have been given. It is the easiest part of life to give.

Engagement. This is being present, seeking out relationships with those who are not my peers, those who are emerging, those who are thriving and who are looking for mentors. This is a more difficult aspect of stewarding my generative years. Why? Engagement requires work to absorb new perspectives, new gender expectations, and definitions, new questions about the validity of my insights in light of the rapid pace of technological change. I am an older white male – I face stereotypes that may be well earned among my generation. I have to overcome suspicion, dismissive condescension, and social blindness (I am not always seen). It is a weird experience to walk into a room and be invisible – it is an experience my wife reminds me she faced often as a woman in business. The discomfort of my experience is in direct contrast to the fact I held power positions for so many years that demanded attention when I showed up. I became accustomed to the props of power even though my goal was to serve others as a leader. All of this means that engaging others is a simple choice of loving them and gaining an audience when the only motivation for them to engage me is their own goals.

Experience. During my developmental years, I observed the pitfall of experience in older leaders who expressed a desire to shape me as a leader. Experience fell into two categories. The first was, “let me tell you how I did this” category. Conversations that started this way ended as monologues and harangues by chronologically older leaders who (a) were unaware of the nuances of my context and (b) were excited to have an audience to boast to about their accomplishments. The second was leaders who asked me the kinds of questions that exposed incomplete and biased thinking on my part. They didn’t tell me how until I asked and then they only offered measured principles not platitudinal “steps to success.” I choose to be the latter, not the former kind of experienced leader in those I approach.

So, I continue to write. I have three books I want to get out in the next 36 months. I have something to say that will encourage, challenge, and support emerging leaders. Do I need the legacy of books to feel good about myself? No, I have a legacy already of transformed lives and successful leaders in whom I have invested time, engagement, and experience. I write because being a servant leader didn’t stop when I retired, it amplified and I am having fun between seeing grandchildren and rowing the river investing in emerging leaders who see the benefit of attentive mentors.