We serve a big God, but you wouldn’t know it by the way we often conduct our daily business. That problem, and some suggested ways of dealing with it, are at the core of a new book recently published by Roger Parrott, Ph.D., President of Belhaven University. The Longview (David C. Cook Publishing Company, 255 pages) is an insightful look at how we often doom ourselves to failure (or, at best, mediocrity) by pushing all our energies into solving today’s problems while ignoring the bigger picture.
Parrott, an experienced academician and minister, has been at the helm of Belhaven for 15 years. One of the youngest college presidents ever elected (he assumed his first post at Sterling College in Kansas at 34), Parrott has grown Belhaven from a sleepy Presbyterian college to a regional leader in Christian education which now boasts five campuses and national recognition.
Parrott’s book is at once scholarly yet readable, and provides good food for thought for anybody in a leadership role. It also requires introspection. Parrott drills down through his own decisions and those of others to contrast human leadership with that exemplified by Christ. Throughout the book, he aims his most potent advice at his fellow ministers and academics, but we all need to hear it.
Jesus, Parrott argues, was the ultimate example of how a leader should behave. Never sacrificing the bigger picture for short-term results, Jesus taught us in how he worked with his disciples and how he dealt with the everyday, mundane challenges which are chronicled in Scripture. The feeding of the five thousand; the effects of the Transfiguration; and the events leading to his death: All were challenges which would no doubt have gone differently if in the care of even our best leaders. What if Jesus had chosen to give reckless Simon Peter the banishment he so often earned? What if he had listened to the disciples’ selfish ramblings about whom was greater? And what if Jesus had followed his human survival instincts, which no doubt said “Run!” rather than face his Mission and certain death?
“Because … short-term corporate culture has so permeated the church today,” Parrott argues, “we in ministry have loosened our grip on the biblical model of leadership.” Each chapter propounds a single theme. In “Lead as if You’ll Be There Forever”, Parrott urges the reader to take stock of whatever surroundings in which they find themselves, and do his or her best to build organizations for tomorrow. I confess, I was convicted when the book challenged me with this question: “What will your legacy with your ministry look like twenty-five years after you are gone?”
Many of the chapters in The Longview deal with the personality traits that separate good leaders from bad. Drawing heavily on Jim Collins’ seminal Good to Great, Parrott points out the danger of ego (which he describes as an “occupational hazard” of leaders). Humility and self-effacement are characteristics common to leaders who drive their companies to success; vanity and applause-seeking provide short-term gratification at the expense of long-term success.
Some of our self-serving behavior, Parrott argues, is learned from the earliest years. In this age of guilt-ridden parenting, we think we are doing our kids a favor by heaping lavish praise on every refrigerator-magnet masterpiece. We breathe a sigh of relief when our kids merely pass the test, but we need to push them to do better. Not that it’s OK to NEVER tell your child he’s doing a great job, but we need to seek moments in which they excel.
Unfortunately, these learned habits are present in a great many leaders today, and can doom an organization to failure. OK, confession time: If you’re a boss, when was the last time you actually looked forward to evaluation of your staff? And a better question: when was the last time your employees looked forward to the evaluation? If you actually can answer that question with anything but “I don’t remember”, make sure they nominate you for boss of the year.
The very process of traditional employee evaluation, Parrott explains, is fundamentally flawed. Evaluations, which should be a time to celebrate the positives as much as to point out what’s wrong, are often used as a hammer to get what we want from employees. The reason? Most bosses are rarely evaluated themselves. (Now there’s a shocker.) But, really, doesn’t everybody have a boss? We all need to have someone to tell us when there’s broccoli in our teeth (figuratively or literally). And going through the process ourselves will help us better evaluate and empathize with those who report to us.
To me, Parrott’s most astounding claim (which will probably cause coronaries around many boardroom tables) is “Planning Will Drain the Life from your Ministry.” Now, before you go off whining, “but if you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” hear me out. Parrott is not the first to suggest that we are often slaves to the plan, but he has perhaps put it most succinctly:”… the process itself drains the life out of our ministries by distracting us from our core focus.” It’s important, he notes, for leaders to be dreamers, sensitive to what God is doing, rather than constricting ourselves with plans which provide their best benefits to the planning process itself.
“What does it matter what I did today?” I asked myself when I was about halfway through the book. “Does it really make a difference in the long-term if I focused my attentions on putting out the small fires on my desk, while ignoring the fact that I haven’t a clue what I would like this organization to look like in 2035?” Of course, 25 years is a long time, but as the pages turn faster and faster on the wall calendars of our lives, it seems we naturally turn our attention to the question of legacy.
Summing it all up, Parrott finishes the book with a sweeping and compelling metaphor called “Catching the Wind of God”. He describes two ways to get from Point A to Point B by water: There are powerboats, which get us to our destination quickly, but the journey won’t be memorable because we are moving so fast, and the motor drowns out the sounds which might make the journey worth taking for its own sake. Then there are sailboats, blown by the “Wind of God.” This journey is likely to take longer. But it is an interesting journey, and we learn a lot along the way. Hearing the soft slap of the water against the hull, feeling the gentle bobbing of the waves, and even holding on through the storms, we learn to trust God. Sailing is anything but easy, and it requires putting yourself at the mercy of the wind. But as sailors know, there is nothing to compare to the joy of sailing. Our lives are just too short for us to miss the trip.
(c) 2010, by William D. Moak