the precarious changeover

Relay races often make for high drama. Have a watch of this one from 2015. Listen carefully to the commentary alongside as well.

Did you catch it? That calamitous changeover. It can be precarious.

The relay is such a striking picture of leadership. And it has some biblical precedent too. There is an individual-relay which climaxes in 2 Timothy 2.2, while there is also a church-relay developing through 1 Thessalonians 1 (if you look carefully enough).

But here is the question on my mind. In the receiving of the baton from others - and then in the passing it on to others - how can the precarious changeover be avoided? Lots of answers are possible. Here are two. With the 'receiving', a leader needs to show humility, while with the 'passing on' the leader needs to show trust.

This one is tricky. Humility tends to grow in tough places and then it tends to shrivel whenever we take a look at it. We need to proceed with caution. As I observe those I admire (and my own mistakes), humility seems to be nurtured in the following ways:

Receiving (unfair) criticism with grace. Criticism that is deserved is not the issue. No. It is this capacity to refrain from becoming defensive when there is every reason to do so. That is what is impressive. It is this capacity to restrain inflammatory words knowing that, like toothpaste, they won't ever be able to be put back into the tube. So humble leaders brush their teeth for a bit, spit down the sink, wash it all way and get on with life.

Watching credit go elsewhere with silence. Everything about humble leaders is held lightly. Their reputation. Their resources. Their intellectual property. Their CV. It is so appealing. They believe the counsel I have often given to others, but find hard to follow myself: 'the ones who matter have a way of knowing - starting with God himself'. This does not get easier as you get older. I've loved being generous with notes and ideas and resources over the years - but every now and then (like last week!), I let out a "yelp!". It is too hard.

Serving (in obscurity) with calm. One of the best leaders I've known once stated to me, "I've spent all my energy building a great team and then it dawned on me that I did not feel a belonging to it." There is something vicarious about leadership, as John the 'I must decrease, he must increase' Baptist so eloquently expressed. Humble leaders respond with calm. They can live in the footnotes and don't need the headlines. This year saw the retirement of Tim Duncan, arguably basketball's greatest power forward. For 20 years he was at the heart of a successful team (San Antonio Spurs) which was the envy of the league for being a team. You know what one reporter said about Duncan when he retired? 'He hid in plain sight better than anybody I know'.

Apologising with haste. Watch them carefully. Humble leaders know how to say 'sorry'. They take the blame - and they do it quickly, without condition or reservation.

Honouring the past with authenticity. When the baton is picked up from the one who has gone before, it is a time for respect and gratitude. It is a time to look for continuities, even when our minds might be racing ahead to the discontinuities that we think will emerge. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before ... and there will always be things to affirm about those shoulders.

Being downwardly-mobile with contentment. One leader comes to mind. He left one country (where he built up quite the track-record of credible, respected leadership), immigrated to another country before he was 40 years of age ... only to find that that 'track-record' amounted to absolutely nothing in the new country. Nobody cared. Nobody was interested. Eyes glazed over. He had to start again - and to do so without resentment takes some serious humility. I admired him a lot.

Monitoring personal pronouns with care. Ah yes, that despicable 'me-myself-I'. But, following Keller, it is not so much about thinking less of myself - but thinking of myself less. That is the key with humble leaders. It is learning to speak with the accent of 'we' and 'us'. It is delighting in deflecting attention to the 'them' and 'they', the ones to whom we are about to give the baton.

As we look towards those ready to receive the baton from us in a secure manner, it starts with:

Selecting character. It is too easy to be seduced by gifts and skills, charm and charisma. They have their place, but they are over-rated. Character is the necessity when it comes to passing on the baton. And once such people have been selected, it is a case of trusting them before they've earned it - and allowing their character to enable them to rise to the challenge. So, give them responsibility, not tasks. This builds trust.

Once character is in place, wise leaders know that trust works like a bank account. There are deposits and there are withdrawals ... and trust-building leaders whom I've admired know that it starts with building those deposits in a variety of ways:

Keeping promises. They keep their word. If they say they'll call, they call. If they say they'll write, they write. They follow-through on things, rather than leaving them to peeter out.

Listening well. They listen to understand, rather than to reply. They are attentive to the 'other', even get lost - and lose their agenda - in the 'other'. There is empathy.

Communicating early - and fully. They know information is power and that holding onto it - even before there is an opportunity to abuse it - is something they do not do. They share information because this is one way to share power and build trust.

Facilitating vision. This goes with listening, but centers on the practice, even the exercises, where vision bubbles up from the people being led - and is not always drip-fed down from those who lead.

Saying thank-you. As I was trained to do, the first principle of leadership is to say 'thank-you' - frequently, authentically and creatively.

Celebrating 'we'. Like Paul with Timothy, the 'son in the faith' becomes the full partner in ministry. The one giving the baton and the one receiving the baton are on the same team. 'Always say we', Kouzes and Posner wrote all those years ago. All cultures seem to struggle with this one, as the older generation finds it difficult to draw in the next one - and give them the baton.

nice chatting



Ben Carswell said…
Brilliant. Thank you. Keep running...and passing the baton on!
Paul Windsor said…
Thanks, Ben - for your help and support so to do. Loved our time together the other day.

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