When the baton is passed

I have recently been reflecting on how hard it is to take over leadership from someone who has done well.  Think, for example, of the difficulties Manchester United has had since Sir Alex retired.  It can often be the same in churches or mission agencies following the tenure of a particularly significant leader.

While it will be a perfectly natural response to miss a much-loved leader, and wonder what will happen without them, or even have fears for the future, such feelings can easily become negative thoughts about their successor.  We can start to wonder if she is fit to follow in the footsteps of such a great saint.  Or possibly even resent every change that she makes even if it is for the better.  This then gets us into the habit of continually being cynical about her tenure.

So how can we be good team members at a time of transition?

1. We can recognize that transition destabilises us emotionally. We are crossing over from a place of certainty and we need to be aware of our own fragility which can make us overreact to even the smallest changes.  At times like these we need to focus on what has not changed, and this helps us through.  Other colleagues, friends, and of course God!

2. We remember that we support the team not the leader. After Sir Alex, retired, very few Man U fans will have stopped supporting the club.  In fact their subsequent disappointment and frustration are functions of their love for Man U!  Likewise we are in partnership with an organization, a family, a movement which is bigger than any one person.

3. We understand that any agency evolves over time as leadership passes from hand to hand. For some organisations that has been happening for decades, maybe even a century or more, and the agency still goes on.  Each new leader has the opportunity to shape the agency but it has weathered handover before and probably will again.

4. We can give the new leadership time. In fact we can empathise with them because no matter what our current role, we too were once rookies and had to learn the job from scratch.  We asked stupid questions and made silly mistakes which would embarrass us now if we remembered them.

5. We acknowledge that each new leader needs our support. When King David headed off a power grab by his ambitious son Adonijah (1 Kings 1) by publicly crowning Solomon instead, it was only the loyalty of brave people like Bathsheba, Nathan and Zadok that created a groundswell of popular support.  We have a choice – we can be a backstabber or a cheerleader.

Not everybody taking over the baton does well.  Sometimes they drop it, or get off to a slow start.  That’s not the time to lose faith in them.  They may be able to pick it up and carry on running.  If they do, it’s our cheers that will help them catch up.

 

Communication let us all down

For most of my life I have been part of various organisations – schools, employers, mission agencies, universities, churches, societies – and almost invariably they have a communication problem.  I should imagine there are few of us who feel we are in an organisation that communicates well.

Either the information is left to trickle down (or not!), it’s all pumped out in one deluge, or there is such a commitment to communicating that information comes out so frequently that people stop listening.  Rather like the rain down in Africa, good communication not only needs to come at the right time, it needs to come in the right quantities, otherwise there is huge damage caused by flood or famine.

Good communication involves expressing ideas clearly, listening with a view to understanding rather than contradicting, and being prepared for an open, frank discussion while still remembering to love those who don’t agree with us.  Without these prerequisites, a meeting can be held, words said and heard, but communication hasn’t actually happened.  As George Bernard Shaw remarked:

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

So how can we communicate effectively in our churches, agencies and teams?

First, think about who does the communicating.  Some leaders can feel uncomfortable that they don’t have the ability to communicate well, whether orally or verbally, or cope honestly with any difficult questions, and therefore they start the process defensively, which can lead them to going on the attack if challenged.  Others may be communicating simply because they think they it’s their responsibility.  Some do it because they need to make sure their people’s need for information is met and are not committed to taking people with them on the journey.

All of these are likely to do a bad job of communicating because their heart is not in it.  They would benefit from letting someone else manage the communication – a person with an understanding of what is needed, a person with the right skills and a passion for getting a message across.  Which is why important people often have press secretaries.  They think about what is being said, and how and when.

Communication is also complicated by the variety of viewpoints among the followers.  Some will have principled objections to any suggestions of change, others will be personally inconvenienced or hurt by it.  Some will feel they haven’t been heard if they’re not agreed with, and others (like football supporters) will always be of the opinion that they could do the job better than the current manager.  Many will think the organization ought to be more ‘democratic’ – in other words they feel they have a right to have a say.  And the different ethnic mix in any given context means that any communication is filtered through the differing cultural blinkers of each nationality.  These factors  complicate how well organisations communicate.

Second, think about why you are communicating.  If you are giving people information so that they will do something, you may want to communicate differently than you would if you are leading a consultation.  Sometimes communication needs to get a message across in a hurry, as in a combat situation where lives could be lost if there is not clear communication.

Other communication may be about an organisation’s change of ethos or policy, which may require more consultation.  Sometimes communication, as in marriage, may not be for any particular purpose or about a specific issue so much as maintaining and building on a relationship, for which it is important to ensure communication channels stay open and that people have an opportunity to be heard.

Finally, think about the process of communicating, particularly if it’s about major change.  What is the mix of face-to-face meetings, social media and written/email letters?  How do people express their views or ask questions – particularly those who are reluctant to speak in meetings or only have space to marshal their thoughts once a meeting is over and they can be alone.  What about those who are afraid of reprisals if they speak out?  How can you avoid simply going through the motions of communicating to try and soften the blow of change – because being seen to be an open, transparent and accountable leadership enhances trust, and being seen to listen reassures people that they are valued individuals and not just expendable commodities.

Decades ago a famous study of change in the Shell oil company showed that talking about change long before it happens gets people used to the idea, so that by the time it happens, it’s not a challenge anymore because they’ve already processed the transition in their minds.  Good communication was key to delivering a seamless transition.

Good communication, whether about selling a much-loved head office building, merging with another organisation, or major changes of direction, is not often talked about and it would be good to hear from any of our readers what their experiences of good communication are.

Transition – safely from one side to the other

Kate on a bridgeIt has rightly been observed that the only thing that doesn’t change in the life of a mission worker is the presence of change!  Our lives are constantly changing as we transition between different countries, cultures, roles, relationships, agencies, cities, ages, homes, family settings and churches.  Yet for all the frequency of change, most of us do not deal with it well.

Change destabilises us emotionally.  It removes the certainties that we rely on to maintain emotional equilibrium.  We don’t know where to shop.  We don’t understand the language.  We’re not sure if people are staring at us simply because we look different, or because we’ve done something terribly wrong.  Sometimes we recognise and prepare for the big things that change, but often it’s the little ones that trip us up.  We can cope with eating different food three times a day but really miss our favourite brand of coffee.

Transition could be likened to crossing a wide river from firm land on one side to firm land on the other.  We might cross in a rickety raft or on a rope bridge, but we seldom cruise across on a concrete motorway bridge.  The journey feels scary and we become aware of our vulnerability as the safety of the familiar is swept away.

There are several things we can do to make this transition easier.  First, we need to recognise it for what it is – a big change that may well be uncomfortable even though it’s worth making.  We can express our feelings to our close supporters – partly so that we can acknowledge our feelings, partly so we can find prayer and support.  We can name our fears so that they have less hold on us.  We can discuss where we are in this process with other people making the transition with us, so that they know where we are on this journey, and why we can’t necessarily share their enthusiasm or sadness.

Second, we need to say goodbye.  Not only to friends, colleagues and community, but also places we won’t visit again: the bedroom where your first son was born; the church you founded; your favourite holiday destination.  And also say goodbye to the roles we once had, because we may be going from a place where we had significance and honour to somewhere we are just another stupid foreigner.  We need to leave well, not running away from unfinished business or leaving behind broken relationships.

Third, we need to be thankful for what God has done.  It may not have worked out quite how we expected, and there may well have been pain and disappointment on our journey.  But despite the challenging situations, we have also experienced God’s provision and blessings.  We have learned things and we have borne fruit.  We have started or maintained projects, or maybe closed things down, but each time we may have been part of God’s plan, even if it was only the part which makes us look a little bit more like him.

Fourth, we need some sort of ritual to embody the transition.  Research has suggested that people make transition more effectively when it is supported by rites of passage of some sort.  Some traditional societies make great importance of using ritual in transitions such as coming of age and marriage, coming and going, but we have lost much of this in western culture.  Having rituals of leaving and joining, such as commissioning services, goodbye meals, welcome ceremonies can be an important part of making as successful transition, so don’t avoid them out of embarrassment or false humility.  They also give old friends a chance to say their goodbyes, and new friends a chance to be welcoming.

And finally, let us remember that in all the changes of this life let us remember the One who does not change at all – our God!  No matter where we have been, he has been with us even if his presence has been hard to see at times, and wherever we go, he is already there.  Psalm 139 reminds us of this:

Where could I go to escape from your Spirit or from your sight?

If I were to climb up to the highest heavens, you would be there.

If I were to dig down to the world of the dead, you would also be there.

Suppose I had wings like the dawning day and flew across the ocean,

Even then your powerful arm would guide and protect me.

Or suppose I said, “I’ll hide in the dark until night comes to cover me over” –

But you see in the dark because daylight and dark are all the same to you.