Up the (Willow) Creek: Gary Hamel

Gary Hamel is one of the world’s most influential business thinkers and was the second speaker at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. Overall, I think he had some really great points, particularly in terms of seizing the opportunities that exist in the current economic climate.

“In an environment of increasing change, [one that is] less and less about extrapolating the past, you’re either moving forward or you’re falling behind,” said Hamel during his session.

To unceasingly fall behind is to embrace entropy as an organization.

This is a very profound statement. As leaders focus on the opportunities that are presented by shifts in the global marketplace and culture, there is a great opportunity for positive change, provided that one resists the temptation to become convinced by denial—to believe that everything’s fine and if we just ride things out, we’ll get back to the old normal.

Hamel presented the audience with a continuum of the cycle of change:

  1. Dismissal
  2. Rationalization
  3. Mitigation
  4. Confrontation

When we see these stages in this cycle, we always need to be asking ourselves, “Where are we on this continuum?” Are we trying to rationalize why things aren’t working the way they always have? Do we blame everything on the economy, rather than confront the real issues and look for ways to productively transform how we lead, how we do ministry?

Hamel also provided the audience with following three steps to real organizational change:

  1. Face the facts. Don’t deny, don’t dismiss. Deal with reality. The old reality is gone. The new has come.
  2. Question your beliefs. Challenge your orthodoxies (specifically your organizational practices). What hasn’t changed over the last year? 5 years? Ten? Why?
  3. Listen to the renegades. Don’t ignore the arrogant youths who work for your organization. Listen to what they have to say. Look for the merit. Ask yourself if you welcome dissent or if you stifle it.

“The job of every leader is to help people see that change is better than staying put.”

These were some of the highlights of the talk. Hamel had a few things that I’m not sure I entirely agree with, specifically a “flatter” church structure, with less hierarchy, with an appeal to the early church. Frankly though, I don’t really see that presented in Acts or the Epistles. If anything, there is very much a clear presentation of authority and hierarchy (see Eph. 4, 1 Tim. 3, Titus 2).

Because this issue comes up so frequently, I’ve been thinking about it a great deal. Why are so many people bothered by the idea of hierarchy, particularly within the church? Why are so many pushing for “flat” church, where there’s no monologue, but dialogue, and where (theoretically) there’s no obviously positioned leader?

Perhaps I’m out to lunch, but I don’t think the real issue is hierarchy.

The issue is humility.

A lack of humility on the part of those under authority and those in authority is what causes many of our struggles with authority.

I’m hesitant to write this, simply because I don’t model it well, but we are told through Scripture that we are to submit to the authorities over us, whether institutional or familial, godly or ungodly, provided they do not require us to sin (see Rom. 13:1, 1 Pet. 2:13, and more). This requires a tremendous amount of humility, particularly to submit to ungodly authority. It’s hard. And given that we live in a culture that views submission to authority as a vice, rather than a virtue, it’s even more difficult than ever. But it’s because it’s hard that we need to appeal to the Holy Spirit to grant us humility, because it’s only by His strength that we can be humble enough to submit, just as Jesus submitted to the authority and will of the Father by dying on the cross for our sins.

Conversely, those in authority feed this cycle when they fail to show humility by refusing counsel; to offer any explanation to help those under authority to understand decisions and build trust; ignoring anything that isn’t their idea; and never admitting a mistake. Whether in a church or a business, this will only breed rebellion, particularly among the those who perhaps have more zeal than wisdom. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it contributes to the perpetuating of the cycle.

Hamel gave us a lot to think about, some great, some good, some so-so. But his challenge to leaders (and really to all of us) is too important to ignore: Always be willing to move forward. Never be content with the status quo. Because the moment we become comfortable, is the moment we begin to fall behind.

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