Adaptive leadership versus technical leadership is the buzz in the business world and the church. Technical leadership tackles a problem in a linear end-goal way: A+B+C=D. It answers problems with clear solutions. Sometimes technical answers to problems are necessary. They sure can be easy and WRONG! Life is much more ambiguous than simplistic answers. Adaptive leadership’s answers allow for complexity and uncertainty: A+B+C=A. Adaptive solutions have enough structure as to be effective, but seldom have a one-size-fits-all certitude.
The simple answer is that things are never simple. Technical leadership tends to be top-down and hasn’t worked in the church since James and John put their Mom up to asking Jesus if they could sit beside him in the Kingdom. Their position-of-power understanding of leadership was turned on its head by Jesus in his ministry to the least, the last, the lowest, and the lost. Jesus modeled the greatest adaptive leadership tool ever used when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17).
Clearly Jesus’ leadership was adaptive more than technical. Jesus practiced open-ended servant leadership by constantly yielding to the whims and vagaries of life and the ever-occurring poor decisions of his closest followers. Technical leadership from Jesus wouldn’t have been eager to wash the disciples’ feet. Technical leadership would have proclaimed, “Here’s what we’re going to do!” What Jesus did was teach in ambiguous parables that left great latitude in interpretation. It’s like the difference between a funnel-in-the-head three-point sermon, and an open-ended sermon by Fred Craddock that leaves you hanging and taking personal responsibility for how the message ends or actually begins.
Ponder the dichotomy in our denomination right now: on one hand they want us to measure everything seeking a technical solution to what ails us, but, on the other hand, they say we need to be nimble and meet the adaptive challenge. Maybe the two can go hand in hand, but it strikes me as a desperate search for a technical solution to an adaptive spiritual problem. Accountability is a good thing, but I don’t recall Jesus ever asking his disciples about numbers. He wanted faithfulness knowing that what he told Nicodemus was right in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” This means to me that the measurement of the Spirit’s actions is hard to do! You can know some things like the sound, but to measure more than that is to box in the Spirit.
This has all made me think about the tension between a live-and-let-live openness to church ministry and top-down “my way or the highway” strong-arming. Who am I, even as a District Superintendent, to declare by “divine” fiat that a church or its leadership is flatly wrong? Yeah, I know: I’m supposed to interpret and decide all questions of church law in the Columbia District (Par. 419.10, 2012 Book of Discipline and 423.13 in 2008), but what’s more important – doing things right (technical solution), or doing the right things (adaptive solution)?
A key book for me in discerning which kind of answer is needed has been Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Listen to what Amazon says about the book:
“Ten years after his death, Edwin Friedman’s insights into leadership are more urgently needed than ever. He was the first to tell us that all organizations have personalities, like families, and to apply the insights of family therapy to churches and synagogues, rectors and rabbis, politicians and teachers.
Failure of Nerve is essential reading for all leaders, be they parents or presidents, corporate executives or educators, religious superiors or coaches, healers or generals, managers or clergy. Friedman’s insights about our regressed, seatbelt society, oriented toward safety rather than adventure, help explain the sabotage that leaders constantly face today.
Suspicious of the quick fixes and instant solutions (Think “Technical” solution) that sweep through our culture only to give way to the next fad, he argues for strength and self-differentiation as the marks of true leadership. His formula for success is more maturity, not more data; stamina, not technique; and personal responsibility, not empathy.”
What this boils down to for me is theological: the difference between process theology and a static understanding of God’s work in the world. I am quite orthodox in believing God is immutable and unchanging in God’s nature, but there’s plenty of evidence that God is constantly responding in ever changing ways to our human vagaries. Such is the unchanging nature of God’s love towards the whole creation. Why would we have to pray “Thy will be done…” if God already gets God’s way all the time? Praying promotes adaptive leadership because it trusts in a God who can answer in lots of ways! The upshot of this is to approach problems/opportunities from every angle and without a specified result in mind, and trust that the Lord is going to always be on our side. I need the nerve to let things play out and respond accordingly, secure in God.
Adaptive leadership leaves room for magnificent yet oftentimes unexpected possibilities. For instance, ponder this information dated 1999 about Nonlinear Dynamics from Erick Larson in Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History:
“Most tropical disturbances dissipate over the open sea. … Occasionally they become killers, although exactly why remained a mystery even at the end of the 20th century. Satellites sharpened the ability of forecasters to monitor hurricane motion but could not capture the instant of transfiguration. No matter now closely meteorologists analyzed satellite biographies of hurricanes, they still could not isolate the exact coding that destined a particular easterly wave to a future of murder and mayhem. Satellites could document changes in temperature of a few thousandths of a degree and capture features as small as a foot wide or a few centimeters tall. “But suppose,” wrote Ernest Zebrowski, Jr., in Perils of a Restless Planet, “that a tropical storm develops, and that we play back the data record of the previous few days. What do we find as we go back in time? A smaller storm, and yet a smaller disturbance, then a warm, moist windy spot, then a set of atmospheric conditions that looks no different from that at many other locations in the tropics.”
Zebrowski proposed that the answer might lie in the science of “nonlinear dynamics”: chaos theory and the famous butterfly effect. He framed the question this way: “Could a butterfly in a West African rain forest, by flitting to the left of a tree rather than to the right, possibly set into motion a chain of events that escalates into a hurricane striking coastal South Carolina a few weeks later?”
The answer is, of course, “Yes!” Adaptive Leadership leaves room for the whims of butterflies, evil, and the Spirit of God. Technical leadership reads more like a dry book on systematic theology that boxes life and God into fixed presuppositions and predetermined actions. Adaptive leaders rely on the greatest adaptive leader, Jesus. He can give us the nerve to navigate the uncertain waters through the certain assurance of divine love! Take comfort: Jesus and you are going to have a great adventure today!