Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Leadership as Improvisation

For some time I have struggled with my aversion to the term “strategic planning” and the idea of a “strategic planning process.” Part of my discomfort has come from being exposed by Alan Roxburgh to the idea of “discontinuous change.” I don’t think that I do any harm to Roxburgh’s presentation to summarize it as “everything tied down is coming loose.” Where we once thought linearly, assuming that the future would be like the past and planned accordingly, reality has shown us that this is not the way things are. The unexpected happens (Internet, 9/11, Iraqi war, financial chaos) and all of our great plans go out the window.

So what are we to do? In a recent article in Christian Century, writer Jason Byassee (who does good work) refers to something written by Sam Wells in Improvisation. Byassee writes,

Sam Walls takes this metaphor further . . . [when] he argues that Christian living is like improvisational acting rather than script-based acting. Players practice intensely in order to be able to react to the unexpected on stage. No two acts of improvisation are ever alike, just as no two acts of Christian faithfulness are. Preparation allows for improvisation, and so for faithfulness.

Whether we are living the Christian life or leading a Christian organization, we are really improvising. None of us knows what tomorrow (or this afternoon for that matter) holds. Does this give us permission to be sloppy and just take what comes our way? No. Actually it demands that we strengthen our relationship to God, recognize and hone our strengths, and be prepared for the unexpected. I have heard some people talk about a person who “just had dumb luck” and stumbled into something good. If we examine the situation closer, we often discover that the good fortune was more than happenstance. The person involved was ready to seize the opportunity that came his or her way, much like the actor who said it took him twenty years to become an “overnight success.”

Wells’ observation encourages us to be prepared by knowing who we are and understanding our relationship to God. The unexpected will certainly happen! God calls us to faithfulness in such times of uncertainty.

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