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Leadership That Works

Nancy Ortberg

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from Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands: Lessons in Non-Linear Leadership

At its heart, leadership is about promises, and of all its promises, development is one of the most significant. Sometimes in our attempts to take this seriously, we put together very cumbersome developmental plans. Perhaps it's better than the popular alternative of completely ignoring the issue, but I wonder if we make it too complicated.

One day I was in a meeting of senior leaders at Willow Creek, and Greg Hawkins was talking very excitedly. Which, come to think of it, is the only way I have ever heard Greg talk. . . . Anyway, he was talking about this topic of development and he pulled a thick rubber band out of his pocket. He stretched it between his two hands and said, "Very simply"-Greg is a genius when it comes to making complex issues simple, and therefore, doable-"this is development."

He showed what happened when he moved his hands too far away from each other: The rubber band became taut and clearly in danger of breaking. Stretched too far for too long, the rubber band is ruined.

Then he moved his hands closer together until the rubber band became slack, not at all capable of doing what we hire rubber bands to do. Completely incapable of acting like a decent rubber band.

Inherent in the leadership relationship is the expectation that over time, the direction you give will result in progress toward maturity, growth in skills and character, and even an increase in your own leadership competencies.

I think it is a helpful and good discipline to write out a simple developmental plan for the people you lead. And once that plan is written, the best way to implement it is to think of those people as rubber bands. When I was nineteen years old, I'm pretty sure Jamie Barr thought a lot about rubber bands when he thought about me.

Jamie was the high school pastor at my church in Whittier, California. He had spent years as a researcher at the City of Hope National Medical Center before he heard the whisper of the Holy Spirit calling him to seminary. With a heart for high school kids, he eventually landed in the role of youth pastor at the church I was attending. I was a freshman at a nearby college that required a certain number of ministry hours a month, and Jamie's area seemed as good as any.

Over the next five years, Jamie Barr became the first developmental leader in my life. He stretched me and challenged me, he supported and encouraged me, he believed in me and gave me things to do-things that mattered.

Jamie was the first person who ever uttered the words Nancy, leader, and teacher in the same sentence. Do you understand the power of naming someone's giftedness? The moment and memory of that has propelled me down some of the most significant paths in my life. Those words meant so much because they came from a leader who was stretching me and taking me places for which I had no map.

My most vivid recollections of those years with Jamie include conversations we had directly following either a success or a failure. After I had done something well, he would tell me about it. He would replay the details of what I had done, share his observations regarding it, and talk about the impact my actions had had on the high school kids. Then he would always say something like, "Okay, now get over it"-just in case I was tempted to linger a bit too long in the glory of the win. He kept my head on straight with that comment. I was nineteen, and if someone isn't helping you keep your head on straight at that age, there isn't much hope.

Whenever I did something that didn't fit into the "success" category-when my teaching didn't "click" or I was too glib (I think that only happened once. I am tempted to include one of those smiley faces here, but I don't like them.), or when I made a poor decision or did something that was in my own best interest rather than that of the kids, Jamie would say something like "So if you had that to do over again, what would you do differently?"

How graciously directive! I wasn't going to get a chance to do it over again, but I was going to have a chance to learn from my mistakes and grow enough so that when the next opportunity came I might make a better choice.

So much hope was implied in that tiny question, and the way he worded it helped me to save face a bit. It spared me the crushing things that could have been said: "You idiot! How could you possibly do something that stupid?" And believe me, there were times when that would have been the best response. It also spared me from the painful illusions that I didn't need improvement or that problems should be avoided. And it built within me a foundation of strength for the times when I would fail again.

Jamie gave me hope because he intimated that there would be a next time; this mistake, while still a mistake, had not rendered me completely unqualified for another chance.

And there was hope in the fact that it was a collaborative question. Jamie allowed me to engage in a conversation about what I could learn and how I could be shaped by that learning. The very best development that a leader can offer engages someone else in the dialogue of learning.

And so Jamie Barr grew me up. As a leader, as a teacher, as a follower of Christ. He gave me opportunities, challenges, and a relationship-three things that form a powerful crucible of development. He stretched me sometimes to the point of pain, but never to the point of breaking. He cared for me genuinely, of that I was never in doubt.

And I never once saw him take out a written plan. I think Jamie may have had rubber bands on his mind.

© by Nancy Ortberg. All rights reserved.

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