Boldly leading where Google Maps has not been before

by Ps Andrew Groza
8th July 2021

I’m sure you have felt it. I know I have.

The world has changed. We have entered territory that is uncharted and where very few of us alive today have been before. Not even Google Maps can help us here (coincidently, how did we ever survive before the arrival of GPS navigation?).

For those of us who are leaders, this can be a complex and uncomfortable reality. Others are looking to us because this terrain is unfamiliar for them and are seeking our guidance; but we too, are in the same situation and are trying to discern how to navigate this new space ourselves. This can create anxiety in the heart and mind of a leader.

The anxiety generated by being in an uncertain environment, usually produces some common responses. One response is to fall back on what we know – just keep doing the same-old, but with more effort. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach – and sometimes it is the appropriate thing to do – the danger lies in not recognizing that what we know is often insufficient for the new world ahead. A biblical example of this can be found in the experience of the exile. Here God’s people were facing a foreign land – indeed, being encouraged by God to embrace their new environment (Jer. 29). Stripped of everything that gave shape to their expression of faith – land, temple, sacrificial system – they had to learn new ways of being God’s people in a new reality.

A second common response is found in copying what seems to be working elsewhere. This comes from the line of thinking known as neo-institutional theory and specifically, institutional isomorphism – which is simply a fancy way of saying that in times of ambiguity or uncertainty in the environment, organisations mimic other organisations, “particularly those perceived as more legitimate or successful.”[1] Again, this is not necessarily wrong. We can, and should, learn from the experiments and experiences of others who are in a similar environment; but we need to be careful. What is right for one institution with its specific structure, staff, resources, culture, and context, may not inevitably be right for another, whose structure, staff, resources, culture, and context differ. I think here of Jeroboam, the first northern king of Israel after the national split, who decided to mimic and tweak, some of the worship practices from the south; “And this thing became a sin…” (1 Kings 12:30), and an ongoing snare for the northern kingdom.

So how do we find our bearings in a situation that is unlike anything we have encountered before?

The first step is to acknowledge our emotions. Steve Cuss wisely argues that unaddressed anxiety “blocks effective leadership because a leader gives too much energy to the anxiety rather than to the situation or person at hand.”[2] As Tod Bolsinger said in a recent AC Webinar Confident Leadership in a Disorienting World, “Denial of your anxiety makes you dangerous.” We simply don’t think well when we are highly anxious. When, however, we take note of, and take care of our emotional state, it helps us make wiser decisions.

Another helpful choice is to assume a learning posture; rather than forge ahead without adequate reflection, we instead learn to ask questions and lead others in that learning process. Since the world we are entering is uncharted terrain for most people living today, we can rest in the knowledge that we don’t have to know what to do, but that along with our mentors, teams, and friends, by asking deep questions about our reason for being, our behaviours, and our practices, we can learn what to do together.

Another important step is the need to reflect afresh on our identity as children of God and on our calling. In the same Webinar mentioned above, both Stephen Fogarty and Tod Bolsinger talked about the importance of being grounded in God’s acceptance (even before we accomplish anything for God), and in God’s individual call upon our life. This can help orient us and give us the fortitude to keep going.

These three practices – acknowledging our emotions, adopting a learning posture, and reflecting on our identity and calling – can help us find our bearings in a world that has become deeply disorienting. The encouraging thing for all leaders, is that God has called us to lead during one of the most tumultuous seasons of our generation. Whilst that can be daunting, we can reframe that as an incredible privilege, and a profound vote of confidence from God towards each of us. He trusts us to lean on him, to adapt, and to lead his people well. Where even Google Maps cannot lead, God is already there, calling each of us to bravely walk with him into these uncertain places.

Who knows what new adventure awaits?

[1] P. Dimaggio, and W. Powell, ‘The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields’, American Sociological Review 48, no. 2 (1983), pp. 147–160, at pp. 151–152.

[2] Steve Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019), p.41. See also the AC Webinar with Steve Cuss, Leading in an Anxious Environment.