Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rocking Your Boat in Uncertainty?

What’s it like to lead others during uncertain times? This is the question I posed to more than 120 church leaders yesterday during the final day of a 3-day conference in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Business leaders daily face the uncertainties of a global economy. Government officials make difficult decisions amidst changing political fortunes. Parents face uncertainties concerning their children’s future. And church leaders are no strangers to uncertainty, especially in the central region of the African Continent.

Sometimes the hardest place to lead is in the place of uncertainty. I have to regularly remind myself, “The only thing certain is uncertainty.” I don’t always like to hear that, but I know it is true. And when uncertainty comes, which it always does, how do I continue to lead?

I turned our attention to the story of David in 1 Samuel 30:1-6. David was a king-in-waiting and a leader-in-training. He was young, slightly experienced, and rough around the edges due to the fact that David had managed to attract a rather unsavory group of people around him. This band of brothers is described as “those who were debtors, distressed and discontented.” (1 Samuel 22:2). Not the kind of people your mother would approve!

David and his men had been fighting on frontline and returned home to the city of Ziklag. Upon their arrival they were shocked to discover the city where their families had been left behind was all but burned to the ground. The women and children and David’s two wives had been hauled off along with all their possessions. The group was so distraught they, “wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep.”The mood is very uncertain. To make matters worse, David apparently overhears a rumor that his so-called “brothers” were so bitter about the situation they take out their frustration on David. They gather stones to stone him. Talk about a crisis and talk about uncertainty!

The story of David is helpful considering my own journey as a leader. I have noticed two common and convenient default strategies deployed when faced with uncertainty. The first strategy is to withdraw—to check out, to go to the sidelines, to give up, to escape. Sometimes the uncertainty is so paralyzing, the need so staggering, the challenge so insurmountable, the problem so complex—all I want to do is disappear. When leaders disappear in times of uncertainty, we only make matters worse. Uncertainty is no time for a leader to disappear. Think about it, if there is no uncertainty, there is no need for leadership. It is precisely because of uncertainty that leadership is so critical. Uncertainty is a leader’s job security.

The second default strategy is to react. We grab another cup of coffee, work harder, increase the RPM’s and ramp up the intensity and press on. We instinctively grab hold of that which seems most comfortable and most familiar to us. We reason that we worked ourselves into this crisis; we can certainly work ourselves out! The result of this strategy is in most cases we only hasten our personal and organizational decline.

I’m stuck with David’s response in the midst of his leadership crisis and uncertainty. 1 Samuel 30:6 tells us, “But David found strength in the Lord His God.” His decision was pretty simple. He refused to withdraw from the arena of leadership and he resisted reacting in this moment of uncertainty. He turned to the Lord.

Think of it another way—think about what David doesn’t do. He doesn’t focus on his followers. He doesn’t investigate who started the rumor. He doesn’t form a mediation group to settle the dispute. He doesn’t appoint a commission to investigate the crime. He doesn’t deploy a rescue squad to recover what was lost. He turns his attention toward his own spiritual life—his own heart and soul—his own leadership. David actually does something that is very hard for leaders to do in times of uncertainty. He leads himself first!

If you’ve ever been in a canoe on a river there are certain rules about canoeing that must be observed. When you encounter rough choppy water in a canoe, the canoe can begin to rock back and forth. Instinctively we reach for one side or the other to steady the canoe. But by reaching to the side we actually make the matter worse. In fact, the first rule of canoeing is: “when the water gets choppy and uncertain, do not reach for the sides of the canoe.” Why? By grabbing a side you are liable to tip both the canoe and yourself into the water. Experts will tell you is you the way to steady a canoe in choppy water is by using your paddle or oar, not the sides of the canoe.

David is facing choppy waters. His future and the future of his men and their families are very uncertain. David makes a wise choice in this moment. He invested in his own relationship with God. He made a deposit in his own leadership account. As a consequence he kept his leadership afloat and eventually led his men to recover all the women and children and all their possessions.
To lead well in uncertainty, leaders must invest in their own relationship with Christ. They must resist the temptation to withdraw or overreact. They must stabilize their spiritual center of gravity by finding strength in Him during uncertain times.

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