Book of the Quarter: Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, by Tod Bolsinger; InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, © 2015 by Tod Bolsinger, ISBN 978-0-8308-7387-6 (digital)

What do leaders do when their carefully laid plans have no way of working? Tod looks at Lewis and Clark when they planned to find a river to get them to the Pacific Ocean. They have the canoes to float the river. Instead of a river, they find the Rocky Mountains. How do you canoe the mountains?

This book clearly explains and illustrates that leadership is not trying to keep everyone in the group happy and doing whatever it takes to stay comfortable.

I share a book I’ve read recently on the fifth Tuesday of each quarter of the year. I highlighted “mustard seeds” which impressed me. I hope you find one or two that will be helpful to you.

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“Mustard seeds” I highlighted:

Ed Friedman, “You have not accomplished change until you have survived the sabotage” (page 16, Kindle Edition).

Relational congruence is the ability to be fundamentally the same person with the same values in every relationship, in every circumstance and especially amidst every crisis (page 67, Kindle Edition).

The trust needed to bring organizational transformation in a changing context is not built sitting in a circle. It isn’t built in bull sessions or ropes courses. It’s not built over drinks in a bar or by telling our family histories. It’s not even built in small groups or Bible studies. Those activities may create connections, strengthen affinities and even conceive friendships. But only “meaningful work together” develops the kinds of relationships that will endure into uncharted territory (page 68, Kindle Edition).

But it is crucial to remember again that the goal of the expedition was not to build a family—it was to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Similarly, the goal of the Christian faith is not simply to become more loving community but to be a community of people who participate in God’s mission to heal the world by reestablishing his loving reign “on earth as it is in heaven” (page 71, Kindle Edition).

The most critical attribute a congregation must have to thrive in uncharted territory is a healthy organizational culture (page 73, Kindle Edition).

Culture, as Andy Crouch describes it, is “what we make of the world.” It is the combination of “the language we live in, the artifacts that we make use of, the rituals we engage in, our approach to ethics, the institutions we are a part of and the narratives we inhabit [that] have the power to shape our lives profoundly” (page 73, Kindle Edition).

Culture is the set of default behaviors and usually unexamined or unreflective practices that make up the organizational life and ethos of a company, organization, family or church. In short, organizational culture is “the way we do things around here” (page 73, Kindle Edition).

Culture is not the aspired values printed on a poster or put up on a website. Culture is the combination of actual values and concrete actions that shape the warp and woof of organizational life (page 73, Kindle Edition).

Every book on leadership talks about vision. Leaders, it is assumed, are visionaries who have the unique ability to see past the horizon, to see the future coming before anyone else and prepare the organization to meet that challenge. That is surely a valuable ability. But leadership vision is often more about seeing clearly what is even more than what will be (page 102, Kindle Edition).

Mulago requires grant applicants to write a simple proposal with an eight-word mission statement. The statement must be in this format: verb, target, outcome. And it can use only eight words. Some of the examples offered are, “Save endangered species from extinction” and “Improve African children’s health” (page 130, Kindle Edition).

The leader in the system is committed to the mission when no one else is. For the leader the mission always trumps (page 131, Kindle Edition).

For leaders this is the point to remember about anxiety: People who are overly or chronically anxious don’t make good decisions. When anxiety spikes we revert to more primitive ways of being. We fight, we flee, we freeze (page 145, Kindle Edition).

The important thing to remember about the phenomenon of sabotage is that it is a systemic part of leadership—part and parcel of the leadership process. Another way of putting this is that a leader can never assume success because he or she has brought about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful. Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve (page 170, Kindle Edition).

Throughout this book, we have repeatedly come back to this theme from Ronald Heifetz: “Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” The perceptive and caring leader will invariably wince at the three words in the center of the quote: your own people (page 172, Kindle Edition).

Leading change is a process not accomplished quickly, and the moments of sabotage are the most crucial times in the change process (page 178, Kindle Edition).

Perhaps the hardest truth to swallow for most Christian leaders trying to lead change is this: You must choose principles over personal need (page 179, Kindle Edition).

Reframing allows leaders to see possibilities where others see dead ends; it offers us the tools to break the imaginative gridlock of our situation by considering alternative perspectives (page 208, Kindle Edition).

Differentiation enables the leader to stay with the group in the most difficult moments even when the group is blaming the leader for the difficulties (page 211, Kindle Edition).

To publicly acknowledge that we are now in uncharted territory, where there are no maps and few answers, allows us the freedom to innovate through experimentation, to encourage humility and inquisitiveness, to ask questions, and to invite those with us into an adventure of learning (page 213, Kindle Edition).

According to Osterhaus, “Trust is gained like a thermostat and lost like a light switch.” A leader builds trust slowly over time by constantly monitoring the conditions and actions that create the climate of trust in the room. But even one action, if perceived as incongruent, can make the levels of trust plummet into darkness (page 240, Kindle Edition).

JR Woodward writes, “While management acts within culture, leadership creates culture.” Creating a healthy culture with the capacity to experiment, innovate, take risks and adapt is one of the primary preparatory tasks of a leader (page 240, Kindle Edition).

Go to Amazon to learn more about Canoeing the Mountains or to purchase it: https://amzn.to/3FoqDsy

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Jerrie Barber
Servant of Jesus, husband to Gail, father to Jerrie Wayne Barber, II and Christi Parsons, grandfather, great-grandfather, Interim Preacher, Shepherd coach, Ventriloquist, barefoot runner, ride a cruiser bicycle

3 Responses to “Book of the Quarter: Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory

  • Great article as always Jerrie. I am a beginner, but am learning so much from you, Peter Steinke, and Friedman. One of my favorites here (and a very difficult one), “You must choose principles over personal need.” In addition, expecting sabotage when making a positive impact, and (from Steinke) being a non-anxious leader, knowing that anxiety from the leader will infect the group. I now have another book to add to my reading list!

    Jay

  • Larry Acuff
    4 months ago

    I always learn from things you post. Thanks for the above post. Wow, what a great illustration of Lewis and Clark. Jerry, thanks for your wonderful work.

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