Some musings about holiness, work, and redemption. I am doing some work with a university that is unashamedly in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and that is more and more making the idea of the redemption of the world the core of its identity. So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the link between holiness and the redemption of the world (understood in terms of the totality of the physical, spiritual, social, and political realms). And, in turns out, so has my friend, Dr. Matt Ayars, in some chapters he is working on for a new book.
A quote from Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “Why Work?”:
The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him to not be drunk and disorderly in his leisure time, and to come to church. What the church should be telling him is that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables…No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that created Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself…[the Church] has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as the work is true in itself…that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.
Sayers then goes on to quote Jacques Maritain: “If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and then try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Christian pose.”
Maybe this is the link between holiness and redemption of the created order that gives holiness its proper home and scope: that redemption means a world in which every being is a reflection of the living and eternal truth of the personal, Triune God in the work of having dominion over the earth and relating rightly to our brother; that we are to exercise our dominion over creation in fellowship with others. This places doing good work at the very center of what it means to be made in the image of God. (Meaning we understand holiness ultimately in terms of this and not simply the degree to which I do/do not have a sin nature still at work. The former does not exclude the latter but places the question of holiness within the context of the entire biblical narrative, which is resoundingly about the redemption of God’s creation and the kingdom of God.)
So we are to individually and corporately reflect the triune life through the work of being a mechanic, a taxi driver, a pharmacist, a teacher, or a farmer; through the work of running a business, being an entrepreneur, playing the drums, painting a mural or a house, dancing the ballet, or coaching a boys’ soccer team; through teaching children, nursing the sick, researching treatments for diabetes, advocating for just laws in the houses of government, or being a mother at home to the children; through caring for the sick, widows, and orphans, defending the innocent, showing compassion and mercy on our enemies; through praying for one another, exhorting our brothers and sisters to godliness, through worshipping the Holy, eternal God.
What if holiness is the call to let God’s Spirit so thoroughly redeem us that the renewal of our minds, the new birth in our spirits, the putting on of the new man simply leads us to the place where we do “good” work in all of these areas, individually and corporately, because the One moving in and through us is himself fully good.
What if we understand holiness in terms of this: saying to God’s spirit with ours, “Thy Kingdom come in me as it is in heaven”? Then, as we are “transformed into [His] image from one degree of Glory to the other,” we reflect God’s glory and truth by “our good works” shining as lights on a hill (Matt 5; Eph. 2) ?
In his book, A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peters offers a very insightful and valuable perspective of innovation and order. Chapter 3 is entitled “The Mythology of Innovation” and Peters writes:
Innovation is “always messy, unpredictable, and very much affected by the determined champions…we must learn to design organizations [of every stripe] that take into account, explicitly, the irreducible sloppiness of the process and take advantage of it, rather than systems and organizations that attempt to fight it…As a friend at General Electric says, ‘When you go through this inordinately messy, sloppy, fouled-up, mucked-up seven year process of bringing a new product to market, you say to yourself at the very end, “Any idiot could have done it better than that! Let’s get organized for the next round.” And in that single phrase, “Let’s get organized for the next round,” lie the seeds of subsequent disaster.'”
“It is a messy world…If it is a messy world, the only way to proceed is by constant experimentation: ‘Don’t just stand there, do something.’ If constant experimentation is the only antidote to a messy world, we need experimenters — or champions (skunks). And if we need champions…the most effective environment for champions is almost always an abundance of skunkworks, those small off-line bands of mavericks that are the hallmark of innovative organizations. Finally, and this is the $64,000 issue: if the messy-world-experiment-champion-skunkwork paradigm makes sense, then we need to create a climate. that induces all the above to occur — a climate that nurtures and makes heroes of experimenters and champions.”
It is 38 years since A Passion was published in 1985 and it is more keenly relevant and insightful than before.
For most of the last decade, I have been taken with the matter of what it looks like to to apply a truly Christian worldview to our understanding of organizations and leadership. Over the years, I have grown increasingly convinced that a biblical theology of creation must be our starting point for thinking about leadership within organizations. The narrative of creation in the book of Genesis — regardless of how one argues to interpret chapter 1 — clearly demonstrates that the concept of work and organization is integral to God’s created order. In other words, the impulse to create organizations and pursue work or activities together in a systematic fashion is not a human invention, but one found in the very DNA of the created order.
Out of this has grown the a new project: “A Framework for Redemptive Organizational Leadership,” a way of thinking comprehensively and ontologically about the fundamental nature, purpose, and activity of organizations, and the subsequent groups of processes required for those purposes to flourish. Those fundamental, deep purposes are work, community, and stewardship. These three things are the essence of what makes an organization an organization.
- Work is activity that provides for needs and brings for enjoyment and beauty. Vision, creativity, and productivity are essential keywords.
- Community is the experience of human freedom while sharing in genuine fellowship and purposeful work. Collaboration, trust, and freedom are essential keywords.
Stewardship is the responsible management of resources so as to care for others and ensure sustainability. Accountability and entrepreneurialism are essential keywords.
Tom Peter’s description of the nature and importance of messy innovation harmonizes with this framework’s view of these fundamental, deep purposes of any organization. The combination of creativity, vision, productivity, collaboration, freedom, and entrepreneurialism are found in and required for a “messy-world-experiment-champion-skunkwork paradigm.”
This kind of paradigm requires a certain level of trust, mutual respect, freedom for growth and purpose, and a healthy embrace of risk-taking driven by a strong sense of values and purpose. A team or organization that fosters such a climate is beginning to tap into the core of what it means to be a flourishing, healthy organization.
As human beings made in the image of God, we all long to be a part of a community or team where this kind of messy, life-changing innovation is the norm.
The longer I work with teams in organizations, the more I realize the power of asking the right questions. Here’s a sampling from Bob Tiede’s Great Leaders Ask Questions ebook.
General questions for meeting with a client, customer, team member, or employee: 1) What is going well? 2) What’s not? 3) Where are you stuck? 4) What needs to change?
Helping a group get unstuck in brainstorming: How can we do this in a way that guarantees its failure? (After making this list): What, then, do we need to do to guarantee its success?
Connecting with somebody the first time: Would you please tell me your story?
Great manager question #1: What can I do to help you be more effective?
Great manager question #2: What can I do to make your life easier?
Great manager question #3: Who needs to be encouraged?
Asking the second question can be a transformational move — good general ones: What else did you learn? Can you please tell me more?
Change management questions: What do you like least about this [organization/group]? What do you like most about it? What is one thing you would change if you could?
“Leadership is about opening doors for people.” (Powerful insight)
Getting clarity about the work: What outcome are we looking for:? What might the solution be?
Ask “why” about a problem 5 times.
Avoiding victim-mentality: What/How/Where/Who/When can I do/help/see/try/learn/pursue/act?
What is one thing you know you need to do to remove an energy drain, and when will you do it?
What do you want to work on? Where do you want to go? What are 4 options that could get you from here to there? What hurdles should you anticipate?
What is most energizing about your work? What is inhibiting your success?
What’s something that would be impossible to do, but if you could do it, would dramatically increase your success? What would make it possible?
End a conversation with a question.
What questions are you asking yourself?
The longer I go, the more I become convinced that “leadership” — whatever it actually is — is something that we only discover on the way to something else. The recovery of leadership may well begin when we stop trying to find it.
Of course, the immediate objection is “everything rises and falls on leadership!” That’s certainly what we made the culprit, and it is true that the success of an endeavor does rise and fall on something or somebody. But it may be that our modern obsession with leadership as the silver bullet of organizational success is a flaw that keeps us from seeing the more essential ingredients of what makes things work.
The more valuable journey is to better understand what organizations actually are, how they work, and what it looks like when they work well. For instance, the work of Edgar Schein in organizational psychology and development offers more meaningful insights and language than much contemporary leadership study. His seminal career book, Humble Inquiry, cuts through a lot of the fog of oversimplified leadership principles to the heart of asking humble questions as the catalyst for trust, creativity, collaboration, and innovation in a community. It’s not what leaders do, its what people working together do that makes things work.
Likewise, Patrick Lencioni has focused significantly on understanding and overcoming the dysfunctions of teams, and more recently, the advantages of thinking in terms of organizational health. The healthy relationships and interactions of people is the essential thing that drives organizational life.
For both of these authors, leadership is something that emerges along the way and almost incidentally in the journey toward understanding dynamic human social relationships in the work environment.
Instead of focusing on leadership as the only thing that really counts, the better thing is to focus on what makes a healthy organization, one characterized by enthusiasm, freedom, collaboration, imagination, trust, creativity, and productivity. Health-minded leaders, whether leaders by virtue of position or respect, do the following 4 things. Its not the leadership per se, but the climate they produce in which healthy relationships and healthy work naturally happens.
Healthy organizations are ones that have great clarity about their Purpose, their Priorities, their People, and their Processes. Health-minded leaders are focused first and foremost on birthing and nurturing such clarity. They are driven by asking and helping answer “Why?”
Developing people in their passions, abilities, and potential is the core of dynamic human community. Health-minded leaders are focused on people and helping people become all they came be.
For people to truly flourish, they need the space that is simultaneously safe and challenging. Health-minded leaders create the environment where people are free to pursue their dreams, take risks and fail forward, grow their skills, contribute to society, build relationships, and have meaningful work.
Healthy organizations consist of people with a fire in their belly that today’s dreams actually can and do become tomorrow’s reality. Health-minded leaders fan the flames of inspiration and hope not merely by words but by persistent action to remove the obstacles that stand in the way.
“What builds a relationship, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the RIGHT questions.” Ed Schein in Humble Inquiry. Machiavelli’s The Prince, written centuries before organizational development was a thing, noted that a great prince must “certainly be a great asker of questions.”
What are the RIGHT questions? They are the kinds of questions that
- push us beyond obvious & preconceived answers;
- show humility on the part of the asker;
- demonstrate genuine curiosity in the thoughts and ideas of others;
- foster an environment of collaborative trust;
- invite honesty and truthfulness, however unpleasant the message;
- generate a range of ideas that is both wide and deep; and,
- cause us to seek out new information or consider new perspectives.
When facing change, challenge, or crisis, the temptation is to try to solve the problem as quickly and cheaply as possible, usually involving some form of imitation where we find the company that looks to be successful and try to copy what they do. This innate instinct to “institutional isomorphism” (the tendency in an industry for organizations to all look essentially alike) has given rise to an enormous industry of how-to books, conferences, and expert consultants.
Yet the most powerful ingredient for dynamic organizational change and success is everywhere we look: asking the right questions and taking time to listen well. In many cases, ask enough of the right questions in the right way and the solutions to problems become self-evident.
A leader who has a strong sense of curiosity and humble interest in the experiences, ideas, and needs of others will unleash an environment of creativity, trust, innovation, and healthy engagement like nothing else can.