Dave arrived clutching a notepad and pen in hand. ‘Can we use this meeting to create a strategy?’ I was his coach and intrigued by this request. ‘I guess we could do that,’ I replied, ‘and I’m wondering what else is in the picture that may explain why you’ve brought it here.’ He looked surprised at first, then a little sheepish. I continued, ‘It might normally be something you would work on with your line-manager. After all, it’s his role to mentor you in this area.’
Dave put his paper down, sighed and explained how he and his line-manager had had an argument that week. Things felt very frosty between them now and Dave felt abandoned with the strategy piece. So I proposed options for the way forward. ‘We could use this meeting to look at the strategy, or we would use our time to explore how you might move forward in your relationship with your line-manager. What would be the best use of this time for you?’
Dave chose to switch the agenda to the relational piece. If he could resolve that, he could work on the strategy with his line-manager and that would be more effective in the long run anyway. It was a good lesson for me in pausing and stepping back one pace before diving in. ‘Why this, why now?’ or ‘What else is going on here?’ can be useful questions to ask oneself or the client before racing ahead into action points.
Sarah looked stressed as she handed me the report. ‘Could you cast an eye over this for me before I forward it to the management team?’ I noticed the tension in her voice. ‘What kind of feedback would you find helpful at this stage?’ I asked. I had learned through experience that, sometimes, when a person asks for feedback they are really seeking affirmation. ‘Any comments on how it could be improved’, she replied.
I glanced at the report and it looked confused, unclear. I felt surprised because, when this person had spoken on the subject earlier, they had sounded very clear. I started to make amendments to the text in an attempt to streamline it but it quickly looked like a teacher’s red pen all over the page. So I stepped back and thought, ‘what would make the biggest improvement?’ and jotted down a few notes along those lines instead.
Nevertheless, I still felt uneasy. What was really going on here? I mentioned my unease to Sarah and commented on how the written piece came across very differently to her spoken presentation. ‘I don’t like putting things in writing’, she replied, ‘I struggle to say what I really want to say.’ ‘How critical is it that you should submit a written report?’ I asked. She looked surprised, hadn’t thought of that. ‘What format would enable you to present at your best?’
Sarah went away and discussed this idea with her own line-manager. She had assumed a written report was needed whereas he now assured her it wasn’t. As a result, she decided instead to leave the report and to present orally to the management team. I could see a huge weight lifted off her shoulders. Once again, it was valuable to step back from the immediate presenting task to consider what might lie behind it.
And so it strikes me there’s wisdom in being curious, in exploring the story behind the story. Not jumping to conclusions too quickly, not looking before leaping. I need to be careful of my own need to feel needed, my own need to resolve the dilemma that could drive me to focus on addressing the immediate presenting issue. I need to learn to pause, breathe, pray, take one step back and enable the client to do the same.
It felt like magic. No matter where I turned, it would simply calculate a fresh route. I couldn’t get lost. Wow, this felt exciting and liberating, especially for someone like me who has an absolutely hopeless sense of direction. It was my first drive out with a satnav. I had heard of them but never seen one in action. Journeys would never be the same. I could relax more, play more, not worry so much about getting disorientated and ending up in the wrong place.
I loved it. I still love it now. It’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made. No more heated arguments in the car, ‘This way, turn off here, no I meant back there…didn’t you see the sign??!’ Those were not relaxing times. So, why thinking about the satnav, why now? Well, I’ve had some fascinating chats with people, provoked by my recent blog on discerning God’s will in our lives. How can we know if we are where God wants us to be? What if we make a mistake?
I get the impression from the Bible that God has an eternal plan in mind, an eternal destination if you like. Nothing we can do can undermine his ultimate plan. We can’t change it, prevent it or subvert it. It’s as if God has given us free will, choices about what route to take, but whatever we choose becomes part of his plan. He uses it, incorporates it, recalculates the route, so to speak, to reach that same ultimate destination. In theology, it’s called pre-destination.
It reminds me of student days in philosophy lectures. I couldn’t get my head around it. If God knows everything, knows what free choices I will make, and God cannot know something that isn’t true, how can I not do what feels like a free choice and, therefore, what does it mean to call it free? It was mindbending. It assumed, however, that God exists in linear time. If God exists outside of time, he knows what is at all times. He knows it because we choose it.
It was hard to get my thinking straight around this notion of ‘outside of time’ because I couldn’t easily relate to it in my own experience. I can only experience life in-time, in linear sequence. Yesterday…today…tomorrow. The clock ticks, one second follows another. However, I can grasp the notion that I actually live in one moment at a time. I live in the now, not the what-was past or the what-will-be future. The Bible describes God as encountering us in the now.
The now is where I am as a result of my particular life circumstances, decisions I have taken and of God leading me. God is calling me to be and become as fully as I can be in the now moment: all he has created me to be, enables me to be, empowers me to do. He guides me mysteriously by his Spirit, by the Bible, through experience and through others towards his final destination. God is our ultimate 'satnav' guide. If I choose to listen, I may get there quicker.
The hand gripped my shoulder and I felt my blood freeze. I had been caught red handed, stealing from a supermarket with two friends. Even though this incident was nearly 40 years ago, it still makes me shudder to recall it. The police were called and so were my parents. It was a frightening, humiliating, embarrassing experience. How could we have been so stupid? How would my family and other friends react? What would happen now?
The police released me and we drove home in painful, stony silence. I didn’t feel guilty, I just felt trapped, helpless to escape. I had made a big mistake and felt utterly powerless to change it, or to influence the consequences. The weeks passed and eventually I received a letter to appear before the local police superintendent. By now I did feel worried. Would I be sent down, sent to a youth detention centre? The thought filled me with horror.
The police chief sat behind his desk and looked at me thoughtfully, kindly. He explained in a calm, compassionate and warm voice that although I had done wrong, to take strong action would destroy my life and future. In light of this, he explained, no further action would be taken. I was being given a second chance. I couldn’t believe it. I felt surprised, confused, grateful, immensely relieved. A huge and terrifying weight had been lifted.
As we drove home, I began to feel remorse. A total stranger, the wronged party, had chosen to let me off the hook, to set me free. I deserved blame, punishment, and yet they had chosen to forgive me. I couldn’t understand it. They didn’t forgive me because I was good, but because they were good. They saw the potential in my life, the offender, and chose to release it. They gave me a new life. It was undeserved grace, an incredible gift.
This experience impacted me deeply. Years later, I encountered that same attitude in God when I was introduced to Jesus Christ. I had believed in God, at least at some level, all of my life but this was something completely different. It was a profound existential experience, a explosive encounter that changed the focus and course of the rest of my life. God had used that police encounter, the power of forgiveness, to reach into my psyche and touch me.
And so I pray that God will make me more like that. How easily I can get annoyed by the little things. A person cuts me up in traffic, drives using a mobile phone, stays in the middle lane of a motorway. A neighbour leaves a dog out barking at night or plays their TV too loud. A colleague does something that frustrates my plans or fails to meet my standards. How easy it is to get critical and judgemental. ‘Forgive us, Lord, as we forgive others too.’
Think of a great leader, leadership team or experience. A person, group or moment where you strongly noticed or felt the influence and impact of leadership. What made the difference?
I don't believe in the cult of the perfect leader, the person who lives and demonstrates perfect leadership qualities at all times and in all circumstances - except of course, God.
Nevertheless, I do know when I experience or exercise leadership. I have an intuitive sense that I'm being something, doing something, experiencing something that feels both 'me' and 'beyond me'.
I've noticed these moments most profoundly when certain qualities emerge at the same time. It's a kind of synergy that, in a particular moment and context, ignites a spark and something emerges:
*Identity. The intrinsic me. A sense of who I am, who I am in God, what I believe about myself, what others recognise in me, what my talents are, what I base my confidence in.
*Initiative. Personal proactivity. A sense of my own power, personal leadership, a willingness to be the first to step out and take a risk, a preparedness to take responsibility for action.
*Inspiration. How I motivate others. A sense of vision, imagination, a compelling idea, a grasp of opportunities and possibilities, an ability to help others believe in themselves, to release potential.
*Intuition. Deep insight. A sense of what's important, an awareness of my own feelings, an ability to tune into what isn't being said, an ability to notice and discern 'what's really going on here.'
*Influence. Inspiring others to follow. An awareness of what matters most to others, a commitment to role modelling, an ability to communicate, negotiate, convince and persuade.
*Inclusion. Valuing others' contribution. A sense of awareness of my own limitations, a recognition of others' gifts and talents, an ability to involve others and draw out their best.
*Intimacy. How I relate to others. A sense of empathy, a willingness to challenge and support, a preparedness to stand alongside others through good times and bad.
*Integrity. My values and behaviour. A sense of conscience, a moral compass, a determined commitment to ethical practice, a clear sense of parameters and boundaries.
*Innovation. Seeing and doing things differently. A sense of creativity, a willingness to be playful, experiment and take risks, an ability to reframe, to challenge the status quo, to enable paradigm shifts.
*Impact. A commitment to action. A sense of purpose, a desire to achieve change, the courage to get involved, a willingness to take decisions, an openness to experiment, evaluate and learn.
It's a dynamic combination of these elements that results in the exercise and experience of leadership, whether personal leadership or leadership as a team (where ‘I’ could be converted to ‘we’).
So I want to use this list as a checklist before God. How far does my attitude, outlook and approach reflect these qualities? What would it take for me to become more of a leader, more of the time?
I was challenged when leading a seminar on culture last week. I was explaining how people in an organisation I work with are committed to establishing and maintaining authentic relationships when the challenge came: ‘What does that mean in practice? Are people ever really authentic?’
These are great questions. Authenticity is a difficult value to work through practically, psychologically and culturally. After all, it demands awareness, intentionality and behaviour all aligned around an ethic of truthfulness. It implies openness and honesty, a commitment to integrity.
What happens if a person, group, community or organisation lacks self-awareness, has mixed motives and agendas, confuses its own assumptions or perspective with ‘truth’ per se? What happens if being open and honest about a feeling, an opinion or an evaluation is discouraged culturally?
I did some work with an organisation in East Africa. People were reluctant to provide honest critical feedback if it threatened relationship. Relationships form the essential cultural web that supported individuals through unemployment, ill health and other difficult circumstances.
I also did some work in South East Asia. Social harmony and relationship were regarded as primary. What does it mean in that environment to be authentic? Is it right to place personal honesty above cultural values of harmony and respect? These are difficult issues for Westerners to deal with.
In some ways, it’s not so different in the West. In Europe, for example, Germans or Dutch are regarded as more blunt, direct, than the British. Behaviours that would be regarded as culturally acceptable and even right in one environment would be regarded as insensitive or rude in another.
The Bible offers helpful words of advice: ‘speak the truth in love.’ Act with honesty and integrity but do so in a spirit of humility and love. Weigh up the consequences for others. Be sensitive to cultural values. Speak only insofar as it genuinely serves the best interests of others.
It's sometimes difficult to know what our true intentions are, how our actions will impact on others, what values others hold dear, what is in the best interest of others and from whose perspective. A preparedness for honest self examination, critical feedback and guidance is therefore essential.
The organisation I work with tries to balance authenticity with values of equal importance: partnership, passion and impact. This provides a guiding framework, a self-balancing mechanism, for navigating change and relationships. It’s not always easy but it establishes a clear intention.
It’s about valuing the person, the group, the community, the relationship. It’s about seeking to nurture and inspire passion and positive motivation. It’s about focusing on the most important things, those things that make the greatest difference for good. And it’s about speaking the truth – in love.
I sometimes meet Christians in my coaching practice who feel concerned about whether or not they are missing God's call on their lives. They want to know they are following God's path for them. The question is sometimes framed along the lines of, 'How can I know what God wants me to do with my life?'
There are instances in the Bible where God has specific plans for specific people in specific situations at specific times. On those occasions, he tends to make his will abundantly clear. My sense is we need to be open to those moments, to be ready to receive specific guidance if God should choose to reveal it.
I've had some examples of this in my own life. For instance, I once felt God prompting me to take a can opener to a youth meeting I was due to lead that evening and to give it to a particular girl. I didn't hear a voice, it was a kind of sense impression, a strange kind of knowing, hard to describe.
I felt surprised and confused but decided to do it anyway. I mean, why not? What's the worst thing that could happen? I handed it to the girl on arrival and simply said, holding my breath, 'I believe God wants me to give this to you.' I felt a bit awkward and embarrassed but gave it to her anyway.
I continued with leading the meeting and, after a few minutes, noticed the girl was in tears. It turns out she had had a major row with her mum that week and, as a result, had left home that day, moving into a bedsit. Her mum, also feeling distraught, gave her a box of food to take with her.
The girl wasn't going to come to the meeting that evening. She sat in her bedsit alone, weeping. After a while, she opened the box to get something to eat, only to discover it was all in cans. The shops were closed and so she came to the group because at least she would get some refreshments there.
That was the moment at which I had handed her the can opener. You can imagine the exposive impact. I was completely blown away by it, as was she. I've never forgotten that experience. I can't explain it, but it did teach me an important lesson about listening to God and acting in faith.
In everyday life, I believe God's general call is to live a life that his consistent with his overall mission and values. This is what it means to follow him: to discern his goals, his direction, his attitude, his way of doing things and to walk behind him, imitate him, get in on his act, so to speak.
I've sometimes offered people at a crossroads in life with advice drawing on three principles: mission, values and identity. It seems to me that it's important to think through these things prayerfully, allowing space for God to encourage, guide, reveal, challenge our preconceptions etc.
For example. Mission: which course of action is most consistent with what God has already been doing in and through my life? Values: which course of action is most consistent with biblical ethical values? Identity: how would this decision affect my sense of identity and relationship as a child of God?
It can also be important to consider intention. What's my intention in taking this course of action? Am I being entirely honest about my motivation? Who will be affected by it and in what ways? Is this how God would want me to deal with the issue? Once again, a need for prayer.
Many of these things are hard to do alone. We can get muddled, frustrated and confused. This is the value of talking things through with others, people we can trust to be encouraging and honest with us. People we can pray and discern with together, supporting each others' lives of faith with integrity.
The Bible itself reveals a God who is trustworthy, who doesn't play games with us. It's sometimes hard to work out what he is calling us to do, to discern his voice from so many other voices, but he does promise to live in and guide us by his Spirit. The bottom line on guidance? God is God, therefore relax.
Management literature is filled with guidance and case studies on how to change organisational culture. Some view culture as an overarching descriptor of ‘how we do things round here’. Others view it as a shared underlying belief system that influences behaviour and practice.
I think there’s some truth in both these viewpoints. They point to the shared nature of culture, that is, it includes the individual yet extends beyond towards a group: its values and ways of acting. It’s this shared dimension that differentiates culture from individual thinking or behaving.
Yet it still feels like something is missing. Culture is a felt experience. Observing culture, studying it, analysing it, isn’t the same as directly experiencing it. It’s something about what it feels like, what it means personally, existentially to be part of something bigger than myself.
And yet it isn’t just something I feel. It’s about a mood, a shared experience, something we within the culture feel, together. It’s an intangible phenomenon, a group dynamic, that feels tangible. It guides us, moves us, motivates us in subconscious ways that feel natural and mysterious.
This is one of the reasons why culture change programmes are so problematic. If culture was simply about thinking or behaviour, it would be possible to devise methods that motivate and enable change in these areas. In some situations, that may well be all that is needed.
In transformational change, however, we must pay attention to deep rooted existential issues, psychodynamic and social psychological phenomena, cultural climate and experience. It’s about working-with, certainly not doing-to, and that demands humility, wisdom and patience.
Machine Gun Preacher, powerful film. The cinema was almost empty but the drama that unfolded on screen immediately filled the room. I felt traumatised, moved, challenged, inspired. The emotional turmoil was provoked by the images, voices, stories played out in the film.
It challenged my comfortable existence, my fluctuating passion, my feint-hearted commitment. It confronted me with a raw Christianity based on instinctive action, not theological beliefs or stances. It disputed reliance on peaceful means to overcome systematic, brutal violence.
It rekindled a flame I felt as a new Christian. The desire to scream, punch, kick against violence and injustice in the world. I was involved in human rights work, facing and feeling the trauma, the unending pain, of people suffering abuse and oppression in Central America.
I became ‘moderate’ in order to cope. The passion, anger and despair became all consuming. It exhausted and damaged me. My friends found me obsessed by the cause. I lost touch with those around me. Our normal, everyday lives felt pallid, collusive, meaningless, unreal.
I burned with ferocious passion, stoked the flames higher and higher, but eventually burned out. It was a crash and burn of a painful kind. I started to experience physical shakes, couldn’t think straight, felt continual trauma as if bleeding inside. It was a very dark and sobering period.
I cut off, switched off. I worked at a safe distance, didn’t think too hard. I forgot how it is to feel, to really feel, to feel so strongly and passionately that it drives me to determined action, to radical action, to give my life to bring about change. I felt safer, calmer, self-protected.
And herein lies the challenge that Machine Gun Preacher speaks to so powerfully. How to face injustice squarely, stand alongside those in pain, feel empathy that spurs into action, maintain perspective, accept realistic limits yet value our own distinctive contribution.
It’s something about hearing God’s call: what he is calling us to and what he isn’t. It’s about staring hard in the face of overwhelming injustice and yet knowing our own boundaries, his boundaries, in order to focus well on what he has called us to do, and to trust the rest to him.
I love seeing the moon, especially against a clear blue sky. There’s something surreal about its appearance in day time. It provides a hint of something ‘out there’, a teasing glimpse of the vastness of space that lies beyond.
There’s something about deep space that puts things in perspective, puts us in perspective. It reminds us of how small, fragile and special we are. It puts our petty squabbles and concerns into perspective, reminds us how precious life is.
It feels paradoxical. In daylight, things appear most clear. It’s as if we can see everything for what it is. At least that’s how it seems. Yet the light itself blinds us the to wider universe, the great starscape only visible to us in darkness.
It’s psychological imagery made physical. A cosmic analogy. There are certain deep truths, profound realisations that we can only come to know in darkness, through times of pain, through experience of rejection, suffering and loss.
It’s a spiritual metaphor too. The moon appears filled with light. It casts light on the earth, light and shadows. Yet it has no light of its own. It’s a reflected light, light from the true source that’s hidden from sight. The blazing light of the Sun.
The universe is beauty, mystery, adventure, disorientation, danger and fear. I do discern a calling from the not-knowingness, the voice of God who speaks silently yet persistently. It’s a faith that demands humility yet promises eternity.
So next time I see the moon, I will reflect on its presence and its beyond-ness. I will reflect on revelations of darkness and light. I will work hard to see things in true perspective. I will listen to hear the immanent yet transcendent God.
It’s one thing to have insight. It’s quite another thing to have the skill to apply the insight to influence change. I first noticed this whilst working with a team of change management professionals. The team leader had an impressive ability to shift people’s perspectives and practices by his skilful influencing approach.
I worked with another leader who demonstrated similar skill. I often had similar insights to him during meetings but noticed how masterfully he was able to shift the whole direction of the conversation. It was his personal presence, skilful framing of issues, quiet assertiveness that made the difference.
I worked with a leadership development consultant. His style was very different to my own, more courageous and challenging. Again, I noticed how he achieved impressive results. He was prepared to speak up, risk push back and conflict, if he had an insight, concern or idea that should be shared in the group.
I worked with a leader who was sensitive and gentle. She had the ability to open minds and hearts to the most important things. I remember a valuable word of advice she once gave to me: ‘Remember: people will not remember you for what you said, but they will remember you for how you made them feel.’
Through all these experiences, these encounters, I’ve learned important lessons that influencing change is about a range of factors. It’s about being authentic, paying attention, trusting my intuition, being sensitive to others, taking a risk, speaking with courage and practising the skills of artful conversation.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.