2021: Uncharted Territory

“The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.” This was the great lesson of the Lewis and Clark expedition. These explorers were commissioned in 1803 by President Thomas Jefferson to try to find a river route to the Pacific Northwest. What they discovered was that there is no water route to the Pacific. The way is blocked by the formidable Rocky mountains.

The explorers had to adapt. Their adaptive leadership of the Corps of Discovery provides the model for Tod Bolsinger’s excellent book on leadership, Canoeing the Mountains. This was one of the most important books I read this past year.

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark came to the source of the Missouri River system, they realized they would have to ditch their canoes and find a way over the mountains. They were in uncharted territory. There is no map for uncharted territory. Leadership in this situation required different skills than those that had brought them thus far. They had to adapt or die.

Bolsinger weaves the story of the Corps of Discovery with his own experiences as a seminary professor, leadership consultant and local church pastor, along with insights of other leadership theorists, to provide a leadership vision for a new environment. I wish I could have read this book when I entered the ministry over fifty years ago. There were times when I said to myself and to the Lord, “Seminary didn’t prepare me for this!”

We face such a world as we enter a new year. I suspect that “normal”¬† will never again be quite what it was before 2020. We are changed and we are changing. As we try to understand this new situation, effectiveness will be measured by what Bolsinger calls “adaptive capacity.”

This is one of five vital lessons from the book. (1) The first task of a leader is to understand and interpret uncharted territory, the new situation “off the map.” (2) Trust is earned and built by a leader’s proven competency and character in familiar “on the map” situations. (3) Adaptation will involve loss, resistance, learning, and courage. (4) No longer can leadership be a solitary enterprise. A leader cannot go it alone. (5) The process of transformational leadership means that everybody, including the leader, will be changed.

What should not change is the core ideology and mission of the organization, whether it is a congregation, enterprise, team or institution. The DNA of the group is its unchanging set of core values. In the case of a Christian ministry what should never change are the biblical priorities and norms that define the group: “This is who we are.”

What must change are ineffective methods unsuited to the new environment. The transformational leader energizes the community to accomplish a shared mission in a changing world. This process involves discarding what is not essential to achieving the mission. It also means discovering what is essential and must be preserved at all costs.

Bolsinger studied how Lewis and Clark reframed their mission to align with the new realities they faced. There is a pattern in this for individuals and groups facing an uncertain future in unfamiliar territory. What was most helpful to me was his careful and honest delineation of the sometimes painful process of leading a community through loss, disappointment and insecurity to a shared vision for a new adventurous mission.

What I missed was an emphasis on strategic prayer as a part of the process. To be fair, this was probably assumed to be essential to Bolsinger’s Christian values. I think prayer could have been given a more prominent role as he described effective inspirational leadership. He did conclude the book with a statement of faith in Providence: “God is taking us into uncharted territory to transform us.”

Bolsinger emphasized his definition of leadership: It is “energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.” He says, “Perhaps the most unexpected, challenging and delightful work of transformational leadership is when it becomes the shared work of friends.”

I wish you well as you navigate  your uncharted territory in 2021.

Happy new year!

Pastor Randy Faulkner