Learning to Fail Fast


While reading recent studies in leadership development trends, I was reminded of Paul’s call in Romans to be “transformed by the renewal of your minds.” It is from such renewed ways of thinking that we are able to discern God’s will and be the leaders God would have us be. The complexity and rapidity of change today requires much more than the acquisition of more skills; it requires nothing less than a new way of thinking.

New requirements for leadership can be frightening, but they also provide hope for traditional churches seemingly immobilized in the face of a radically changed culture.

One researcher who pulls together much of the latest thinking on how leaders grow is Nick Petrie, a New Zealander now with the Center for Creative Leadership. He recently spent months surveying the landscape of leader development trends across many countries. There is consensus that the environment in which leaders must function today is different. “The waters are rapidly rising and many leaders are finding they are in over their heads,” is one way it was described.

Unable to develop fast enough or in the right ways to match their new environment, leaders are increasingly feeling “stuck.” Petrie contends that while the context is more volatile and unpredictable, leader development methods have changed little. Thus, leaders are trapped in ways of leading that are out of synch with the circumstances they encounter. Their frustration comes not so much from the heavy workload but from their frustration in trying to use skills and methods that no longer bear fruit.

Today the challenge is to help leaders renew their minds to meet ever-changing circumstances. There may have been a time when the acquisition of basic knowledge and a set of skills would serve someone for a long time, but this is not such a time. New skills always help, but the larger issue is that leaders today need a new way of seeing, not just new ways of doing. “New skills are easy to learn,” says Petrie, “but new mindsets are the future.”

Petrie advocates what he calls “vertical development” or the advancement in a person’s capacity to think in “more complex, systemic, strategic, and interdependent ways (in contrast to horizontal development that adds knowledge, skills, and competencies). New leaders must think differently before they can act differently.

Often the qualities we see in church leaders are precisely those most associated with a low level of vertical development (dependent/conformer) — team player, faithful follower, reliant on authority, seeks direction, and aligns with others. A smaller number function at the next level (independent/achiever) — independent thinker, self-directed, drives an agenda, takes a stand for what they believe, and guided by an internal compass. But today’s need is for the more highly developed independent/collaborator leader characterized as interdependent thinker; sees systems, patterns, and connections;longer-term thinking; holds multi-frame perspectives; and holds contradictions.

The new leader must be far more adaptable to changing circumstances. Collaboration is essential in order to span boundaries and develop networks. Leaders will need to be much more comfortable with ambiguity in order to be always looking for clues and patterns in the changing landscape. Just as important, this new way of leading must move beyond leaders to affect the entire organizational culture of the church. Congregations need to expect incomplete solutions, much trial and error, and a great deal of learning about themselves and their contexts.

These new requirements for leadership can be frightening, but they also provide hope for traditional churches seemingly immobilized in the face of a radically changed culture. Innovation must be a way of life for churches in the next decades. The very nature of innovation is that it is dynamic and ever changing. Many spheres of society are finding the limits to detailed long-range plans that quickly lose connection with the changing world. Improvising until the spirit confirms new ways may describe our future. A study of growing Church of England churches found that one characteristic was their ability to try new things and, if they did not work, rapidly move on. All churches make mistakes, but the vital ones fail fast, learn from the mistakes, and move on quickly.



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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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