Leonard Mlodinow stated, “Today’s society bestows rewards, as never before, upon those who are comfortable with change, and it may punish those who are not, for what used to be the safe terrain of stability is now often a dangerous field of stagnation.” (Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change, p. 17).
I’ve witnessed dozens of organizations close over the past decade (over 7000 retailers closed in 2019 according to one source, and there’s an estimate for 12000 total). Many defunct organizations are in, and related to, my professional field (congregations and theological schools/higher education). Statistics on the number of churches that close annually are notoriously squishy and suspect, with the oft-quoted and alarming statistic of 6,000-10,000 church closings per year serving to feed anxiety nevertheless.
For leaders who keep their eye on the landscape, those scenarios are worrisome, if not alarming. The wiser ones know, “it could happen to us.” Others fall into the trap of the complacency of the presumption that they are immune to forces, conditions, trends, and dynamics that have done others in.
The first qualification of a leader is the willingness to accept the oppressive burden of responsibility that comes with the job. Most people in your organization don’t want that responsibility (though it won’t keep them from offering their opinions on how they think things should be done!).
Despite all the head-nodding about the need for change and innovation, most people in your organization really don’t want change. They want stability and routine, and, will settle for the illusion of security. Which means no one else is thinking about your organization’s need for innovation and development as you. That is why leaders should stop expecting and demanding that employees, staff, and managers be “innovative” or “resilient” or “visionary.” Let’s face it, most people are interested in just doing the job required, and not much more.
For today’s leaders, that means the job can become a constant push against the inertia that resists change and innovation.
Paradoxically, the innovators in your organization will face resistance, obstacles, and outright sabotage to their creative ideas. The more innovative and potentially disruptive their ideas are to the established culture, routines, and habits of the organization, the greater the resistance to innovation—even from the organizational leaders who say they want innovation! For one thing, organizational leaders are budget managers, and their budgets are designed to support existing structures and practices, with little resources for investing in innovations and risk.
Perhaps a more helpful approach to the challenge Mlodinow posits is to focus and tap into the resilience of the system. Stop waiting for people to initiate innovation. Make the changes you need to your organization; people in the system will adapt and accommodate to the changes you initiate in the system. Many will complain, some will leave, most will adapt. Regardless, change starts with you, the leader, who must accept the burden of risk and responsibility.
Join a group of leaders who are working on living into their calling with courage and imagination at the Leadership in Ministry workshops.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.