One of the coffee-table books I have at home is a lavishly illustrated guide to contemporary film. With articles by stars and directors, stills from the year’s best movies and a guide to the latest crop of Oscar-winners, the book is a valuable insight into one of the world’s leading industries. Its crowning glory is a section previewing some of the best films scheduled for release in the year ahead.

But the book is worse than useless when it comes to planning movie visits or video purchases; and not much better in helping me to understand the industry. Why? Because it was published in 1956. “Preview 1957” is a fine piece of nostalgia (anyone for a photo-interview with Benny Hill?) and a useful historic archive (“The Best is Yet to Come”, by Marilyn Monroe). What it cannot be is a reliable guide to the movies of 2001. The book has value – but not as a resource I can trust to shape my decisions and lifestyle. It is out of touch and out of keeping with the environment in which I must live.

Ironic, then, that so many of the assumptions and concepts that shape our churches and Christian organisations hale from a similar era. The environment in which we live, work and witness has changed at least as much since 1957 as the guest-list at the Oscar Ceremonies: and yet in many instances we plough on as if Rock Hudson was still slugging James Dean in Giant and Joan Collins was a newcomer to the Preview Gallery of Beauty.

Even our more “contemporary” notions in many cases simply swap ’57 for ’75 – an era proving itself to be no less out of touch. This is nowhere more true than in our understanding and practise of leadership. Emerging paradigms challenge us to take a second look at who should lead, how they should lead and where leadership might take them. We need leaders for an age in which Marilyn is Mansun, not Monroe.

This cry for a new understanding is surfacing with increasing frequency amongst emerging young leaders. They are looking not only for opportunities to lead, but also for new models to lead by. And in a wide range of industries – from telecoms and multi-national commerce to health-care and education – research is drawing the same conclusion. A fast-moving culture needs fast-thinking leaders, with navigational skills built-in. Learning to read maps is all well and good, but in uncharted territory we must read landscapes.

The ICON framework, which will be explored in this and three subsequent articles, is the fruit of a consultative process examining this leadership challenge. Three elements - research into cultural change; reading in contemporary leadership studies and conversation with emerging young leaders – have been woven together in an attempt to build a model of leadership for 21st Century conditions. The framework highlights four key areas for exploration and development, suggesting that future-leaders must be:

  • Interactive: leaders who listen, look and learn
  • Creative: leaders of inspiration, innovation and imagination
  • Organic: leaders who serve, support and sustain
  • Networked: leaders who trust in talent and team

The basis of the model is that it is in the interplay and balance of these four skill-areas that effective leadership will emerge. The four key stages of organisational development – vision, viability, values and vocation - emerge from the dynamic application of the ICON skills. Attention to these areas will not solve all the problems that 21st century leaders will face, but neither would the powers of Superman and the wealth of Her Majesty the Queen. No formula or model will ever replace the hard grind of learning through experience. What the ICON model can provide is a series of doorways: points of entry into the ongoing task of adaptation. My hope is that a brief foray through each of these doorways will provide practical, down-to-earth ideas about how to become the kind of leader our context cries out for. Our first task is to open the doorway of Interactive Leadership.

Look Who's Talking

What is the number one complaint parents make against their children? They never listen. What is the number one frustration children have with their parents? Right again: they never listen. Ask the same question of wives and husbands; of teachers and their classes: or of leaders and their teams – the response will be the same. Listening is one of the primary, life-saving skills with which our species is blessed: try crossing a road without it and you'll understand why. But it is a skill we use at best selectively, and in most cases not nearly enough.

Listening is where leadership begins. In a time of transition and change, it is where leadership must linger for much longer than we are used to. In the terminology of Computer Science, an interactive programme is one in which the operator ‘is in direct communication with the computer, receiving immediate responses to input data.’ This is contrasted with batch processing, in which ‘the necessary data and instructions are prepared in advance and processed by the computer with little or no intervention from the operator.” Interactive leaders, then, are those who not only impact their environment but are impacted by it; who are as much shaped by relationships as they are shapers of them; who respond not only to principle but to particularity.

The heart of interactivity is listening, and looking and learning are its constant companions. Interactive leaders are those who examine and explore; who research and respond. To lead interactively is to be a lifelong learner.

There are four specific areas in which interactivity is an urgent need for 21st century leaders. These four needs set four poles of interactivity, demanding that we listen in four different directions. It is no coincidence that the call of Christ to leadership was framed so often as a call to listen: ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear’. The four poles of interactivity are:

  • Engagement with our changing culture and context
  • Awareness of unheard voices;
  • Responsiveness to the needs of those we lead;
  • Sensitivity to the whisper of God in our society.
  • Engagement with culture and context

In any organisation, the greatest strength always threatens to become the greatest weakness. It is the abiding strength of the Christian Church that it is grounded in a faith that is timeless and unchanging. To be rooted in something beyond the contemporary – firmer than fashion and more certain than change – is to have access to deep and valuable resources. But these resources only become meaningful when they are translated into a specific age. The purpose of the life that flows from roots to shoots is to bear fruit in a given culture and era. We follow a timeless faith, but we follow it in time. The great danger is that we will look so strongly to the unchanging roots of our faith that we fail to read and understand our context. And when that context is shaken by change upon change, it becomes more crucial than ever that we understand it.

21st Century leaders will be called as never before to decode a bewildering stream of signals being sent by a culture in crisis. As technology, communications, philosophy, politics and spirituality conspire to re-shape the fabric of our communities, we will find time and again that the responses we made yesterday no longer carry weight. How does our sense of the ‘gathered church’ function among the dispersed communities of networked organisations and the internet? Where does text-based communication take us in a multi-sensory age? Are we offering dogma and certainty to searchers on the look-out for mystery and ambiguity? Without a serious engagement with the people, products and processes of popular culture, we face a significant risk of addressing our message to a context that no longer exists. The only antidote is to address our listening, looking and learning beyond the safe boundaries of our own faith community.

Future-leaders will succeed to the extent that they are able to split their vision: to have one eye on the task in hand, and one eye on the cultural horizon. God grant us a telescope to scan the furthest reaches of the land.

Awareness of unheard voices

One of the passions that has most driven the development of post-modern philosophy has been the recognition that the growth and prosperity of Western Culture has been at the cost of oppression: that many of the voices we might otherwise hear have been marginalised and all but silenced. The voices of indigenous peoples, of ethnic minorities, of women and the disabled: in many of our social institutions these are unheard and unwelcome. Sadly, the Church is not an exception to this rule as often as she might be. More often than not it is the weaker voices that we fail to hear; the voices that refuse to shout above the crowd and whose message goes against the flow of popular choice. How many of our churches stand squarely in the midst of working-class communities, and yet never hear the voice of the poor? How many of us operate in racially mixed areas but listen only to the white middle-classes? How many of us are deaf to the cry of the global church, whose average member earns less than a few pennies a day and faces intolerable pressure for following Christ? It is not enough to assume that we know the needs of the marginalised, nor to impose our concerns and crusades onto them: it is a question of really listening. Vision is often as shaped by who we listen to as by what we hear them say.

There are three key groups that all Christian leaders would do well to listen to:

Those who have left us - the many in western culture who have been part of the largest exodus from Christianity in history. The stories of those who were once part of the church but have taken the option to exit are stories rich in significance and meaning, throwing a valuable spotlight on the interface of faith and culture. Those who have once tasted the faith – but chosen to live otherwise – have much to teach us. Ironically, many will tell us that a primary reason for leaving is that no-one listened to their questions.

Those who reject us. The many who, when offered the opportunity to follow Christ, are adamant in their refusal. When we carry out a door-to-door visitation campaign to 400 homes, are we primarily interested in the 15 choose to opt-in – or do we analyse data from the 385 that refuse? All 400 have made an informed decision. In marketing, knowing why your customers choose your product is valuable – knowing why your non-customers don’t is dynamite.

Those at the generational hinges. As each new generation takes our culture lurching through shock-waves of change, there will always be those at the hinge: who have one foot in the old and one foot in the new. Such people are a gift to the church, because they have enough of the experience of the new to understand it, and enough of the language of the old to explain it. They are cultural interpreters, bi-linguists who span generational divides.

Future-leaders will be called upon more and more to listen to a diverse array of voices: many of them from communities with little access to amplification. When voices are weak, or mute from years of indifference, you have to listen hard to hear them. Whether it is by reading more widely, watching more television or initiating that long-overdue conversation, we need to open our eyes to the signs of the times. Leaders need a periscope to see beyond the walls of the communities they build.

Responsiveness to those we lead

If we have often failed, in Christian organisations, to listen to those outside our sphere: we have also failed to hear those close to us. The command and control tradition has bequeathed to us a non-interactive approach to leadership that we mistakenly call “Vision Casting”. We understand vision as a function not of listening but of speaking. As a result we are unresponsive. We develop leaders who are adept at setting out a general vision, but unable to attune that vision to the particularities of individuals. This is poor leadership at any time, but it is especially so in a culture drawn to interaction. As our human community re-organises itself around the central icon of digital processing – in essence a harnessing of interactive intelligence - there is a growing expectation that organisations will invite the involvement and participation of their members and clients. More and more of our social processes are menu-driven; offering options at every stage and driving for ‘mass customisation’. At its worst, this is consumerism gone haywire.

The opportunity to choose a settee from a potential 36,000 combinations of fabric and design instead of from 36 doesn’t add a great deal to the sum of human experience. But the issue for the church is not whether we see the broadening of choice as a positive development so much as how we respond to those who are shaped by it. We may choose to question the intensification of consumer power in our culture, but the thirst for choice and involvement remains. At its best, this kind of interactivity responds to a deeply felt human aspiration: to be more than a face in the crowd, and to be involved in the decisions by which our organisations, environments and lives are shaped. Increasingly, we look for input into leadership decisions before we will agree to live with the output. Future-leaders will find themselves called upon more and more to involve people in the decisions affecting their lives, and to see vision casting as a corporate, co-operative process. This calls for a whole new array of skills; in communication and understanding; in conversation and attentiveness. Unfortunately too many of the leaders of the current generation are simply not good listeners. Like the cast of ER, every leader should carry a stethoscope, to hear the heart of those they lead.

Sensitivity to the whisper of God

A final area in which the emerging future calls for new levels of interactivity is in our capacity to hear the whisper of God. Not because we resist his voice: but because it becomes harder to hear when it is hidden in unexpected places and tells us unexpected things. We have heard God shouting from the pulpit, but failed to hear him singing in the supermarket. We expect Bishops to pronounce the word of God to us, but forget that beggars, too, can bear his message. There is a growing awareness amongst leading Christian thinkers that we are called to be a “Church in dispersion”, a community of faith that hears and shares the words of God not only in the amplified gatherings of assembly-hall worship, but equally as a still small voice in the workplace and community. Practioners at the front-line of evangelism are learning that the growth of the gospel will not come through calling people to “come and hear God”, but through helping them to hear and see what God is already doing in their lives.

Jesus, the King of the Cosmos and Captain of Creation, recognises no boundary or border to his kingdom. Brick walls couldn’t stop him when he dropped in; post-resurrection, on his friends – and church walls will not contain him today. Future-leaders will find themselves seeking out the whisper of God in all kinds of strange and surprising places, and developing a raft of new skills in detection and discovery. We are called to seek the signs of the Spirit in the tumult of many voices: in the memorable words of the late David Lochhead, to find “Pentecost in the cacophony”. We need a microscope to find the fingerprints of God. These four areas, then – engagement, awareness, responsiveness and sensitivity – mark out the parameters of the interactivity to which future-leaders are called. Without interactivity – without listening – we run the risk of positing visions that are unsustainable, ungodly and unreal. Everything we build will be skewed if its foundations are not laid in interactive trenches. Listening is not the end of leadership, by a long shot. But there can be little doubt that it is the beginning.