by Bryan Ryherd
I was sitting in the sanctuary of one of our local Lutheran churches, attending a satellite gathering of the Global Leadership Summit that is put on by the Willow Creek Association. The event brings together top-level leaders from churches, business, and other organizations from around the world. It is a time of motivation, a time to think, a time to converse with other leaders, and a time to arouse my own feelings of inadequacy. After all, these are extremely successful leaders, CEO’s and COO’s of Fortune 500 organizations. They are pastors of mega-churches, here in the U.S. and on other continents. They are New York Times Best-Selling authors. They have achieved much; I have achieved little (or at least far less).
Humility is a good thing. It just doesn’t feel very good. Left to run amok, humility and cognizance of one’s own failures and shortcomings can breed hopelessness. I was descending that particular staircase when, in session four, Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Ministries in Atlanta (and around the world), asked one hope-inducing question: “If you are the head of your organization, how often does a new idea get implemented that is not your own?” I thought, “Shoot! All the time!”
Apparently, it is not necessary for a leader to be the “idea person.” A good thing for me. At Lutheran South, the flexible modular schedule that is key to our efforts to provide a more comprehensive college-preparatory education was not my idea. The Mentor/Mentee program that eases new students’ transitions into a new school was not my idea. The Counseling curriculum that we are delivering to our students, also not my idea. Creating an informal gathering place for underclassmen outside the cafeteria was not my idea. Forming a partnership with two Lutheran schools in Africa was also a colleague’s idea. The STEM program and the Medical Careers core? Nope. A combination of colleagues put those programs together.
A leader’s role in sustaining a creative organization is shaped by context. It is circumscribed by the leader’s own inescapable limitations of intellect, time, influence, expertise, passion, energy, and focus. The role is shaped by the strengths of other organization members’ specific knowledge, passion, and degree of perseverance. The needs of the school, in this case, require organizational creativity; the St. Louis market is full of high-quality options, both public and non-public, all of which are constantly striving to provide outstanding education. Some parts of the school’s context (culture) can be, and must be, shaped by the leader. “Great leaders of innovation don’t fit the conventional mold of ‘good’ leadership. They’re not visionaries who set direction and inspire others to follow. Instead, they create the context in which others are both willing and able to innovate” (Hill et al., 2014).
For a leader to establish the conditions for organizational creativity, he or she must first establish his own proper mindset. The primary requisite is to realize that “I don’t know everything.” If the school principal had to be the expert in every area, there would be one of two situations: there would be too few principals, since that level of intellect is extremely rare; or there would be a lot of really stupid schools. In short, the “typical” principal needs the help of every possible source of expertise, intellect, time, influence, passion, focus, and perseverance. When a leader realizes his own shortcomings, and respects the abilities and commitment of his co-workers, he is ready to move on.
The foundation of organizational creativity lies in relationships. If a leader has provided his people with clear, coherent non-negotiable principles and the followers’ actions have been congruent with the stated mission and vision of the organization, the stage is set for organizational creativity and trust. To engage co-workers fully, Laszlo Bock, Google’s Vice President of People Operations, recommends giving “your people more freedom than you’re comfortable with.” This requires two-way trust; principals must trust their people to make decisions about their work, and teachers must trust their principal enough to risk failing. To earn the trust of teachers, give them credit when an idea brings success, and stand in the place of the blame when something goes wrong.
Andy Stanley offers a helpful suggestion for the early stage of the creative process: “Replace “how?” with “wow!” Instead of asking for details, make an appreciative sound that encourages the person to go on. It provides freedom to think, to dream, and to share. Being faced immediately with a cross-examination over implementation strategies, tactical complications, financial implications, etc. has killed many ideas in their birthing stage. Further, it demotivates the person who is developing the idea. Ideas don’t typically come full-grown; they are fleshed out and honed through an interactive process. The leader’s responsibility is to ensure that the process is open and, as far as is possible, unhindered.
Contrary to myth, in some ways, Lutheran schools are ideal places for organizational creativity. Typically, Lutheran schools lack the multiple levels of hierarchy that inherently stifle ideas as they try to move upward. Further, if the principal can identify collegially with his co-workers, it is possible to make communal creativity and improvement the job of everybody. Unfortunately, the price that will have to be paid is more meetings. The principal’s job, because only he can do it, is to ask and answer the right questions: “Who do we need to be at this meeting?” “Will this be whole-staff, administrative team, or a gathering of ‘key players’”? “Who can we bring into this process, not for the sake of the process, but for the sake of the person’s growth?” Finally, it is incumbent upon the principal to make sure that all attendees are heard; in short, he needs to “figure out how to get people to shut up at the right time” (Amabile & Khaire, 2008).
Lutheran school leaders or administrators don’t have to know everything. God does. So find joy in serving and relying on others. You can do this!
Amabile, Teresa M., and Mukti Khaire. "Creativity and the Role of the Leader." Harvard Business Review 86, no. 10 (October 2008).
Bock, L. (2017) Insights from Inside Google: Transform How You Live and Lead. Speech presented at the Global Leadership Summit. South Barrington, IL.
Hill, L., Brandeau, G., Truelove, E., Lineback, K. (2014) Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.