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Anticipating Problems

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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In this photo taken on Friday, March 18, 2016, lights of cars reflect behind a sign in the Molenbeek district of Brussels. Police raiding an apartment building on Friday captured Salah Abdelslam, Europe's most wanted fugitive Friday, arresting the prime suspect in last year's deadly Paris attacks in the same Brussels neighborhood where he grew up. (AP Photo/Geoffroy Van der Hasselt)

Reports from Belgium after the most recent terrorist attack paint a bleak portrait of the Belgian government’s ability to keep its citizens safe. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both ran stories describing law enforcement in the tiny European nation as being overworked, understaffed, and unable to process all the information that comes into its headquarters.

As more information about the deadly attacks comes into view, several key factors have emerged. First, the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek has been identified as one of the leading incubators of terrorists for both this attack as well as the Paris attacks several months ago. Second, the wave of immigration that has swept across Europe as a whole has had a particularly devastating impact in Belgium.

Molenbeek is a relatively small neighborhood in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, but it is at the epicenter of Belgium’s new terror reality. Though representative of any ethnic neighborhood in any large city in the world, it is less integrated into Belgian society than other neighborhoods, says Valentina Pop from the Wall Street Journal.

“The neighborhood has come to symbolize Belgium’s failure to integrate its Muslim population. The country is among Europe’s worst in integrating immigrants into the labor market. According to European Union data, only 40.5% of the country’s non-EU citizens between 20 and 64 have a job, compared with 68.6% of Belgian nationals. The situation in Molenbeek is particularly grim. Around 30% of its 95,000 residents are unemployed, nearly four times Belgium’s unemployment rate of 8.5%.”

High unemployment rates are never good, but they are especially problematic among younger generations. Radical groups have used the unsettled environment to their benefit, making Molenbeek the “center of an international network smuggling radicalized Muslims to Syria and back.”

The wave of immigration that has swept across Europe has also had a particularly devastating impact on Belgian officials. An already small force has been overwhelmed by all of the new information they are receiving. Even if the massive wave of immigration came from a non-Muslim area, any large movement of people groups causes tremendous social issues that need careful attention and planning.

Europe is a completely different culture from how it was fifteen years ago, yet leaders of Belgium and other nearby countries are having a difficult time coming to grips with their new reality. The point of this article is not to criticize these authorities, but rather to underscore the importance for all leaders to spend time understanding their context.

It takes tremendous time and effort to have a good pulse on your organization. It means that you have to be present, that you have to ask the right questions, and that you must have open channels of communication to all levels of your organization. Problem areas grow quickly from minor issues to major issues when they are not addressed early. Good leaders find a way to identify problems as they emerge rather than after they have caused major damage.

This ability is similar in nature to foresight. A leader must balance between the dance floor and the balcony, to borrow from Ronald Heifetz. They have to be a part of their organizations, but also take time to step outside their organizations and think about critical issues on the horizon. What cultural trends will have an impact on the organization? What new threats might emerge? How might these things impact the morale and everyday lives of the people within the organization?

Part of being a leader is thinking through consequences and knowing how to address issues in both their immediate and long-term aspects. Think of how Paul handled crises and problems in his letters to various churches in the New Testament. He provided both specific instructions as well as overarching doctrinal explanation that addressed the immediate as well as the long-term health of these congregations.

Foresight is one of the first things to go when a leader gets too busy. There simply isn’t time. But the reality is that it’s too costly not to do it. Every leader is busy, but the best have the ability to prioritize and make time for what is truly most important.