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Leading in a data-driven world

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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Trouble in data center (Credit: Arjuna Kodisinghe via Fotolia)

China has been in the news recently for its economic turmoil. The stock market fluctuations of the past few weeks can largely be attributed to concerns about the state of the world’s second largest economy. The Wall Street Journal released the results of a survey this week on economists’ perception of the state of the Chinese economy. The most stunning finding was the degree to which economists distrusted the numbers that the Chinese government was releasing about itself. More than 96% of the 64 economists surveyed by the WSJ said China’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) estimates “don’t accurately reflect” the state of the Chinese economy. Basically, most economists think the Chinese government is fudging the numbers.

We live in the era Harvard Business Review has dubbed “Big Data”. We are surrounded by a surplus of data in almost every facet of life that is related to the overall idea that the more data we can gather about ourselves and the world around us, the better we can control and manage outcomes. Here is the logical progression that has taken place:

1. Volume of data has increased (the sheer amount of data available)
2. Access to data has increased (think of the Cloud, everyone having smartphones)
3. More ethical dilemmas have been created by these increases both in volume and access to data.

The Chinese government lying about its financial numbers is merely a contemporary example of the age-old penchant we humans have for wanting to lie, deceive, and cover things up. Think King David’s initial actions after sleeping with Bathsehba. Almost every day it seems like there is a new report about a data breach or some hacker that has gained control of sensitive documents of some kind. The reality is that we live in a world that is overrun with data, but we all still have the Jeremiah 17:9 condition within us: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”

As leaders, how do we lead with integrity, character, and truthfulness in a data-driven world? I would like to offer four principles:

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Many Christian leaders are wary of technology and data. They think that data-driven decisions are too concerned with quantifiable things and not concerned enough with the spiritual, or hidden things. While this is certainly a valid objection to those who overly depend upon data, the simple truth is that most of us just don’t want to know what the data will reveal. It can be exceedingly helpful to accurately understand where you are as an organization, but also difficult. If I think I’m doing a good job, it’s easier for me to hold on to that assumption than it is to face the facts that I’m not really doing a good job. Good leaders will help their organizations wade into data analysis with the proper perspective rather than fear, worry, or blind trust of what the numbers might reveal.

Put the right people in charge of data management, creation, and quality
As Jim Collins says, get the right people on the bus. It is vitally important to have your best people managing the process of data creation and entry, quality control, and management. You cannot simply relegate data to the IT department. You as a leader must help your organization see the holistic importance of properly understanding and wisely responding to data.

Show the importance of integrity in all actions
Whether they are inputting the number of prospects or simply reporting on how many people attended an event, it is crucial for all members of the organization to understand how their accuracy and honesty impacts everyone else. If there is a weak chain in the link, the whole chain will fall apart. The data is only as helpful as it is accurate.

Use spiritual wisdom to know how to make the right decisions
Finally, good leaders will work hard to understand and interpret what the data reveals about their organizations, but will not fall prey to making decisions in a data-vacuum. Christian leaders remember that God is always at work, even when we cannot measure or see it. There are certain decisions that leaders must make which will fly in the face of prevailing wisdom or data, but there are also decisions that will naturally flow from the data. Faithful Christian leaders will seek the Lord to help them discern the difference, and will surround themselves with the right counsel along the way. (Proverbs. 11:14)