A potentially game-changing discovery for the oil industry happened this week in west Texas. Apache Corporation, a large firm based out of Houston, has interests in five other countries, but their announcement this week of a new oil-field discovery is smack-dab right in the middle of one of America’s most famous oil-boon areas: west Texas. The region has been famous for decades both for its high school football and its vast oil reserves, and the new field, dubbed “Alpine High,” has the potential to produce anywhere from $8 to $80 billion in future revenue.
The site, spanning some 300,000+ acres, will take time to start producing the kind of results that Apache Corp. hopes will secure its future. Apache has limited infrastructure in the area, so they will have to invest heavily in equipment and personnel to begin extracting the oil. The oil industry is known for being one of the most volatile industries, and new discoveries are often hard to gauge for their future impact.
Apache has a fascinating backstory. Raymond Plank and W. Brooks Fields, Jr., World War II veterans from Yale, originally headed to Minnesota to start a new magazine that they hoped would be the Time or Atlantic Monthly of the Midwest. As they began their pursuit of this goal, however, they also set up a side-venture called APA that invested in various other business interests. The magazine never quite flowered into what they hoped it would be, because along the way they quickly realized that APA was where their real future lay.
Soon they started their first drilling operation in Cushing, Oklahoma, and have never looked back. In their 1964 Annual Report, Plank penned a statement that serves as a manifesto of sorts for how they saw themselves as a company: “The capacity of the individual is infinite. Limitations are largely of habit, convention, acceptance of things as they are, fear or lack of self confidence.”
The oil industry is known for its unpredictability, so risk management has become a key part of how companies seek to grow and sustain themselves. They know that they have to be willing to be wrong many times, but that it only takes being right one time for fortunes to change. This culture creates an appreciation for adaptive leaders. You could almost argue that it’s one of the top skills executives in that field need to possess. John Kotter, who wrote a bestselling book on the difference between managers and leaders, described the difference in terms of purpose: “Management is about seeking order and stability, while leadership is about seeking adaptive constructive change.”
Part of being adaptable is knowing when you need to change course and head in a new direction. The difference for a Christian is that we’re listening to the Holy Spirit’s guidance rather than seeking the direction on our own. Paul and Timothy in Acts 16 are powerful examples of adaptive leaders. They wanted to go one direction, but Luke tells us that the Spirit would not let them go that way. Instead, the Spirit steered them on a different path, one that eventually led to Paul’s famous Macedonian vision, in which he dreamt a man from Macedonia was urging him to come and help the people there. Luke records Paul’s reaction: “And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10).
Risk-taking in the oil industry is rewarded because even one success can pay big dividends for the company. Risk-taking in the kingdom of God, however, is different. We don’t take risks and adapt in order to profit ourselves, but to be faithful to God and thereby bring him greater glory.
We believe that the Holy Spirit guides us, so we need to make room in our lives to listen to God. As we do that, God will take us in directions we never could have imagined. The founders of Apache thought they were setting out to create a famous magazine, but they wound up with a successful oil company. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Discipleship, titled one chapter “Simple Obedience,” urging Christians to trust themselves “to the word of Jesus Christ, believing it to be a stronger foundation than all the securities of the world.”
In this sense, being an adaptable leader is less about our skill and more about our ability to listen, trust, and obey. Listen to what God is speaking through the Holy Spirit. Trust that it is the way you should go. Obey by following Paul’s example and immediately setting off in that direction. We may not know what the future will hold, but we can trust that God will guide us every step of the way.