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How Leaders Confront Challenges

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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The Washington Post released an investigative piece this week detailing wasteful spending at the Pentagon. While that may not come as news to many who assume the government is inefficient by nature, the brunt of Whitlock and Woodward’s piece focuses on the politics of how the Pentagon tried to cover up a 2015 study that catalogued the bloat.

One of the more revealing tidbits within the piece was that almost every leader of the Department of Defense over the past several decades has tried to curtail wasteful spending, but has run out of time with each effort:

Former defense secretaries William S. Cohen, Robert M. Gates and Chuck Hagel had launched similar efficiency drives in 1997, 2010 and 2013, respectively. But each of the leaders left the Pentagon before their revisions could take root.

“Because we turn over our secretaries and deputy secretaries so often, the bureaucracy just waits things out,” said Dov Zakheim, who served as Pentagon comptroller under President George W. Bush. “You can’t do it at the tail end of an administration. It’s not going to work. Either you leave the starting block with a very clear program, or you’re not going to get it done.”

The problem is not that the leaders don’t know that there is a problem, but that they don’t have enough time to get anything done before the next person takes over. This highlights one of the central difficulties of leadership: balancing between long-term goals and short-term needs.

Even if you do not lead an organization even approximating the intricacy and complexity of the Department of Defense, you know that effectively tackling problems within the organization takes both patience and tenacity. John Kotter’s famous eight-step plan in Leading Change encompasses both ends of the spectrum. The first of the eight steps is that leaders have to establish a sense of urgency, while the last maxim is to patiently focus on seeing the change take root at all levels of the organization.

Whether you are confronting billions of dollars of government waste or simply a department within your organization that is not aligned with your overall mission, the task of leadership is to continually confront the greatest challenges your organization faces. Ron Heifetz’s work on adaptive leadership argues that leaders are constantly lured away from these central challenges, tempted to avoid the reality of the situation, and instead become distracted by tangential problems.

In the Bible, Paul’s leadership is an excellent example of balancing the constraints of long-term and short-term approaches. He invested most of his time in the key cities of his mission: Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth, and Rome (among others). He also visited other cities along the way, making brief stops to check in on things but not stay. He knew that in his limited time as a missionary, he had to be strategic where he invested the majority of his efforts. N. T. Wright argues in Paul and the Faithfulness of God that Paul’s efforts in his key cities was aimed to strengthen churches where Caesar’s power was strongest (1502).

I’ve heard it said before that leaders commonly overestimate what they can do in one year but underestimate what they can accomplish in five. The struggle to balance the short-term and long-term has to be faced by figuring out your most important challenges first and then relentlessly taking it on, even if it takes many years to see real results. Countless college football programs cycle through coaches each year, trying to find the leader who will instantly bring success. The coaches know the pressure-cooker atmosphere they walk into when they assume leadership, and many choose short-term success through whatever means necessary rather than long-term building.

If you focus too much on the short-term, you will inevitably come up against the temptation to cut corners. If your focus is only on the long-term, though, you lose momentum and energy as your people become frustrated or discouraged by lack of results. Leaders need to balance a true sense of urgency with a commitment to patience instead. It’s easy to become rattled by outside forces and voices, but true leaders stay committed to the challenges God has called them to face, however long it takes.

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