Leadership Lessons from 2016

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Leadership Lessons from 2016

December 29, 2016 -

In a 2005 speech at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar, historian David McCullough said:

“Let’s not lose heart. They talk about what a difficult, dangerous time we live in. And it is very difficult, very dangerous and very uncertain. But so it has always been. And this nation of ours has been through darker times. And if you don’t know that—as so many who broadcast the news and subject us to their opinions in the press don’t seem to know—that’s because we’re failing in our understanding of history.”

If we want to grow as people, we must learn to look back and make sense of where we’ve been. You’ve probably heard the phrase before that in order to know where you are headed, you have to first know where you have been. In an age that prizes hot takes and drop-the-mic moments, though, this discipline is slowly eroding. Let’s spend a few moments trying to make sense of the year that just transpired. There are 2 significant leadership lessons I believe we can draw from pivotal moments in 2016.


2016 was the year that pollsters got it all wrong. In arguably two of the biggest political events of the year, the Brexit vote in Britain and the Presidential election in the U.S., almost every single major polling agency got it wrong. In an age of unparalleled technological advances and access to data, our blind trust in numbers was finally exposed. One of the defining memories we’ll have from the year is from the election night coverage, where, as the results came in, every major network’s legion of analysts sat shocked, hardly unable to speak as state after state went for Trump rather than Clinton.

The leadership lesson here is that leaders prepare for a host of scenarios instead of blindly trusting their forecasts for the future. The polling industry’s nightmarish 2016 is only one example, of course, but it is easy to forget such a simple thing as unpredictability when we are taught from every angle of our culture that we are the captains of our ship and the masters of our fate. Jim Collins’ book How the Mighty Fall explains how great companies slowly lose their edge, and the first stage is “hubris born of success.” This can also describe our general cultural problem though, too. Leaders have to constantly take the posture of a learner rather than a master if they want to achieve lasting success.

Jim Collins, in a separate piece reflecting on a day he spent with famous management author Peter Drucker, described the power of the encounter this way:

“You have already repaid me,” said Drucker. “I have learned much from our conversation today.” That’s when I realized that what ultimately sets Peter Drucker apart is that he does not see himself as a guru; he remains a student. Most management gurus are driven to say something; Drucker is driven to learn something. Drucker’s work is interesting—he is interesting—because, to borrow a phrase from the late John Gardner, he remains relentlessly interested.”

As Christians, the true measure of our faith is not in trying to engineer certain outcomes, but rather in obediently trusting God. Growing in faith means learning to place our trust in God’s promises. As we do this, we are not exempted from working hard and planning, but rather our entire perspective changes as we do all things under the lordship of Christ. It frees us up to lead with grace and humility.

Side Effects

One of the big stories from the end of 2016 has been the phenomena of “fake news.” Nick Pitts’ Daily Briefing from a few weeks ago highlighted how Facebook has taken flak for allowing so many fake news articles to be spread across its social network. Most people would herald social media as providing greater access to distant friends and relatives, allowing us all to keep up with each other better. But every technological advance has side effects, and one of the worst from social media has been how easy it is to distort, obfuscate, and fabricate the truth.

Think also about all the advancements we’ve seen in video technology. Every major sport has adopted video replay reviews, but every one of you reading this can think back to a recent game where replay didn’t clarify anything and actually made it harder to determine what actually happened. Now the NFL can’t clearly articulate what a catch is, and good luck determining which NBA player touched the ball last before it went out of bounds. Similarly, most Americans now own a smartphone equipped with a camera. This has led to the ubiquity of events being caught on camera. Over the last year we all watched as cell phone footage showed citizens’ encounters with police officers. Some of the footage cleared up the controversy, but much of it didn’t, and in fact made it harder to determine who was in the wrong. The point is, one of the side effects of more and better video is that we have more (and more intense) debates about what we all just saw.

Leaders have to learn to see the whole rather than simply each individual part. This is the foundation of systems thinking, an approach pioneered by Peter Senge in his work The Fifth Discipline. Part of being a leader means that you have to learn to see how certain decisions you make will affect and impact the rest of the organization. This is why it is so important for Christian leaders to reflect and meditate upon how God governs his children. You can either choose to see each individual law in the Old Testament in and of itself, or as part of a holistic framework of the best way to live (Deuteronomy 29-30). Your leadership needs to be built upon values and principles that are right, true, and unchanging, so that you can make decisions out of them, rather than whatever is passing for truth in the public square.

As David McCullough exhorts us, “let’s not lose heart” as we consider the problems and complexities of our current age. Ultimately, as Christian leaders, we don’t lose heart because we know and trust that God is in control of all things. We walk in faith because we know that God is doing far more than we can measure with our own instruments. And it should encourage us, too, because we are trying to lead in such a way that points people to Christ. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

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