What’s really the problem? (The short-term, the long-term, and getting our priorities in order.)

Moneyball is one of my favorite films. Based on the book by Michael Lewis, it tells the remarkable true story of how the small-market 2002 Oakland A’s, under the leadership of famed General Manager, Billy Beane, rewrote the books on how to be a successful professional baseball team. In part, I love the film for the simple fact that I’m a baseball nut. But I also love what it suggests about adaptive leadership, the ability to look at the big picture, and how the main character, Billy Beane, puts crises and chronic challenges in a proper perspective. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Billy, played by Brad Pitt, looks around the room at his aged, experienced baseball scouts as they discuss how to improve the team for the next season, and asks a simple question, “What’s the problem?” He repeats the question several times, receiving a flurry of shortsighted answers all focused on how to replace several players that have left the organization, how to compensate for the offensive production the team is likely losing, and how to afford new players. After reaching a boiling point he explains to the whole room, “No. The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams, there are poor teams, then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.” Billy forces everyone in the room to take a step back, identify the real problem, and admit that a more creative approach is necessary. Not everyone is able to make this shift, and there are a lot of tense scenes throughout the film. But in the end, it is a highly instructive story of what it takes to lead through challenges and become a catalyst for enduring change.

One lens for interpreting the story would be to focus on Beane’s willingness to prioritize the chronic problems and challenges over the perceived crises. Not only did this help in terms of organizational strategy, but it reframed and re-interpreted the crises more accurately. It reminds me of two key ideas that have continually helped me to operate according to the long-term, big picture, and to interpret the immediate challenges accordingly.

  1. “Start with Why.” Some of you have read Simon Sinek’s book by this title. If you haven’t, you probably should (or at least watch Sinek’s short TED talk). The concept is remarkably simple yet tremendously important. Many people and organizations can tell you “what” they do as well as “how” they do it. But not all can tell you “why” they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the immediate demands of efficiency and productivity while simultaneously losing any sense of “why” you exist and what your ultimate aims are. When discussing a new idea or initiative, our Macedonian Ministry staff makes it point to take a step back and ask “why?” Why do we exist as an organization, and does this idea fit that “why”? Does this idea support our purpose, our goals? This is a particularly important question for churches to revisit on a frequent basis, as it is incredibly easy for even the most well-intentioned among us to become blinded by the success of our programs, short-term objectives, and response to crises while losing sight of the reason for our existence and how to faithfully live out that identity.
  2. Group emotional intelligence. Research in group dynamics and organizational behavior demonstrates that while many organizations prioritize goals, strategies, and objectives (which are all important!), it’s more important to prioritize creating and nurturing a culture that over the long-term will prove healthy and effective. The three key ingredients for creating this culture are common identity, trust, and a shared sense of efficacy. In short – relationships, relationships, relationships. You see this phenomenon in Moneyball as Billy throws conventional wisdom out of the window and focuses on getting the right people on board. He goes after a nameless player development analyst who looks at statistics in a creative way. He takes time to encourage older, soon-to-retire players on the team to mentor younger players. He spends time explaining to younger players who nobody else wanted why his organizational values them, and what he thinks they can offer. In a sense, he redirects the “program” by putting people ahead of program. Someone else who does this is Tom Tewell. Over the past 3 ½ years, I’ve watched Tom model for our entire organization what it means to prioritize people over program, culture over strategy, and how to live out of our “why.” I’ve seen how incredibly effective this is. Serving on staff with Macedonian Ministry, I’m constantly reminded that the church is stocked with the raw materials of common identity, trust, and a shared sense of efficacy. It’s called koinonia; it’s called mission. We don’t need research published in Harvard Business Review or a movie like Moneyball to remind us of this fact. We have everything we need available to us in the path of discipleship. Everything is about relationship.

Both of these concepts will be evident in healthy organizations, and especially in their leadership. It was certainly true for the 2002 Oakland Athletics, it’s been true for Macedonian Ministry over the last decade under Tom Tewell, and it’s evident in churches that continually revisit and prioritize the “why” of God’s mission to restore and redeem, as well as our role in that mission. This way of prioritizing is helpful not only for the internal dynamics of an organization, but also for how it responds and adapts to the external. How does the church faithfully address the pivotal, watershed events in our society that call for some sort of response? What is the relationship between current events, our witness to the gospel, and Christian discipleship? How, for example, does the church faithfully respond to the immediate crisis in Charlottesville without losing sight of the chronic problems of fear, racism, and systemic sins that plague our communities? These questions deserve a much longer treatment and discussion. But for the moment we can at least be reminded that our approach requires us to intermittently take a step back and ask, who are we, what’s our “why,” and what relationships need to be created in order to create avenues for long-term, sustainable, change? May we have the courage and patience to discern God’s response to such questions, and the courage to be faithful leaders in turn.

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