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The Myth of the Visionary Leader

When considering people who were innovators, Henry Ford is often at the top of that list. He founded Ford Motor
Company and championed the development of the assembly line for mass production. It’s clear just from looking around that making cars affordable for many middle class Americans profoundly shaped the country. There’s a popular quote that is often attributed to Ford when talking about innovation:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

While it’s safe to assume there are plenty of times people might not know the best way forward, this quote also exemplifies a misconception that often stops leaders from being effective. It can be described as the myth of the visionary. You know, the one where a hero-like figure has an innovative idea and against all odds, completely transforms the world. They’re misunderstood geniuses whose brilliant ideas materialize, to the surprise of their many skeptics. They can somehow accurately predict the future and bring it into the present. While there are certainly many talented individuals who have created real change, this potentially leads to a couple problems. First, if you don’t consider yourself to be this larger than life figure, you may disqualify yourself before you even get started. That’s unfortunate because the loudest, flashiest, or most confident voice does not by default contain the most wisdom. Second, this popular myth overlooks the fact that successful outcomes are not simply physical copies of a visionary’s brilliant idea. Traction occurs when we’re willing to test our assumptions against reality. This usually means that initial, brilliant idea does not shine so brightly when brought out into the sunshine in the real world. The customer might say that they want a faster horse. Or they might not. But the important thing is to ask. To fully engage with them about the problems they’re experiencing.

For those of us in ministry, while we may not be selling a product, if we’re honest, we’re notorious for not wanting to test assumptions. Even if we say we’re for it. Am I allowed to say that? Yes? No? Well, if you’re still reading this, resisting the need to test assumptions can be based in a myriad of reasons: fear, apathy, pride… to name just a few I’ve found to be true for myself. My focus for the past couple years has been on creating a space for connection around the table through sharing food and stories. Want to know one of the main reasons why the ratio of food videos I watch with my own twin five-year-old daughters to the dishes I actually make with them is approximately 23 billion to 1? Because our time in the kitchen is often nothing like those videos. And of course it isn’t. Those videos are high budget productions, well lit, and edited. When I muster the courage and energy to cook or bake with my girls, our time together is… decidedly not any of those things. At all. It’s predictably messy, stressful, and consistently threatens to devolve into chaos. Our times spent doing these things are also consistently beautiful, surprising, filled with joy… and worth it.  One of the ways to overcome the myth of the visionary is to fall in love with a shared problem, rather than committing up front to a specific solution. What if we practiced openness and invited others into the process?

If you are headed to the General Assembly of the Disciples of Christ I would love to connect with you. If you are interested in bringing some innovation to your congregation signup for the coaching sessions we are putting together at the Hatchery LA booth. Details here.

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