“When I was called to be president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I had never served as a professor, a dean, or a vice president. I was then editor and chief executive of a newspaper, where I had been dealing in public with the issues that most concerned the seminary and our churches. I was well known as a speaker and preacher. I had extensive experience as an assistant to the previous president of the school, and I had graduated with the PhD degree just four years earlier. No leadership search firm would have gone first to a thirty-three-year-old who had never held a senior title within a college, university, or graduate school. In fact, they did not come to me first, but eventually the search committee came to me because I had the one most important element of credibility–a firm vision of what the institution was all about, a deep knowledge of the urgent challenges it faced, and a clear strategy to get it moving in the right direction.”Albert Mohler, The Conviction to Lead, 86.
Al Mohler admitted he wasn’t qualified to be a candidate for president of Southern Seminary. Qualifications are important. Institutions that ignore qualifications are taking a risk–a risk that has to be carefully weighed. Will the candidate’s other strengths make up for the weakness? How will you know? Can your institution afford the risk? Hard questions–and if you’ve been burned by a hire that flopped, you may vow to never take that type of risk again.
Yet, Mohler was able to earn credibility with the search committee, he says, by having an intimate knowledge of the institution–its past, its present challenges, and where he thought it should go in the future. And he could communicate in a competent, compelling way on all three fronts.
If you’re a leader, you should be able to answer questions about the history of your institution. You should step deep enough into the stories of the past to treasure them, draw on them for inspiration, and communicate to your folks that you share a common history.
You also have to be able to recognize mistakes that have been made–to face them tactfully, but squarely in order to acknowledge that current challenges are often the result not only of misfortune, but of wrong turns made in the past. There’s obviously a tension here–but great leaders are able to walk this line gracefully. A competent and accurate read of the present situation–its challenges, resources, and opportunities–sets you up to be heard and trusted when you lay out your strategy.
Now, it’s time to envision a future that people want to be a part of–one that is in continuity and discontinuity with the past. You have to be able to paint a picture that is realistic and compelling–honest about challenges, yet hopeful that those can be faced with courage, integrity, creativity, sacrifice, and success.