The week of April 4, I had the joy and privilege of participating in LEAD Now!, Concordia University Wisconsin’s first TED-like event that included five 18-minute presentations on innovative leadership in education. In this case, the audience consisted largely of Lutheran educators and administrators from around the United States. My assigned topic was Leading Outside the Box. While the videos for this event will likely be available online at some time in the future, I thought I would offer a recap of my words.
The phrase, “outside the box” has pretty much reached the level of cliché today, but I was excited to take that idea and put a new twist on it. So, I started my preparation with a less-than outside-the-box strategy. I looked in the online Merriam Webster dictionary to find the definition of “box.” A box is, “a rigid typically rectangular container with or without a cover.”
Okay, if that is the definition of a box, what is the definition of an organizational box? Now we are getting in outside-the-box territory because you will not find that definition in the dictionary. As such, I took the liberty of coming up with my own definition. An organizational box consists of all the policies, preferred practices, beliefs, habits, and rituals that make up the look and feel of our organization. These things shape what we do and how we do it. They are the metaphorical walls of our organization. In other words, an organizational box is our current culture.
We collectively build our organizational boxes and then we live and work in them. We learn to play well together in our sand “boxes”. Over time, we take great pride in our boxes. They give us parameters within which we work. They are safe. They can make us feel comfortable. They give us a useful sense of identity. At their best, they help us to live out our mission.
Organizational boxes are not, however, synonymous with our mission. Missions are wild, unleashed, compelling whys that, when they are in full force, demand to be let out of the box, to not be entirely contained. Missions want to grow, and there come times when the context changes, opportunities arise, problems face us and we must decide if we are willing to let our missions lead up out beyond those safe and comfortable walls of our box.
Missions can live well in many of our boxes, our cultures. In fact, it is important that they permeate our culture, that they are woven into the walls of our boxes. Yet, again, they are not the same as the box. The are distinct from and bigger than our boxes.
You’ve probably heard the quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That is certainly true. However, it is equally true that culture can eat mission for breakfast if we are not careful. Over time we become so fond of our current practices, traditions, perspective, and models that we treat them like they are one in the same with our mission. We cling to them with missional fervency…but they are not our mission. As such, sometimes, just sometimes, that wild, compelling why, that mission that drives us into new ventures and opportunities, it calls us to leave the safe and hallowed walls of our traditional boxes.
Some reject this notion. They confuse their culture with their mission. If someone challenges part of the culture in pursuit of new ways to live out the mission, they are condemned as acting counter to the mission. The Lutheran education system, the second largest private school system in the United States, had to face this years ago.
When German Lutherans first came to the United States, they set up schools immediately, and instruction was in the German language. They sought out German immigrants, both those who attended Lutheran churches and those who did not, and wove their faith into the schooling experience.
Yet, they were in a country where English was the dominant language, and these schools had to make a difficult decision. Do we continue to teach in German or do we instruct in English? Some argued that language and mission were too deeply connected to be separated. German was the language in which their faith tradition was forged. Martin Luther translated the Bible into the German language of common people and it was the first time in their lives that they were able to read these deeply meaningful words in their native tongue, their heart language.
As such, there was justifiable concern about switching the language of instruction. Yet, because people had the courage to make that difficult decision, Lutheran schools have served an incredible number of people in the United States, making it one of the largest private school systems in the nation. That would have never happened if people did not have the courage to follow their mission beyond the existing walls of their organizational boxes.
The same thing is true today for that Lutheran education system. This time it is not a language change, but there are other cultural changes that calls for stepping outside of the traditional boxes so that they are able to live out the mission in new ways, serving new people.
In an area of study known as phenomenology, they are interested in getting at the essence of ideas and things. As one way of beginning such an exploration, they might ask three simple questions. The first question is, “What is essential?” What are the traits so integral to whatever it is that I am studying that, if you removed those traits, that something would cease to be what it is.
Consider the example of a ball. What are the essential attributes of a ball? We might say that a ball needs to be spherical, but that would rule out something like a football. With a little effort, we can get to the idea that a ball must be something round on at least one plane. We might come up with one or two other traits. That is it. Those are the only essential, ultimately defining attributes.
From there we go to the second question. “What is important?” These are traits that impact form and function, often in significant ways, but it can still be a ball without meeting specific criteria. Size, weight, density, and shape, for example, would likely go into this category. We can have a football, golf ball, basketball, baseball and more.
Then we have the final question. “What is merely present?” These are traits that can change from one item to another but they don’t really change the overall function that much.
Leading outside the box demands that we ask these same sort of questions about our organization, starting with the assumption that our mission is the essential. We must strive to be completely transparent, setting aside our preferences and agendas, to get at the essence of our mission and organization. It is too easy to put items from the “important” category into the “essential” category, which can limit our sense of the possibilities. It can also prevent us from following the mission into incredibly promising new ventures. Heaven forbid that our culture gets in the way of living out our mission to the greatest extent. Leading outside the box, pure and simple, is having the courage to unleash our mission, to let it outside of the cultural boxes that exist in our organizations, to let it lead us into unchartered territories, serving new populations, taking on new forms and models that we’ve never considered before.
In my opening remarks to the group of people who, as you might remember from the beginning of this essay, were largely people working in the Lutheran education system, I started by explaining that I am one of Lutheran education’s greatest critics, and that I would explain why in my talk. That is obviously a dangerous opening for a group of people who, in some cases, have devoted their entire lives to that system. Why am I one of its greatest critics? At the end of my talk, I explained. I am one of the Lutheran education system’s greatest critics because I believe so strongly in its mission, and I am just not willing to let that mission get limited to one or a small set of cultural boxes.
In fact, I could say this about more than the Lutheran education system. It is true for me about the entire contemporary education system. Too often we are fighting over the maintenance of our preferred boxes, our cultural preferences, or the ones that have the most to offer us personally or as a select group of people. Yet, compelling missions demand that we exchange our personal preferences for the grander mission. It is not about us, and if we try to make it about us, then we must admit that we are limiting its potential reach and impact. We would rather have it our way than have it pave the way for reaching and serving new people in new places with new possibilities.
If you are part of an organization with a compelling mission, then there are probably new boxes to be built at some point. I certainly believe this in the education system. New boxes extend the mission. They don’t compromise it. As such, box building is a healthy and important part of growing organizations with a wild and unleashed mission.
Furthermore, some of are wired, inspired, even called to stepping out of boxes, even to missional box building. Please hear us out and consider that we might not be challenging the mission when we are challenging others to consider moving beyond our current boxes. Some of us are addicted to mission. It fuels and animates us. We fall asleep thinking about riffing off of the mission in new ways like we are trying to create the next great guitar solo. We wake up in the middle of the night scribbling down new ideas. We get up in the morning excited to jump into another day of missional living. Admittedly, sometimes we need to be pulled back into the box a bit when we move too quickly or need to think through the implications more carefully. Yet, I ask that you consider the possibility that maybe we box builders are an important part of extending the mission or sometimes keeping it alive.
The reality is that our many missions in education today drive us to respond to the changing contexts and cultures in which we serve. This means that there will be times when we have to make the decision about whether we are willing and able to look beyond our boxes, to recognize that the mission can breathe and live beyond the walls of our box, that it can, in fact, thrive in the wild. It can help establish new boxes that benefit even more people. Or, consider that mission might lead to an extreme makeover of our existing boxes. This is because, when you have an organization that truly expect everyone to put mission ahead of the current culture…watch out! You are in for an extraordinary journey.