Survival of the fittest

April 18, 2012

[Religion News Service] Let’s imagine you are running an enterprise. A shop, online vendor, political party, church, bank — you decide.

Now look at the trends happening around you. Let’s say you notice these three:

— Living as a single person is far more common today than it was in 1950.

— Outer suburbs are struggling as home sales sag, younger residents choose rental and city-center destinations, and suburban schools are no longer a draw.

— Young adults are less likely to value car ownership than were earlier generations.

So what do you do? This is the dilemma facing countless leaders, from school principals to church pastors. The world around us is far more dynamic than our internal systems for adapting to it.

For example, corporate information technology departments are racing to support employee-owned tablets, just as the new “Generation Z” (ages 16-24) is saying it prefers company-provided PCs.

Churches are fashioning elaborate content-rich websites just as the marketplace moves on to leaner, marketing-oriented sites and more assertive tools like blogs.

Meanwhile, social networking seems to be losing favor: it’s a “time suck” with fewer rewards than expected, users say, and it’s not conducive to relationships. You just spent a year hiring your first social media strategist, and already the job description has changed.

You ramped up on messaging, and now email is coming back into fashion. You adapted to virtual, and now people want face-to-face. You hired young, and now it seems middle-agers might be better hires.

The future, it seems, belongs to the nimble and adaptive. When situations change, they catch the wave early and adapt. They stop fighting old wars.

The Tea Party movement has faded, for example, not because it lacked fervor, but because it had only an endless Act One of leftover vexations. Roman Catholic hierarchs seem trapped in 50-year-old arguments that their constituents long ago dismissed.

Banks seem stuck in the Act One that yielded great rewards and then a damaging recession. Hollywood is stuck in sequels and knockoffs. Both political parties are counting on huge ad budgets to sell stale ideas. Companies and schools survey the public, but rarely show the will to change direction in response to what they hear.

So where do you find the nimble and adaptive?

Age isn’t the big factor you might think; young adults can be as stodgy as their parents. Nor does tech prowess guarantee nimbleness. Watch California’s Silicon Valley and Manhattan’s Silicon Alley as they keep inventing the same old products.

Instead, look for people who took risks, failed and tried again. Entrepreneurs who learned from failure won’t fear moving on to new projects.

Look for dreamers, poets, musicians and artists, people who live to learn the new. Yes, reinvent that wheel, again and again.

Look for people who listen well, intuit well, and have the confidence to change direction.

Look for people who value ideas more than ideology, discovery more than doctrine and solving more than scoring. Forget exploiters, predators and people-users, who feast until the carcass is bare and then turn on each other.

Look for people who can entertain multiple competing ideas at the same time and seek a third way rather than one-sided victory or a shallow compromise that simply douses conflict.

Glossy credentials and spotless resumes tend to be a warning sign. Bruises and blemishes often show a more promising leader.

— Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

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