We all make decisions that have an impact on our future. Yet, we can never be sure what the future will be, and whether our decisions will be right or not. The dilemma is heightened for those in leadership. People expect leaders to know what will be the consequences of their decisions. Leaders often pretend that they do. But leadership, in fact, often means making decisions which have unknown consequences. This is an issue for leaders in church and mission as well as in every other field of endeavour. It was the subject of one of the plenary sessions at the Lausanne International Researchers’ conference in Kuala Lumpur in May 2015.

The speaker at this session was Rob Hay, the principal of Redcliffe College, a mission training college in Gloucester, England. Rob Hay has been conducting what he described as an auto-biographical ethnography. Over some years, he had been reflecting deeply and systematically on his leadership in the College. He had been carefully documenting his decision-making and how he had come to those decisions. He noted that, in the mission of the church, there are many issues which may have an impact on the development of mission. But we can never be sure what are the key issues which will have the greatest impact. There are many experts in mission but little consensus, he suggested. It is necessary to make decisions, but it is usually not at all clear what will be the consequences of those decisions. How, then, can leaders cope with the unknown?

1. Be flexible

Hay suggested that the ‘unknown’ requires leaders to be flexible in their planning. Leaders need to be ready to adjust their planning as they go forward. He suggested that it was important to review frequently, perhaps monthly. It was important to make changes if decisions were not leading to the outcomes that were expected. The good leader, he suggested, was nimble.

2. Make space for mistakes

A second suggestion was that leaders should make space for mistakes. Leaders should be willing to experiment, but the results of experiments should be carefully measured. It will be inevitable that some experiments will not turn out the way that the leader expects. There should be space for mistakes and the ability to act quickly if things do not work.

3. Explore different perspectives

Hay noted that leadership means making sense of the present as well as developing a vision for the future. In making sense of our context, he suggested that leaders are often tempted to surround themselves with people who agree with them. However, such people do not reduce the actual uncertainty in which we operate. Leaders should surround themselves with voices that are different, he suggested. They need to spend time with people who think differently from themselves, who provide different perspectives. As one surrounds oneself with a variety of perspectives, one can properly chew over issues and make better decisions.

4. Make decisions that are ‘good enough’

‘Perfection is never reached’ said Hay, ‘because it has changed before you reach it’. Just as weather systems constantly change around us, so do many other aspects of life and society. One makes decisions in the midst of change. Leaders sometimes like to take away anxiety and are protective of their staff. Yet, it is often necessary to consider possibilities where there are no clear answers. Tension can be paralysing. Yet, anxiety can lead people to be creative. With a supportive environment, people can often be more creative with anxiety than they expect to be. Leaders must act in the grey, Hay concluded. They must act tentatively rather than with complete certainty. In that context, leaders need wisdom, not just knowledge, to move forward into the future.

Philip Hughes

This article was first published in Pointers: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol.25, no.4, December 2015. pp.11.