A Counter-Cultural Detour Through Samaria

The fall of Samaria, which resulted in the deportation of thousands from the northern kingdom to Assyria, raises another question: Was the subsequent Assyrian importation and settlement of people from “Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim” (2 Kings 17:24) into the towns of Samaria the beginning of the people known in the New Testament as the Samaritans?

While the traditional assumption is that the Samaritans of the New Testament are the descendants of those imported peoples mentioned in 2 Kings 17, a comparison of the two groups does raise reason for doubt. For example, the imported peoples were syncretists – i.e. “They worshipped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought (2 Kg 17:33).”

Because clear evidence of such syncretism doesn’t exist among those later identified as Samaritans, scholars like Everett Ferguson suggest that a connection between the two peoples isn’t so clear, and may be nothing more than a later attempt of Jews to slander the Samaritans (Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd Edition, p. 534). But what would be the motivation for such slander? The Samaritans created a rival religious institution that preferred Shechem and Mt. Gerizim over Jerusalem and Mt. Zion as the location of the Holy Place (p. 534).

In contrast to Ferguson, the Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan 2005), says the Samaritans are “a mixed race made up of a combination of Israelites who remained in the land and these non-Israelite settlers (note 17:24-41, p. 557).” And in spite of their syncretistic origins, they eventually “came to follow the teachings of Moses, including monotheism (note 17:24-41, p. 557).” I might add that their (ASB-Zondervan) conclusion of an evolution from syncretism to monotheism may be correct, but I have not been able to find a justification for that conclusion in any of their many notes on the Samaritans.

While the origins of the New Testament Samaritans may not be as clear as we might wish, we can see – and I think some may be surprised – how this “slandered, mixed race” people are referenced in the New Testament.

The references to the Samaritans fall clearly into three groups: First we see Samaritan used as a pejorative as in John 8:48 when Jesus was asked, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” We can see this negative sense also in the story of the (Samaritan) woman at the well in John 4. Her initial words to Jesus illustrate the inferior position of the Samaritans among Jews: “‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)”

The second type of reference to Samaritans is simply geographical. For example, when Jesus sent his disciples out (Matthew 10), he specifically told them not to go among the Gentiles or any town of the Samaritans. Rather, he charged them, “Go to the lost sheep of Israel.” Luke mentions an occassion when Jesus sent his disciples into a Samaritan village to prepare things for his arrival (9:52). None of these types of references should be deemed positive or negative.

The third category includes those times Jesus mentions or interacts with Samaritan people, and is clearly the most positive portrayal of the Samaritans in the Bible. I’ve already mentioned the John 4 story of the (Samaritan) woman at the well. In this story, we don’t see Jesus distancing himself from her because he is a Jew and she a Samaritan. We don’t see him reference her pejoratively. What we see is Jesus offering her “living water” and engaging her in a meaningful conversation about the messiah. John concludes this story with a very positive view of the Samaritan woman: “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony (John 4:39).”

Another illustration of how Jesus views the Samaritans differently than the surrounding culture does is how he juxtaposes the Samaritan with religious Jews in the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Since Jesus was crafting that story himself, he could have painted any picture he wanted, yet he chose to cast the Samaritan as the good neighbor and the religious Jews as the bad neighbors.

Finally, in Luke 17 we see the story of Jesus healing ten lepers. While on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled between Galilee and Samaria and was approached from a distance by ten lepers. They called out to him and he healed them. One of them, realizing that he was healed, came back to thank Jesus. Then, as if in a parenthetical note, Luke adds, “He was a Samaritan” (LK 17:16). Notice Jesus’ response: “Weren’t all ten healed? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Once again, Jesus juxtaposes the outsider against those representing the majority culture.

In all three cases – the woman at the well, the good Samaritan, and the leper who was healed – the Samaritans were cast in a much more positive light than some might expect considering the hostility of the surrounding culture toward them.

Is there an application for us in how we should treat/view those who might be considered negatively by the surrounding culture?

Pictorial Library: 1-2 Corinthians

BiblePlaces.com has just released their latest Photo Companion to the Bible, 1-2 Corinthians, and it is a winner!

What is a Photo Companion to the Bible?

Simply put, it is one of the most valuable teaching resources that Bible teachers (or students) can acquire because it helps the user better understand the cultural and geographical references of a particular book of the Bible. Bible teachers are wise to provide visual support for their teaching; and the Pictorial Companion is perfect for this purpose.

“This photo collection is remarkable! It provides a wonderful tour of the city and also includes pictures and interpretations of objects related to both the background and the subject of the text. Viewing the slides, I felt as if I I had found a pearl of great price that both informs and enriches one’s understanding of this letter.”

David E. Garland, Professor of Christian Scriptures, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University; author of 1 Corinthians in the BECNT series

Here is BiblePlaces.com’s description of this collection:

The Photo Companion to the Bible is a unique collection of digital photographs that illustrate the biblical text verse by verse.

  • PowerPoint-based resource
  • Library of images provides broad selection
  • Created by a team of professors and scholars
  • Organized by chapter and verse
  • Each chapter is illustrated by 45–200 photographs

What’s included in the 1-2 Corinthians Photo Companion?

This resource includes 2,500 photos. However, these aren’t 2,500 random photos that are somewhat related to First or Second Corinthians. These photos are organized by chapter and verse with helpful explanatory notes provided in PowerPoint format. While they are ready for use upon arrival, you may want to move the photos into your own presentation format.

While the photos are what catch the eye, the notes are a critical element of this resource. These notes are not a collection of random quotes gathered from the Internet for Uncle Joe’s Blog. They are produced by genuine scholars who have expertise related to the topics.

“When I discovered the resources offered through BiblePlaces.com I was thrilled. The photos have been a tremendous help to me! They are high quality, wisely organized, and reasonably priced. As one who loves geography, history, culture, and archaeology, these images have been a tremendous blessing and have greatly enriched my ministry.”

Pastor Joel DeSelm, South Bend, Indiana

What makes this collection better than what I can get in a study Bible or a biblical backgrounds textbook?

Admittedly, there are some good illustrated study Bibles and biblical background commentaries/textbooks available. However, the very nature of those publications limits their true effectiveness in visually illustrating the biblical text. The most obvious advantage of the Photo Companion to the Bible is the sheer volume of photos it provides for each chapter of the Bible. For example, at most, a printed text, whether a study Bible or a textbook, is limited to a few illustrations for a whole book of the Bible. Let’s be generous and say there is one illustration per page of that text. However many illustrations that would be for a particular published text, it pales in comparison to the 50, 70, 100, or more photos per Bible chapter that are provided in this library!

What are some highlights from this collection?

  • The city of Corinth and its archaeological remains
  • Images illustrating the worldly wisdom of Greco-Roman society
  • Photos of athletic competitions, racetracks, and prizes
  • Photos of Greco-Roman temples and meat markets
  • Coins illustrating orators and the Emperor Nero
  • Biblical scrolls showing Paul’s use of the Hebrew Bible
  • Papyrus letters, scribal tools, and artwork of scrolls
  • Ancient manuscripts related to stewardship, lawsuits, and divorce
  • Busts and portraits illustrating ancient head coverings
  • Traditional tents and portrayals of tent-making
  • Statues of famous individuals known to the Corinthians
  • Weaponry, armor, and strongholds from the biblical world
  • Imagery of planting, building, temptation, judgment, household gatherings, communal meals, grief, joy, decay, conflict, sowing, and reaping
  • Frescoes illustrating marriage, worship, sacrifice, prayer, freedom, conscience, judgment, field work, sailing, worship, and pagan wisdom

Can you give me an example of how this works?

The following elements are provided in a slide related to 1 Corinthians 13:2.
1. The biblical text or phrase.
2. The photo or illustration.
3. Identification or explanation of the photo or illustration.
4. Commentary relating the photo to the text.

Using the 4 point guide above, all the elements below are included in a PowerPoint slide:

  1. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…”
  2. [note the photos in the Companion do not have the © statement]

3. Library of Celsus at Ephesus

4. Paul was in Ephesus when he wrote 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 16:8). The Library of Celsus, built in AD 110, once housed some 12,000 scrolls. It is noteworthy that during Paul’s stay at Ephesus (from which he wrote this letter to Corinth), a number of new followers of Jesus who had previously practiced magic brought together their books and burned them publicly (Acts 19:19).

FREE SAMPLES!

Download the free PowerPoint of 1 Corinthians 13 here.
Download the free PowerPoint sample of 2 Corinthians 4 here.

How much does it cost?

The regular list price for the Photo Companion to the Bible: 1-2 Corinthians is $109, which is a bargain. However, this resource is currently on sale for $69, and you can order here!

Disclaimer

I have some photos in this collection. However, I am recommending it here because I believe in the product. I personally use the Bible Companion: Acts in my Life of Paul course at Baptist Bible College, and have received many comments from students about how helpful the images are in illustrating the text.

On the Anniversary of His Death: My thoughts on John Chau

John Allen Chau / Instagram

The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.

Proverbs 16:4 ESV

At this time last year, I was introduced to John Chau. Unfortunately, that introduction came via news headlines and not in person, and I regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to meet John in person. I have been so encouraged by transcribing his journal (available here), I can only imagine how much I and my students would have benefited had I had the opportunity to know him personally.

The Background

John Chau was killed on or about November 16, 2018, as he attempted to access an unreached, unengaged people group (UUPG) on North Sentinel Island, a remote Island in the Indian Ocean. His reason for accessing these people was to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

News of Chau’s death, hit the news cycle pretty hard, though specifics dripped out slowly. I was bothered by much of the negative commentary by the big mission voices, some of whom are personal friends while others are friends via the books they have written. These are people I respect and I would happily let them speak in my classes. With very little information beyond the headline “Missionary Killed on Remote Island” many big names (and smaller names, too) made snap judgement’s about Mr. Chau as a person, describing him as a lone ranger, foolish, selfish, etc. Additionally, his missionary knowledge and skills were criticized with comments like he disregarded Jesus’ instruction about receptivity, he was unprepared, and he demonstrated no planning or strategy. Some also said that he harmed the reputation of missionaries around the world.

North Sentinel Island from above.

Admittedly, I had no more knowledge than most of those saying those things. But, I did have a suspicion that the quick and harsh assessments were likely wrong. The comments were unquestionably unkind. I can only guess why people were so quick to criticize in such a public way, but now one year later, I can say with much more conviction that much of the criticism was wrong. (It’s my personal opinion that some professionals owe John Chau an apology and their readers a retraction.)

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.

Proverbs 18:17 ESV

Some may wonder how I can be so bold to suggest that some owe Chau an apology. In addition to the overarching tenor of Scripture, two things have greatly informed my opinion of John Chau. First, the additional reporting beyond the original news of his death added more details about his mindset, his preparation, and his commitment to the mission (e.g., see this article by Alex Perry). The second thing was the time and effort of getting to know John through his journal entries from the last few days of his life. I’m thankful to John’s family who provided a pdf copy of his journal for people like me to read, and again, I offer my sincere condolences on this first anniversary of his death. (A pdf image of Chau’s original journal is available here. A pdf copy of my transcription of his journal is available here.)

Chau’s journal was scribbled out, and in certain places it was smudged by water. This made transcribing his notes very challenging at certain spots, and impossible at others. His penmanship was not great, but that was not the goal of his writing. His goal was to record his thoughts and passions about what he believed to be an eternal mission. Because of the importance of this document, I spent several hours transcribing, as best I could, John’s last thoughts. That document is available here.

John Chau / Instagram

The Questions

Perhaps the best way to share my thoughts on John’s thoughts and actions is in the form of Q&A. 

“What is your opinion of John Chau?”

I respect and honor the sacrifice of John Chau. As a born-again Christian, I want to have the “lay it on the line” passion for the glory of Christ that Mr. Chau showed in his willingness to go to the hard places and pay the ultimate price in his effort to share Christ with the Sentinelese.

As a husband and father, I want to lead my family in the same passionate commitment to “Know Christ and make him known.” I don’t hope that my children should die at the end of an arrow; though I do desire that they have such a commitment to Christ and his commission that they would pursue the lost with abandon in God’s sovereign care, even if that means a martyr’s crown (Rev. 2:10).

As the leader of the Missions/Intercultural Studies program at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, my prayer for and plea to my students is that they would catch the spirit of John Chau or John G. Paton who “claimed Aniwa for Jesus.” (Listen to John Piper’s biography of Paton – “You Will Be Eaten by Cannibals” – here.) Oh, that they would embrace the words of Jim Elliot: ” He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

“Do you believe John Chau was foolish or selfish to go to North Sentinel Island?”

Foolish? No. All of the professed Christians and non-Christians posting in Internet comment sections their disgust for Christians who “force” their beliefs on others notwithstanding, the Bible is the guide by which I must formulate an answer. And, the New Testament is abundantly clear that Christ-followers are to share their faith with those, both near and far, who are outside of faith in Christ. This includes the Sentinelese people. The usual “missions verses” immediately come to mind: Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:14-15; Luke 24:44-47; John 3:16, 20:21; Acts 1:7-8; Romans 10:13-15; and Revelation 7:9-10.

Interestingly, Chau mentioned some of these verses in his journal. For example, he alluded to John 3:16 and Matthew 28:18 in his first words to the Sentinelese (Journal, p. 3): “I hollered ‘My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you. Jesus Christ gave me authority to come to you. Here is some fish!’”

In the last missive to his family he revealed his motivation when he wrote, “This is not a pointless thing – the eternal lives of this tribe is at hand and I can’t wait to see them around the throne of God worshipping in their own language as Revelation 7:9-10 states” (Journal, p. 13).  

Some seem to think John was foolish for trying to reach the Sentinelese given the danger of doing so. However, Jesus didn’t say, “Make disciples of all nations, except those where it might be risky to do so.” Chau was well aware of the risk involved and took that into account both in his preparation and strategy.

Selfish? Hardly! An obvious example of his selflessness was his commitment to celibacy. His friend John Middleton Ramsey said that “Chau confided that he was avoiding romantic attachments because of his planned mission … He knew of the dangers of this place. He didn’t want any hearts to get broken should something go wrong.” Chau was a college graduate and had a variety of skills that could provide a nice standard of living. However, he chose to set those possibilities aside to follow what he believed to be Christ’s calling on his life.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

Matthew 16:24-26 ESV

“Was John Chau a Lone Ranger?”

Because John Chau approached the island alone, some immediately suggested that he was a Lone Ranger. That was not necessarily an unreasonable initial thought. But, it is one that should have been held in check until more information became available.

Dr. Mary Ho, International Executive Leader of All Nations, Chau’s mission agency, said that there was a team of people willing to go with Chau. However, it seems his decision to approach the island alone was based on his awareness of the risk involved in such a mission. He was concerned not only for the islanders, but also for the safety of his friends. Additionally, there may have been some strategic thinking in his solo approach. It’s reasonable to think that one person approaching the island might appear less threatening to the inhabitants than a group of people approaching.

Interestingly, while journaling on the afternoon of November 15, after having been shot by the young boy earlier in the day, John confessed to being both scared and frustrated. His frustration seemed to be at least partly directed toward JP who “won’t go with me and only stays on the vessel” (Journal, pg. 7). It remains unclear if that entry suggests an expectation or simply a desire for JP’s participation. And, his frustration may have only been directed toward his circumstances at that moment as he tried to determine whether he should continue the mission.

In an earlier entry in his journal he noted “me and two of the guys jumped in the shallows and brought my two Pelicans and kayak onto the northern point of the cove” (Journal, p. 2). So, to some degree, others were directly involved. I wonder if JP may have been one of those two guys.

“Was John Chau unprepared for such a venture?”

Much of the initial criticism of Chau – apparently based solely on the fact that he was killed – suggested that he lacked appropriate training and preparation for an effort of this kind. As more information surfaced, such conclusions had to be moderated. Ed Stetzer acknowledged this change in his Washington Post article: “These new reports at a minimum challenge the simplistic image of an adventure-seeking zealot willing to recklessly risk the lives of a remote group of islanders.”

Those who followed this story at the time discovered little-by-little that Chau had undergone a variety of trainings. He took a course in linguistics at SIL. He was an EMT with wilderness survival training. Chau studied anthropology and culture with All Nations. Additionally, he did extensive self-study on the history of the Sentinelese and similar tribes in the area.

Chau’s journal gives evidence of his training. He listened closely and noted the specific sounds of the islander’s language: “lots of high pitched sounds with [b] [p], [L] and [S] heard. Couldn’t quite get any words. Insults are probably exchanged a lot. Did not seem to understand Jarawa words I said” (Journal, p. 8). The Jarawa are a similar “stone age” tribe on a neighboring island, which anthropologists suggest also migrated from Africa tens of thousands of years ago. He noted elsewhere in his journal that in his interaction with the islanders he “yelled some phrase in Xhosa” (Journal, p. 5). This use of a South African language may have been connected to the anthropologists’ suggestion that the Sentinelese had migrated from Africa.

EMT training was evidenced by what he included in his “initial contact response kit (for arrow wounds) such as hemostat/quick clot, abdominal pads, chest seal, and dental forceps for arrow removal” (Journal, p. 4). Additional consideration of the health and well-being of the islanders was demonstrated by the fact that Chau underwent 13 inoculations and a period of quarantine prior to approaching the island.

The anthropological data in Chau’s journal reveals his interest to know and understand the people, and supports his friends’ suggestions that he truly intended to reside long-term on the island, slowly gaining trust from its inhabitants and greater understanding of them. All of this to be able eventually to share Christ. On the afternoon of November 15, the likelihood of his death seemed to be more apparent to Chau. I’m impressed that in that circumstance he was careful to make some specific anthropological observations in his journal – in addition to other similar information peppered throughout his journal entries. This information seems to be provided to whomever may come behind him after his death.

observations:

# of people in hut: ≈ 10 {illegible}

Language:  lots of high pitched sounds with
                   [b] [p], [L] and [S] heard. Couldn’t quite
                   get any words. Insults are probably exchanged a lot.
                   Did not seem to understand Jarawa words I said.

Gestures:   Arms in the air = unarmed, friendly?
                   Pointing with hand/finger (?) = pointing a location
                   Arrows in bow = ready to shot you

Environment

       Scenery   :   Beautiful cove, all mostly dead coral but clear
                            of dead coral bottom. Sand is [calcite] but
                            coarse. There’s an amazing surf break at
                            the south part of the entrance to the
                            cove. Saw 3 perfect sets of 4-6 foot
                            high swells {illegible} the {illegible} 200 yds or so.

{illegible} hut and dugouts point to a cultural practice.
It could also be from poacher as I have
seen numerous rocky coral that juts out of the
having lines thick wrapped and {illegible} ..

If they see something they like, they’ll take it (by force
if necessary). I wonder how many other folks have given
them something. And if they feel like it is expected or
due them?

Journal, p. 8

“Does it matter that the Indian government declared it a no-go zone?”

This is a fair and important question. Some Christians say Romans 13:1 is clear that we are to “be subject to the governing authorities.” Thus, Chau should not have gone within the no-go zone around the island. However, in Acts 5, Peter and John were reminded that they had been told not to preach in Jesus’ name. “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). Obeying God rather than man was definitely the thought of John Chau.

John Allen Chau / Instagram

“Are you saying John Chau is above criticism?”

No. I’m saying that we should be sober minded in criticizing his efforts. He gave his life to reach a people group that no one else was apparently attempting to reach. Furthermore, the evidence indicates that he prepared in significant ways for this mission effort.  

If you believe in heaven and hell then what he did was the most loving thing anyone could do.

John Middleton Ramsey

“How can we best honor John Chau’s efforts and sacrifice?”

My suggestion is threefold.  

First, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works …” (Hebrews 10:24). In the same way that Jim Elliot’s story stirred up love and good works in John Chau. Let’s use Chau’s story to stir up love and good works among us. Let’s learn about commitment to reach unreached people by listening to his heart and learning how he shaped his life to accomplish a holy task

Second, let’s think fairly about Chau’s preparation and strategy, then improve upon those things, if possible. Critical comments immediately offered to the media are not helpful to this end. In this case, much of the quick analysis was based on false assumptions. Now that we have more information sourced from the testimony of those who knew and interacted with John as well as his journal, we can actually evaluate his methods. For example, was English the best choice for first oral interaction? Was John’s decision to approach the island alone the best option? Were the gifts that he chose to offer the best options? These questions and many more are valid analytical questions, but should be asked after gaining more information. And for those who are wondering, I can make reasonable arguments for both a yes and no answer to each of those questions.  

Finally, let’s learn more about the North Sentinelese from what Chau recorded in his journal. He added fresh knowledge to that provided by previous visitors to the island. Learning about the Sentinelese as a teen is one of the things that God used to stir Chau’s heart toward reaching them for Christ. Perhaps God would do the same for us.

John Allen Chau, my new friend, rest in peace “in a place where the sun never sets.” Bask in the glory of the resurrected Christ whom you loved more than anything in this world.

Soli Gloria Deo

The Fourth Man (Dispatches from the Front Episode 10)

The announcement of the latest release in the Dispatches from the Front series, Episode 10: The Fourth Man is welcome news! (Available from Westminister Bookstore by clicking the title link above.)

Among the very best missions video series available is  Dispatches from the Front by Frontline Missions International (follow FMI@Twitter). The intention of the video series is to bring “viewers up-close with sights and sounds from distant corners of the Kingdom.” Why? Because believers “everywhere desperately need a renewed vision of Christ and the unstoppable advance of His saving work in all the earth.”1 To this end, Dispatches from the Front succeeds in every way.

The sights, sounds, and reflective narration are informative, encouraging and challenging because they provide an inside look at real ministry done by real people in real places around the globe.

In this 10th installment in the series, Tim Keesee takes the viewer into new territory: The Middle East.

“He is risen!”—three words that change everything. This wonderfully good news that was first announced to the women at the Empty Tomb is still being declared boldly in the Middle East by the Risen King’s messengers! Dispatches from the Front goes into this region of centuries-old darkness and division that is now overshadowed by the fierce violence of ISIS terror. Yet, the Gospel is powerfully at work in the Middle East, and Christ is building His Church there just as He said He would. Neither the gates of hell nor the gates of Islam can withstand the work of our Risen King! From mega-cities in Arabia to refugee camps left in the wake of ISIS terror, The Fourth Man goes beyond the headlines to showcase the Gospel’s power to save, the mercy and love of believers, and their abiding joy as Christ walks through the fires of persecution with them.2

I have personally watched all of the previous episodes multiple times and have included them in the curricula of my college and seminary missions courses. So, add my name to the long list of enthusiastic endorsements, which include, among others, Tim Challies, Mark Dever, John Piper, Carl Trueman, David J. Hesselgrave, and Justin Taylor.

It matters not whether you are a seminary or Bible college student, a missions pastor, or a lay member of your church that knows nothing about missions, you can benefit from this series.

Dr. Craig A. Dunning, PhD
Lead Professor of Intercultural Studies/Missions
Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary
#GoBBCLife Change U!

The video clip below will give you an idea of what’s inside episode 10.

1 http://tinyurl.com/m4sgstg
2 http://tinyurl.com/l22meyh

The Elephant in the Room

I am often asked questions about leadership and leading others. These questions come from students, colleagues, and leaders who are seeking to evaluate their organizations. As an outsider it’s often easier to evaluate a person’s leadership in a given situation because there is no need to clear away the fog that comes with being entrenched in a situation or the inner workings of an organization. Certainly, the details of a situation are rarely understood from afar, which makes it challenging to evaluate specific decisions a leader has made. However, when evaluating leadership, the specific decisions are often less critical than how a leader leads his/her troops through a situation, whether that situation be good or bad.

This series will focus on some of the mechanics of leadership.

The Elephant in the Room

An example of a poor leadership practice that I see more regularly in both small and large organizations is a failure to address the “elephant in the room.” Usually, this is not a simple oversight. Rather, it is an effort to control a negative situation, which usually makes the problem worse. Why leaders don’t recognize the negative effects of ignoring the elephant in the room is beyond me.

With the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, examples of this poor strategy are abundant and obvious for everyone to see. Except, perhaps, the executive who is attempting damage control. The results of not addressing a problem that virtually everyone is aware of are often many and usually negative.

Perhaps the most negative outcome is a loss of trust by those who are charged (by contract or choice) to follow the executive’s leadership. Once trust in leadership is lost, the downward spiral begins. A lack of trust in the leader usually results in a decreased commitment by those being led poorly. That is followed by decreasing job performance, regardless of whether the people are employees or volunteers. Poor job performance is followed by poor production/output, which will eventually lead to the stagnation or even death of the organization. This is true in sports. In business. In church life.

When everyone is aware of a major problem, address it … even if all you can say is “we are aware of the problem and this is what we are doing to address it.” The problem can be anything that raises serious concerns among a company’s or organization’s constituents. When an automobile has recurring problems that are causing customer deaths, the worst thing the CEO can do is ignore the problem as if it doesn’t exist. Are you listening, Toyota? When storms hit an area and leave people homeless, citizens want to know that the governor/mayor has his eye on the problem. Even if he/she doesn’t have an immediate solution to the problem. Remember Katrina and Sandy? When production or development plans fail, a CEO should first acknowledge the problem to the stakeholders and then keep them abreast of efforts to solve the problem. Remember Enron?

I found myself in such a situation while leading an organization. One member of the organization was publicly humiliating the organization through social media. Many, perhaps all members of the group were aware of this person’s actions and were waiting to see how I would respond. Clearly an executive doesn’t want to come out with guns blazing unnecessarily, so I had to properly evaluate the situation. Were the reports true? Was this individual hurting the morale of the membership and thus the organization? The answer was clearly yes. Furthermore, his actions were undermining my leadership … the longer I allowed them to go unaddressed the more my ability as a leader came into question among the membership.

Once this became clear, I had to act … and act, I did. I first addressed the situation with the individual, dismissing him from the organization. The next thing I did was speak directly and publicly to the members of the organization about the problem, clarifying why it was a problem for our organization and how I intended to remedy the problem. Finally, I laid out a plan for moving forward that shored up confidence in our organization and me as the leader of that organization. The camaraderie of the members grew and as an organization we were able to accomplish more than we had to date.

In that illustration, the problem was the behavior of an individual, which was pretty easily solved. Unfortunately, not all leadership challenges are so easily managed. Sometimes, the best plans do not succeed. On occasions, an executive is dependent on a series of things falling into place to solve a major problem, … and they don’t fall into place. That doesn’t have to be the end of the world … unless you leave people with their hands in the air, asking what’s going on because you refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room. People realize that things don’t always go as planned. So when they don’t, recognize it, explain it, and give confidence that you are working on it. If you do that, your leadership reputation and skills will be enhanced. If you don’t … your leadership will be rightly questioned.

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