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Leaders Journeying Together – Video

This is a presentation from LDC 2014. To learn more about the LDC, please visit

Ask almost any younger mission leader today, regardless of his or her country of origin, “Who is looking out for you and your well-being?” The answer is painfully predictable: “No one.” Younger mission leaders are hungry. They are hungry for in-depth relationships with older leaders who are authentic and vulnerable, and who will serve as experienced guides and shepherds. They are hungry to find older leaders who are willing to create safe spaces for conversations about unsafe, difficult subjects. And they are hungry for older leaders who will offer challenging opportunities and support to accelerate and deepen their growth as leaders. This workshop will give participants several simple models for developing intergenerational friendships, and provide participants with an opportunity to explore together what it would take to develop intergenerational leadership cultures in the global mission and church community.


My name is Todd Poulter.  I work with what’s now called the Wycliffe Global Alliance.  Many of you would know it as Wycliffe Bible Translators.  My wife and I spent six years in Ghana in West Africa, mostly in a little village; then we spent six years in Nairobi, in Kenya, in a very large village, and ten years in exile in Texas, working as part of international administration.  And then the last ten years we’ve been in Malaysia as tourists, so we love to move around, and have lots of opportunities to discover how God takes care of his people.  God in His wisdom has used health to move us from one place to another; one of us gets quite sick, and it’s time to move on, and so we sort of hope the next move doesn’t have to be precipitated by that, but that’s part of the way the Lord has worked. A couple months ago, I was in Turkey at the Janette Cibonda, and we did a couple of focus groups, one with older leaders and one with younger leaders, looking at this question of intergenerational relationships, intergenerational friendships.  Jeannette Sibanda, a South African young woman said, “What will enable younger leaders to stand is not a weekly mentoring session, but a significant friendship with an older leader.  What will enable us to stand is not a weekly formal mentoring session, but a significant friendship with an older leader.”

2006, Cape Town, also another Mission Commission meeting – Dr. Bill Taylor interviewed five younger mission leaders: one from Ireland, one from Kenya, one from Brazil, one from India, and one from the U.S.  The responses were not rehearsed, but they all said the same thing.  Number one: we’re hungry for relationships with older men and women.  Number two: we’re hungry for safe places with those older men and women to talk about unsafe topics.  And third, we’re hungry for safe places to talk about painful experiences.  And each of them related how, in their environment, they had not had that freedom.  They hadn’t had safe places, they hadn’t had friendships, and the things that they wanted to talk about most deeply, older leaders said, “No, we’re not going to talk about that,” however we said it.  Cape Town 2010,  a leadership study was done with about 1,100 leaders from around the world.  The question was, “Why is there such a shortage of Christlike leaders in the church?”  What do you suppose they said?  You don’t have to guess, but I really am looking for responses.  What kind of things do you suppose they said?

Comment:  Lack of communication.

Okay; lack of communication.

Comment:  Lack of good models.

Lack of good models.

Comment:  Lack of team, or lack of co-leaders walking with them.

Right; like in an environment doing that?  Yep.

Comment:  Big boss style.

Okay; big boss style.

Comment:  Lack of relationships between older and younger leaders.

Okay.  That would make kind of sense; it might fit in here.  The two things that these leaders identified were first of all, one related to programs; that leadership development programs, by and large, don’t deliver.

Anyway, so-called leadership development programs, by and large, don’t develop people to lead in the real world.  That was the number one response.  Number two response was current leaders don’t make room for younger leaders to develop.  So three realities: what I call hunger that’s not recognized and not satisfied; programs that don’t deliver; and leaders that don’t make room.  Many older leaders don’t seem to even be aware of the younger leaders in their world, or to realize the depth of their hunger.  What’s going on there?  Why is that happening? I don’t quite remember his phrase, but in one of Warren Bennis’ books, he talks about being a phenomenal noticer; other thoughts about why older men and women are not aware?

Comment:  Insecurity?

Insecurity?  Tell us more.  Right, right – how could I, this very unimportant person, ask for time from you, a very important and obviously very busy person?

Comment:  Ask why he’s busy.

Okay – why are you busy and what are you busy about?  How many of you have job descriptions?  I know it’s kind of an old thing, but … how many of you, in your job description, does it specifically talk about investing time in other leaders?  Okay, one of us – yeah, a couple of us.  Yeah, most of us, that’s not part of what our organization, our ministry, or even we perceive of as part of our job.  The impact of this unsatisfied hunger, one of the things we don’t have time for, but up here on the front, I printed off copies of the focus group summaries from a group of older leaders.  It was a group of mission leaders, part of the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission.  So we met as older leaders, and then we met as younger leaders.

Somebody made the observation that a leadership development program needs to be a crucible of character development, and most of us are too afraid to make it that way.  If you think about the leadership development process that you’ve been part of, how many of them have been crucibles for the development of the character of the people in the room?  We usually back off from moving that way.  And I think fundamentally my belief is that it takes leaders to develop leaders who will build leaders.  You can’t delegate it.  One of the mission agencies that Wycliffe works with, they actually ended up losing some key people over that principle, because many of our organizations delegate the development of leaders to their personnel department or their HR folks. You can’t do it – and I’m sorry if any of you are in personnel departments or HR.  You can’t develop.  You can’t delegate that kind of issue.  Third, leaders don’t make room.  Current leaders don’t make room for emerging leaders to develop.  What’s that about?  This morning I was talking at breakfast with Mark, and he was sharing that growing up he had the sense that he was an incompetent woodworker. Then as an adult, he had the opportunity to work with his father-in-law, who taught him, worked with him.  He said, “I realized it wasn’t about my incompetence; it was about the insecurity of the one who was teaching me.”  And so he says, “Now, my father-in-law asks me, ‘What do you think?  How should I be doing this?'”  Interesting little picture there.

Okay, so we’ve got hunger that’s not recognized or satisfied, programs that don’t deliver, and leaders that won’t make room.  And as I’ve reflected on that, my sense is that the fundamental issue is current church and mission leaders who don’t take personal responsibility for developing emerging younger leaders.  They have lots of other stuff going on, but I think the fundamental issue is this: current leaders who don’t take personal responsibility for the development of younger emerging leaders within their churches, within their missions, within their spheres of influence.  So like I said, it’s rarely included in our job descriptions.  We rarely perceive it as part of our job.  We do it as something outside.  Carol was talking last night about front-line leaders, and then those of us who are involved in training leaders, and so as a front-line leader, we don’t imagine that actually the development of leaders is our job, because someone else is going to do it.

Someone else has a program, someone else has a training event.  So emerging leaders, from the perspective of leaders who are older, get little of our time, our attention, our energy, and they’re left to figure things out, or to simply disappear.  A Kenyan guy that was on this panel said, “I don’t want to be a shooting star.  You see me today, but in a few years, I’m gone; I have disappeared from ministry, because I had no support.  Nobody came alongside me.  I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and so I’m out of here.”  The stories of pain from younger leaders – we could spend the whole hour just sharing those stories.  That’s what started me in this process.  But the alternate vision which I’m trying to promote within my own mission of Wycliffe, and everywhere I have a chance, is to imagine flourishing intergenerational leadership cultures in the church and mission agencies; flourishing intergenerational leadership cultures.

Why is that important?  Well, I think we’ve got to satisfy the hunger of younger leaders, and ensure that there’s a continuous and growing pool, not just for the sake of our ministry, but for the sake of these men and women that we are losing.  We hear about the tremendous growth of the church in Korea, and yet what I’m hearing from some of my Korean colleagues is that the Korean church is losing its young men and women.  There are reasons why that’s happening.  Leadership succession – if we have a culture where leaders are investing in leaders who invest in leaders – leadership succession simply becomes part of how we do business, rather than a continual crisis.  As we looked within Wycliffe, most of our leadership – I don’t know if I should say most – but many of our leadership succession stories were not great ones. If I look more broadly, there are very few wonderful leadership succession stories.  We don’t know how to do this well, and during one of the focus groups, one of the Indian men, who’s a missiologist said, “We need to develop a theology of leadership succession.”  So that’s one of the projects that I hope to work on with others; what would that theology of leadership succession look like?  What do the Scriptures tell us about how that should happen?  What about for you?  What, for you, would be a reason for developing this kind of culture – an intergenerational leadership culture – within the ministry that you’re part of?  Why would that make a difference – or why not?  There are a couple of systemic things that I think it would take to move us in this direction.

I like to think of kind of a triangle, and you’ve got the leader, and you’ve got the function of leadership, and you’ve got the leadership culture.  And my guess is that one of the reasons why a lot of what we call leadership development programs fail is that we primarily focus on the leader, and we don’t give too much attention to the function of leadership within whatever group they were, nor do we especially pay attention to the leadership culture.  And all built around what’s God doing – what’s the mission that God’s doing?

Question:  Could you define leadership cultures, what you mean by it?

Yeah – good question.  One of the organizations that I’ve worked with in the past had a leadership culture where we were constantly undermining the leaders in our organization, so that we institutionalized disrespect for leaders, and we didn’t want leaders to have any authority over our lives.  So we would put in place field committees, and the field committees’ job was to keep the leader in check.  And so some very promising leaders, after serving for two, three years, four, five years, they said, “I will never go into leadership again, because this leadership culture is so toxic for me as a leader.”  There are leaders who are toxic for their organizations, but there are organizations that are toxic for their leaders.  That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about, so they were looking at how do we perceive leadership? Within Wycliffe, we actually started a process of developing a leadership philosophy.  What do we actually believe about leadership, and what is our basic approach?  The first piece – and we’ve already talked about this – we said, “We want to be intentional about what we’re doing, and the development of leaders.”  Second piece is relational, rather than programmatic.

I was thinking last night – there was a question, how do you package the truth?  And I thought, “Well, how did Jesus package the truth?  He said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’”  We package the truth relationally, not propositionally.  We package the truth through our lives.  We were talking about failure.  Several years ago – my home area is Silicon Valley – I was talking with a guy who was going for an interview after being out of work for a couple of years.  And he said, “I think what they’re interested in is my scar tissue.”  Well, that’s also what younger men and women are interested in about older ones – their scar tissue.  Do we have healthy scar tissue?  How have we healed from those wounds that were so terrible, that were so painful?  I find that younger men and women are not particularly interested in my success. I’m a survivor, so they know I obviously got here somehow.  What they really want to know is when you screwed up, when it didn’t work, when you utterly failed, what happened?  How did you survive?  And do you have healthy scar tissue from that?  My own story is about five or six years ago, my wife said to me, “I notice increasing bitterness and cynicism in your life.  Is that what you want to be communicating?”  And I said, “Oh, Lord, no.”  Sam talked about self-deception; that was my world.  I had no idea that was going on.  And so the Lord used that to give me a whole different perspective. In my case, the bitterness and cynicism was coming from not being invited to be part of conversations, to be part of groups, to be part of task forces where I thought I was skilled and I ought to have been invited.

God’s message to me was, “You go to the parties I’ve invited you to go to, and don’t worry about the parties you’re not invited to.”  Well, that changed everything for me, because suddenly, God was responsible as far as whether I got an invitation, and I couldn’t get mad at anybody else, and it has been tremendous freedom.  But that’s one of my scar tissues, and I wanted to have healthy ones, because I didn’t want, as Richard Rohr says, “If we don’t transform our pain, we will transmit it.  If we don’t transform it, we’ll transmit it.”

When there’s a task or responsibility, most of us want to have the best person to do it, so we’ll succeed.  A developmental approach says, “You know what, I’ve got Derek here, and I’ve got Susan here, and Susan – I know she can just do the job.  She’s great.  She’s done it a hundred times.  Derek, I really don’t know.  I don’t know what this guy’s going to do, but I know that if Derek has this responsibility, he’s going to grow through it.  And I’m going to be there, working with Derek as he does.”  So taking the developmental approach – this is what Jesus did.  I read the gospels, and I’m infuriated with Jesus, and I keep saying, “Jesus, don’t do that.  Don’t do that.  They’re going to mess up.  They’re going to make a mistake.”  And Jesus, fortunately, didn’t listen to me.  He pays no attention, and you just see Him giving the disciples, over and over, opportunities way beyond them, to grow them.  And then when they screw up, then He debriefs with them – developmental.  Experiential – closely related – this relates to the piece of older leaders not creating space and room allowing younger leaders to grow.

They grow through doing it and then reflecting on it, not through having another training course about it.  And then the last one is collective – that most of us as leaders are going to thrive rather than simply survive when we have a fellowship, a community of other leaders, that we can be part of.  The Western idea of leaders as individuals isn’t all there is.  I’d like to suggest a couple of personal interventions, and a couple of systemic interventions.  These are just, again, quick, and then we’ll have some time for discussion.  It won’t surprise you that the first personal intervention I recommend is building and sustaining personal friendships.  The great thing about friendships is it doesn’t require anybody’s permission.  It often breaks the rules.  It breaks the rules of power distance between older and younger. It breaks a lot of rules, but you don’t have to ask permission to do it.  My wife and I were already doing this, and then a friend of ours said, “Well, there’s a book you should read.  It’s called The Circle of Friends, by Wicks and Hamma, or something.  And in it, they said there are three things that characterize spiritual friendship.  The first is supportive presence.  They all have Ps in them, so it makes it easier.  First is supportive presence; coming alongside, creating safe space.  The second, and I think somebody mentioned it earlier, is experience perspective, which is different from advice.  But the supportive presence provides a context in which we can bring, at the appropriate time or not, an experience perspective to shed on the particular situation that’s going on with the younger men and women that we’re relating to.

And I think it was said here, what Carl and I say to younger men and women is, “You are the curriculum.  Your life is the curriculum.  I mean sure, I’ve got a lot of ideas, and I’ve got a lot of models and things, but your life is what determines what we talk about, and your issues are going to be very different in Bangalore than they are going to be in Nairobi, than they are going to be in Cotonou, so your life is the curriculum.”  But supportive presence, experience perspective, and occasionally, speaking with a prophetic voice.  I do that rarely, and I do it very carefully, but those first two create a context in which the third can happen.  The second one is to the extent that it’s possible, second personal intervention, to the extent that it’s possible, provide challenging opportunities to the people that you’re working with, and then support them in that process. Friendship sounds so weak, it sounds so useless, and it has made such a difference.  It’s made a difference in all of our lives, and I started out – as I say, we were in a very small village in Ghana.  I got an “F” for my friendship skills.  I asked a local guy, you know, “Tell us what the villagers say about us,” and in good Ghanian style, he refused.  He just smiled.  And I kept badgering and badgering and badgering him, and finally, he said, “Okay, I’ll tell you.”  And he began to describe my wife, and he said, you know, “We call her ‘Daughter of Grace,’ and she’s so wonderful and hospitable, and people come, and dah, dah, dah,” and I thought, “Okay.”  I said, “That’s really great.  What do they say about me?”  And he said, “Well … people come to your place, and they know you’re done with them after ten minutes; and they may be there for an hour, but you were done 50 minutes ago.”

That’s who I am in the village, so the friendship building piece is not something I do naturally.  It’s not something I started out great at.  It’s something that I’ve painfully worked at, because I don’t know any other way to make that connection, because it’s not a propositional connection.  It’s not a positional connection.  It is a deeply personal connection. People of all ages, but I find especially younger men and women, gravitate to someone that has time, and attention, and interest.  I know this is all very simple stuff.  Systemic interventions – this is where I think it’s our job, especially as older men and women, together with younger men and women, to identify what are the invisible dysfunctions and the undiscussable issues in our ministry, in our organization, in our mission.

Question:  What are the invisible dysfunctions and the undiscussable issues?  Meaning invisible to leadership, but visible to everybody else.

Right – and the great thing is that younger men and women are excellent at identifying what, for them, are not invisible dysfunctions, and they know exactly what the undiscussable issues are.  When you get to a certain age, you tend to forget or lose your – you sort of become blind.  Your senses get numbed.  So younger men and women can identify what those issues are, and older men and women can validate them and create the space to talk about them.  There are a lot of ministries that love to pool younger leaders together.  That is the wrong answer, because then you just get a bunch of younger leaders.  Younger leaders like to hang out with younger leaders.  Excuse me – I don’t mean to speak on behalf of those of you that are – but the richness comes in the interaction.  It’s like our Sunday Schools – but we won’t go there.

So identifying those issues, and then make them discussable in a safe place.  And in all the cultures that I know about, just the ones who are most able to make those safe places are those of us that are older.  Younger men and women cannot self-authorize, except among themselves; and then if they’re just talking with themselves, they don’t get anywhere, because they need to get the ear and the action of those of us that are older.  The other thing is – well, let me just camp on that a little bit.  The power distance thing is big in a lot of cultures.  North American culture, we like to think it’s pretty small, and relatively, it is, but it’s still a big issue here.  A Kenyan friend of mine said, “One of the reasons why older leaders keep this distance is they want to make sure that all the decisions flow through them, and then you have this big gap.

Then when something happens to the older leader, then you have this huge scurrying around because nobody knows what to do.  In Francophone Africa, you can’t even talk about leadership succession, period.  It can’t be done.  It’s like talking about someone being dead before they died.  The other thing, the second systemic thing, is that we must model healthy alternatives to the way our Christian culture or the way our national culture is defining things.  And again, you don’t need permission to model something that’s healthy, any more than you need permission to build a friendship.  I read a wonderful story coming from Sudan, from the book The Influencer, or Influence … it’s by Joseph Grenny and a couple of others, but the leader of a southern Sudan telecom company was trying to turn the company around, and he had big talks and everything else.  It didn’t make any difference. So what he started doing was he took his 11-year-old daughter, and he began visiting the informal influence leaders in that organization.  He visited foremen, so he jumped ten levels of hierarchy.  He went to their home, and he spent the morning just talking with them, and pretty soon, people began to go back and say, “This most amazing thing happened.  The president came and spent time in my home talking with my family,” and then he did that for a period of 10 or 12 weeks.  That was the only way he could figure out how to model that he really was wanting something different.  Let’s stop there from listening to me.  What are your reflections?  What are your questions for one another?  What are your experiences in this area?  What are the things that you have found, have worked most successfully?  Where do you experience the greatest pain?

It’s one of a number of big questions.  I’ve a good friend in Bangalore who actually happens to be leading a ministry, but at one point about a year ago, he said to me, “You know what, I need to be passing on and modeling the things that are going on in our relationship with those that are younger than me.”  So that’s where I think a 39-year-old or a 33-year-old, there’s no rules about not modeling the behaviors that you want to model with younger ones, but usually it’s hard to sustain that if you don’t have support from either a peer, or especially from an older leader.  And so that’s what I think one of our greatest roles as older men and women is – to support them.  You go to an international conference like this, and I won’t name the country, but you have someone, a younger guy was here, and they used to be with me.

He knows that the travel agent that I work with and I have colluded, and we’ve added $500.00 to the cost of my air ticket, because the organization was paying for this.  And as a younger leader, the younger leader comes and asks me about it, and I say, “Well, what am I supposed to do to pay my school fees?”  The younger one – this is the quote.  This guy says to me, “I don’t want to become like you.”  That’s that question; “I don’t want to become like you, but I’m going to do it, number one, if I don’t have models, if I don’t have friends who will support me in living a different life in the Christian community that I’m a part of in this nation.”  Now, thank God, he was courageous enough to say to me what I knew was not meant personally to me, but “I don’t want to become like the older leaders that are part of the Christian culture in my nation.”

Question: In the secular world, there’s a growing interest in moving around an organization faster and faster, different organizations, to be able to get experience in a variety of different places, and studies have actually shown that people grow faster, and incomes grow faster, etc.  Christian organizations are often a little bit less than what they get from outside to move around them, so how do you satisfy the hunger of the people that want to move around, grow, and get all this experience, when our organizations are often smaller, there’s less room for promotion?  And there’s a disconnect, and you almost have to allow people to leave…

Yeah.  It’s easier in a very large organization like Wycliffe, where we’re actually in the process of developing cross-regional internships, for that very reason – so that a guy from Mexico spends time in Taiwan.  And part of that process, it only works if there is somebody on the front end, from the sponsoring organization, and someone on the receiving organization, both of whom are willing to act as sponsors, who will reflect with the person.  I think a lot of these internships happen, and there’s nobody to reflect with, so you have these experiences, and they’re basically a waste of time.  But if you’ve got people investing in you on the front end that care about what happens, and people on the receiving end, I think it’s a lot more valuable.  For smaller organizations, I think we have to think in terms of partnering. Who are the other organizations that we could work with?  In the leadership development arena, we’re having a small meeting of folks who are involved in six or seven different ministries, just sharing what are you doing, what are you learning; what’s working, what’s not?  So I don’t think small organizations are hindered except by their vision to see beyond their own organization to who else is out there doing something similar enough that we could trade people around.  That’s my quick answer; I don’t know if it’s true or not.

I’m glad you said that thing about risks, because one of the things that was part of the focus group with the younger leaders is they said, “You know, it’s great if an older leader will send us out on a risky thing, but we want you to take the risks with us.”  And I have not used the mentoring word here, I haven’t used the coaching word here, not because I don’t think those are valuable, but because I think the foundational piece is relational, and I usually don’t use the word even relational.  It’s friendship.  North Americans can use relationships in an instrumental way, as a tool to get something done.  But the rest of the world doesn’t work that way, and it doesn’t work.  Relationships and friendships have to be – they have value in themselves.

You’re not using that person to accomplish something that’s important to you; your purpose is developing that person for something that’s important to them.  And usually I think we can be transparent.  The men and women that we work with, they know that we’re investing in them because we want to build into their lives, that they would be more godly men and women.  So that agenda is clear – that I’m not just hanging out with you for coffee.  I see God’s hand on your life, and I want to do everything I can to support what God’s doing.  That would be the difference I would see.

Let’s close here.  I just want to share something that I was reflecting on last night when the question was, how do those of us that are older that have not been in – we don’t know what the future is like; a lot of us are stuck a long time ago.  I mean that’s where I am.  There are a lot of things that I have a struggle entering into, so one young guy from South Africa said, “What I would most appreciate is if older leaders would share their stories, not their strategies.  We can discern from their stories the lessons that we need to apply to a new world.  But when you tell us your strategies and ask us to follow that cool strategy that God showed you, we don’t know what to do with it.”  So tell us your stories, not your strategies.

Todd Poulter
Todd Poulter
Todd grew up in Silicon Valley when it was still filled with fruit orchards. He and his wife Karla have been with SIL, and more recently with the Wycliffe Global Alliance, for 30-plus years – in Ghana, Kenya, the U.S., and now in Penang, Malaysia. Their two adult sons, an artist and a lawyer, both work in San Francisco. Todd serves on Wycliffe’s Global Leadership Team as a consultant for leadership development. He also is a member of International Partnership Associates, whose goal is to multiply effective partnering and ministry to least-reached peoples. He and his wife Karla love to befriend younger mission leaders and their families. In Penang, they enjoy exploring the historic neighborhoods on foot, and finding interesting (and cheap) places to eat.


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