The year following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis to find the most direct and practical water route across the continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean for the purposes of commerce. For over 300 years explorers from at least four sovereign nations had been looking for a pathway that would lead from the Mississippi River all the way through the North America to the Pacific. Lewis was joined by Second Lieutenant William Clark and together formed the Corps of Discovery to under take the challenge from President Jefferson.
The Corps of Discovery began with a faulty assumption. Everyone was certain that the water route to the Pacific was there. All they needed to do was discover it. But they were wrong. There was no passage. When Lewis and Clark came to the end of the river they realized that nothing before them was like anything they had experienced that was behind them. There were no manuals, maps or journals that could help them. They literally marched off the map into the unknown.
What the Corps of Discovery learned over 200 years ago is what we are learning today in the life of our church. The world of ministry is not like anything we have experienced in the past. The cultural landscape has changed to the degree that our assumptions about reaching and serving are experiencing diminishing returns.
Today we are recognizing that many of the ministries we found to be effective in the past are no longer having the same impact today. Like Lewis and Clark, we must realize that we are marching into an age where our canoes may no longer help us reach our destiny. Like the Corps of Discovery, we are finding the need to trade our canoes for horses so that we can stay focused on the mission. Those who choose to love their canoes more than the mission will risk becoming stuck at the headwaters of the river and fail to reach the ultimate goal.
Tod Bolsinger shared this anecdotal story to form the motif of his book, Canoeing the Mountains. He uses this historical event to describe the type of adaptive leadership that is needed in the 21st century. It was written prior to the global pandemic, and coming out of the pandemic is more timely than ever.
Bolsinger suggests five characteristics every leader must possess in order to lead a congregation or organization in unchartered territory:
- Recognize you are in uncharted territory, and that the world in front of you is nothing like the world before you.
- No one will follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map. Competence and credibility on the map is required to develop the necessary trust to advance into the unknown.
- Adaptation is the key to leading in uncharted territory. Adaptation is the process of learning and loss. Once we realize the losses won’t kill us, we can embrace a growth mindset and learn.
- Adaptive leadership requires both collaborative relationships and navigating resistance. Today’s leader can no longer go it alone. Successful change is not achieved until the leader has survived the inevitable sabotage.
- Finally, everyone will be changed, especially the leader. Survival comes when the leader is willing to allow people to speak into his or her life that previously have gone unheard.
If Bolsinger’s book was important in 2015, it is invaluable in 2021. If you’re an organizational leader who is looking to lead into the dynamic future instead of being content with the static present, this book is a must read.