By David Doran
Anyone who has read, listened to, or studied contemporary leadership theories knows that vision is touted as “the essential ingredient for successful leadership” (Hyatt, The Vision Driven Leader, p. 21). If you are among my older readers you may have endured the misuse of “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Pro 29:18, KJV) to jump start some major church campaign. While I am not denying that leaders have a responsibility to clarify and communicate direction, that’s not the kind of vision that I want to address in this blog post. My focus is based on another proverb for navigating life and leadership: “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it” (Proverbs 22:3).
The nugget of wisdom found in this proverb describes the kind of vision a leader needs. Charles Bridges remarks regarding this proverb, “When evil comes most men can see it. But the prudent foresee it. Not that God has given us knowledge of the future. This would only have encouraged arrogance. But He has given us wisdom to naturally foresee evil and to forecast the most effective means of deliverance. . . . Not that the wise man is gifted with supernatural knowledge. He only uses the discernment God has given him.” (A Modern Study in the Book of Proverbs, p. 472). In essence, the prudent man “is cautious; he recognizes danger and pulls back. The fool, on the other hand, is oblivious to risk and keeps on going. In the ‘end’ he will suffer for his carelessness” (Robert L. Alden, Proverbs, p. 160).
Sometimes leaders are so busy painting a beautiful picture of a better future that they can’t see the potholes right in front of them! Good leadership includes seeing those and taking preventive action. Allow me to tease out three dimensions of leadership vision like this.
Hindsight is the ability to learn from the past experiences of others and yourself in order to more effectively face the future. These experiences can be positive or negative—you can learn from both successes and failures. And the successes and failures could be your own or they could belong to other people. The principle in this text is well illustrated in Proverbs 24:30–32 where the wise man pays close attention to the disastrous consequences of being a sluggard and he is instructed by this experience. Set in terms of the earlier proverb, the wise man foresees the calamity of laziness, internalizes this principle, and diligently avoids committing the same error.
This means you should get wiser as you gain more experience, but we must recognize that experience itself does not produce wisdom. Evaluating and learning from the experience is what produces wisdom—the naïve don’t see danger which they ought to see and, as a result, march right into trouble. Churchill was echoing Solomon when he said, “Those who refuse to learn from history are destined to repeat it.”
As a leader you can accelerate your growth by deliberately engaging the task of learning what has happened before you, looking for patterns and principles from the successes and failures of those on whose shoulders you stand. Developing a habit of self-evaluation and reflection will also help you learn the lessons of your own experiences. What did you do well? Where were your missteps? If you face this situation in the future, how would you handle it differently, more effectively? What advice would you give to someone who faces something like this?
Learning from the past is crucial to facing the future effectively and—especially important for pastors—faithfully.
Foresight is the ability to envision the end results of your actions, to see that the consequences that may spring from your ideas. This involves the ability to see both potential accomplishments and potential problems. The leader forces himself to think through the “if, then what” scenarios of a decision. We’re not talking about slippery slope thinking, but more like exit ramps from the right path or brick walls that you might crash into. Make sure the road you’re traveling will get you to the destination you intend. Many decisions that seemed right in the moment proved to be dangerous for the long-term. Good leaders don’t get so captured by the heat of the moment that they lose sight of what lies ahead.
This is why Proverbs speaks often about the cause-effect relationship of choices. “If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked” (Pro 29:12). Cause (listens to falsehood) leads to effect (all his officials will be wicked). Wise leaders consider the potential effects of their present course and decisions. Because we bear God’s image we have the ability to evaluate our course and imagine possible outcomes. If we have learned from past experience (hindsight), we will be better at seeing where the potential pathways lead (foresight).
There is real danger in being stymied by analysis paralysis, but the answer isn’t naiveté or reckless leadership. If someone is stuck in the “look” mode of “look before you leap” you don’t change it to “just leap!” You simply remind them that it is now time to leap. Solomon includes the words “and hides himself” to make clear that real prudence includes an appropriate response to the danger that was spotted. Good leaders scan the horizon to spot potential problems and opportunities so that each can be responded to properly.
Insight is the ability to discern the true nature of a situation. “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thoughts to his steps. One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless” (Pro 14:15–16). It is foolish to make snap and shallow assessments. Wise leaders probe and ponder. Discernment sees the difference between things and works hard to separate fact from fiction, right from wrong, wisdom from folly.
It also sees the similarity of things and works hard to recognize patterns from past experience so as to avoid errors and seize opportunities. That’s why insight is essential for both effective hindsight and foresight. It doesn’t do any good to look backward or forward without discernment and understanding. That would be like passing the field of the sluggard and completely missing the instruction it provides!
Two years ago provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make exciting strategic plans based on the picturesque year, 2020. It took two and half months for those to crash under COVID 19! It was a powerful (and painful) reminder that we can’t see the future as well as we tend to think. In spite of that, there is a place in our understanding of leadership vision for seeing a compelling future and leading people toward it. But the lesson of 2020 may be that this place is not as large as the space needed for these three components. In fact, without these, you may be just a visionary and not much of a leader.
David Doran (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor of Inter-City Baptist Church and president of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. This article was originally published on DBTS’s blog, and is reposted here by permission.