Review: Canoeing the Mountains

Canoeing the Mountains.jpg

Canoeing the MountainsTod Bolsinger. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press – Praxis, 2015.

Summary: Using the story of Lewis and Clark, Bolsinger explores the kind of leadership needed in the uncharted territory of our rapidly changing cultural landscape.

“Seminary didn’t train me for this.” “Our church is dying and I have no clue what to do.” Over and over, Tod Bolsinger encountered these statements in his consulting work. Pastors are trained in teaching, liturgics, and pastoral care, and often, those tools just don’t seem enough in our changing world. Bolsinger likens this to the moment Lewis and Clark climbed the Lemhi Pass, having canoed up the Missouri River, and instead of expecting to find a river on the other side of the mountain that would carry them to the Pacific, they found…mountains. The needed to exchange canoes for horses, and adapt to an “off the map” situation. In this book, Bolsinger considers the adaptive leadership of Lewis and Clark, and applies it to Christian leaders often tempted to try to “canoe the mountains,” because they don’t know any other way to lead. Often, they may be the greatest obstacle to transformative change in their churches or organizations. The choice they face is between adventure and organizational death.  All of this is part of understanding the “uncharted territory” that calls for a new kind of leadership.

Part Two makes the contention that there are critical “on the map” skills that leaders must demonstrate in order for people to follow them “off the map.” These include competence and credibility in stewarding Scripture and tradition, souls and communities, and teams and tasks. It means leadership that develops “relational congruence” in which one builds trust by showing the ability to be the same person with the same values in every relationship. And it means clarity and embodiment of the core values one hopes to see manifest in the church.

“Leading off the Map” is the focus of Part Three and critical to this is the adaptive capacity of the leader. Leaders must be able to look at systems rather than react to symptoms, to calmly face loss and the challenge of the unknown, leading a learning process expressed in asking questions rather than giving answers. Sometimes rather than doing something, it first means standing still…and then doing something through a process of observation, interpretation, and intervention. In the process, understanding the DNA of the church and not violating that is critical. Interventions should start out modesty and playfully–lots of experiments, and resistance can be expected. In facing resistance, leaders must be absolutely clear and convicted about the mission, which for Bolsinger, “trumps all” and ready to press into mission even when no one else is.

Part Four goes deeper into the issue of “Relationships and Resistance.” Leaders cultivate relationships with six groups of people:

  1. Allies, aligned and in agreement with the mission.
  2. Confidants, who are outside the organization and can give honest feedback.
  3. Opponents who are not enemies but have a different perspective that must be heard and engaged.
  4. Senior authorities, those above one with whom connection and relationship are critical to support one through a change process. Think of Jefferson’s role with Lewis and Clark.
  5. Casualties, those who stand to lose in a change process for whom leaders assume responsibility.
  6. Dissenters who ask the tough questions that need to be asked and responded to without defensiveness because it is not about the leader but the mission.

The real challenge though is recognizing and persisting through sabotage, which Bolsinger believes can be expected when leading in uncharted territory. That was an eye-opener.

Finally, in Part Five, Bolsinger writes about the “transformation” that occurs with adaptive leadership. He observes the leadership transformation in the Lewis and Clark party, where the two share equally in command, where a woman, Sacajawea, leads, where both she and a slave vote, and a soldier is released from regular duty for discovery–long before such practices would be widely accepted in the culture. Bolsinger proposes that just as the most significant blockage may be the leader, so also, the most important transformation to occur in an adaptive leadership process is in the leader.

This seems to me to be a critically important book for leadership teams and pastors. So often our approach when things are not working is simply to double down and try harder, which, as someone has pointed out, is a definition of insanity. The willingness to leave the canoes behind, and learn new skills, to get up on the balcony, and then try new interventions rooted in careful observation and interpretation and not reaction, and to stay relentlessly focused on mission separated Lewis and Clark from other explorers.

I would have liked to see this leadership model rooted in scripture. Lewis and Clark certainly were singular leaders, and the book invokes good leadership theory. I can’t help but wonder what one might draw from the leadership of Moses, of David, of Jesus, and of Paul, each who in some sense led in uncharted territory. The conflict situation of Acts 6 strikes me as a marvelous example of a system that wasn’t working, and of leadership that exhibited relational, and spiritual competence linked to clear missional focus while adapting to problems associated with expansion, resulting in a transformed, rapidly growing church and an enlarged and diversified leadership nucleus.

Nevertheless, there is much of profit here. If leaders can simply stop and realize they are trying to “canoe the mountains” that is probably worth the price of admission. To move from a speaking to a collaborating ministry that leads, not with answers, but is open to questions and learning is an important leadership transformation. It could make all the difference between catalyzing the giftedness within our organizations and churches, and losing it.

3 thoughts on “Review: Canoeing the Mountains

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2018 | Bob on Books

  2. A retired Ford executive introduced a Hope College professor and me to this book a few days ago during our lunch together. I just got a copy and have started reading it; the three of us will be together again soon and plan to discuss it, so am glad you reviewed it. I have a book of paintings of the Corps of Discovery expedition by artist Charles Fritz that, along with your review, will add to our conversation!

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