Wednesday, August 24, 2011

leadership: it's obvious when it's not

Once again I’m sitting in the quonset hut-like building called Terminal 2 at CVG—Cincinnati’s international airport. The claustrophobic shotgun Terminal 2 services Continental, American Airlines and United Airlines. No kidding. CVG is like walking into an apocalyptic movie set: empty, frayed and eerily quiet. This was once a bustling, thriving airport, peaking in the late nineties. 911 obviously didn’t help, but storm clouds were on the horizon before that. The airport Delta built (Literally. They dumped millions into it—apparently a rare move for an airline) was flying high, particularly on a novel idea of short commuter flights until other nearby airports like Dayton and Indianapolis got into the same game. When Delta squeezed other low-cost carriers out of Cincinnati by temporarily lowering its fees until they left and then ramping them back up, CVG became the nation’s most expensive departure ticket. And then the Northwest merger. Northwest already had a huge hub being built in Detroit, so say goodbye to the unprofitable airport curiously built in Kentucky.

Now it just looks sad. Nowhere can you find a flight monitor in Terminal 2. Several of the gate monitors needed to be rebooted. No one from AA is in sight until right before a flight leaves. Good luck trying to find help. Thank God for smartphones. In settings like this, I don’t blame the poor employees who have to walk in and face a flock of frustrated flyers; this is a leadership issue and a supervisory breakdown, from the airlines to airport management. Someone at the top is either uninformed or apathetic. It’s always about leadership.

This morning the news reported a national survey on the “happiness index” of our fifty states. Hawaii scored the top of the happy list. Before you say, “Duh”, the next two were Alaska and North Dakota. Really. I assume some of it had to do with employment opportunities, but apparently the survey measures numerous intangibles.

But get this: the bottom four were Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia. Ohio, thank you, borders two of them.

Last week I took my friends from the U.K. who were staying with me to downtown Cincinnati on a Monday afternoon. She’s a beautiful city when viewed through the downward twisting cut in I-75 heading north from Kentucky, with a tight, shining skyline ringed with hills. But her close-up on a Monday during regular work time was sad. The city seemed abandoned. The once burgeoning Tower Place Mall creeped me out with half of the stores closed. On Race Street, the remnant of a skywalk crosses overhead and suddenly stops in mid-air above a parking lot where a former building—now leveled—once connected. Its stub is covered in warping, splintered plywood. And it’s been that way for years. As we walked up Vine north of Fifth Street in front of Brooks Brothers and Tiffany’s, the sidewalk smelled of urine. Even if we don’t know how to solve the unemployment and homeless issue, doesn’t management care enough to have someone simply hose the sidewalk in the morning? This is good business, regardless of the social issues.

Moreover, in a previous census, Cincinnati proper was listed as the third poorest large city in the country, behind Detroit and Buffalo. What happened? It’s amazing how momentum can suddenly shift and an organization, a sports team, a township, and yes, a church, begins to drift. Organizational guru and author Ichak Adizes in his classic book Corporate Lifecycles lays out organizations life-stages on a Bell curve like this:

According to Adizes, every stage has unique problems that must be solved. That’s normal. But chronic ones can obviously cause it to stall, burn out, or even rush through later lifecycles that set up an early death if not dealt with appropriately, even when everything seems to be charting up-and-to-the-right. Research lead Adizes to this discovery: the organization has a critical need to stay in a state of “Prime” and, interestingly enough, not settle in “Stable”. In his study, Prime is that delicate balance between organizational flexibility and organizational self-control. And in my mind, that’s a leadership responsibility based on good data, sharp teammates, and some intuitive smarts. For us church leaders, add the vital need to keep our prophetic ear to the ground.

As for Cincinnati, it does no good to point fingers or play politics. That’s silly. And Cincinnati’s not even the point of this post. My point is that most chronic problems in any system usually stem from a leadership breakdown somewhere. If you haven’t read Kings and Chronicles in the Old Testament, check it out: the ebb and flow of effective leadership shifts the momentum in a heartbeat. The sad history of Israel is laid out warts-and-all. It isn’t pretty.

And as an aside, some of us believe Cincinnati can thrive again. In the Old Testament, God told his people they had a job to do even in the city that had carried them off as prisoners. I would say even more so for us: “Also do good things for the city where I sent you as captives. Pray to the Lord for the city where you are living, because if good things happen in the city, good things will happen to you also.” (Jeremiah 29:7 NCV)

If I might add one more thing at the risk of sounding self-promoting: pray for your leaders. In your city…and in your local church.

I know this leader needs it.

A city without wise leaders will end up in ruin; a city with many wise leaders will be kept safe. (Proverbs 11:14 CEV)