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Becoming Leaders of Profound Change

By Kristine Blaess

In 1992, President Václav Havel of Czechoslovakia wrote an Opinion piece for The New York Times that electrified its readership. “The end of Communism is, first and foremost, a message to the human race,” Havel wrote. “It is a message we have not yet fully deciphered and comprehended. In its deepest sense, the end of Communism has brought a major era in human history to an end. It has brought an end not just to the 19th and 20th centuries, but to the modern age as a whole.”

More than 30 years later, we still grapple with the end of the modern age. Today, many things indicate we are going through a long transitional period when something is on its way out and something else is painfully being born. The old ways, relationships, and institutions are crumbling, decaying, and exhausting themselves, while something else, still indistinct, is rising from the rubble. To see, we have only to set our eyes on the decades of intractable wars around the world, increasing incoherence and violence in our nation, the breakdown of communities, and in our churches, an acceleration of the effects of the end of Christendom.

In these past months, a line from John O’Donohue’s Blessing for the Interim Time has stayed with me: “The old is not old enough to have died away; The new is still too young to be born.” We know enough to know that things will never return to the way they were, but what is being born is still in many ways shrouded in uncertainty. With God’s grace, perhaps we can be hopeful enough to trust that what is being born is God’s kingdom among us, the crucified and risen Lord in our midst.

But how do we, leaders of churches and institutions, lead our people into the future that is waiting to be born? It is clear that technical change is not going to move us into the future. The problems we face are not going to be fixed by expertise and good management. Our techniques are failing us.

Likewise, adaptive change will only offer us partial release. Innovation and learning in our institutions will help, but the problem is bigger than changes in our processes and strategies will solve.

So where do we go for help? How do we find the path into the new future God has for us? The only way forward is through the transformation of our institutions, which starts with the transformation of our communities, and of ourselves as leaders. Nothing short of new hearts will bring us into the new life God is creating for us. Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, calls this profound change. Profound change is “shifting the inner place from which we operate, both as individuals and communities.” Profound change comes from transforming hearts — our hearts and the hearts of the institutions we serve.

There is biblical precedent for this kind of change. The transformation of the heart and the renewing of the mind in Christ, profound change, is the promise of the coming of God’s kingdom. As St. Paul reminds us,

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20)

The old world may be dying, but in Christ new life is rising from the rubble. When God’s kingdom comes, all things will be made new. The heart of all things will be returned from Christ. The reconciling work that began on the cross continues now and will be fulfilled at the end.

But how do we become leaders who can lead profound change? The key is in our own openness to transformation. Our ability to lead resides in our willingness to daily engage in the transformational acts of dying in Christ and being raised anew with him. St. Paul encourages us to present ourselves daily — as individuals and as communities — the body of Christ — into God’s transforming power. Our lives and our organizations are changed as we daily let go of conformity to the world and let come the vision of God’s new kingdom.

St. Paul offers us this encouragement:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)

The transformation of our hearts and minds, as individuals, but also the transformation of the heart of every power, every principality, every institution, every family, every neighborhood, is the transformation that God has already begun in the cross and resurrection of Christ. It is the transformation that God delights to continue daily in us. It is transformation that will finally be consummated at the end.

The essence of our task as leaders is to shift the inner place from which we operate, both individually and as communities. Our task right now is to seek the renewal of our hearts and minds, and to be open to the new future that God is preparing to birth.

Our call as leaders in this moment is to attend to the heart of things. We are called to attend to our hearts, to the hearts of the families and institutions we serve. We are called to create spaces where God shifts the inner place from which we operate — transforming our hearts and renewing our minds more and more into the fullness of Christ.

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