I don’t normally like leadership books – too often (and this a primary reason why I was so excited to edit and publish Chris Green’s ‘The Gift’) they either uncritically baptise secular business thinking, or have a wooden and stilted approach to biblical exegesis. Recenlty, though, I heard the author of the book I’m reviewing today, speak, and was very impressed with his emphasis on character, and his contextually challenging provocation to think about how we seek to change the world, rather than just the why and the end of our goals. With the many scandals around leaders, in and outside of the church, in every context, this was refreshing.
On the face of it (And, indeed the presentation of the book!) Turnaround: The Remarkable Story of an Institutional Transformation and the 10 Essential Principles and Practices that Made it Happen is a book about how Jason K. Allen was used by God to help turn around the financial, spiritual and general fortunes of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS). If that’s switched you off, or you’ve written it off because ‘Southern Baptist’, then read on, as that would be a bad reason to dismiss this book. Allen blends simple biblical wisdom, calm reflection on personal story and institutional reality, with a good dose of common sense, and counter-cultural focus on people. The book covers ten ‘things’. but running through the whole text is one key idea: “Credibility is essential, and it is a theme that runs throughout this book. When a leader enters the room, credibility had better enter with him. But credibility better not end with the leader; it must extend to his team and the entire enterprise he leads. And the sobering reality is that credibility takes years to accumulate but seconds to lose” (p. 8). Whilst the book is written primarily with male leaders in view, I do think it can apply to men and women leading in different contexts – personally, I found a lot to take into church, work and home conversations/thoughts. Not all of the principles/things involve the letter C, but one does – chapter 2 is about choosing to ‘Hold Your Convictions’. I found this really helpful – and Allen’s personal context, and the context of his industry of seminar education, offers lessons for the rest of us: “You see, the seminaries of many denominations are far more progressive than the churches they ostensibly serve. In a twist of irony, this scenario leads to these institutions undermining the churches they were founded to strengthen. Strategic ambiguity in such institutional settings is deeply problematic for two reasons. First, it has failed morally in principle. Second, it will fail in practice pragmatically.” (p. 33).
Two other chapters I found particularly helpful were ‘Cultivate Trustworthiness’, which included two helpful lists, ‘Develophing Trustworthiness in Those You Lead’ and ‘Eliciting Trust from Those You Lead’ (p. 86-9). Trust is not as simple as jumping through hoops – which Allen is well aware of – but this blend of the principle and some suggested practices resonated with me. ‘Insist on Accountability’ was interesting as it included what we might often overlook, particularly for ‘senior’ leaders, with Allen noting that his accountability (under God) is to the trustees of the seminary, and the churches he serves – reflecting on who we are accountable to as leaders ‘upwards’ and ‘outwards’ is a useful tool for reflection. Allen also notes the importance of deliberate accountability downwards and inwards: as a somewhat disorganised big-picture person, I begrudgingly admit that he is write to observe that “In leadership, you occasionally get what you expect; you consistently get what you inspect. Aspirational targets, generic goals, and blue-sky predictions will not cut it” (p. 116). That isn’t to disparage vision (and there is really good stuff on that in this book), but to remember that vision is made up of ‘bits’.
I could go on – the chapters on Team, Culture, and Communication are also very strong – but you can probably tell, reader, that I enjoyed this book. Allen writes well, doesn’t sugarcoat things, owns his mistakes, and offers useful reflections. It isn’t the deepest book theologically – but it is underpinned by a simple discipleship, and a commitment to character that is unfortunately rare. It is a book I will reflect on, as I say, in different spheres of ‘leadership’ that I occupy. I’d recommend it to leaders – inside and outside of the church – who are Christians and thinking about how they can shape the ‘things’ they lead, and lead them into health and thriving. For those of us who are also ‘lead’, this is a good book to read and think about how we fit into the institutions we serve, communicate upwards and to those who are ‘leading’ us, and I think it could form the basis for a useful set of 1-1 conversations between managers and managed. I’m very glad I read this book – and at around 160 pages, it was dense and helpful, despite being readable and positive. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you thought – and if you’ve found any other books in a similar vein.