A few days ago, a former student emailed me about advice on how to make reality a project she began as a student in my Service Leadership class: The Journey Project–a vision for creating a path “from the streets to shalom” for women caught in the bondage of human trafficking and prostitution (http://journeyprject.wordpress.com/).
Below is an expanded version of the advice I gave her, which I pass on to you only because, in my own dream of starting a school that redeems the current narrative of education, this is what I have come to believe is the purest form of fleshing a vision out.
Mind you, this process has come to me in fits and starts, primarily because the first five years of trying to see this vision come to fruition were spent in fruitless meetings trying to “sell” my vision that ended with me beating my head against the wall because nothing was clicking.
When, finally, I came to the realizations I am about to share with you, not only did I gain a deeper peace, but, paradoxically, momentum began to shift. This is in nowise a “silver bullet plan,” but, from my experience, I am convinced this is how you dream a dream:
Be intentional in doing the hard work of becoming the kind of leader people will ultimately follow. A leader of principles and integrity, of humility, trust and sacrifice. A level-5 leader. Someone who lives from the inside out, below the waterline. Spend time in reflection, prayer, journaling, mindful reading, silence and solitude. Learn, as Frederick Buechner says, to listen to your life. That way, once you do have something in place, people will know they can trust you. This is what Stephen Covey means when he talks about putting first things first. It is the difficult, lonely, sacrificial, tedious work of identifying your true north and sticking to it. It is the work that no one sees. It is saying no when others say yes and saying yes when others say no. It is learning, as Donald Miller points out, to write a better, more inviting story with your life. Indeed, this is a life’s work but, if you keep at it, when the time comes, you will be the “exemplary person” who lives and leads from a position of deep credibility.
2. Invest in covenantal relationships: As I have learned from watching others who are farther along than I am, this is key!! Relational trust will open way more doors than anything else. I get to sit in on some high-level discussions around education because five years ago I began to build some key relationships with people who kept introducing me to people who introduced me to people and so on. It took longer than if I had launched out on my own, but the dividends now are really paying off. The people whose work I most admire in the realm of city transformation did not start out with big capital campaigns or fund raising dinners; they started out having conversations over coffee, doing more listening than speaking, absorbing wisdom, insight, and critique as they moved in humility towards deeper relationships. This has been a hard one for me to learn, for I want to be first a man of action, but, by accepting a posture of teachability, my saw has been sharpened by people with more clarity, wisdom and focus than I could ever have gained on my own.
3. Build an organism, not an organization: I have learned this by watching my good friend Ben become one of the leading voices in foster care reform. The key to his ability to rally a city (and eventually a nation) around this pressing issue has been through gently shepherding a conversation around “an idea whose time has come” (to quote Victor Hugo). Unlike most non-profits, the 111 Project is very adept at giving away mission and movement while still retaining the essential vision. It comes from knowing that the stories matter more than infrastructure, overhead, budget and payroll. Visions that are held loosely with open hands have far greater impact than those with tight oversight and strict controls (no matter how large they seem to be). An organization is a static, fixed, bloated, ultimately dead thing, while an organism is alive, teeming with growth, movement, replication and life. Building an organism is a slower work at first, but once it gets going, it catches a fire of its own and becomes a life-giving, community-changing movement.
4. Trust in the fullness of time: As I wrote in a previous blog post, this idea has come to dominate my current method of doing business. What I have gained personally by trusting in the fullness of time has granted me better vision, perspective, experience and the personal growth necessary to meet the task as it now appears. I have learned, by coming to trust in the fullness of time, patience, grace, humility, forgiveness, and, above all, hope. I have begun to orient my life around a compass of key ideas (intentionality, sacrifice, transparency and transcendence) rather than racing to answer the frenetic pace of the clock (with its deadlines, urgency, impatience and anxiety). Trust in the fullness of time takes the pressure off me to “achieve” and allows me to focus on holistic, organic growth. It allows me the freedom to do the difficult but necessary internal work first, trusting that what proceeds from there is right and true and worthy and good.
5. Never grow weary in doing good: Galatians 6:9 reminds us that, “we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up.” This is what every visionary must cling to: this idea that, though the work is often tedious, mind-numbing, back-breaking, lonely, dirty, costly work, we must not grow weary of doing it. I once asked theologian Walter Brueggemann if he ever got tired doing the work he does. He said, “Is there anything else worth doing?” Dreamers must have this response emblazoned across their souls.
I realize this is not, perhaps, Entrepreneurship 101; in fact, it runs counter to what most folk will say is the right and proper way to start something, but I believe that if what keeps you up at night matters beyond your own pocketbook, if what you dream of has generational significance, if your dream is to tell a better story and invite others to do the same, than there just might be some advice here worth taking.
**I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to flesh out a vision. Feel free to leave your ideas in the comments section.