There they were in the distance–clearly discernible, as if a colossus had carved a zigzag into the vertical wall ahead–the dreaded switchbacks. They shot above our heads, like the ruins of ancient Babel, reaching for the dwelling of God and looking more ominous and defiant with every step. The mountain was snarling: “Go ahead, make my day.”
My friend, David Greenman, missionary to northern Argentina, had invited me to climb Mount Chañi (pronounced Chahn-Yee with the accent over Chahn). Chañi is one of the great peaks of the Andes, rising to 20,341 feet. That it doesn’t require specialized equipment is one of the benefits of Chañi–it’s basically a hike to the sky.
From before starting this adventure, however, we had heard of the infamous switchbacks, where the path ascends dramatically. For two days, the hike had been uneventful and easy—except for an occasional wash out, where the path had been eroded by heavy rains and all that remained was a pile of cascading stones. These we scooted across, trying not to start an avalanche that would sweep us into the valley below. There were not many of these and the going had been mostly like a saunter at the park. Yet, the mountain has ways of reminding us that it will not be subdued without a struggle.
The mountain’s threats were not in vain. Ascending those switchbacks was an ordeal. These are the times when climbers get into a trance where the brain shuts down all unnecessary thought as they focus on the singular goal of placing one more foot in front of the other. The heart pounds and the legs throb but you keep that next step in the front of your forehead. I received an occasional word of encouragement from David who was accustomed to saying: “We’re almost there.” That “almost there” was a long time coming; on more than one occasion, I thought about abandoning the adventure.
Effective leaders understand that the smooth-running times of life are not permanent and that anything worthy of our efforts will resist getting done. If you are currently enjoying a time of ease in your organization, where things are running like a finely tuned machine and little effort is needed to achieve positive results, I congratulate you. But I would also warn you that these times will pass. No great goal comes without great resistance.
Why is it that the greatest resistance is reserved for the final phase? We had hiked for two days into the Chañi valley before we came to the switchbacks. Sometimes we can go through long periods of prosperity and ease and our very success can lure us into believing that the struggle is over, when, in reality, the struggle is about to begin. Effective leaders understand this. They brace themselves and others for that final push to victory.
So how can we help people traverse those unanticipated yet inevitable difficulties that are coming their way? Here are a few tips that might help:
- Remind them of the goal. For me it was the privilege of standing on an island of boulders, looking down upon a sea of clouds.
- Tell them you believe in them. There is nothing more confidence infusing that to hear another’s confidence in us.
- Remind them of who they are. I’ll never forget a point in my Doctoral work at Regent University when I was overwhelmed by work, unable to see a way to get everything done. I called Dr. Bruce Winston, Dean of the Strategic Leadership Department and explained my dilemma. His words galvanized my commitment and I found a way to finish. All he said was: “You’re studying leadership–leaders find ways to get things done.”
- Inject some humor into the ordeal. David and I developed a routine where I would say: “Remind me again that I’m having fun.” David would reply: “Greg… You’re having fun!” I would groan and say: “Thanks.”
- Warn them ahead of time not to trust success. This is the leader’s prophetic responsibility.
In case you’re wondering, we did make it to the top of the switchbacks, only to find ourselves in the midst of the people of the sheep. But that’s for another story.
Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.