Leading in the Transition Zone: Taking the Founding Generation's Baton | Dr Darren Iselin

6 June 2024

 

“Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in". (Heb. 12:1-2 MSG).


 

Earlier this year, I observed the thanksgiving service in remembrance of one of the true visionaries and pioneers within Christian education in Australia, Rev. Dr. Bob Frisken. There was both a poignancy and gravitas to this honouring of the life and legacy of Bob and his far-reaching contribution to Christian schooling across Australia and around the world. Reflecting on the various stories of vision, courage, sacrifice and faith that were woven through each speaker’s eulogy of Bob’s life and ministry, I was struck by the significant generational change that such a watershed moment so powerfully represented. Like Moses and Joshua in ancient times, a spiritual, figurative and literal passing of a Christian leadership mandate and responsibility that was founded and cultivated by Bob and a plethora of other first-generation pioneers and trailblazers 50 years ago has now been entrusted to a new generation. 

 

The Transition Zone

 

Some would define this pivotal second-generation moment that many of our current Christian schools find themselves in as being a transition zone – a place of generational succession and a passing on of the vision, ethos, traditions and culture to a fresh generation who were not present at the inception of the vision but who are the recipients of their faithfulness and diligence. As the Paris 2024 Olympics approaches, one of my favourite events at the Games are the track relay events. The fastest athletes on the planet assemble for one of the truly blue-ribbon events of the entire Games – the 4 x 100 metre relay. Critical to the success of each team is the hand-off in the changeover box or transition zone – an area designated for each competitor whereby the task of the baton transfer takes place. Whilst natural talent, skills and speed are essential, teams are well aware that the winning and losing of any race can fundamentally occur in this critical zone of transfer and apprehension of the relay baton.  

The writer of Hebrews wonderfully captures what it means to lead in these transition zones between the founding and second generation when he declares: “Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in". (Heb. 12:1-2 MSG). Just like in a relay race, the importance of stripping down, sustaining pace, running with purpose and direction, and ensuring a seamless release and apprehension of the baton in the transition zone between founding and second/next generation leadership within Christian schools requires focussed intentionality. 

Drawing on the work of Simone Weil, I think that the most pithy definition of sustaining core vision, identity and culture in any Christian schools is: 

 

The art of paying attention.

 

Paying attention does not come naturally to leaders in the frenetic maelstrom which are schools in the 21st century. So much of what consumes our time, energy and resources is more mindless distraction than deliberate attention, especially regarding culture building relating to our organisational ethos and identity. Our baton passing in the transition zone needs to therefore recognise both the importance of the handover, the paradoxical twin imperatives of looking forward whilst  leaning back and the importance of  continually fixing our eyes firmly on Jesus – the author and finisher of our faith and our ultimate cultural telos in this important generational baton exchange. To explore this relay metaphor in more detail, I will now briefly outline four key principles that arose from my PhD research into sustaining Christian school cultures in changing and uncertain times.

 

 

1. Pay Attention to Leaning Back/ Looking Forward – Purposeful Vision

 

Part of the unique skill of the receiving runner in the relay transition zone is leaning back to receive the relay baron from the previous runner whilst simultaneously looking forward with single minded vision to the goal and purpose of the finish line. Similarly in second generation Christian school contexts, a leaning back/ looking forward posture is necessary by leaders as they remember and apprehend the core ideology of the founders whilst reimagining new ways this vision can be extended and sustained both now and into the future. Far from being an impediment to creativity, ideation and innovation, leaning back to receive the vision that was entrusted to us as second-generation leaders empowers us to imagine “kingdom come” for our school communities in dynamic and yet deeply aligned ways. James KA Smith encapsulates these leaning back/ looking forward imperatives when he reflects: 

 

Sometimes we bristle under the constraints put upon us by founders and historical bodies that know nothing of our contemporary challenges… [but] could we ever imagine receiving such constraints as gifts? Indeed, is it possible that the constraints of handed down traditions could be catalysts for creativity and innovation?  (1) 

 
The importance of preserving core vision, ethos and identity whilst simultaneously cultivating exciting new initiatives is also reinforced by Jim Collins when he states:  

 

Like an artist who pursues both enduring excellence AND shocking creativity, [sustainable cultures] foster a tension between continuity and change. (2) 

 

Through paying attention to this double imperative of sustaining the core vision, identity and ethos of our founders, whilst reimagining new expressions of this core vision in our current cultural moment, school leaders can anchor their existing cultures and future strategic endeavours on firm foundations that are aligned with core ethos and identity. This leaning back/ looking forward posture towards purposeful vision also reinforces and sustains  the raison d’etre or central reason for being of our Christian schools during liminal periods of change, uncertainty and volatility. 

 

 

2: Pay Attention to Staying In Your Lane – Telling Your Cultural Story

 

To extend the relay metaphor further, it is imperative for every runner competing in the relay to remain in their dedicated lanes. Runners who stray outside of their lanes are disqualified from competing and forfeit their opportunity to continue in the race. Furthermore, the writer of Hebrews reminds us that the race has been marked out for us… (Hebrews 12:1b) that Christ has purposed and providentially entrusted into our care. 

Your own school’s cultural story was also lovingly conceived, marked out and entrusted into your care by your founders and you and your current staff are currently conduits in writing and reimagining the exciting next chapter. This necessitates that you view your school’s cultural narrative as an unfolding arc that seamlessly links past, present and future plot developments. Because of this, the constant telling and retelling of your school’s cultural story significantly assists second generation leaders in remaining in their dedicated lanes regarding a school’s organisational identity and ethos. 

Hartley and Schall contend that “The development of a core ideology and envisioned future requires… members to commit to collective, sustained discussions about the core purposes of their institution" (3) Such cultural storytelling imperatives in second generation contexts need to occur through verbal, symbolic, written and/or oral forms, rituals and traditions, in both tangible and intangible contexts and responsibility for these story telling imperatives should be distributed widely within a given Christian school culture, with Smith suggesting that 

 

"every “culture” or community of practice has rituals of orientation and repetition that reinforce the mission, goals, and ethos of the organisation. And the best—that is, most formative—rituals of orientation and development do so in ways that work on the imagination and don’t just inform the intellect…. Formative framing practices invite us to become participants in a story and find tactile, aesthetic ways to keep reorienting us in that story" (4).  

 

Paying attention to these cultural placemaking practices cultivates synergies between stories of the past, present and future that anchor cultural distinctives whilst simultaneously ‘working on the imagination’ that invite and encourage active and dialogical participation in a school community’s story. Collectively, these symbiotic interactions, conversations and engagement contribute to a context specific genius loci or cultural “spirit of place” that are purposefully spoken about, reiterated and celebrated. In this way, our distinctive Christian school cultures and their core cultural identities are not just nostalgically archived but seen; and not just merely chronicled, but felt and experienced and loved in meaningful ways. 

Paying attention to story-telling cultural emphases assists in creating purpose, meaning and a “community of mind” within school cultures and enables Christian schools to keep the organisational narrative alive and front of mind especially during transitional phases of cultural development. Second generation leaders need to therefore pay attention to the school cultural story that is being told, retold and celebrated across their school community and ensure they remain in the cultural lane marked out by the founders and reinforced through storytelling and controlling the narrative in this current cultural moment.  

 

 

3: Pay attention to whom you represent – Embodiment  - Faith

 

The writer of Hebrews also provides a challenge to all those who are running and following after first-generation founders to embody what they believe through their lives and character. Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase, the Message, states: “Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we'd better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins” (Hebrews 12:1-2 MSG). 

 

The principle of paying attention to the embodiment of our school’s cultural ideology necessitates a character infused and incarnated posture is not just a preference but an essential occupational requirement for the preservation and perpetuation of every distinctive Christian school culture. Furthermore, runners in a relay wear the distinctive characteristic uniforms, badge and flag of their nation or group they are representing. In the same way, every staff member within our second-generation school communities must also clearly represent and embody whose they are and who they are actually representing.  Second generation leaders must therefore ensure that core cultural identity and values are exemplified by every-body, and that cultural capital goes beyond nicely presented prospectus documents, vision and mission statements, strategic plans, coffee table histories and promotional materials in next generation Christian school contexts.  

Research also confirms that the imperative of paying attention to embodiment within schools entering a transition zone aids in resisting the forces of secularisation. James Burtchaell describes the historical erosion of core cultural identity as a slide from “vision towards rationalisation” (5)  and proposes that if not intentional and explicit in their embodiment of core organisational identity schools will, over time, relinquish all forms of Christian organisational memory from their daily cultural practices. Figure 1 graphically depicts this line of decline unless there is an intentional and explicit re-alignment and embodiment of the core ideology of the founding vision.

 

Figure 1: The Loss of Identity: The “Line of Decline” with Organisations.  

 

The auspicious ‘line of decline’, whilst not inevitable within our Christian schools, would nevertheless appear to be the common trajectory during the second  and third generations of cultural development unless we pay particular attention to the embodiment of our organisational identity and ethos. So, let’s be explicit and intentional to lay aside every weight that binds (v.2) and embody what we say we believe across every square centimetre of our second-generation Christian school communities. 

 

 

4: Pay attention to the Baton Change – Cultural Succession – Practice 

 

One of the most critical components that determines success in a relay is the passing of the baton in the transition zone. The transfer and release by the previous runner and the apprehension by the next runner is a riveting and emotion-charged moment. Similarly, one of the most significant events in the life of a Christian school, especially in the transition zone of second-generation contexts is the change of senior leadership. Yet few things in education succeed less than leadership succession (6).  and the baton passing from one leader to the next has the potential to disrupt, divert and even disqualify the focus, purpose and direction of the entire Christian school community. 

Hargreaves and Fink suggest that schools that are intentional about succession that prioritise core cultural elements and identity “build strong and broad professional cultures with firmly held and courageously defended purposes that will inoculate schools against mediocre and indifferent successors”(7).  Hargreaves further highlights the role of past and present leaders in the transition zone by asserting "Principals’ impact on their schools is often influenced greatly by their predecessors and successors. Whether or not they are aware of it, principals stand on the shoulders of those who went before them and lay the foundation for those who will follow" (8).  Because of these links, leadership succession in Christian schools, can often be a difficult process, especially for long serving founding leaders, where issues of control and relinquishing of power can become significant challenges. It is for this reason that the process and staged planning of leadership succession is of such critical importance to a Christian school’s culture. Relay baton exchanges that are not relinquished by the outgoing runner invariably end in confusion, frustration and disaster, and numerous studies have reiterated the inherent dangers of founding leaders who “hold on too tight” and for too long in their leadership tenures (9).   

Furthermore, Hargreaves and Fink identify the challenges of balancing both the continuity and discontinuity of cultural elements and structures within schools during succession (10).  Discontinuity can, at times, be a powerful force for change and can lead to a positive re-building of a school’s cultural elements. During succession, such cultural shifts are of critical importance as the school’s “identity” is further refined, shaped and molded by new expressions of leadership influence and direction (11).  Hargreaves warns that whilst such re-building is essential for sustainability and flourishing, we must also ensure new identities are aligned with our Christian school’s core ideology and ethos, because - 

 

“For any of this to make a difference, we must pull back from the precipice…where… leaders wedded to the long-term success of their schools are being reduced to managerial vassals of a standardized system… Sustainable leadership depends on more than…succession planning. It comes down to a battle for the soul of leadership itself" (12).

 

May the soul of leadership in next generation leaders receiving the baton of succession in our Christian schools always seek to reflect Jesus and His kingdom and not popularist, convenient and commodified expressions of Christian school leadership that are imposed upon us in our currently heavily regulated and standardised educational environment. 

 

Finishing the Race Well

 

In ancient Greece, there was a special relay event, the Lampadedromia, which was a unique type of torch race. Whilst following similar rules and expectations of standard relay races, the purpose of the Lampadedromia was to transfer a flame lit torch across a number of runners. What was significant in this relay was that the victor was not the fastest to the finish line, but the team who could ensure that the torch flame that was passed between its runners remained burning at the end of the race. Such a relay is exactly what confronts Christian schools in the transition zone as the baton is now passed from our founders to a new generation of Christian school leaders. Carper and Layman encapsulate this generational challenge by stating:

 

“Christian schools are here to stay. Their character and effectiveness...will depend upon how well they negotiate the perilous path between adolescence and adulthood” (13)

 

Will a generation arise “that does not remember the Lord and his ways” (Judges 2:10) within our Christian schools? Will our torch batons remain lit and aflame with what matters most? The response to this question is one that must compel and inspire current leaders of every Christian school in this current liminal season to pay attention, being vigilant, prayerful, discerning, explicit and intentional during our watch for the inherent dangers of not “holding fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) and ensure that our distinctive Christian school’s ethos and identity burns bright as the baton is passed to a new generation.  

I had the privilege of presenting the research that I have outlined in this blog over a decade ago when I was a keynote for a New Zealand Association of Christian Schools (NZACS) conference in Wellington. At the end of one of the sessions, a gentleman approached me and commended my presentation. He said much of what I shared deeply resonated with him and his experience across many Christian schools. However, he had one gentle critique to provide. He encouraged me to always remember that if the Lord builds the house, we labor not in vain” (Psalm 127:1) and reminded me from the book of Philippians (Phil 1:6) that the Apostle Paul was confident that a second generation of believers would remain faithful stewards of what the Holy Spirit had entrusted into their care “being confident in this, He who has begun a good work in you, in that first generation, will be faithful to complete it according to His grace”. The name of that gentleman was Rev Dr Bob Frisken and that well-lit baton that started “with a spark” has now been placed confidently in our second-generation hands –to finish the race and keep the faith, by His grace and for His glory (2 Timothy 4:7)! 



 

References
 
 

1.   Smith, J. K. A. (2016). You are what you love (p. 182). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

2.   Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap... and others don’t. London: Random House Business Books.

3.   Hartley, M., & Schall, L. (2005). The endless good argument: The adaptation of mission at two liberal arts colleges. Planning in Higher Education, 33(4), 5-11.

4.   Smith, J.K.A. (2016). You are what you love. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. P.182.

5.   Burtchaell, J. T. (1998). The dying of the light: The disengagement of colleges and universities from their Christian churches. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans.p.846

6.   Hargreaves, A., & Fink, D. (2006). Sustainable leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

7.    Ibid.

8.    Hargreaves, A. (2005). Leadership succession. The Educational Forum, 69(2), 163–173. P.164.

9.   See Hargreaves, A., & Fink, D. (2006). Sustainable leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; Deal, T. E., & Peterson, K. D. (2009). Shaping school culture: Pitfalls, paradoxes and promises. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons; Cranston, N., & Ehrich, L. C. (Eds.). (2009). Australian school leadership today. Brisbane: Australian Academic Press.

10.  Hargreaves, A., & Fink, D. (2006). Sustainable leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

11.  Limerick, D., Cunnington, B., & Crowther, F. (2002). Managing the new organisation: Collaboration and sustainability in the post-corporate world (2nd ed.). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. 

12.  Hargreaves, A. (2005). Leadership succession. The Educational Forum, 69(2), 163-173. P.173 

13.  Carper, J. C., & Layman, J. (1995). Independent Christian day schools: Past, present and prognosis. Journal of Research on Christian Education, 4(1), 7-20. P.17 

 

 

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