Saturday, October 11, 2014

Small Giants

During my fourteen years working as a software engineer I've been a part of various teams. Most have been healthy groups working with wonderful people while others have been less than ideal. Recently I joined a new team and was a bit surprised by one of the first assignments. My manager gave us a copy of Zingerman's Guide to Giving Great Service by Ari Weinzweig and told us to read it and think of ways to apply the principles to our work.

If you're not familiar with Zingerman's it is a small deli located in Ann Harbor, Michigan, and is known for taking the best ingredients to make the best food while providing the best customer service. It's grown from a deli to include a restaurant, bakery, creamery, mail-order service, training service and more, all locally based in Ann Harbor.

I was curious what we as a team of computer engineers and architects could learn from a deli but it turns out the principles Ari describes are applicable to any organization regardless of what you do. If you're looking for a good book to inspire your organization I highly recommend picking this one up. It's a quick hundred-page read and full of practical tips to work better.

This book sent me on a course to learn more about Zingerman's and their philosophy on business. There is an abundance of videos online with Ari teaching principles of leadership and organizational greatness. In one training video he describes a hog farmer in South Carolina who chooses to use sustainable, traditional methods of raising pigs rather than what large farms do. He quotes the farmer as saying, "Well, the great thing about the way I farm is when I'm really stumped and don't know what to do, I just look at what they do in mainstream agriculture and do the opposite." Zingerman's takes a similar approach. While he says they don't intentionally do the opposite of mainstream corporations in practice almost everything they do ends up being so.

There seems to be something very valuable in this idea of going counter-culture to the traditional corporate model. I'm currently reading another book, Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big, by Bo Burlingham, not so much from a business perspective but rather from a church one. The title alone speaks volumes.

I think today's model of a healthy church is flawed. We have embraced the bigger is better mindset and hold up mega churches as the gold standard of what to do. But what if there was an alternative? What if rather than focusing on growing numbers we focused on growing people?

I firmly believe that a healthy body is one in which all parts are functioning and contributing. No part is better than another and no part is useless. As Paul says in his letter to the church in Corinth:
The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts that seems to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts we think are less honorable we treat with special honor... God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. -- 1 Corinthians 12:21-26
Today's church appears to give honor to the presentable parts and the less honorable parts are relegated to sit quietly on the sidelines. We look to pastors as the singular source of God's message to the body. We study YouTube videos of perfectly polished worship conferences and try to mimic them because we assume this is what Spirit-filled music is supposed to be. We strive to be flashy. We strive to be modern. We strive to be big.

But what if that's not what we're supposed to be? Everyone want to be a part of something great, something larger than themselves. But why does greatness have to be put into western corporate terms? The greatest possible pursuit is a relation with the greatest possible being, the originator of all great things, God. What if his idea of greatness is the exact opposite of man's idea of greatness?

Jesus is the complete fullness of God clothed in humanity. He is the very face of our Father. And Jesus did not seem to care about worldly success. He chastised the religious elite. He spoke to the impossibility of the rich entering the kingdom. Rather than elevating everything we as westerners hold dear, Jesus seemed to elevate the down and out. He spent time with the outcast Samaritan woman living in adultery. He highlighted the distraught tax collector as being righteous. He stepped away from the ninety-nine to look for the single lost sheep. Even his agricultural parables highlighted the smallest of seeds.

Maybe the path to greatness in God's kingdom isn't through the latest auto-tuned praise song. Or the latest canned Sermon Spice video. Or the teachings of brilliant scholars. Maybe greatness comes through simple stillness. Maybe all that God requires to be great is humility and honesty. Like Paul said to the Corinthians, "His grace is sufficient and his power is made perfect in weakness. When we are weak he is strong."

Church leader, are you willing to become less so those around you become more? Are you willing to be vulnerable and weak in front of those you lead? Are you willing to trade the accolades of a successful ministry for the anonymity of servant leadership?

One final statement from Ari Weinzeig on leadership:
We leaders need to take the lead. As leaders we come last not first. We get promoted to serve more not to get served more by others. As leaders we welcome staff complaints with the same positive appreciative response we would give to customers. It is more important for us to bring coffee to the new cashier rather than the other way around. When there's a conflict between what's right for us and what's right for the organization we always do what's right for the group. We hire people so we can help them succeed. We lead the way in making it an appreciative workplace. 
Rather than choosing to be more let's choose to be less. Let's be small giants.

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