Organizations in Winter

Might it be appropriate to speak of seasons in the life of an organization?   Times of growth and development – new initiatives, increased revenue and an expanded customer or donor base.   And times of consolidation of growth, to allow the governing structures and practices to catch with the growth, perhaps and to have a good sense of what the growth means or implies?   And can we also speak of seasons of quiet – to speak perhaps of what it means to be an organization in winter?

The observation is often made that we are either growing or we are dying.  We are expanding to ever new horizons or we are falling back.    But is this true and is this a genuinely helpful way to think about organizations?  I actually wonder if sometimes we live frustrated or pressing for new initiatives that seemingly are just frenetic activity when we might be called to a season of quiet.

For the uninitiated, winter does seem like a time of death.  It is quiet; in northern climates there are no leaves on the deciduous trees [except the Arbutus tree on the west coast of North America, of course, which is evergreen].   Many creatures actually hibernate.    But winter is not deadly; the blanket of snow is not the curse of creation.   It is, rather, an essential pattern that is integral to the very rhythm of the earth.   And what I am wondering is if this might be the same for healthy organizations?   Organizations in winter do not need aggressive leaders or leaders who are constantly pressing for growth or change or innovation; they need leaders who understanding something of what winter means.

Organizations in winter are challenging to lead when you are part of a culture or a religious culture that is always wanting to know what is new – what innovation has emerged?, what new program has been started?, what growth and development has occurred recently?   We need to learn the art of leading in winter and of knowing what is called for and how we can be most present to the organization so that we are ready for Spring and for new growth when that time is ripe.

There is no excuse for failure to act or the courage to do what needs to be done.   It does require discernment to know that this quiet season is not because of a lack of responsible leadership.   But if this is truly a winter for this organization, then we need to ask:  what does leadership look like in this season?

First, patience!   Effective leadership in winter is marked by a grace-filled and humble patience, including the refusal to be intimated or bothered by the growth of sister institutions or the impatience or those who wonder why winter is taking so long.   This means being patient with critics who wonder why more is not happening and who only believe in the organization when it communicates a kind of perpetual Spring.

Second, make this a season of learning.   Many have been taken by the line in Luke about Mary who, we read, “pondered these things in her heart.”    Perhaps leading in winter is like a woman waiting for the birth of her child.  Nothing can be forced; it is a season to wait.  But, it is a waiting that is rich with wisdom, particularly the wisdom of taking the time to read and discuss and see things from different angles.   We need winter so that both heart and mind slow down and connect; we need to quiet of this season to allow new learnings to percolate and new perspectives to be distilled. 

And third, leadership in winter calls for what might best be called “tending the fire”.     We cannot let the fire go out.    In winter, I love the work of bucking felled trees, splitting and stacking the fire wood and each evening keep the woodstove warm well into the evening.   As my wife is want to say to me as she is preparing a meal or passing through the living room:  don’t let the fire go out!   In like manner, leadership in winter sustains the warmth of community, the connections of colleagues and, of course, hope – a constant vigilant confidence that winter is only that, a season:  a time of waiting, learning and living in expectant hope.   

And my point is that effective leaders get this and know how to lead in winter.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.