Big Ideas or Jellyfish?

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What is the core function of leadership? This question has produced many debates, a lot of research, and a countless pile of books. Two themes continue to percolate through all that dialogue: influence and vision. The influence function focuses on changing perceptions and thinking. The vision function orients the influence in a particular direction and duration. Most discussion of leadership supports these ideas in some way. But what if that’s all wrong?

Recently, I read one of the most challenging discussions about leadership I’ve seen in years. That is, it challenged my understanding of leadership, my role and skills as a leader, and the very definition of leadership. Did I read something new from Ken Blanchard or Ram Charan or Edgar Schein? No, my understanding of leadership was challenged by a cartoon guy, Phil Vischer.

You may not know Mr. Vischer by name, but you probably know his first company, Big Idea Productions and his characters, Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber form the VeggieTales series. At one time, the VeggieTales franchise reached about $40 million in revenues and attracted the attention of Hollywood. His company was highly successful — for a time.

I read Vischer’s account of the rise and fall of Big Idea in a recent issue of World Magazine. He told of his dreams for a company that had a large and growing impact. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids and families. He dreamed of a company that used creativity and fun to teach people how to live the Christian life. As I understand it, he and his team of executives were using influence and vision to pursue and fulfill this dream. That’s what leaders are supposed to do, right? Identify a dream and pursue it! It all came apart, though, and the company went bankrupt.

In Vischer’s new venture, Jellyfish Labs, he is taking a very different approach. Vischer chose the name “Jellyfish” with a clear purpose. He explained, “Jellyfish can’t locomote. They can’t choose their own course…. They can only stay in the current and trust the current to carry them where they need to be.” In contrast, at Big Idea, he was “conceiving of [himself] as a big studly barracuda saying, ‘All right God, here’s what I’m going to do for you. Now you just stand back and bless it and watch me go!'”1

The common view of leadership is influence and vision. Vischer is saying he needs to be more incluenced and more adaptable to changes in direction. He says, “I’m not supposed to be pursuing impact, I’m supposed to be pursuing God.” That is, he wants God to influence his perception and thinking and he wants God to orient his sight and direction. But that’s just Vischer’s view. Can leaders in general benefit from being more open to influence and more able to adjust direction as needed? I think so!

As I consider all the challenges I’ve experienced in my consulting, coaching, and teaching there are few things I can say with 100% confidence. One is that my plan as a leader never plays out as planned. Something significant always changes. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have a plan, but it does mean I can certainly benefit from gaining God’s perspective on these issues and to ask him for his plan!

When I try to operate solely through my own influence and vision, I have limited potential for effectiveness. When I remain humble, seeking God’s influence in my thinking and through others around me, there is greater potential for everyone and everything concerned.

Less leading others. More being led by God.

1: Basham, Megan. “It’s Not About the Dream.” World Magazine, September 24, 2011.

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