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Talking Leadership and Opportunity with Dr. Roger Parrott

Outcomes Conference CEO Forum Presenter is Dr. Roger Parrott

Dr. Roger Parrott is one of America’s most experienced college presidents. A third-generation college president, he was one of America’s youngest college presidents when first elected at age 34.

Today, highly-ranked Belhaven University stands among select Christian colleges and universities with national influence and has been repeatedly named one of “America’s 100 Best College Buys.” The university offers 70 areas of study including academic majors and concentrations across a full spectrum of disciplines, as well as a variety of master’s and doctoral degree programs.

Dr. Parrott has served on numerous boards including the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (serving as chair of the 2004 Forum for World Evangelization hosted by Lausanne), the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Leighton Ford Ministries, Mission America Coalition and more.

Dr. Parrott earned his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in Higher Education Administration. He is author of The Longview: Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders (David C Cook, Jan. 2010), and Opportunity Leadership: Stop Planning and Start Getting Results (Moody Publishers, Feb. 2022).

Tami Heim and Dr. Roger Parrott discuss his new book Opportunity Leadership, and ways Christian nonprofit leaders can be more innovative today. Dr. Parrott will lead the annual CEO Forum at the Alliance’s March 2023 Outcomes Conference.

What is the core message you hope readers will take away from your book Opportunity Leadership?

It is time for us to stop planning and start getting results. Many leaders are afraid to face the truth that long-range planning does not work – reality keeps getting in the way of our perfectly designed five and ten-year aims. And most importantly, our long-range planning addiction keeps us from capturing God’s best for our ministry.

For Christian leaders, there is a better way. Impressive, bold, measurable plans that articulate new destinations are what the world expects. But kingdom work is not of the world – it is not even close.

The best plans we could come up with around conference tables pale in comparison to the plan God has written for us. Instead of becoming wedded to a set of predetermined objectives, we need to trust God to bring us the best opportunities correlating with our mission and fitting the strengths of our team.

I’m encouraging a model of leadership that begins and ends with complete trust in God for direction. It allows future destinations to be ordered by God’s hand as we loosen our iron grip on the control wheel. When we let go of long-range planning, we no longer need to manipulate our efforts and circumstances to force predetermined destinations to be reached.

The COVID pandemic is a straightforward example of what happens when we lead without a plan. When the virus hit, every long-range plan was tossed in the trash, and we all became stronger leaders for it. This “opportunity of crisis” required us to provide courageous and innovative leadership – responding to unexpected ministry opportunities rather than forcing predetermined outcomes. And most importantly, leading without a plan made us absolutely dependent on the Lord while being challenged to cast off everything not supporting our core mission.

How has an opportunity leadership mindset impacted your leadership at Belhaven?

Eliminating long-range planning is the best leadership decision I’ve ever made. It has unleashed opportunities we could have never imagined for our university. We don’t have a long-range plan for Belhaven University – that document doesn’t exist. And neither does the time-consuming cumbersome planning structure that locks too many ministries into a limited future.

Eliminating long-range planning is the best leadership decision I’ve ever made.

With our focus on capturing opportunities rather than devising plans, we have an organizational culture grounded in dependency on God for our future. And being freed from the rigidness of a planning structure, we have time to explore, experiment, dream, and build trusting relationships that will be essential when the wind of God begins to blow us toward a new opportunity. Even more importantly, when meetings do not consume energy, we can focus on helping every employee fulfil their calling and utilize their gifts.

To be clear, I strongly believe in operational planning – but not in predicting where God will lead us beyond what he has already entrusted to us. Long-range or strategic-planning efforts that consume far too much time, energy, and focus is destination planning.

I am advocating the abandonment of predicting futures through planning structures, and instead, I’m encouraging a deeper investment in implementation planning. This completely different focus puts our energy into getting the most from our current portfolio of responsibility while relying on God’s wind to propel us to new ventures.

In the book, you talk about “relinquishing planning.” Can you flesh that out? Doesn’t that challenge the strategic planning paradigm of most nonprofit organizations today?

I use a metaphor of a powerboat versus a sailboat to illustrate the dramatic difference between traditional strategic planning and Opportunity Leadership.

In ministry leadership, we have a fundamental choice to make – and although the answer is easy, the implementation is difficult: 1) should we try to achieve a set of ambitious goals by revving up the engines of our ministry powerboats to create the best programs, structures, benchmarks, and future our well-informed collective thinking can imagine? Or instead 2) could we find our destination in sailboats, prepared and equipped to catch the wind of God and to go only wherever that wind might take us?

While the second choice is clearly our desire, too often we plan, work, and lead as if our ministry direction depends entirely on the power we can generate and the best course we can envision.

Leaders find their true calling in breaking free from a traditional planning process anchored in structure, stability, and control. Instead, they need to turn their focus toward being attentive, informed, and flexible enough to ensure that each vital part of the sailboat works together as smoothly as possible. Skilled leaders know when and how to helpfully intervene when ropes become tangled, sails become twisted, or critical parts of the sailboat become corroded and worn and need refurbishing or replacement.

In your experience, why is this a better way to lead?

Although appearing diligent and, I’m sure well-intentioned, many leaders are only going through the motions of leadership because the results of planning are typically inadequate. The nature of a long-range planning process reduces a ministry’s priorities to negotiating the lowest common denominators of agreement, security, and manageability, while overlaying an idealized ambitious vision of the future. Adding to the pressure, these leaders live in constant tension because long-range planning causes us to focus on what we don’t have organizationally, rather than rejoicing in the blessings God has already gifted us.

These leaders are privately frustrated with the inefficiency of a grinding planning process. But still, they cling to it with tenacity because no alternative (other than extraordinary fundraising) guarantees recognition of their “value-added” as the leader. So, they retain a broken model, fearing that they would appear to be abandoning their leadership role if they eliminated long-range planning.

As a result, traditional long-range planners fill their days with a schedule that doesn’t produce deliverable results but justifies roles by constant and harried activity. And too often, they push forward the weighty structure of planning, even when they know, deep down, that it probably won’t make much of a difference.

How can organizational leaders help their boards to embrace an “opportunity leadership” way of thinking?

Stakeholders will be drawn to Opportunity Leadership as they see how capturing small opportunities can produce visible results. There is nothing like demonstrating success to bring people to trust more in God’s opportunities than in their own plans.

If you already have a plan, evaluate the outcomes: did your most significant ministry advances result from your predetermined goals, or did they derive from opportunities you did not anticipate? I’ll guarantee that the most critical moments of our ministry life came from the opportunities, not the plan. My interviews with hundreds of Christian leaders have repeatedly proven this pattern.

There is no predictable and universal multi-step formula for shifting seamlessly from one leadership model to the other. Those white-board task charts are left behind with the old traditional planning model. Instead, each ministry begins this transition at their unique position along the planning spectrum – clenched-grip control at one end, all the way to a relaxed open palm at the other.

From here, the conversion must factor in your unique blend of distinctives, including your ministry’s mission and priorities, leadership style and experience, and key employees’ expertise, coupled with your bench strength, organizational size/scope, and resources, as well as the board’s structure and level of engagement. In the book, I provide a roadmap, detailing six talents of leaders and six tendencies of Opportunity Leadership ministries.

What encouragement would you share with ministry leaders in terms of innovation and opportunity leadership?

When your ministry reaches far beyond the best future you might have ever planned or orchestrated, everyone will know that the honor and glory are God’s alone. That is as good as it gets in ministry leadership.


Today’s post is an excerpt from the Fall Edition of Outcomes Magazine 2022.

Time to register for the Outcomes Conference 2023.

If you are a CEO, then don’t miss the CEO Form led by Dr. Roger Parrott!


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