The Dangerous Side of Success

An article out of the business section of this week’s Wall Street Journal, “Kodak Teeters on the Brink”, tells the painful story of Kodak.  After thirteen highly successful decades, the film and camera company is on the ropes.  It is preparing to seek bankruptcy protection.  Consider this: at one time. Kodak was the undisputed king, an industry giant. It was the Google, the Apple of its day.  It seemed like everyone bought Kodak—be it film or cameras. At one point, sales reached the $10 billion mark annually. Shares went as high as $40. But in the last three years, the company has not seen a profit.  Shares as of Wednesday have fallen to 47 cents!

How did this happen?  In part, they stopped being innovative.  Kodak could have owned the digital revolution (they invented the first digital camera in 1975—and then ignored it!).  Part of the reason was its love for film.  The digital revolution ended up passing them by, and with it, a sense of movement, innovation, and research.  In 2007, they began blowing up unused buildings, including BLGS 65 (the imagery research lab).

Behind all of this is something that tends to happen with success.  Organizations become arrogant, monolithic, and inflexible. As one employee put it, “We had this self-imposed opinion of ourselves that we could do anything, that we were undefeatable.”  We’ve seen this story before.  Decades of dumb decisions sent GM into bankruptcy.  Early on, there was an instinctive feel for what Americans wanted—chrome, fins.  They paid attention, and designed and built with a sense of urgency.  They were in the chase (see my previous post). But success began to undermine the company. It stopped paying attention to what was outside its walls, lost its feel for what the consumer wanted, and lost its way.

In an article entitled “Toyota Tangled”, the writers of Time magazine observed the same thing at Toyota.  A lot of the recent mess is attributed to a management that “fell in love with itself, became insular, and succumbed to a sclerotic culture.”  Not that this only happens to car companies, but it is amazing that 90% of car companies that existed in the early 1900’s were gone by the 1940’s.

There’s much the church can learn from all of this, for church cultures are prone to the same thing—to achieve some success and then become satisfied, content, turning insular, rigid—oblivious to the warning Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, who once said: “When the rate of change inside an organization is slower than the rate of change outside of an organization, the end of the organization is in sight.”

Hence, books like Kotter’s, A Sense of Urgency is worth a fresh read.  In all of his thinking on leadership and change, he has come to the conclusion that it all starts with exigency, resolve, an awareness of what time it is. There needs to be an urgency about bringing the outside in. Another way to say this is to reposition the focus from the inside to the outside, listening to the hearts of those beyond our walls, noting their fears, their needs, the reasons for their alienation towards the existing church; looking at patterns, asking questions, and listening closely to the answers.  It also means “clearing the decks”, the unnecessary clutter—for clutter and fatigue undermine urgency.  Purge low-priority items; end meetings with a clarity as to what needs to happen, by whom, and when.

Urgency includes finding the opportunities in crises, and being urgent about taking advantage of them!  The very best organizations look for the silver lining.  There must also be urgency when it comes to dealing with “NoNos”. These are people who are highly skilled urgency killers, and most churches have at least one NoNo.  They shoot down dreams, resist change, place their greatest priority in their personal security, hate risk, and almost always insist upon delay. They also tend to be too in love with the past, with “film”.

So what’s to be done?  Kotter notes that the first thing is not to ignore, not leave a NoNo outside the tent.  They tend to create even more mischief if you do.  Rather, distract them (give them so much work there is no time to create trouble), expose their behavior for what it is, or push them out (when it becomes clear they have no intention to change), and implement ways to avoid the cycle. This might work in the corporate world, but it can be far harder in a church.  Nonetheless, a leader must discern when NoNos are holding the church hostage, insisting on decisions that consign a church to the present or the past, and take appropriate action urgently.

I believe in the promise that the gates of hell will not prevail—God’s church will triumph.  But there is something to learn from the Kodak’s of this world. What a leader inevitably must do is maintain a personal sense of urgency.  This means becoming aware of the nature of time—life does go fast.  This life is not a dress rehearsal.  It means keeping in front of the organization the basic pattern—urgency, pursuit tend to lead to success; success tends to lead to arrogance and complacency; arrogance and complacency tend to lead to Kodak moments.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.

4 thoughts on “The Dangerous Side of Success

  1. Thank you, Rev. Johnson.
    , “There must also be urgency when it comes to dealing with “NoNos”. These are people who are highly skilled urgency killers, and most churches have at least one NoNo. They shoot down dreams, resist change, place their greatest priority in their personal security, hate risk, and almost always insist upon delay. They also tend to be too in love with the past, with “film”.”

    For some reason, maybe it was simply fortune, I found myself on the cusp of the revitalization that originated in part with the Vineyard movement out of So. California in the early 1980’s. Today we are enjoying their legacy with new trends in worship, particularly the musical aspects. But I found that, at home, there were those types that you mentioned. Our church was also in very close proximity to Western Sem. so we often had guest speakers and such from there and also from Multnomah College. What I observed were many speakers so into deep thinking that they didn’t relate to us ordinary folks—-and thus our evangelism, too, was almost zero. I don’t understand what it is about ‘theology’ that can so entrance and captivate people, yet no one else understands. Whatever it is that we believe we should be able to relate it to those outside of the church. Seems like that is the importance of the gospel.

    1. Fair point. My conviction is that theology, properly understood and communicated, moves people to most powerfully live and share their faith. If it is not understood, it is not the failure of theology, but the communicator. Thanks for engaging in the post–John

      1. I have often talked to people about a PBS special I saw in the 1990’s by Prof. Randall Balmer, who is now also an editor for Christianity Today. I’ve asked in some churches if I could have a discussion group on it—-no takers. Balmer is taking a sociological look at evangelicalism, and he really is sympathetic, but sees a sort of vested subculture that will resist interaction with the outside world. For those interested in evangelism or connecting to our culture perhaps it would be a good series to watch—as a critique, but a friendly one.

        I think the PBS special had three one hour segments—but here is a short video where Balmer puts it in a nutshell:

        I talked to Mr. Balmer when he was on a book tour and had stopped in at Powell’s Books downtown. His analysis of evangelicalism as a political movement seems to make a lot of sense, while I am not in agreement with all of his current viewpoints.

        My great respect to those who have a pastoral ability (and those who train them) , because there are so many emotionally hard things to help people with. On the flip side a good pastor should look for lay people that are talented and energetic and being aware of what current cultural trends are is of great benefit, and understanding a spiritual response to them.

        At the church I attended most— which you will probably guess—I often saw people who would stop in once, probably because they lived in the neighborhood or maybe they had been to some friend’s event there, or something. So, I believe people really do want to go to a church and want to believe there is something better in their lives for them.

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