Robert Iger, who until last month was the president of the Walt Disney Co., opens his memoir with a story about his trip to China for the opening of Shanghai Disneyland, an event nearly two decades in the making and the result of significant investment and collaboration.
Just four days before the opening, the team received news of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando by someone who had scouted out Disney World as his primary target. Two Disney employees were killed.
More bad news arrived that week: a little boy was attacked and killed by an alligator at the Grand Floridian Hotel. Distraught over the tragedy, Iger determined to call the child’s parents and personally offer his condolences.
What followed was a parade, a time of festivities at the Disney castle, a memorized speech from Iger in Mandarin, and a celebration of all the people who had worked so hard to make the launch of a new theme park a reality. “It was a happy day. It was also the saddest day of my career,” Iger wrote. In the margin of the book, he wrote: This is the challenge of leadership.
Would it have been right for Iger to forgo the celebration of launching a new theme park? No. Out of fairness to the employees there and in recognition of their achievement, he had to set aside the inner turmoil that comes from other crises elsewhere in order to focus his attention on the people in front of him.
Is this callousness? Is it hypocrisy?
No, it’s leadership.
Living in Three Times
The reason Iger could go from a heavy conversation about a nightclub shooting and Disney World security to a celebratory parade and then back to his hotel room to speak with parents in shock over the sudden death of their child is because he’d learned to live in three times simultaneously. He had foreseen the launch of Shanghai Disneyland 18 years before (the past); he knew the present moment required his full attention (the present); and he recognized that changes to security and additional work would need to be done in response to the crises that had arisen (the future).
Leadership requires you to bounce back and forth between different times: past, present, and future. You cannot dwell on past successes to the point that it squashes innovation and room for growth. You cannot live only by the tyranny of the urgent in your everyday work in the present. And you cannot allow the future to become either a daydream or a nightmare that stifles your strategies. Jumping back and forth between past realities, current demands, and future challenges is what leadership is all about (which is why the exhaustion that sets in from all that time travel is a bit like jet lag after crossing the ocean!).
There’s a certain vulnerability that comes with living in three times, when you are constantly making decisions and entertaining contingency plans in order to protect and steward an organization. Most of the time that work remains hidden. We hear a lot about authentic leadership these days and the need for leaders to let their guard down and express their feelings. And surely there is a time for leaders to strengthen and support each other, to help get through challenging circumstances and make difficult decisions.
But leadership also requires a strong, inner fortitude that comes from a willingness to not express everything you feel at every moment, out of honor for the people who look up to you.
In Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch writes of “hidden vulnerability,” which he describes this way:
Almost by definition, leaders have evident authority—but almost by definition, they also bear vulnerability that no one else can see. . . . This is what it is to be a leader: to bear the risks that only you can see, while continuing to exercise authority that everyone can see.
Crouch mentions the intelligence briefings the president receives every morning. The president is deeply aware of the vulnerabilities of our nation, the places of insecurity, and the threats against our people. Were he to publicly speak of all of these vulnerabilities, he would paralyze the nation with fear. Were he to constantly speak of his own personal struggle to deal with the stress of bearing this burden, he would undermine his own ability to move forward with meaningful action.
Facing the Future
Many Christian leaders today are grappling with unprecedented challenges, wondering how their ministries will move forward in uncertain times. What to do? What to say? What to share?
To downplay or hide the seriousness of the struggles ahead would be to forfeit truth in favor of spin. But to over-share one’s personal struggles by relaying the details of every possible contingency that could become a factor would paralyze people with fruitless fear and anxiety.
Living in three times will give you context for wise decision-making. Remember the past that has brought you and your organization to this moment of stewardship. Consider the present that requires wisdom in action. Don’t fear the future that may bring painful decisions in order to ensure a bright horizon.
Live in the tension. Stay alert in spite of the jet lag. And take your hidden vulnerabilities to the Lord and ask for wisdom in the days ahead.