Ask my wife and she’ll tell you I have a condition known as “directional inability.” We’ve lived in our home for more than four years, yet I routinely end up on the wrong thoroughfare. If it weren’t for navigation systems, who knows where I’d end up.

My deficiency illustrates the challenge of joining an established institution. Navigating a new organization can be a daunting endeavor. Ask a new staff member, faculty member, student, or church member how systems work, what characterizes institutional culture, or how decisions are made and you’ll quickly discover your institution is more complex than you thought.

That’s why Gordon Smith’s Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization is such a needed and welcome resource. As president of a Christian university with years of institutional leadership experience, Smith brings expertise and insight to the conversation.

Importance and Value of Institutions

In a day marked by skepticism toward institutions, Smith is part of a welcome group of voices calling on Christians to recover a more measured and necessary vision for the power of institutions.

Building on the work of theorists such as Hugh Heclo and James Davison Hunter, Smith rightly points out that institutions have a unique and essential ability to foster human flourishing. Individuals can generate ideas, but institutions provide the structure for action. Or, as he puts it, “An institution is a social structure that leverages wisdom, talent, and resources toward a common cause or purpose” (4).

Smith’s most useful contribution is his concept of “institutional intelligence.” It’s one thing to affirm the centrality of institutions for human flourishing; it’s another to identify and effectively harness what makes an institution effective.

Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization

Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization

InterVarsity (2017). 224 pp.
InterVarsity (2017). 224 pp.

Readers will benefit from what Smith identifies as the seven characteristics of effective institutions: mission clarity, appropriate governance structures, quality personnel appointments, a vibrant institutional culture, financial resilience, generative built spaces, strategic alliances, and collaborative partnerships. Smith devotes a chapter to each, loaded with insight for a variety of contexts.

It’s All About Mission

While not original to this book, Smith’s emphasis on the centrality of an institution’s mission is clear and desperately needed, especially for Christian organizations. In my experience, most institutional dysfunction is downstream from a failure to consistently and clearly articulate the mission to every layer of constituency. Since Smith’s context overlaps with my own—the world of Christian and theological education—I found this point particularly relevant. In our world, if faculty, trustees, prospective students, donors, and supporting churches and denominational structures aren’t fully conscious of and personally invested in the institution’s mission, it’s only a matter of time until there’s a breakdown in strategic decision-making and effectiveness.

Here Smith recovers the ancient Christian idea of charism for understanding an organization’s mission. “By charism we mean a gift, a contribution, very specifically a gift from God,” he writes (20). This kind of category opens up new vistas for institutional leaders to steward their history, make necessary changes for new times, and guard themselves from institutional hubris (i.e., “We’re the only ones able to do this.”).

And while Smith wisely outlines the complex responsibilities of the senior leader throughout the book, he helpfully emphasizes that this person’s most crucial role is to “clarify the mission, keep the institution on mission, and assure that all new personnel believe in the mission” (31).

How Christian Is ‘Christian’?

For all of the book’s strengths, Smith’s approach to institutional culture will frustrate many. To his credit, he recognizes healthy institutional culture is necessarily tied to mission. Far more important than all members being happy in their work (a wonderful result of healthy culture), Smith points out that cultures are healthy when aligned with and animated by a clear and consistent mission.

But when considering what makes a Christian institutional culture actually Christian, Smith seems to take a step back. While acknowledging some institutions will engage in “God-talk,” he seems skeptical that “the language of God” should be pervasive and overt in the rythms of institutional life. More specifically, when considering the question for a Christian university, he suggests that commonly assumed practices of professors praying in class, relating disciplines to “religious implications,” or opening trustee meetings with prayer may actually be unhelpful. Instead, he proposes that “a religious ethos that is subtle, perhaps implied in the way that the class is taught or the committee is moderated, ultimately alters and shapes our way of being” (128).

While Smith’s vision is surely well-meaning, it seems naïve. To be blunt, in a secular age, it’s hard to imagine that institutions marked by a “thin” Christianity or confessional identity will remain Christian for long. If anything, the spirit of the age will require more robust and regular “God-talk,” the sort of “thick” Christian commitment and discourse—found only in historic confessional identity—that stands increasingly contra mundum.

Seeds for Reflection and Contribution

Institutional Intelligence is full of veins of insight that merit even deeper analysis and reflection. Smith’s work on physical space and place, for example, will prove helpful to leadership teams wrestling with how to effectively develop workspaces and facilities (his wisdom on the placement of silverware in buffet lines made my heart sing!; cf. 155). Additionally, his chapter on institutional finances should be required reading for any senior executive or nonprofit board member; it emphasizes how financial equilibrium advances and sustains the institution’s mission. One can only hope others will carry this reflection farther and deeper.

Some of us will be perpetually tethered to our navigation apps to get us around town. But Gordon Smith has done all of us who serve institutions a great service. If you want to lead well and thoughtfully—without getting lost in the often confusing maze of organizational life—Institutional Intelligence might help you make it home before dark.