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5 Ways to Lead Change Like a Penguin

In 2003 the San Francisco Zoo had a group of 46 birds that had lived there almost all their lives. They were comfortable and had grown accustomed to their rather lazy lifestyle. They would swim from time to time, but only for the purpose of cooling off and to make sue their feathers remained sleek and groomed. They had developed a familiar routine and were completely content.

In 2003 the zoo welcomed six new penguins from Ohio. Upon their arrival, they jumped into the pool and swam, and swam, and swam, and swam some more. They kept swimming all day long, day after day. They didn’t let the reluctance of the older penguins stop them- they just kept swimming around the pool, doing what they knew they were created to do.

The new group of penguins would start swimming each morning and continue until they would stagger out of the pool exhausted at dusk. Eventually, over time, the persistence of the new penguins convinced the other 46 comfortable penguins to join them. And swimming became the new cultural norm of the group.

When I read this story, I was stuck by several leadership principles we can learn from these penguins and implement in our context as church leaders.

1. Identify the cultural norm. There existed a cultural norm within the penguin enclosure at the zoo. It was toxic to the birds’ health, but they couldn’t see it. Their comfort kept them from trying new things, being curious, and pushing their abilities. They were created to swim- but they were merely dipping their toes into the water just to maintain their comfort and physical appearance.

If we’re honest, many of us are pretty comfortable in our churches and with our faith. We are fed and cared for, we like the people in our church, and our comfort blinds us from seeing what we’re missing. We’re dipping our toe into the waters of the Great Commission, but we’re not jumping in and giving ourselves fully to our mission. Dipping our toes into evangelism makes us feel good but we could be doing so much more by taking the plunge and diving in!

2. Culture change happens best in community. There was a small group of world changing penguins- not just one. We were created to be in community- to support each other and build each other up. We are called to develop teams and accountable relationships with others who we trust to speak truth and life into our lives- to guide and steer us and walk through life together. When you have a small group of people who are called to be culture-changers, you can encourage each other to continue when the going gets tough. Doing the hard work of culture change alone is nearly impossible.

3. Culture change requires a commitment to your purpose. The small group of culture changing penguins knew their purpose- they instinctually knew they were created for something more. Abigail Van Buren said, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” We are called to bring the gospel to the world and develop disciples. We are to care for and encourage each other along the journey but that isn’t the purpose of the church. Our care for each other should be for the purpose of encouraging each other as disciple-makers in order to expand the Kingdom.

4. A change in culture requires a change in perspective. These culture changers had an outside perspective- they had seen another way of doing things and knew it was better than the existing culture. As leaders, we need to be curiously seeking new ideas and ways of doing things. We need to stop taking offense when someone challenges the status quo and instead be open to honest discussions that challenge our current perspective. Too often when our perspective is challenged and pushes us outside our comfort zones, we make excuses… They can do that because…That’s impossible in my context because…We don’t have the resources they do. They can do that because they don’t have ___________ in their congregation.

Let’s challenge ourselves to become comfortable being uncomfortable and stop being defensive just because we’re uncomfortable. It’s only then that we will be able to see our situation from a different perspective and be open to where God might be calling us to move.

How do you seek out that larger perspective? Go visit another church where God seems to be moving. Talk to people outside your church and ask them where they are currently struggling and what brings them the most joy. Invite community leaders to come to your next committee meeting and talk about the needs of your community- find out how you can be an active part of meeting those needs.

5. Actions speak louder than words. The new penguins demonstrated their commitment through actions and perseverance, not through eloquent words or inspiring speeches. They just started doing. They didn’t wait until everything was lined up and the conditions were perfect- they literally jumped in and got started. And then they kept going- regardless of complaints, of what the other penguins thought of them. They made a commitment to the cause and they didn’t let anything pull them off track.

The most compelling reason for people to change is to see how living out that change is impacting your life. So let’s all commit to be more like those penguins. Grab a group of friends, recommit yourself to the mission of the gospel and start swimming!

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