From Little Things Big Things Grow
If you don’t know the song … click here.
Life’s greatest satisfaction is to see how things turn out. How small steps evolve into huge leaps. How the germ of an idea turns into a powerful movement. How offering someone a job expands into a significant career.
Again and again, over and over, I’ve had the great privilege to see little things grow into big things.
In 1976 one of my first jobs at World Vision was to roll out a new program. We called it the 40 Hour Famine. It was a small and simple idea, borrowed from Canada. But in Australia it grew to impact generations of young people and even spawned other big things like the Oaktree Foundation.
Too many to count are the colleagues who went on to big things. Not a few have become leaders in other organisations, or other fields. They grew because of nothing I taught them, but because they found a place in which there was enough freedom to try some little things.
Last month, October, it happened to me again. I saw a big thing that was growing out of something little we had started more than a decade before.
Yes, that’s me on the left. In a bishop’s polo shirt. Third from the left in the black shirt is Danut (pronounced Dah-nootz) Manastireanu. This is a photo of the Faith and Development team who work in the Middle East and Eastern Europe region of World Vision International, plus a few supporting colleagues from elsewhere in the world. I’m not sure it is fair to describe this work yet as A Big Thing, but I was a little astounded and a lot delighted to see what had grown from an idea we had last century.
Somewhere in the middle of my life as a manager I came to the conclusion that organisation culture was the real key to effective performance. Yes, it was important to employ good people. That meant the right kind of people. People who believed the right things. But if you had the right people, the key role of leadership was to create a culture in which they could thrive. Leaders should look to the garden for metaphors, rather than the production line.
In 1999, in the Middle East and Eastern Europe region of more than a thousand workers spread across thousands of kilometres and a couple of dozen language groups, we asked a question. Since World Vision believes it is part of God’s mission in the world, how should we express that belief in our work?
I took the view, more intuitively than rationally, that the question was more important than the answer. Or, to say it another way, there were probably many good answers. My observation at the time was that none of us was asking the question. At least not often enough.
I shared the dilemma with colleagues in the United States. Resonating with my concerns was George Marhad. He’s the guy in the red shirt right in the back. With a haircut like mine.
George knows a thing or two about how to navigate complex bureaucracies like World Vision. He found enough money for me to employ someone to work on the task. It was only a little money. I knew who I wanted for the job. Danut. For two or three years, we had been mutually engaged in governing the emerging work in Romania, his home country. I wasn’t sure the funds would support a full-time person working out of our regional office. Danut visited the regional office (in Vienna at the time) and it was clear to me that he was perfect for the job, and to him that the job was perfect for him. Only one hitch, according to Danut. He could not possibly relocate from his home in Iasi, Romania. I rather off-handedly told him he could work from there because it was cheaper. He recently told me he disliked the reason, but loved the outcome!
Today, from this little thing has grown, and is growing still, a network of colleagues in the region dedicated to the task of asking the questions about how faith and works connect. What a thrill to see such a small idea so wonderfully validated.