All of us know the feeling of listening to someone and occasionally they use a word unfamiliar to us. When we were in middle school, our teachers taught us to use context clues when we encountered an unfamiliar word. Context clues are familiar words or phrases used in the sentences immediately before or after the unfamiliar word, which would give a clue to the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Consider the following: Richard was well-liked by most of his co-workers in his new office downtown, except for Robert. Most could not figure out why Robert held such animosity against him. Before Richard came to the office, Robert was generally friendly with everyone, but afterwards, Robert would not interact with him with the same friendliness shown to others.
Animosity is the unfamiliar word, yet the words and phrases before and after help the reader to understand the general meaning of animosity, which is a dislike, contention or hatred for someone. In general conversations, there is a phrase used to illustrate to another person that we do not understand an entire phrase or a word they used. This phrase is used when they haven’t provided to us sufficient context clues to make an association to grasp the meaning of the word or phrase. The phrase is It’s Greek to Me.
It’s Greek to Me is an American idiom used to tell someone politely, “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about!” Whether they explained it well or not, really isn’t the issue. The outcome is the person listening is lost in the conversation and cannot follow because they’ve been separated from comprehension. Have you been in this position recently? When was the last time you were lost in a conversation with a colleague or presentation given at work? How about being lost in a sermon at church? How did it make you feel?
With this in mind, allow me the permission of taking a detour to the typical growing town near a fast-growing city. This city, let’s say Charlotte, NC, has experienced steady population growth for a decade or more. An influx of people annually move from various parts of the country due to retirement or better career opportunities to make this city their new home. After experiencing a steady growth rate over a period of years, the inevitable happens. There is a population explosion! It seems as if new neighborhoods and apartment complexes spring up overnight, and by nature, the city center cannot sustain such growth. Renowned researcher and author Malcolm Gladwell referenced this phenomenon as a cultural "tipping point.”
Growth happens at an alarming rate and there isn’t enough land available in the city to accommodate the growth. As a result, suburbs are created; but where do these suburbs come from? In many cases, such as Charlotte, NC, the suburbs become the smaller towns that were once simply rural communities beyond the scope of the city. Years before this became the reality, what was the attitude of the leaders within the average smaller town near this city? Far too many leaders of smaller towns near much larger cities appeared to possess a “that’s them” or “we’re OK” attitude. As a result, far too many of these smaller towns (now considered suburbs) are on the reactive side of leadership as it relates to population growth and the citizens of those towns suffer. The citizens suffer due to excessively inconvenient road projects, general neighborhood overcrowding, excessive traffic, overcrowded schools and sharply rising property taxes, to say the least.
To be fair, in many of these towns, the leaders didn’t have much complexity to manage over their years of service. The social demand was relatively low so the leadership and organizational capacity had a lower barrier of entry. This is not to say these men or women did not possess the requisite expertise to serve in the leadership role, yet it does reveal a gap in leadership foresight and preparation, which makes it difficult to lead during a period of rapid growth. If you are reading this blog and live in a small town-turned-suburb then you understand exactly what I’m talking about. And although you may not know the word soon to be introduced, the preceding example provides you sufficient context clues to grasp the power of this word rarely used in common conversation.
Returning from my detour, the word to be introduced here, which most would say “is Greek to them,” is the word infrastructure. It’s OK to sound it out, really! Remember the lesson from elementary school? In-fra-struct-ure. Honestly, how often have you heard or used this word? Unless you are an architect, civil engineer, executive or high-level city official, you probably never use or hear the term. This doesn’t mean the person so disposed is necessarily unskilled or unlearned. It means there is a gap in understanding, however, the more significant the area of leadership, the greater the necessity to understand and implement the concept rightly.
On the other hand, a person could be proficient in the concept of infrastructure, but not know the proper term to be used. These are the minority of cases. The majority of cases is where a leader is simply unlearned in a profoundly important concept necessary for the growth and sustainability of any significant endeavor. By definition, infrastructure is the basic physical or organizational systems, facilities or structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. Using context clues from the city/suburb example, the town's infrastructure are the roads, traffic lights, quantity and quality of city employees, tax payment systems, school buildings, etc. needed for a suburb to manage and scale the growing demand resulting from the nearby city. In order to be considered a town, there has to exist a minimum infrastructure, but a minimum infrastructure isn’t necessarily an infrastructure that can be tweaked to accommodate growth and scale of a community or enterprise.
Simply put, every town, suburb, city and enterprise has an infrastructure, however, the infrastructure can differ widely in quality, scalability, reliability, efficiency and productivity. The small town-turned-suburb has an existing infrastructure, which was implemented by its leaders, but did they do so with the future in mind or simply managing the present? Most communal, civic, faith or business entities that had growth “thrust upon them” didn’t forecast when they invested in their present infrastructure. The investment in infrastructure was largely maintenance of the present as opposed to forecasting of the future.
For sure, there are conditions one cannot predict, yet this is the common excuse voiced from leaders as I coach in various sectors of society. They say, “We could not have predicted these factors affecting us in this way!” Far too many leaders use this as an excuse for the absence of vision and strategic planning. I almost never agree with a leader when he or she makes this statement. Bill Gates remarked, “Most overestimate what they can do in one year, while underestimating what they can do in ten.” In the context of this blog, most leaders aren’t thinking 10 or 20 years into the future. Their investment in infrastructure is generally for the here and now and not the long term.
King Solomon of Ancient Israel, arguably the most ambitious builder in Jewish history, remarked, “A wise man foresees the future and prepares for it.” When was the last time you and your team thought through the social, cultural, economic, spiritual and political trends that could affect your organization? When was the last time you and your team invested in analyzing your present infrastructure categories to ensure their quality, reliability, scalability, efficiency and productivity? Unfortunately, most leaders don’t have consistent vision-planning sessions, which force them to analyze trends, habits and behaviors, to reasonably predict the future as it relates to their organization. Most leaders, although sincere, are so focused on managing the present, the future is generally an illusion.
“We’ll take it as it comes, the say.” Others say, “One day at a time, right?” As a result, more than the average leader is creating or managing various infrastructures with too short of a time horizon. As a result, employees, citizens, and stakeholders are forced to accept inconveniences or lost opportunities. Does this sound like your community or organization? Does this sound like your leadership style? Has the infrastructure conversation gotten lost in the milieu of other responsibilities? Infrastructure cannot continue as a term reserved for the so-called elite organizations or large cities.
Investment in quality infrastructure must be seen as “have it before you need it” versus “need it and have to tear up everything to have it.” As leaders, we must decide today to put infrastructure analysis at the top of our list of organizational responsibilities. We cannot have a Harvard-level vision with a high school-level infrastructure. This produces frustration and loss of momentum. On the other side of the coin, we cannot have a high school-level vision with a high school-level infrastructure. This produces loss of opportunity and complacency. It is simply unacceptable to keep infrastructure as the “It’s Greek to Me” concept. Our citizens, employees and stakeholders need both the opportunities and positive outlook an investment in the right infrastructure produces.