Christian Leadership Alliance President and CEO Tami Heim recently interviewed Dr. John C. Reynolds, President of Los Angeles Pacific University (LAPU) on this edition’s theme of “Vision.”
Los Angeles Pacific University is an accredited, Christ-centered learning community that offers convenient and affordable degrees to students of all backgrounds. As part of the Azusa Pacific University System, LAPU provides a high-quality, faith-integrated education that is intentionally accessible, career-relevant and committed to student success.
Dr. Reynolds is Los Angeles Pacific University’s first president. He was responsible for establishing LAPU’s founding institutions, Azusa Pacific Online University (2011) and University College at Azusa Pacific University (2014) where he served as Chancellor. Regional accreditation for Los Angeles Pacific University was granted in Feb. 2018.
Prior to his tenure at LAPU, Dr. Reynolds served as Executive Vice President for 16 years at Azusa Pacific University. Reynolds earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer science and information systems, and a PhD. in higher education. His research interests in leadership, organizational effectiveness, board governance, and strategic thinking have resulted in several publications in leadership and strategy, particularly relating to nonprofit organizations.
In addition to his years of experience in higher education, Reynolds has worked in the mining industry and as the global CIO for World Vision International (1991–2000). A regular speaker at national conferences worldwide, he has also consulted in more than 40 countries and traveled to more than 80 countries to speak, consult and advise national NGO leaders. Reynolds is past chairman of the Christian Leadership Alliance board of directors, and currently serves on several boards on three continents.
What are the keys to forging vision for an organization?
It is impossible in leading a thriving organization or ministry in these interesting times, to not have a clear vision that is shared and owned by all your constituents. Visionary leaders cause people to not just “jump out of bed in the morning” to start their workday, but cast a vision that has the organization so excited and energized that people actually don’t want to go to bed!
There are several key principles for casting a vision.
There are several key principles for casting a vision. The first is foresight. By this I mean the ability to share an understandable snapshot of a future that is not yet in sight but is inspirational and aspirational.
Second, it is key that there be enough clarity/imagery that the vision immediately triggers a passion and enthusiasm so strong that the organization as one community is 100% committed.
Third, the vision must be congruent with the organization’s identity (mission and values). Visions are anchored in significance because as humans we want our journey to be significant. That significance is generally codified in the mission and values of the organization.
Fourth, a shared vision demonstrates consistently, and with endurance, why your particular organization is uniquely created to achieve this specific vision. It provides a sense of legacy for those who every day contribute to achieving the vision.
And then, lastly, the vision should be really ambitious! It must have that “wow” factor that generates excitement and value for every individual contributor in the organization.
Can you reflect on the genesis of the vision that led to creating Los Angeles Pacific University, and lessons learned along the way?
Like many organizations, the university was founded as the result of a specific need and a passion. The need in 2010, after the global financial crisis and recession, was accessibility to affordable quality college-level degrees taught through a Christian worldview. Although this existed in many faith-first colleges and universities, affordability was an issue for a majority of Christian families, especially if they were debt-adverse. The passion that drove the vision was how to make Christian college education accessible to all, especially for those families that could not afford four-year residential private universities and colleges.
We had clear purpose and the challenge of starting a new university that was 100% online. It was not a popular mode at that time as many for-profit universities, especially online, were creating much negative press. The vision really crystalized once the euphoria of starting a new university was over, and our workforce was expanding.
It was obvious to me as the leader that there was a need for a shared and exciting word “picture” of the future that would excite, connect, and make “fans” of our community as we moved toward a common future. A process was then started, and it was not a long process, of intentionally engaging the entire community.
That created the first, and only, vision statement in the decade we have existed: “Los Angeles Pacific University exists to serve people around the world who desire education delivered in the context of faith, excellence, and ﬂexibility, removing the barriers to affordability and accessibility.”
- “Serve people around the world” – this statement gets the university team excited as we are called to serve, and as we see an Acts 1:8 future. Who wouldn’t want to change the world for Christ and do it with the gifts, skills and online technology we have to teach and educate people almost without physical boundaries?
- “Education delivered in the context of faith, excellence, and flexibility” – this statement not only shares our value of being Christlike and being excellent, but it also describes our DNA of being flexible. Open enrollment, no long-term commitments, asynchronous, online, mobile, education anywhere, anytime is how we differentiate our institution.
- And then lastly, “removing the barriers of accessibility and affordability.” This statement has launched the university on an operational crusade to mitigate barriers in achieving this access and affordability.
I elaborated in more detail to highlight the importance of incorporating several key principles to forge a vision for a thriving organization.
So, what have I learned?
Infuse the vision, or parts of it, in every part of your journey as a leader: in communications, events, change, grief and celebration. Use the same word pictures all the time. The vision is never redundant, and is as enduring as the organization’s values. My greatest learning is that too often I have allowed too much time to pass without reinforcing or making reference to the vision. Share it! Live it! Celebrate it!
What are the core competencies required for leading with vision? What role does a leader’s character play?
The simple definition of a successful leader is that they have followers – no followers, no leader. Clearly, consistently, and authentically communicating the vision to followers cannot be underestimated for leaders. This is obviously much easier for more extroverted and charismatic leaders, but every leader must create their own process for making this a reality.
The vision may be cascaded through the organization by other leaders and managers, but it must be heard first, often, and clearly from the President/CEO/Executive Director.
My observation is that when any authentic leader, extroverted or introverted, is motivated by the heart, and is genuine, consistent, and passionate, they will create shared ownership and commitment inside the organization.
Being gifted with charisma and eloquence is wonderful. I am not a leader gifted in that way, but I have found that followers are looking fundamentally for a leader who is sincere, someone they can believe in.
For Christian leaders this may be a little more complex, as the organization’s vision is always secondary to the much larger eternal vision of kingdom-building. We know from Scripture that vision is important (Prov. 29:18), but I am always relieved to find that it is not a job requirement for Christian leadership. We are subject to a greater vision that requires us to be obedient and walk with the Lord.
I know personally that when I am still and listen for his quiet voice is generally when “visionary” thoughts and patterns emerge in my leadership.
Another key characteristic of a visionary leader is consistency. A leader sharing a “new” vision every six months after a private time of retreat quickly moves a vision to a “mirage.” It is hazy, unclear, and may in fact not exist. Being inconsistent with the vision will often erode commitment and passion in the organization.
How can a nonprofit board best steward the mission and vision of an organization?
That’s a really good question. What is the role of the board in the organization’s vision? Practically, I have seldom, if ever, observed an organization or ministry begin with an explicit organizational vision statement. (In some cases there is a founder’s vision, but not a corporate vision). In organizational identity language, the genesis of a new organization is generally the mission or purpose statement.
Organizations and ministries are started to fill a passionately felt need. In most cases, and there are exceptions, the organization’s vision is an extrapolation of what we believe we are doing today, that if continued with excellence, will eventually fulfill the need for which we were created.
Boards become the guardians or trustees of the vision, mission and values of the organization. As such, they hold the chief executive accountable for strategies and execution that are consistent and in alignment with this identity.
How would you encourage ministry leaders as they seek to forge a vision for their organizations in today’s rapidly changing environment?
My first word of encouragement is that you are a visionary leader. You would not be a leader with followers if you could not cast and share a compelling vision. It may not be as explicit as the organization would like, but that is easily corrected.
Take the time to explicitly share the vision so that any person in the organization can express it.
Take the time to explicitly share the vision so that any person in the organization can express it. A story of President John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1961 illustrates this. In the president’s visit he asked a janitor mopping the floor what his job was. “I’m helping put a man on the moon,” was the prompt reply.
The uncertainty of our time is not going to diminish. We should plan for constant uncertainty, so a clear and inclusive vision, anchored in a significant, impactful, organizational identity, will be our first task of every day. Share, communicate, write, and encourage your organization on the rock of a compelling vision anchored to a clear and significant identity.
Be encouraged that you as a leader called by God do not have to carry this burden alone, “For we are co-workers in God’s service…” (1 Cor. 3:9). On a wall in our reception we have scribed the words of Jeremiah 29:11, “’For I know the plans I have for you’, declares the Lord.” As a leader, this reminds me that I am not alone. God will guide, encourage and direct the university through me and my team.
To learn more, please visit www.lapu.edu.
Dr. John C. Reynolds will lead a workshop “Strategic Thinking: Thriving in Disruptive Times” during The Outcomes Conference Digital Experience, On Demand - July 1 - 31, 2021. Register to attend!
CLATV: Hear an Outcomes Conference Podcast featuring Dr. John C. Reynolds on "Leadership Lessons Along the Way" - LISTEN >>