The Barnabas Factor – Catalysts who Identify and Develop the Right Talent

Who are the innovators in your organization? More importantly who are the mentoring innovators who discover and develop the latent talent of others in a way that provides the impetus to organizational effectiveness, efficiency and growth? Surprisingly, while many organizations tout their need for leaders they exhibit the kind of behavior that limits leadership from emerging. Talented people whose discovery and development rises out of now where usually trace their emergence to the mentoring of a unique type of leader. I call the work of these leaders “the Barnabas Factor” after its namesake in the Acts of the Apostles. I routinely read in the Christian scriptures (1) to help me define my life’s mission and purpose and (2) for their case studies into leadership situations and actions. Barnabas (whose name was actually Joseph) “earned” the knick name Barnabas because his behavior consistently demonstrated the ability to identify potential in others and provide a mentoring relationship that encouraged their emergence as highly effective contributors. In fact Barnabas demonstrates five critical characteristics every organization needs to remain vital and innovative in their social context. This article is the first of several that will follow in which I explore this interesting leader.

Barnabas was an early adapter/change agent. Barnabas was an expatriate, part of the Jewish Diaspora who hailed from Cyprus operating in the early church in Jerusalem. As in any group those who are “in” and those who are “out” or “on the margin” exist in various levels of tension. The identity Barnabas had as an “outsider” or immigrant or expatriate is significant in today’s context for global organizations or organizations that find themselves in a globalized urban situation and a multi-cultural context. Cultural groups do not normally integrate rather they exist in an uneasy tension. It takes someone of unique cultural perspective to bridge the gap between cultures in a way that helps construct a new way of seeing. According to the biblical record Barnabas was significant in two prominent cultural bridging events the first between the Judaic Jews and Hellenized Diaspora living in Jerusalem (Acts 4:36-37) and the second between the multifaceted Jewish community and the Gentiles of Antioch (Acts 11:19-29).

Barnabas exhibits a cross-cultural perspective i.e., the ability to explore and adapt the assumptions, language, customs and logical forms of a culture alien to his own while assessing the extent to which faith in God has impacted those assumptions, customs and logical forms. Some readers may object that the fact I include a level of assessment in my definition of Barnabas’ skill set negates his credentials as a multi-cultural man. However, the idea of assessment is central to the biblical text and to organizations attempting to negotiate contracts, employment agreements, risk mitigation etc. If these routine organizational tasks are attempted by someone who only exhibits a mono-cultural perspective then these common organizational functions exhibit ethnocentrism, a naive absolutism about one’s own cultural assumptions, superiority, denigration of the other and pejorative dismissal of another because their dress, communication style, language, family systems, business practices etc., are different.

As an early adapter or change agent Barnabas’ cross-cultural perspective offered a critical identification of two important turning points in the development of early church and helped launch the church’s existence from a local subset of Judaism to a global and multicultural movement anticipated by the Jewish prophets (cf. Is. 49:22-23). First, Barnabas recognized the need for a critical capital infusion at a point of growth that had outstripped the church’s ability to maintain its growing membership (Acts 4:36-37). Barnabas did not just throw money at problems he modeling a strategic investment into the mission of the early church that (1) helped define its organizational culture and (2) contrasted the vital aspects of its mission from the diffusive forces that vied for power as self-aggrandizement at the expense of the mission.

Second, Barnabas possessed the cross-cultural skills needed to read the degree to which the Gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:19-29) had actually contextualized the message of the early church. By contextualized I mean the way in which the believers in Antioch had understood the meaning of the message of the early church and had rethought their cultural assumptions, allegiances and values.

The ability to read the depth to which the real mission of an organization is understood or contextualized or believed by new markets or new employees is vital. In the absence of this ability organizations impose procedures, policies and punitive reactions that disenfranchise emerging leaders (and/or deflate emerging markets).

Organizations without a Barnabas often miss critical moments of change in their organizations and end up rejecting new or different people or markets/opportunities. When organizations fail to recognize critical moments for change they end up “circling the wagons” in a defensive maneuver designed to protect the familiar from the unfamiliar. The end result predictably is that organizations lose their vital connection to constituency or emerging markets. Barnabas seems to have spent significant time negotiating for change as a means of explaining his insights. Barnabas was mere claqueur of the latest fad he invested his personal resources and time in strategic moments. Many organizations have those around them that insist on following the crowd under the name of innovation. Few organizations know how to listen to those who see the next big thing and are willing to invest in it. Those organizations that do know who to listen to the catalysts or early adapters also have the discipline needed to get the most out of these insights and financial infusions.

In light of Barnabas’ early adapter/change agent character one other unspoken characteristic must be mentioned. Barnabas never invested himself or his resources in movements, people or opportunities that did not demonstrate the potential to make significant contributions. His presence in every situation we find him follows a series of actions that verify the potential. Barnabas never experienced a con or a rip off because he seems to have insisted on the actions and character that verified potential prior to making an investment in it. Barnabas did not need to generate success, he lived successfully and as a result he was simply not a target for charlatans. His apparent insistence on evidence prior to action provides a significant leadership insight for leaders in any sector.