Healthy Leadership Prescriptions: Do You Have an Oxbow Organization?

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of The Christian Post or its editors.
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(Photo: Carl Moeller)

Often, when I fly over the country, I'll look down over some of the great rivers below like the Missouri or the Mississippi. I've noticed a curious formation in several places – an "oxbow" in the river. These are found along the path of a river where you can see how clearly, over time, the river used to bend at an extreme angle. But now the river is running in a different channel. The main flow is cut off from the oxbow. The oxbow is a bend in the river where the river has passed it by. That cutoff bend forms a stagnant lake, which over time, continues to fill into a boggy swamp.

So my question for you is this: "Is your organization in danger of becoming an oxbow?"

All along a river's path, dead river oxbows that have fully filled in can be helpful for agriculture as their fertile planting soil is wonderful for growing. However your organization is not a farm, and there's no reward for you becoming extinct!

Like these river oxbows, oxbow organizations have gradually become walled off from the main flow of the river of innovation, the river of re-imagining and re-inventing themselves to be their best. This can happen in a number of ways. It can be when organizations think they've "solved" the problem they were formed to address, or that they've "arrived" and their product doesn't need to be improved. Another way this can happen is when their leadership focuses on self-congratulatory measures, and avoids challenging their assumptions and performance with external evidence.

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When an organization or a leader cuts off from the flow of innovation, stagnation follows. Once this happens the ideas, processes, assumptions about your market and customers base—all become like the river oxbow; sluggish and immobile. The river of ideas ceases to flow through your organization. That eventually creates a swampy, boggy mess where everyone in the organization is hampered by the lack of innovation. If you want to remain alive and vital, you'll need to keep fresh with innovation and creativity. So how do you avoid becoming an oxbow?

My leadership prescription is three things to help keep you and your organization from becoming an oxbow:

1) Learn every day. Engage in the discipline of exposing yourself to new ideas and new perspectives. That can be in your industry, it can be among your specific competition, or it can even be more general than that in learning about the culture and the new desires of your customers. Read, download a podcast, or join a discussion forum for your industry, but whatever way you do it, do it now!

2) Cultivate an experimental culture. Invite experimentation among your employees or co-workers. Be open to the infusion of new ideas into your organization – and affirm them when you see them. You can liken this to equipping everyone in your organization with shovels and pickaxes to dig at the riverbank that has been keeping the information flow out. Verbally encourage those with the shovels and pickaxes working bring new ideas into your organization.

3) Tolerate the uncomfortable. If you want to avoid becoming an oxbow organization, you'll need to build a high capacity for experiencing things that are new and unfamiliar. Develop affection for newness. If you are addicted to being 'comfortable' in your organization—that is one sign that you're fast becoming an oxbow organization.

God has always been in the business of new creations – and resurrecting the dead – maybe this is what you most need to hear. If you or your organization has become an oxbow, don't despair, there is hope! 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, "This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! Isaiah 43:19 puts it this way "…Forget about what's happened; don't keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I'm about to do something brand-new. It's bursting out! Don't you see it? There it is! I'm making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands…"

Sounds like God is in the business of innovation and re-creation to me. I believe that we should emulate what God has shown us – in our lives and organizations. We need to be aware of fresh thinking so that we can keep our organizations fresh and responding to the conditions that we find ourselves in. That way we will maintain healthy organizations, keep a strong relationship with Him, and fulfill the purposes that He intends for us.


Dr. Carl Moeller is a consultant at Sequoia Global Resources, retained search executive at FaithSearch Partners, and author of The Privilege of Persecution (Moody Press, 2011). Moeller's diverse background, education, and global experience provide him with unique perspectives on life, leadership and faith. You can find out more at