Saturday, March 5, 2016

Interview with Alex McManus, Author of Makers of Fire: The Spirituality of Leading from the Future

I've known Alex McManus since January 2005. We became friends after I heard him speak at a Origins Conference in Orlando FL. Everytime that we've talked Alex has stretched my thinking and inspired my missional imagination. I'm grateful for the opportunity to offer my friends and readers an interview with Alex regarding his recent book Makers of Fire: The Spirituality of Leading from the Future.

What is the inspiration for the title, Makers of Fire?

Over the course of my life, I've had several enduring interests. The first of these is an interest in the future. As a young boy of five or six years old, I remember speaking with my grandfather about Thomas Malthus' predictions that the world would have a global water crisis. He also once said to me that he wanted to live until the year 2000 because there would be dancing in the streets. Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed thinking about the things to come.

A second enduring interest is reading history, especially deep history. When it comes to our species, I’ve enjoyed readings in paleoanthropology and thinking about what life must have been like for the first humans. Brian, have you ever tried to start a fire sans the aid of modern technologies like matches and such?  Can you imagine our existence in the world before we domesticated fire? As I say in the book, In the beginning, the world was dark.

Then came the change.

Somewhere in the prehistorical mist of our ancient past, the first humans unlocked the mystery of fire. What a creative leap it must have been to first imagine making fire. The power of the human imagination coupled with urgent need pushed the limits of human capacity. Rather than waiting for lightning to start a fire, some ancient person stood in lightning's place and provided the heat of ignition. They harnessed that which was once wild and domesticated it. And they made the world better for themselves and for others. This was our breakthrough technology. Everything we enjoy today, was built on this discovery. To me this becomes a symbol, a representation, of human ingenuity, creativity, and innovation. I chose the image of making fire for the book in hopes of burning into our minds the fact that the human imagination is our infinite resource.

So, by Makers of Fire, I mean the entire human enterprise of seeing a need and filling it, the insatiable hunger of human curiosity, the human drive to engage the world and rule it. The human imagination is the well from which we will make the world better for ourselves and for others. So, by Makers of Fire, I hope to point to the human capacity to shape the world for generations to come.

Makers of Fire is also primal. When I speak of making fire, I imagine bleeding fingers and broken fingernails, sweat dripping from the brow, a simple stick of wood spinning into a nest of dry material, a flow of nurturing oxygen, a sense of urgent need. Making Fire is about dreaming --an act of the imagination -- and doing --the primal act of trying and trying again. Makers of Fire is a calling to all of us. How can each of us act, individually and together, to make the world better for others?

Who is the ideal reader of Makers of Fire? I wrote makers of fire as a companion text for the IMN’s certificate course in Strategic and Ideational Leadership. The kinds of people who take this certificate course are future-oriented thinkers and activists. They tend to think differently. They tend to be as engaged with the world outside the church as they are with the world inside the church.

What is the key idea in the book? The book is a calling to embrace fully the reality that we are each and all creators of the future. The first section of the book touches on some of the changes we are experiencing in our present day world. The second section touches on how these changes are creating a hunger for meaning. The third section touches on how we are beginning to explore anew what it means to be a people on a mission to create the future.

How will Makers of Fire help 21st-century leaders? I think the book offers some useful devices to help 21st-century leaders organize their thinking. For example, I describe the task of leadership as comprising of three elements that correspond to the triangle of combustion. In order to make fire, you need three things; fuel, oxygen, and the heat of ignition. In order to Make Fire and “lead from the future”, a leader must be able to do three things: fearlessly describe the present, discern the search for meaning in the moment, and discover pathways forward. Another tool I touch on is the plausibility cone, which describes how the futures are created. The feedback I get, when I share this tool in our certificate course, is that it really helps leaders understand how their work and efforts help shape the future.

Why is it important for Christ-following leaders to be interested in the ideas of futurists? In a professional sense, not everyone works in the strategic foresight industry. But in the personal sense, every human being is a futurist. The emergence of the multi-chambered brain which gave rise to the human imagination. Our imagination gave humans a capacity to imagine worlds that could be. In that sense, every man, woman, and child thinks about the future. In the same way, that we humans are taught to think historically, we can be taught to think “futuristically”.

Related specifically to the Christ following faith, the scriptures themselves seem to be, in my reading, future-oriented. Just to be clear, when I speak about the future I don't mean the eschatological future, I don't mean the end of all things. When I think about the future I'm talking about futurity: that which may  happen among us and become history. In that sense thinking about the future is not about predicting the future but about understanding our place and role in the present.

So even though the church is a conserving institution, and even though we dedicate ourselves to reading ancient texts and reciting ancient creeds and participating in ancient practices, something is missing if our minds and hearts are not also oriented towards the future.

Where can people find a copy of my book? You can find Makers of Fire: The Spirituality of Leading from the Future on Amazon. And your readers can connect with me online through my website: They can find a link to the certificate courses we offer and a link for our newsletter, dispatches from the future of faith.

Thank you Alex.