Monday over Coffee: "Observe"

Published August 1, 2022 by Greg Funderburk

I don't think many people fully understand the value of observing.
— Sir Alexander Ferguson, Manager, Manchester United, 1986-2013

The season I enjoyed coaching little league the most was when my son, Charlie, was ten. I call it the year of the Iron Pigs. I'd drafted a terrific team of kids, and we had really cool navy blue caps emblazoned with a fierce pig, silver rivets bolted formidably to its neck. I'd also assembled a great coaching staff to help me—dads as ridiculously serious about the endeavor as I was, all of whom were not only fantastic people but who knew baseball better than I did. As the season began, they handled the drills in practice, developing the boys' skills with patience and good humor, allowing me to oversee the whole operation from a higher level. With their help, I had the luxury of thinking ahead, considering the big picture of what we wanted to accomplish over the season, all the while ready to jump in with time and real presence when and where I was needed most. The Iron Pigs grew into a superb team, deeply invested in one another. Even though the season ended with a heart-breaking, extra-inning loss in the championship game—which honestly I never replay in my mind at all anymore—we had a memorable year together.

When Alex Ferguson took over as manager of the Manchester United football club in 1986, the team hadn't won a title in two decades. In fact, they were about to be relegated to a lower division, which is what happens in the English Premier League when a team tanks or underperforms over time. However, instead of relegation, and owing largely to Ferguson's splendid leadership over the next 27 years, Manchester United won 38 domestic and international titles to become one of the most storied franchises in all of sports. What John Wooden is to basketball, Connie Mack is to baseball, and Vince Lombardi is to American football—Alex Ferguson is to soccer. And it was this success that led Harvard Business School's Anita Elberse to fly across the Atlantic to study his management style, then write an article about it for the Harvard Business Journal.

What is perhaps most striking in her compelling article is a story about a Manchester United assistant coach who persuaded Ferguson to trust him with more responsibility. Though originally wary of ceding his authority to an assistant, Ferguson later said, "It was the best thing I ever did," as it freed Ferguson himself up to perform his job at a higher and, at the same time, deeper level. He could now simply observe his team, then respond where his expertise was most needed. "What you can pick up by watching is incredibly valuable. Once I stepped out of the bubble, I became more aware of a range of details—a change in a player's habits or a sudden dip in his enthusiasm." With these observations, he could then go deeper with his players and staff. Was there a family problem? Was a player struggling financially? Was he tired? Injured? Was it something else? "I don't think," Ferguson concluded, "many people fully understand the value of observing."

Do you have this luxury? The time, the space to step back and just observe what might be going on in the lives of those around you and then respond to it? Or perhaps even to observe what's going on at a deeper level within the little operation you call your own life? Yeah, me neither, but we should.

We don't have to read too far into the Gospel before Jesus starts referring to something he calls the Kingdom of God. You'll notice that when he brings it up, he's doesn't seem to be talking about some heavenly locale, but rather an unseen realm—that though it's right before us, among us, even within us—we only truly experience it when we remove ourselves from the bubble we think of as our regular lives and observe life in a new and different way. He seems to be saying that there's both a higher level and a deeper level of life placed on offer to us, embedded into the reality in which we exist if we could only detect and access it. And Ferguson's suggestion about the value of just observing strikes me as crucial to this enterprise, this endeavor to which Christ points us.

This week, consider reserving the energy and, with intention, giving yourself the time and space to detect this hidden Kingdom of God, which Christ tells us is before us, among us, even inside us. And when you sense it near, just observe, and see what happens next.

God — Help me step outside my bubble and observe Your Kingdom at hand. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk