Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


Facing Constant Discontinuous Change – What a Pain or What an Adventure

Boring“Ray, I hate my job,” Scott lamented as we met together. “It is everything I have in me to get up and go to work on Monday mornings” he confided. It is not that unusual to have a client confide that they wish they had not taken the job they now feel stuck in. The impact of the 2008 Great Recession made many people gun-shy about looking for work and even as the economy recovers many are reluctant to consider something new.

As I listen to clients a common theme emerges. Being stuck in a job is not a function of the economy, it is a matter of perception. Finding something new IS impossible if one is not looking. Dislodge your perception. Why is this a matter of perception and not circumstance?  In a word, agency. We all have the capacity to act in any given environment. It is the concept of agency that summons us to be responsible and accountable for how we act. People deny agency when they deny responsibility for their decisions and behaviors. In 2,000 I found myself in a transition away from leading a congregation. I say transition, but it felt more like a cataclysmic convulsion. I found myself outside a career path that was rapidly changing with only an MA in Intercultural Studies. An MA in intercultural studies prepared me to lead a mission organization or congregation (that is what I was doing when I went to school). But the organization changed, leadership changed, a vision for what was needed changed and I was unceremoniously dislocated. In walking through this tumultuous experience, I learned several things about agency and change.

Obsolescence in skill is a fact of life. Consider the rate of technological changes and it is clear that skills require routine updates. But I faced a deeper issue; the same issue faced by my clients. I misinterpreted an obsolescence in skill with a personal obsolescence. In other words, I believed I could not do anything else.  This is the rub, your belief about yourself will limit where you can go.

I sat with a friend at breakfast one morning and talked about my next steps. In our conversation, I reframed how to use my knowledge base. As it turns out my skills in management, knowledge retention, team development, budgeting, organizational design, human resource management, systems development/analysis, and persuasion weren’t so obsolete, they just needed to be framed in a new context. I left breakfast with a job offer, Director of Operations for a hospitality software company in the midst of a turnaround. This is not to say I didn’t have a steep learning curve. I immersed myself in learning the software, the basics of crystal reporting, data analysis/decision-making, and sales while I also restructured our operation to turn around a hemorrhage of customers and cash.

Learning is not limited to what I did in school. Learning is a life skill that requires an ability to embrace unsettling ambiguity and strong feelings of incompetence in the process of applying new perspectives and knowledge. Employees with experience are only as valuable as they are capable of (1) continually learning and (2) integrating experience with new skill and knowledge. I have noticed that people who share my particular demographic position split into two basic groups: those invigorated by learning and those who vainly pursue the entitlement of past learning and accomplishment, “I’ve paid my dues,” they repeat with irritated intensity. Refusing to learn is like refusing to breath – just because you did it once does not mean you can stop and simultaneously enjoy the same quality of life. Learning is not just a reality of maintaining the ability to survive in the job market, it is a necessity to maintain quality of life. Some research indicates that education programs offer a simple, low-cost way of helping people to reduce symptoms of mild to moderate depression and anxiety (two obvious characteristics in those I meet who feel stuck).  Learning can boost self-confidence and self-esteem, help build a sense of purpose, and help people connect with others.

Courage to change required an ability to see my situation plainly and to decide to act. The unvarnished reality in which we live is that the labor market is a buyers market. In a buyer’s market, the first two things that employers care about are (1) bottom-line-contributing, transferable skills, and (2) the promise of delivering profitable results.  It’s up to you do distinguish between companies that show this is all they care about and companies that include a wider scope of concerns built on the capacity to stay profitable in a highly competitive environment. When the events of 911 drove the software company into bankruptcy, I found myself unemployed again. I had a couple of contract assignments, one in China training managers and one in Atlanta writing training curriculum. But, I needed full-time employment. A friend (notice the theme of friendships) called to ask me to consider going to work in the company he worked. He was a VP and noted that they needed someone with my unique skills to help them change the culture of their organization. We had met at church where I served on the board then as chairman of the board and had introduced some significant change in how the board accomplished their fiduciary and governance responsibilities.

My friend set up an interview offsite with VP of operations named Gary. We all sat at a table and ordered breakfast. Gary picked up my resume, threw across the room and said obnoxiously, “I don’t know why I’m here. This resume says nothing but pastor. What do you have to offer our firm.”

“Well,” I thought, “this interview is off to a great start.” I had done some research on the industry of this company and so I took a deep breath and began.

“Let’s see, Gary. I take it you don’t have many employees in your company.” The statement was a setup and a chance for Gary to frame the need for my skills.

“We have 150 employees, you should come ready to an interview – if you were, you’d know this” he sneered.

“And you have 15 managers of various rank, You have 80%+ turnover annually. The cost of your turnover assuming training costs, lost productivity, lost knowledge, and recruiting costs are conservatively about $4,500 per employee and in excess of $540,000 per year in lost revenue. I managed a team of 150 volunteers for three years with zero turnover – I may have something to teach you about managing people and their motivation,” I said.  Gary just squinted.

“Your budget is what?” I queried.

“We have a budget of $7M annually,” Gary’s chest seemed to puff out as he spoke.

“So, you are running payroll at over 64% of your total budget including turnover and you can’t get better results?” I may have something to give in terms of cost savings and efficiencies,” I narrowed my gaze and looked him in the eye.

I continued, “Your next set of challenges include helping the owner step into a different role and get out-of-the-way of the company’s growth, but I’m pretty sure you don’t know how to help him understand why it’s important or how to carry it out or what it will mean to greater profitability. I can help you with that.”  I sat back in my chair and let everything simmer. “The question,” I began again, “is not why are you here, but why am I here?  I can help you improve your company, but I’m not sure you are ready to make the commitment and changes needed to carry this out.” I knew this sounded bold, but Gary frankly ticked me off.

Gary’s eyes began to twinkle, a grin started etching its way across his face and he said, “We need to schedule a follow-up to this interview.” We spent the rest of breakfast talking about his vision for the company and the opportunity and risk they had in front of them. They hired me. I had to learn new software, a new industry, and new ways to apply my knowledge.  I had to prove how my skills were transferable. I had to learn about the industry before I met with Gary. I had to exercise courage, the kind of courage that was willing to step up and swing at the opportunity. I had to exercise humility, the kind of humility that recognized I could make a difference if I was willing to learn.

Opportunity often comes in clothing that scares the snot out of me. Everything I have done since that transition in 2000 has been new. I have not succeeded at everything. I bombed one of the most important sales presentations I have ever had when I could not speak knowledgeably about how to calculate the ROI of training to a corporate CFO. I couldn’t speak his language and completely missed who the power players were in the room. But, as much as I wanted to run to the hills with my tail between my legs, I decided instead to take my lumps and learn. I can calculate ROI on training and coaching now.

“Ray,” the voice on the other end of the phone was a friend of mine. “How would you like to teach a research methods course?”

My graduate education had focused on qualitative research methods. I’m comfortable with qualitative research and routinely conduct social research projects for clients. However, I knew this offer included having to learn and teach quantitative research as well.  My friend described the course, an undergraduate course worth 2 units. My heart seemed to have beat up into my chest as I blurted out, “I’d love to teach that course, and I am looking for a mentor in quantitative research.”

“Great,” came the reply. “I will recommend you and I am willing to mentor you.”

The idea of learning didn’t scare me, it’s the performance standards I have that get in my way. I want to teach the course like I’ve done it for years. Knowing this about myself is an important part of overcoming fear. I will be fine and I will teach the course like it’s the first time out of the shoot. Know what scares you, then look it in the eye and decide to move forward anyway.

Many of my mentors are now younger than I. This is the weirdest part for me. Young professionals surround me who are much more knowledgeable than I about technology and certain analytical methods. Yet, we find a mutually symbiotic relationship – they cherish my life experience and I enjoy their enthusiasm to teach me new tricks of the trade. I don’t feel the need to project independent power – to stay aloof from these up and coming professionals. I don’t get all of their social references, that is part of the challenge of being in different generations. However, I do get their drive and their hunger for success, contribution, meaning, and purpose.

Life changes. Time is like a steamroller that buries you or a wave to ride until the last wipeout. Choose to see change as a welcome friend who prods you into life, to new adventures, new relationships, and a new sense of contribution. If you are in a transition – consider these things. Find resources to help you through the tumult of change. For example, if your job skills need updating, the Department of Labor funds job training programs to improve the employment prospects of adults, youth, and dislocated workers. Look into this. If your perception about your life purpose needs updating find a coach who can walk you through a change of perspective. You have a contribution to others that is valuable and you have options if you look for them. On the other hand, you could choose to move from skill obsolescence to personal obsolescence – but doing so is a lonely horrible way to die a slow death.

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Friendships – Traveling through Past and Future

With the father of the bride.

With the father of the bride.

I recently traveled with Janice to the Great Pacific Northwest to attend the wedding of one of our friend’s children. We have known Rick and Sue for years as co-laborers, friends, prayer partners, and fellow pilgrims in a strange land looking for a city whose builder and maker is God.

It is interesting to me that seeing long time friends is like traveling back in time and into the future concurrently. We have so many reference points in our shared history we pick up conversations as though the gap of 5 to 10 to 20 years between each simply hasn’t happened and yet…we traverse new ground each time we are together because our lives are not static but growing. We have new leadership experiences to share, new questions to explore, new victories to rejoice in and new grief to shoulder together. Life is not static and neither is our friendship.

An occasion like a wedding offers a myriad of opportunities to engage this simultaneous time travel of past and future. We saw friends and acquaintances we have not seen for years. We caught up, we shared perspectives on the past that illuminated the future and explained things we did not understand when we experienced them together. One encounter was particularly moving.

“Steve,” I said to one friend who was so significant in my first pastorate, “we have missed you.” Steve and I picked up conversations past and future.

“Ray,” he inquired, “why didn’t you return to visit?” His eyes were penetrating, looking for explanation, testing my response, and expressing pain.

“We were prohibited from returning to our first pastorate to visit by the pastor who took our place. We repeatedly asked for permission to visit and were repeatedly prohibited. It was his prerogative in the governance structure of the denomination.”

Steve’s eyes began to fill with tears, “I didn’t know that,” he said. “Dave was so insecure….” his voice trailed off and his hug said he had always wondered why we had just disappeared from the scene when our assignment wooed us out of the Northwest to Southern California.  I don’t know why Steve thought we made our selves scarce, but in our conversation and in our shared bear hugs whatever questions and pain from the past melted into oblivion and our shared past shed light on a shared future. We talked about future opportunities and support of one another in networking and prayer.

What a joy to have friends across time. Some friends are constant companions in the journey, we connect every time we can, like Rick and Sue. We meet up in the UK, the Northwest, the Southwest, or any other place our paths cross. Other friends are like beacons along the path we see on occasion. Our contacts are episodic, spaced by time, but no less precious when the connection occurs. There is something encouraging about seeing each other like distance runners at a turn in the course we cheer each other on and take courage from the fact we are still in the race.

And of course, there are those acquaintances we saw who caused us great pain, friends who betrayed our friendship. What about these?  We had a couple of these encounters. Were they awkward?  No, surprisingly. They were filled with grace. Forgiveness has long ago released us from the want of revenge and the pain of betrayal. And they apparently also extended forgiveness and like us have grown and changed. The past and the future collided in these encounters with healing and an uncertain future. It is possible to be free of the pain of the past yet remain unreconciled – no longer enemies filled with suspicion but also no longer close. There is a grace in this as well, to embrace with a love that forgives and offers a future that if taken may result in a new friendship.

The longer I am around, the more intrigued I am by this time travel of past and future connection. Friends are a comfort, they are teachers, they are counselors, they are examples, and they are a reminder of what is most significant in life. Nurture your friendships they pull out your best, show you your worst, and offer you a path to a different future.

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Make a Difference! Lead Like a Servant

web versionHave you ever had something you wanted to say that you knew had the potential of changing the game? Have you been so convinced of its significance that you were willing to put it to the test of review, the discipline of systematic research and reflection, and the vulnerability of distribution?  Then you understand the passion of writing a book with the hope that it will amplify your message and your communication capacity. I have a message for market place and non-profit leaders who want to integrate their faith and leadership best practices.

There are some very strong books on leading like Jesus. Why did I write another book? I saw something missing. The way Jesus led not only transforms the way a leader acts; it also transforms the way an organization behaves for the better. Changing the way we think about leaders and their organizations is the intent of Change the Paradigm.

Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today’s World is a clarion call to apply the concept of servant leadership to every organizational context. It is a handbook that demonstrates how the concept of Servant Leadership goes to work in the leader and in the organization. It investigates Servant Leadership through five perspectives: (1) the lens of Jesus’ call to serve; (2) the Missional impetus of the church and its foundation in a future hope made present in experience; (3) the latest insights from research into effective leadership; (4) the influence of an organization’s development on leadership practices and (5) leadership development. Servant Leadership is fundamentally a transforming perspective and composite of personal motivations that impact how the act of leading is expressed. It alters the way leaders view and value followers and stakeholders. Servant Leadership engages a personal relationship with God that changes a person’s definition of: self, ambition, values, situation, and the development of other leaders.

Change the Paradigm is available now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble as a paper back or an e-book. We are working on agreements to get it into book stores everywhere in 2016. Get a jump on the crowd and order it today. It will show you how to think differently about the act of leadership.


It’s Not About Gender!

downloadIn a literature review on mentoring for a graduate course I ran across a table outlining gender differences.  I was struck by the caricature inherent in the gender definitions offered by the author. One author illustrated the differences between how men and women approach life in a the table of traits, one representing men and the other representing women. As is typical of lists like this it seemed to reflect biases rather than insights. I find such caricatures unhelpful in illuminating what it means to be a man or woman. Bifurcated and stiff gender caricatures trouble me because I observe that typical gender differences are not at all helpful in guiding the development of men and women or of describing their capabilities (which exercises designed to define gender differences seem to perennially attempt). Rather attempts at identifying gender differences often have a toxic consequence relationally and developmentally in people’s thinking.  I described the problem elsewhere,

The social mores by which the concept of male or female is defined often create a bigger barrier to growth than a help.  The failure to differentiate between the idea of sex (the biology of what makes men different from women) and gender (the social constructs that outline what it means to be a man or woman) has led to faulty conclusions and stereotypes about what defines the ideal man or women. When stereotypes are uncritically accepted as “biblical” models of maleness or femaleness, important distinctions between men and women are lost amid either/or descriptions that fail to account for basic humanness.  The challenge to approaches that formalize radical stereo types of gender is that the rich diversity of the calling of God in individual lives is lost to the many that simply don’t fit the mold.  In other words, confident women, sensitive men don’t make the gender cut.[1]

So, what did the author propose as predictable gender differences?

Table 1: Differing Emphases of Gender[2]

Gender v Human_Page_1

Elmore declares his table to be “the primary differences between men and women in the practice of mentoring.”[3] Before I go on I should note that I am not targeting Elmore specifically rather I use Elmore as an example of an error that Fine points toward when it comes to identifying gender differences.  In Fine’s view the role of culture and socialization has a far greater impact on how we define gender than our genetic makeup. It is this impact that Fine emphasizes and the fact that research or observations like those of Elmore, start with biases about gender so that popular writing seems to use neuro-research or one’s own observations as a way to reinforce sexism and not uncover deeper insights into the male and female mind.[4]

The question that arose in my mind is do we regularly interpret data about male and female behavior with a biased lens that inhibits us from seeing any results outside our expected stereotypes?  To address the question I put together a questionnaire that asked men and women to idenfity which of the characteristics named by Elmore they felt best described themselves. The questionnaire simply listed Elmore’s traits and asked people to decide which traits they were most like using a five point Likert scale. The survey is non-scientific.  I did not validate the traits nor did I have a valid sample group. The participants were self selecting based on an open invitation which did not assure that the sample group I used was random. I had 25 participants (9 male and 16 female). The ages of the participants ranged from 30 to over 60 years of age.

Having provided the disclaimer which simply is to say what results I record are interesting but may not reflect the general population – I will never-the-less question the observations characterized in Elmore’s work.

When reading the following charts it is important to know the scale respondents used. The Likert scale I used was: 1, very much like me; 2, somewhat like me; 3, neutral; 4, not much like me; and 5, not at all like me.

Chart 1: Female Respondents

Chart 1

Chart 1 record the gender roles assigned by Elmore to women (the red line) and the self selected characteristic of the women who responded to the survey (the blue line). Notice in Chart 1 that Elmore’s contention that women are more feeler than they are thinkers was not at all supported by what the women in the survey said about themselves. The median score on the “thinker” characteristic for women was 1 (i.e., very much like me). The raw scores ranged from 1 to 4 (i.e., not much like me).

Similarly results contrasting relational focus to results focus were not as distinct as Elmore observed but much more nuanced. Women agreed that they are relationally focused (mean score of 1, very much like me) but also claim to be definitely results focused (mean score of 2 i.e., somewhat like me). The high individual score on results focused was 4 (i.e., not much like me).  On the empathetic versus problem solving descriptors Elmore’s observations were flatly wrong to the small sample I surveyed. The margin of error for the holistic v categorical items was significant as well among the women who responded to the survey. So, how did the men do?

Chart 2: Male Respondents

Chart 2

The male respondents demonstrated that they were much more feeler oriented than Elmore implied and much less categorical. The median scores show a fairly inclusive set of character traits with median scores of 2 (i.e., somewhat like me) on the: relational focused, results focused, communicator, doer, detail oriented and empathetic scores. Like the women, the men simply did not correspond to the holistic versus categorical score in any significant way.

Chart 3: Male and Female Respondents

Chart 3

The differences highlighted in Chart 3 between men and women are extremely nuanced in this sample and do not correspond with Elmore’s ideals.

Here’s my point, trying to decide who you are by the use of gender differentials is about as futile an exercise as can be engaged. What may be more helpful is to use characteristics like those identified by Elmore as simply personality characteristics that may be exhibited by men or women. Viewing oneself as a unique person with unique capabilities and unique perspectives and characteristics gets rid of the nuisance created when we try to make the differences between men and women something other than differences in sexual identity. Does this mean that unique perspectives or ways of seeing are not evident between men and women?  No. Fine contributes two important observations:

If hormones determine the roles, one would expect to find the same sex occupying the same roles in all societies. This is patently not the case.[5]

…Genes don’t determine our brains (or our bodies), but they do constrain them. The developmental possibilities for an individual are neither infinitely malleable nor solely in the hands of the environment. But the insight that thinking, behavior, and experiences change the brain, directly, or through changes in genetic activity, seems to strip the word ‘hardwiring’ of much useful meaning….we should ‘view biology as potential, as capacity and not as static entity.[6]

We simply cannot force people into a stereotypical behaviors that make them men or women. We cannot make whether a person is a man or women the criteria for ability. It is far more a matter of personality and inherent cognitive ability. I illustrate the challenge of trying to define set gender roles in the following:

I often ask students in my leadership courses to make two lists. On one side of a sheet of paper I ask them to write out descriptions of what it means to be a man.  On another side of the paper I ask them to write out what it means to be a woman. Typically they describe men with adjectives such as: strong, confident, firm, forceful, carefree, aggressive, bossy, sarcastic, rude, feeling superior. They describe women as: patient, sensitive, devoted, responsible, appreciative, timid, weak, needing approval, dependent, or nervous. After we discuss the observations they have made I ask them to return to their lists to identify adjectives that apply to Christ.  To the astonishment of my students they highlight all the positive traits they identified as male and female i.e., Jesus is patient, strong, sensitive, confident, devoted, firm, responsible, forceful, appreciative, and carefree.  What does this mean? Was Jesus confused about his gender identity or are our categories fluid and inaccurate?  Since there is nothing in the gospel record to suggest Jesus ever demonstrated any question about his sexual identity it is safe to assume that our ideas of appropriate gender behavior are more fluid than they are rigid. When gender stereotypes are interpreted as rigid and worse when this rigidity is described as “biblically” rooted both men and women suffer in their sense of identity.[7]


Men and women both can find a new sense of identity and confidence in being themselves, unique, gifted, wired like Jesus. Understand your own emotional being to exercise self-awareness and a sense of the impact you have on others. This is a far better path to self-definition and understanding than charts like those illustrated in Elmore’s work. Again, it’s not about gender it’s about personality.

[1] Raymond L. Wheeler. Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today’s World. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015, 115.

[2] Tim Elmore. Mentoring: How to Invest your life in Others.  Atlanta, GA: Equip, 1998, 42.

[3] Elmore, 42.

[4] Cordelia Fine. Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010.

[5] Fine, 127.

[6] Fine, 177-178.

[7] Wheeler, 118.

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Define Your Ambition!

Ray at summitWhat is it that you want to accomplish? How clearly can you state your ambition? Ambition defined is as an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.

Ambition has a bad rap with many and for good reason. There are those whose ambition for power, prestige, or pleasure has made them into users and abusers of people.

But does the abuse of a trait by some make it negative in every instance? Can ambition be good? I argue that ambition is imperative. It helps people clarify their goals and purpose and live/work with focus and impact. Jesus, the master leader understood the power of ambition and its potential for abuse. Consider for a moment that Jesus often asked people directly and indirectly to clarify their ambition.

Jesus’ questions intended to elicit honesty about what his listeners really wanted. In addressing the crowds about John the Baptist Jesus asked, “What did you go out to see?” He queried their deepest desire – people didn’t go to see John because he was eccentric, they went because he offered hope for change. In confronting religious leaders on the tyranny that resulted from their dishonest ambition Jesus told a story about two debtors both forgiven their debts. Then he asked, “Which of [the two debtors] will love him [the creditor] more?” The answer exposed these leader’s warped self-centered ambition. When approached by James and John who requested positions of prominence in Jesus’ kingdom Jesus asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”

Jesus’ response refocused the ambition of James and John. Jesus did not rebuke their ambition – he shaped it and showed it to be misdirected. The question any leader faces is whether they will come out from inside themselves to be as honest as James and John about what they are really after. Ambition exposed can be shaped, challenged, encouraged, or redirected. Ambition hidden only warps, deceives, tyrannize, and suppresses others. Have you been honest about your ambition? Are you willing to allow God to reshape and redirect it? Like James and John honesty will result in a much larger commission than their original ambition was able to conceive. God will “blow you mind.” Go ahead, expose and submit your ambition to God and see what God does in you.

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How Do you Measure the Health of Your Christian Organization?

10931217_10205220733576419_4977262972998137073_nHow do you measure the overall health of your Christian organization? In this presentation I discuss the correlation between spiritual awakening and mission. Inevitably understanding spiritual vibrancy leads to a different way of assessing organizational health. This presentation was made at the Great Commission Mobilizer Summit for the Student Volunteer Movement 2 (SVM2). For more of the speakers and for the power point that corresponds to my presentation below go to http://www.svm2.net/special-events/gcsummit/gcsummitresources/. Cut and past the following link into your browser to access the mp3 file.  http://www.svm2.net/Correlation_between_Spiritual_


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