Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership


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Why Do I Write?


I am working on a new book on management. One of my readers, a business professor, called to ask a few questions. “Why are you writing this book?” he inquired. “Is it a vanity project now that you have retired or do you have an audience in mind?”

I found the question interesting. “I have an audience in mind,” I replied. “New or frustrated managers who may or may not have the benefit of an MBA often find that they need help not with ratios or business acumen but now to turn their insight or their mandate into action. One of management’s core tasks is to humanize the work people engage in and to turn ratios and business goals into developmental coaching that respects others.”

“That’s interesting,” he replied, “humanizing work.”

Our conversation continued, he asked questions about the kind of feedback I wanted and how candid I wanted him to be.

But, as I left the conversation I pondered his initial question. “Why?”

I don’t need a vanity project. My wife, a financial planner, made sure that when we retired we had defined the kind of financial future we wanted and had put the money away to live it. I find a new sense of purpose and relax in retirement. The relax rests on the fact that I don’t need to turn down potential coaching/mentoring clients because they cannot pay my fee. I am not keeping a pipeline full or working to keep a business thriving. The purpose comes from the drive I have internally to help emerging leaders develop spiritually, emotionally/psychologically, and in skill. My life’s purpose is to help leaders and others develop.

Why wouldn’t I write at this stage of my life? I have time, I still engage a wide variety of leaders i.e., younger, cross-cultural, peers, men, women, non-binary, native English speakers, non-native English speakers, ex-pats, non-profit, business, and public sector. I have experience.

That got me thinking. I have a tripartite opportunity to invest in emerging leaders in time, engagement, and experience.

Time. I could use my time to simply meander aimlessly through my twilight years focused entirely on myself – augh, that sounds awful. Time is a powerful aspect of the stewardship I have been given. It is the easiest part of life to give.

Engagement. This is being present, seeking out relationships with those who are not my peers, those who are emerging, those who are thriving and who are looking for mentors. This is a more difficult aspect of stewarding my generative years. Why? Engagement requires work to absorb new perspectives, new gender expectations, and definitions, new questions about the validity of my insights in light of the rapid pace of technological change. I am an older white male – I face stereotypes that may be well earned among my generation. I have to overcome suspicion, dismissive condescension, and social blindness (I am not always seen). It is a weird experience to walk into a room and be invisible – it is an experience my wife reminds me she faced often as a woman in business. The discomfort of my experience is in direct contrast to the fact I held power positions for so many years that demanded attention when I showed up. I became accustomed to the props of power even though my goal was to serve others as a leader. All of this means that engaging others is a simple choice of loving them and gaining an audience when the only motivation for them to engage me is their own goals.

Experience. During my developmental years, I observed the pitfall of experience in older leaders who expressed a desire to shape me as a leader. Experience fell into two categories. The first was, “let me tell you how I did this” category. Conversations that started this way ended as monologues and harangues by chronologically older leaders who (a) were unaware of the nuances of my context and (b) were excited to have an audience to boast to about their accomplishments. The second was leaders who asked me the kinds of questions that exposed incomplete and biased thinking on my part. They didn’t tell me how until I asked and then they only offered measured principles not platitudinal “steps to success.” I choose to be the latter, not the former kind of experienced leader in those I approach.

So, I continue to write. I have three books I want to get out in the next 36 months. I have something to say that will encourage, challenge, and support emerging leaders. Do I need the legacy of books to feel good about myself? No, I have a legacy already of transformed lives and successful leaders in whom I have invested time, engagement, and experience. I write because being a servant leader didn’t stop when I retired, it amplified and I am having fun between seeing grandchildren and rowing the river investing in emerging leaders who see the benefit of attentive mentors.


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Are You a High-Capacity or High-Activity Leader?


iStock_000056636476_LargeI sat with friends of mine, both of whom are highly capable leaders in an international non-profit organization. Over the course of our conversation, they described their weariness and exhaustion as it relates to the demands of their current assignment. I listened to their story and noted that they danced around the subject of their director. They were careful to express their respect for their director whom they described as a high-capacity leader. What intrigued me in the conversation was the mixed messages I heard. On the one hand, they expressed frustration with their director over his consistent micro-management and unfinished initiatives. Every couple of weeks seemed to render a new “strategic” initiative that demanded everyone’s attention. Each new initiative had little connection to the one before it and never took into account the expenditure of financial and human resources needed to accomplish it. I could not make out a grand plan or objective in any of the initiatives they described.  On the other hand, they praised his high capacity for vision and initiative. They spoke in lofty terms about how he worked on a minimum of three devices at once and endured a grueling seven day a week schedule. They described him as warm and caring and committed. Then they described him as manipulative and domineering.

I began to ask what made this person a high-capacity leader in their minds. They described him as a man who:

  • Possesses high energy that engages a wide scope of tasks and generates a never-ending list of assignments and expectations for his team. He texts each of them numerous times every hour and after hours with ideas and assignments.
  • Demonstrates low awareness of other’s emotional needs. In fact, they described a person who minimizes others’ feelings and the challenges they face.
  • Exhibits a highly imaginative yet episodic vision casting. They described an imagination that bordered on fantasy – ideas were disconnected from the context and the challenges inherent in them.
  • Generates a trail of burned out senior leaders who leave the organization disillusioned and hurt.
  • Engenders high turnover among junior staff and leaders.
  • Manipulates calls to action through questions of loyalty frequently expressed in the question, “Will you support me?”
  • Task focused recruitment filling existing jobs and seeing people through the lens of their task contribution rather than their entire contribution to the organization.
  • Creates a culture of shame and guilt.
  • Is a gifted communicator.
  • Rarely debriefs with his senior staff and when this does occur it is expressed with minimal transparency.
  • Exercises defensive reasoning – problems and consequences are not his responsibility, instead, blame is assigned to staff and the quality of their loyalty.
  • Episodically warm and affirming – when he is not demanding performance and loyalty.
  • Has lost connection to his wife and family.

As we talked I wrote out the list above and then read it back to my friends.

“Oh no,” they said, “he is a godly spirit-filled man. One of the highest capacity leaders we have ever met.”

“Do you mean high capacity or high activity?” I asked. “The two are not the same” I suggested.

One of the most damaging kinds of leaders I come across is high-activity leaders who mistakenly assume that the more tasks they generate the more leader-like they appear. This kind of leader assumes that long hours are the same as effectiveness in leading. They expect others to work like they do and to be constantly available for the leader’s needs. I suggested to my friends that their director was in fact addicted to his own adrenaline and that the cost to their organization would not only be the talent drain they described but the woundedness the organization would ultimately generate when people saw outcomes that contradicted the mission of the organization.

“Let me contrast a high-capacity leader for you,” I said. “If capacity is the ability and power to do or understand something, then a high-capacity leader is a person who assists her organization in accomplishing a greater scope of outcomes that align with the mission of the organization. The high-capacity leaders I know have the impact of not only increasing outcomes but also of attracting greater resources.”

I started writing out the following list of characteristics I’d observed in high-capacity leaders:

  • A strategic focus on the kinds of tasks that must be engaged to achieve the desired outcomes. A high-capacity leader defines delegation and exhibits energy management. They have an enormous capacity for output that they follow-up with time for rejuvenation and they make room for both output and rejuvenation in all their team.
  • They demonstrate self-awareness in their emotions, self-confidence, and self-assessment and they exhibit social awareness in consideration of others’ emotional well-being.
  • They are highly imaginative and ground their imagination with a thorough awareness of the facts of their situation. They don’t deny challenges they recognize them and help their team generate strategies to address them.
  • They bring focus and inspirational purpose to their organization.
  • They have a history of producing high-capacity talent around them. This is in part a function of recruitment and more a deliberate investment in the capabilities and development of others. They attract the best and they openly appreciate them.
  • Their teams are characterized by low turnover and deliberate turnover. By that I mean they routinely give up their best people to take wider responsibilities in the organization.
  • They are motivational – they know what their people’s personal goals and ambitions are and they have a knack for integrating those ambitions into the organization’s objectives.
  • They are people focused when recruiting – they know that if they get the right people the tasks of the organization will be maximized creatively.
  • They develop a learning culture in which people are not afraid to make mistakes and take a risk.
  • They routinely debrief with their staff engaging them in a broader analysis of the organization and its context. Transparency is king for this leader because he wants his team to know the score.
  • They may not be a warm person but they are consistently appreciative of others and recognize jobs well done.
  • Their families are intact – they tend to have long-term marriages and share abiding intimacy with their spouse.

“Hmm,” my friends pondered my list and the contrast to the characteristics they described in their director. “We never saw this before,” they finally uttered.

I put the two lists side by side and the contrast between a high-task and a high-capacity leader jumped off the page.

“I’m not sure your definitions are reliable,” they suggested.

“I am open to rearranging the list and changing definitions,” I responded. “However, let’s start with outcomes, do you disagree in the outcomes I have listed for a high-task leader in that they damage their family, exhibit high turn-over, are abandoned by disillusioned senior leaders?” I queried.

“No,” they responded, “when we look at our director’s life and outcomes we can’t disagree with the description.”

The question that resonated with my friends was what kind of leader they would choose to be and whether there was a way to help their director see the contrast. Change, especially where high-task leaders have framed their identity around what they do rather than who they are, is difficult. It is part of what drives them to reaffirm their identity by adding more tasks. The sad part is that they often don’t see how toxic they have become to those around them.

What question resonates in your mind? Are you a high-capacity leader? Or, have you somehow exchanged true effectiveness for busy-work?  Look honestly at the outcomes your life is generating – what do you see?