Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


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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?


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A theology of leadership: it always has a cultural context


cropped-addis-ababa-week-1-0581.jpgWhen thinking about leadership through a theological lens it helps to be aware of the impact of one’s worldview on the process. We don’t think in a vacuum but in the context of the values, allegiances, and assumptions that make up the core of our worldview. So, approaching a theological reflection on what constitutes leadership is a process that requires both self-awareness and humility.

A culture’s view of power distance, certainty/uncertainty, masculinity/femininity, time orientation, and individualism/collectivism represent the factors that make up cultural constructs of what constitutes leadership.[1] These cultural factors are implicit. A practical theology of leadership recognizes (1) the cultural differences that go into defining what appropriate leadership looks like and (2) the dissonance in perspective that is certain to follow the transformative work of the gospel. This transformative work in collaborating across worldviews works both ways necessitating the need for a strong self-awareness and willingness to learn about and from others prior to making generalizations about leadership effectiveness or ineffectiveness.

The New Testament often utilizes metaphors to lay a foundation for defining leadership. Peter, for example, writes, “I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it – not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3 NIV)

The use of the shepherd metaphor quickly identifies leadership as a servant role. Sure, a shepherd is in charge of sheep but her primary assignment is the care of sheep. Peter draws a picture that can challenge or affirm cultural factors that define leadership.

Some cultures maintain a strict hierarchical relationship or high power distance between follower and leader. Peter doesn’t argue the extent to which leaders and followers should relate in a peer or subordinate/superior relationship. He does insist that leaders not repress or deride their followers. I can walk onto a Korean campus and observe congregants bowing to their pastor. Is this appropriate from my cultural perspective? No, it’s surprising – even off-putting. However, in paying attention to the relationship I see the deep care and respect that is mutually given in this act. At issue isn’t the form but the transformation of values that inform the form.

Femininity/masculinity is also addressed. Who should lead? Can women lead men? The imagery of a shepherd is not restricted to male or female. Even in the Bible cultures varied in whether men or women cared for sheep. The point is that the imagery of Peter plays well to either male or female leadership roles and calls for the same approach to servant leadership in submission to God.

Good practical theology utilizes imagery as a starting point for insight amplified through cultural lenses that are both sufficient and incomplete. When cultures, even distinctly different cultures, approach the scripture with a heart to learning (the essence of discipleship), both can learn from the other and both will experience the affirmation and challenge of their cultural assumptions.

[1] Geert Hofstede. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2001


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The Vulgarization of Leadership


There are times in history when the character of leadership takes on a vulgar quality. The vulgarization of leadership is not new. Plato, for example, rightly indicated that leaders armed with only with an untrained mind that naively accepts perception as real, whether that is the confused and contradictory messages of the senses or the equally inconsistent popular notions of morality are not ready for leadership. Yet, there is a sense in which the political and popular rhetoric evident in many discussions today fail to rise above this level of reasoning – Plato’s lowest level of cognition.[i]

Abraham Lincoln’s behavior in the face of the greatest threat to the union we have faced until now stands in stark contrast to the virulent monologs that characterize much of today’s political and social discussion. Lincoln made it clear that vengeance or spite could not function as the foundation of leadership. Lincoln wrote regarding Louisiana’s readmission to the union, “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”[ii] Listening to today’s politicians on the threat of terrorism it appears we may have lost that lesson.

By the vulgarization of leadership, I mean that quality that is incapable of ascending above the ostentatious, showy, gaudy, and distasteful behaviors of the lowest common denominators of society. Such men or women become so enamored by the ability to exercise raw power in the manipulation of others that they mistake inciting the frustrations and fears of people as a vision for the future. Inciting rather than leading a trap described in part by James MacGregor Burns who warned: “Divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique.” Incitement does not have the will to investigate the ethical implications of its claims and furies. Incitement languishes in fuzzy half truths and an accusatory tone that fails to either credit other’s good ideas or work toward a mutually beneficial public policy.

Examples of the vulgarization of leadership abound. Hillary Clinton rightly observed,

I really deplore the tone of his campaign, the inflammatory rhetoric that he is using to divide people and his going after groups of people with hateful, incendiary rhetoric,” she said after a campaign event in Fairfield Tuesday. “Nothing really surprises me anymore. I don’t know that he has any boundaries at all. His bigotry, his bluster, his bullying have become his campaign. And he has to keep sort of upping the stakes and going even further.[iii]

Yet, Clinton is not above using the inflammatory rhetoric of her own to incite popular support. This is perhaps most notably evidenced in her assertion that ISIS is “going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”[iv]

Donald Trump is a virtual cornucopia of examples of the vulgarization of leadership. Trump’s speeches have rendered so many examples that I prefer to avoid repeating them here. To find examples of Trump’s vulgarization of leadership simply Google “Trump” on any subject to find ample material to make the case.

Rubio and Cruz are also guilty of half-truths and falsifications all used in an attempt to strengthen their position in the eyes of voters. A quick check of www.politifact.com provides numerous illustrations.

So, what exactly is the problem? I venture that there is no leader who hasn’t stretched the truth in their presentation of themselves or their data. If the exercise of falsification is so common what makes it warrant my derisive title, the vulgarization of leadership?  In short the question is a postulate of my position. If vulgarization is behavior that meets the standard of the lowest common denominator then its commonality is the verification of my title and its consequences make my point. The vulgarization of leadership does not summon people to a higher vision that works for change but to a coarse vision that seeks to ensconce prejudice, fear, and isolationism as the core values of our society.

The vulgarization of leadership calls out the worst in people rather than the best in people. It calcifies ideologies rather than exploring ideas with a critical eye. It contributes to reactionary regulation rather than negotiated policy. The vulgarization of leadership is, as Burns insists, a reduction of leadership to mere management and technique – it looks only at the zero sum game of political brinkmanship and hence loses a sense of the common good in its periphery.

Like other critical periods in human experience, we need leaders today who are capable of instilling a commitment to change that mobilizes and focuses the energy of a diverse populace, who call people to responsibility in the formation of a different future. We need leaders capable of explaining their moral foundation clearly and who are then ready to rigorously explore how to work with those who hold different perspectives.

At its birth, the United States attempted to make assumed moral assumptions explicit,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness[v].

The Declaration of Independence assumed: (1) a transcendent moral foundation versus a utilitarian one (i.e., endowed by their Creator); (2) unalienable rights, which we have attempted to define within the kaleidoscope of culture and social difference ever since; and (3) the responsibility of people to design and sustain a form of governance that worked in harmony with this moral foundation and unalienable rights of every person. The United States has never gotten this perfect, the exclusion of women or the exclusion of slaves, or the exclusion of those who did not own property under its colonial beginning illustrate this. The biases against the Irish or the internment of Americans of Japanese decent are well-documented failures that illustrate our ongoing struggle.  But struggling to align behavior to the ideal is not a failure unless we learn nothing in the process. A failure to learn is a failure to exercise metanoia i.e., a shift of mind. As Senge asserts, “To grasp the meaning of ‘metanoia’ is to grasp the deeper meaning of ‘learning,’ for learning also involves a fundamental shift or movement of the mind.”[vi]

So what is the escape from the pattern of vulgarized leadership I see in today’s political and social dialogue? First, it is a movement toward metanoia, some of our perspectives are wrong; we are stuck in the cave of Plato’s allegory blindfolded by biases and prejudices we can’t see to admit. Without this first step of change, we will only run deeper into the cave. Leaders must be open about admitting their lack of knowledge or miscalculations or faulty information. Fact checks should not be an afterthought but part of the process of learning especially for politicians.

Second, it is a movement of engagement that addresses difficult and complex issues of the day with the courage to admit our core convictions and moral foundations. Zero progress is possible without this kind of vulnerability and admission of our differences. No one has a corner on truth; even those who may claim perception of the truth have to admit they only “see through a glass darkly” rather than with clarity and comprehension.[vii] Every leader must start with a clear description of their core commitments and follow that up with a clear understanding of the core commitments of their opponents. This calls for true debates that remained disciplined enough to get at the positions without degenerating to school yard name calling and insults.

Third, it is an effort to create a culture of critique rather than cynicism, of investigation rather than accusation, of the will to act in the common good rather than pacing one’s step along the path of the latest poll. Encourage dialogue. Let people disagree but back their disagreement with reasons based on their own commitments. Then engage the conversation with awareness and vulnerability.

What kind of conversation do you contribute to the issues?  Are you caught up in the vulgarization of leadership or will you stand boldly out from the cacophony of noise to raise the questions and clarify the values that we need to wrestle with together? Let’s have the conversations that we need to engage.

[i] Plato. Republic 7.514

[ii] Donald T. Phillips. Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1992, 58.

[iii] Hillary Clinton. Source: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/hillary-clinton-responds-to-donald-trumps-schld-insult; Accessed 23 December 2015.

[iv] Source: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/dec/19/hillary-clinton/fact-checking-hillary-clintons-claim-isis-using-vi/; Accessed 28 December 2015.

[v] Source: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.htmll Accessed 28 December 2015.

[vi] Peter M. Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990, 13.

[vii] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13.


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My Birthday: A Reflection on Mortality and Flourishing


As I reflect about my life, influence, and future plans on my birthday, I also reflect on my own mortality. “That’s great Ray, way to be a happy person” you might say. Ah, but the exercise is not rooted in feeling morose. Instead, it’s rooted in feeling purposeful and alive. Such reflections serve to recalibrate efforts around what is: important and not just urgent, significant and not just productive, and sustainable not just impactful. I wrote about this kind of reflection elsewhere.[i]

One of my graduate professors, Bobby Clinton, was fond of repeating, “Begin with the end in mind.” He started his leadership emergence classes by asking everyone to write their epitaph i.e., the inscription they wanted on their tombstone. This exercise sounds easier than it is for some people. Many of us thought and thought to say something succinct enough to fit on a tomb stone and of sufficient gravity to appropriately summarize the work of a life time. Bobby’s point was simply that leadership is a life-long process of learning.  If leaders intend to finish well they must begin with the end in mind.

Living with the end in mind is profoundly focusing.  I am intrigued by stories of near death experiences. People emerge from such experiences with a completely different hierarchy of priorities than they had before the experience. Life itself becomes more precious than accomplishment or power. People who have this experience rearrange their lives with a new perspective that keeps the end in mind. An interesting take on living with the end in mind came from a palliative care nurse who summarized the regrets of the dying she had heard over the years into a book.[ii] She documented five recurring regrets including:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Clearly, Jesus’ actions are the opposite of these regrets – he began with the end in mind.  Jesus was true to himself.  Jesus did not get caught up in maintaining spin. Jesus took time to rest.  Jesus expressed his feelings openly – we even have non-verbal indications of his feelings (Mark 7:24; 8:12).

What is interesting about Jesus’ times of rest and rejuvenation is that these times themselves provided or opened opportunities for the demonstration of God’s power that was catalytic to new insights and breakthroughs.  In contrast, leaders who never take a break, never “get a break.”  Their flurry of activity never moves beyond mediocrity. Perhaps this is because the “chance” meetings that would lead to new insights, new connections, or breakthroughs are usurped by attempts to maintain spin and the weariness that results. If you are working hard and wondering why those who have time to play get all the “breaks,” then perhaps it is time to take stock of how you manage your own energy.

Clinton’s point that leaders live with the end in mind is reflected in the renaissance works of western art. For example this work by Marinus van Reymerswaele (1490-1567) showing Jerome in his study.[iii]

Figure: Jerome in His Study

Figure 7.jpg

What do you see?  Notice the juxtaposition of the skull with the picture of the resurrection the illustrated text. See the crucifix and the skull suggesting Jesus’ own identification with our mortality. Jerome’s hands point to the dual reality that mortality is inevitable and so is the power of the resurrection. The entire picture points us toward the nature of God’s working that summons us to a hope that is alive and working and is yet not consummated. This is the eschatological nature of the kingdom of God i.e., that God’s reign and power is revealed in Christ and made available in the present but is not yet consummated. Death has not yet been destroyed. In Christian history the contemplation of death was not a moribund exercise. Contemplating death in light of the resurrection of Christ has served as a way of checking in with the tenuous nature of life that helped great men and women of faith focus on what was important in life.

The regrets of the dying illustrate the importance of beginning with the end in mind and exercising this kind of reflection on our own mortality. The behavioral and perceptual changes in those who have described near-death experiences serve as a tutorial for those who listen.  In recent years, researchers have spent time cataloging the following changes in those who experience near death events:[iv]

  • Life paradoxes begin to take on a sense of purpose and meaning
  • Forgiveness tends to replace former needs to criticize and condemn
  • Loving and accepting others without the usual attachments and conditions society expects
  • Loss of the fear of death
  • More spiritual and less religious
  • Easily engage in abstract thinking
  • More philosophical

In what ways might you be more effective as a leader if you adopted these behaviors and perceptions?

[i] Raymond L. Wheeler. Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today’s World. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015, 135-138.

[ii] Source: http://www.realfarmacy.com/the-top-5-regrets-of-the-dying/; Accessed 26 September 2013.

[iii] Source: http://blogs.artinfo.com/secrethistoryofart/2011/02/01/inside-the-masterpiece-marinus-van-reymerswaeles-saint-jerome-in-his-study/; accessed 16 April 2013.

[iv] P.M.H. Atwater. “After Effects of Near Death States.” Source: http://iands.org/aftereffects-of-near-death-states.html; accessed 16 April 2013.


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The Practice of Servant Leadership is an Ethical Exercise


It All Started With a New Friend

questionAn attractive young woman, Samantha, started attending Sunday services in my first congregation. I noticed her one Sunday in our second service – she appeared deeply engaged in every aspect of Sunday morning. She asked questions of those around her – exhibiting deep curiosity and deep pain.  She was searching.  She attended for several weeks and then she indicated that she wanted to meet Christ.  Those who had journeyed with her made this introduction and her response to Christ deeply moved the entire group.

Several weeks later I noticed Samantha on my appointment schedule but did not recognize who she was.  “Becky,” I called out from my office into the lobby, “who is Samantha on the appointment scheduled for ten o’clock?”

Becky walked into my office and said, “You know that attractive young woman who started attending several weeks ago and then met Christ?”

“Do you mean the woman with the long brown hair who was so earnest in her search of faith?” I asked.

“Yes,” Becky said, “that is Samantha. She has some questions about what it means now to be a Christian.”

The time came for the appointment and after introductions I asked how I could help. Samantha talked about her search for meaning, how she happened to meet some people in the congregation and arrived on a Sunday to investigate.  She described meeting Christ personally in faith and she seemed to light up with joy in talking about her new sense of purpose, release from the pain of her past, and hope for the future. I was thrilled until she came to her question – then I was dumbfounded.

“So,” she transitioned, “now that I know Christ, do I have surgery again and return to being a man or do I remain a woman?”

I was not ready for Samantha’s question. I found myself floundering in my own biases, ignorance, and convictions without a way to structure and organize a response much less find the root of my struggle.  Was I even asking the right questions in my mind?  I relate this experience in every class on servant leadership when I talk about how leaders grapple with ethical reasoning.  I ask the students what they would say to Samantha.  What would you say?  What kind of ethical reasoning would you use? Is the model you use the most effective for the issues involved?  Does the model you use result in direction for the question Samantha raised?  Does the model you use effectively bring you and Samantha closer to Christ and the image of God?  Or are you unable to even frame a model? Remember that leadership capacity directly correlates to a leader’s awareness of his or her mental/theological models, biases, experiences, and cultural points of view.

Samantha’s question illustrates the impact of the preserving and purifying effect of God’s grace – she entertain new questions about her future as a result of engaging Jesus as savior and Lord. Samantha’s question also pushed me to step up in my ethical reasoning. Leaders cannot ignore moral issues. As Northouse writes:

…leadership is not an amoral phenomenon. Leadership is a process of influencing others; it has a moral dimension that distinguishes it from other types of influence, such as coercion or despotic control.[1]

Ethical reasoning and decision-making address moral issues. Ethical reasoning and decision-making depends on the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior and define right and wrong.  Generally speaking, there are three approaches to ethical reasoning.  These approaches divide into two domains namely guidelines to conduct and guidelines to character.  Ethical models offer a way of talking about the character and conduct of leadership in something other than esoteric terms.

Guidelines to conduct include:

  1. Teleological Theories e., working from consequences or ends
    • Ethical Egoism: an individual should act to create the greatest good in himself or herself i.e., do what’s best for yourself.
    • Utilitarianism: an individual should act to create the greatest number of good for the greatest number of people.
  2. Deontological Theories, working from a sense of duty or moral law. Deontological theories subsume egoism and utilitarianism under the necessity of fulfilling moral law.

Guidelines to character includes:

  1. Virtue-based Theories focus on who the leader is as a person. The leaders strive to live out core virtues such as:
  • Courage
  • Temperance
  • Generosity
  • Self-control
  • Honesty
  • Sociability
  • Modesty
  • Fairness
  • Justice
  • Substitute Galatians 5:22-23 for this list of virtues.

I Just Do What the Bible Says – Really?

Ethical models are attempts to explain in simpler terms the complex dynamic of human behavior and thus aid in decision-making. Often students in my leadership courses reject these ethical models as though they were somehow anti-biblical. Their response to Samantha’s question is, “I simply do what the Bible says.” What becomes clear as I ask questions of what the students mean by, “doing what the Bible says,” is that they are treating complex situations through an ethical lens, but are unable to explain or define the lens they used. The problem with this is twofold.

First, an inability to show and define the basis for an opinion or decision typically results in blind spots stemming from aspects of a decision or situation rooted in the leader’s unconscious frame of reference. Blind spots contribute to poor decisions and it is poor decisions that set up inconsistent and toxic behavior by leaders.  In the Samantha story my students typically want to debate the merits of gender identification and gender surgery.  Typical, they missed Samanatha’s question because they did not hear it. Their inability to show the basis for their convictions results in tirades against moral collapse in the nation.  Such responses are not helpful nor do they give leadership.

Second, the inability to show and define the basis for an opinion or decision makes it non-reproducible. How do new leaders assess the situation to arrive at an outcome consistent to the work of God and the greatest good?  If a leader cannot train others in how to think then they will not develop leaders; they will develop super followers who do what they are told and nothing more. Leaders must have an ability to manage complexity in decision-making and in analysis. The need for ethical reasoning in a story like that of Samantha is clearly evident. But what model?

A deontological model would be like closing the gate after the cows got out. A deontological model asks her to repent for actions already committed – which by the way she had.  But now what? Is it ok to shift one’s physical attributes to match one’s gender identification? Is the way we define gender in the first place ethically and theologically sound? I often have students create a list of male and female attributes. I then have them share their lists.  I teach in a university that is broadly diverse culturally speaking. The discussions become intense at multiple levels as differing cultural views play out. But, what shakes my students up most is that I have them take that same dimorphic list and mark the characteristics that describe Christ. Consistently to their great surprise Jesus demonstrates characteristics they assign as both male and female. What is right in the discussion? Where does your answer start? Perhaps Samantha’s challenge would be completely different had she met Christ before her surgery. But even then, what kind of ethical reasoning would have helped her think about her gender identification?

A virtue model could shed light on how to live going forward. What kind of character should she show as a believer?  But this also does not answer her question about surgery. Is it possible that she could live a spirit-filled life as a woman who has come to know Christ? What is at issue in a virtue model is how she decides to move forward and the degree to which her behaviors reflect the character of Christ.

A teleological model might explain why the future held promise for Samantha. She was not rejected by Christ but grafted into the body of Christ with the gifts and talents that are hers by creation and redemption. Regardless of how she decided to act or not act on surgery she gained a purpose in life and meaning in life in her encounter with Christ. Does her existence as a woman (formerly a man) rob her of the imago Dei that makes us human? No.

Grappling with what being a disciple looked like for Samantha used all three models of ethical reasoning.

Ethical Models in Biblical Case Studies

What if we apply these models of ethical reasoning to biblical case studies? What do we learn?

Character or virtue ethics works off the notion that good people make good decisions.  The strength of this approach is its ability to consider various situational factors in determining what makes for a good decision.  The ambiguity leaders often experience requires an approach to ethical decision-making that takes account of the situation.  For example: while the Jewish Scriptures are very clear about not worshiping other gods, the prophet Elisha faced an interesting cross-cultural ethical question from Naaman after being healed of leprosy and made a confession of faith in the God of Israel. While Naaman committed himself to only worship the God of Israel, he was often required to go with the king in idolatrous state rituals. Elisha apparently recognized the shift in Naaman’s perspective and acknowledged that Naaman’s position could fulfill this role without compromise to his faith.[2]

Elisha used character ethics in sending Naaman off to live a different kind of life and leadership expression than he had prior to his meet with the living God.  Naaman’s healing from leprosy would not be unnoticed. It placed him squarely in a discussion about the reality and efficacy of God’s works. From the stand point of the law of Israel (a deontological view), there was no room for Elisha’s response.  But notice, Naaman had already committed to worship only the God of Israel. Naaman had to deal with the complexities of living in a culture that had no frame of reference to the law of Israel other than Naaman’s own character.

Elisha does not express a use teleological ethics specifically.  However, we can analyze the text from this perspective as well. The ethical end in this situation was the placement of a living witness to the power of the God of Israel in a culture in which God was not yet known as God was in Israel. From a teleological perspective Elisha’s blessing infers a teleological utilitarianism in that a concern for the impact of Naaman’s life changing encounter on the populace around the king’s court was in view.  If Naaman’s question was motivated by mere teleological egoism, Elisha certainly could have counseled against participation in idolatrous rites.

Virtue ethics allow for situational flexibility. Situational flexibility or consideration is helpful in many cases even though it can lead to relativism and subjectivity. How is this weakness avoided?  Virtue ethics requires a guide to decide vice from virtue. Aristotle first evaluated actions or virtue as the mean between excess and deficiency.  Admittedly, this does not escape the problem of subjectivity or moral relativity. Aristotle used the mores of society to anchor his definition of virtue.  Obviously, social standards slide sometimes toward excess and sometimes toward deficiency on earlier positions (just think about how we define vulgarity today versus how it was defined in the 1950s).   However, using Aristotle’s model is still helpful if we allow a relationship to God to be our starting point.  For Aristotle, a virtue expressed excessively or a virtue expressed deficiently, ceases to be a virtue and becomes a vice.  For example, what if a parent refused to discipline a child out of a claim of love?  Would we say that love ceased to be a virtue in this instance and became a vice because it became excessive?  Or we could say that discipline ceased to be a virtue and became a vice because it was deficient?

Second, Aristotle observed a variety of situational impacts by describing voluntary and involuntary acts.  Voluntary actions are those a person chooses to do.  Involuntary actions are something a person is forced to do by some outside coercion. For example; murder is a vice.  But what if an individual was forced to commit some vice to save their friends and family be killed in front of them?  Would the vice then become a virtue because it resulted in a greater good in sight as an involuntary action?

Look again at the case of Naaman – the king coerced his participation in ritual idol sacrifice yet Naaman did not compromise his faith. Contrast the situation of Naaman with that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego who faced a furnace for refusing to take part in ritual idol worship.[3]  What are the differences between the situation Naaman faced and that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego?  How did their situation impact the decisions they made?  The context of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego is different. Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego lived within the covenant community of Israel in exile. This exile was the result of a failure to stay in relationship with God. In this situation, the test of covenant integrity summoned a deontological declaration that the core values of covenant with God cannot and would not be violated.

Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego used a deontological foundation for their decisions. The strength of deontological ethical decisions is that they work to simplify right and wrong – deontological perspectives help to clarify complex situations and give a starting point that avoids the slide into subjectivity. The Decalogue (e.g., the Ten Commandments) provides an illustration of a deontological foundation.  Laws and regulations for example offer a deontological starting point for decisions in business.

The law provides some guidance but cannot anticipate every situation so that even in the clarity of the law people must still make moral decisions supplemented by something more than a deontological commitment.

Aristotle noted that involuntary actions must be qualified as meeting some greater good, such as avoiding a worse evil to be considered a virtue not a vice, or if not a virtue a pardonable act and not an unpardonable one.  Before we dismiss Aristotle as being simply an ancient Greek out of touch with good biblical reasoning, we need to consider another well-known event in the Scripture.  Mordecai’s destiny words to Esther are often quoted without regard to the fact that in Esther’s case she was involuntarily placed in the Harem of Ahasuerus. Her presence in the harem and the favor bestowed on her after her courageous confrontation of Haman and his plan for ethnic cleansing is considered a virtuous act of faith and is celebrated in the feast of Purim.[4]

The case of Mordecai and Esther also illustrates a proper use of a teleological ethical egoism (an individual should act to great the greatest good in himself or herself, i.e., do what’s best for yourself). Consider that upon her entry into the harem of Ahasuerus, Mordecai counseled Esther to keep her ethnic identity secret.[5]  Had Esther not done this, it is unlikely that she would have lived to be in the place she was to expose Haman’s plot of ethnic cleansing.  Mordecai understood the banal character of evil.  Discussions of ethical decision-making are often derailed by the inability to acknowledge the reality of evil. Mordecai could have held a firm line and told Esther to reveal everything about herself out of a misguided definition of integrity. Esther never denied her identity – however it turns out that the timing of her admission meant the difference between death and salvation.   When the time came to declare her ethnic identity and act for forestall Haman’s genocidal plot Mordecai used a teleological ethic to encourage Esther’s intervention. Look at how Mordecai framed the situation,

…Do not imaging that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?[6]

Mordecai not only appeals to a teleological ethic but emphasizes the need for Esther to take responsibility as a leader to serve her people. Reviewing stories like that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego or Mordecai and Esther illustrates how the use of theological reflection.

Sound Ethical Reasoning Consists of Three Interactive Components

The point is that a model like Aristotle’s is helpful yet limited in that it does not reflect the impact of God’s revelation which serves as an anchor to limit moral decision-making from devolving into an exercise in subjectivity. The exercise of ethical reasoning by servant leaders attentive to God’s self revelation requires a leader’s self awareness in three interactive components: theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience.

Theological reflection is the anchor that continually refocuses and sharpens the moral reasoning of a servant leader so that she or he avoids the trap of subjectivity and the haze of situational overload. Theological reflection assumes that the use of the Scripture requires decisions about the mode of ethical discourse contained in Scripture. In other words, when we read the Scripture it is important to differentiate whether the text has:

  • Rules: direct commands or prohibitions (deontological approach).
  • Principles: general frameworks of moral consideration e.g., Mark 12:28-31(teleological and virtue approach).
  • Paradigms: stories or summary accounts modeling exemplary or reprehensible conduct (blend of approaches).
  • Perceptual categories: symbols by which we interpret reality e.g., nature of human condition or character of God or kingdom reign of God.

These various categories of literature each offer a different kind of biblical warrant that function authoritatively in making moral decisions. A leader’s formation as a servant leader requires utilizing a mode of appeal and sources of authority.  (A warrant is a justification for an action or a belief).

Worldview. Consciously or unconsciously people formulate a grid by which they make particular ethical decisions that blend their cultural perspectives/traditions. A worldview is how a person sees or understands the world in which he or she lives. Servant leaders work to make their worldview assumptions, allegiances, and values explicit. Servant leaders understand that the process of discipleship is a process of transformation and learning and that some of their deeply held cultural values or perceptions may in fact work against the kingdom of God. Assumptions, allegiances, and values of a worldview defined:

  • Assumptions: a fact or statement taken for granted. For example many in the western world, “…assume that the only personal beings in a given room are the ones we can see, we are following a worldview assumption taught us as we learned our culture.”[7]
  • Allegiances: the loyalties that define what is important for example: family, job, friends, country, organization, and etc.
  • Values: something intrinsically valuable or desirable and useful and important for example: freedom, loyalty, high mobility, interpersonal competitiveness or interdependence.

Personal experience generates the practice needed to refine or develop. Personal experience includes: the conceptualization of self, experience of social change, family history, and lessons learned or avoided in the consequences connected to decisions and actions. Personal experience does something with the feedback generated by action. Feedback accepted creates a learning cycle. Feedback rejected creates a gap between behavior and the consequences of behavior as illustrated in Figure 1.

Engaging ethical reasoning with a conscious awareness of the interaction between theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience expands a leader’s capacity to manage complexity. When a leader exercises awareness the possibility of change through learning occurs. The way theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience interact provides a mental model for interpreting situations. A mental model is a unique and personal generalization, mental picture, or image that influences how one understands the world and takes action. The importance of defining one’s mental model rests in the fact that learning does not take place without a conscious awareness. See Figure 1.

In Figure 1 the mental model (the interaction of theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience) results in a moral decision. When the process of ethical reasoning is conscious a person moves from decision to recognizing the outcome of their decision. The outcome allows responsible reflection to decide whether the outcome was desirable or undesirable. It is important to see that regardless of the outcome the feedback loop illustrated by the solid line process results in learning. Learning results in a realignment of theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience to account for new data.

Figure 1: Ethical Decision Making Grid

Wheeler Ethical Decision Model

Conversely if the process of ethical reasoning is unconscious, the chance of working out of bias and blind spots amplifies and the risk of becoming a toxic leader grows. Figure 1 illustrates the risk of blind or unconscious action in dotted line loop titled, “externalized loop.” This process avoids analyzing the outcome of a decision and results in a failure to learn. Instead of accepting responsibility for the outcomes generated by one’s decision or behavior this person fixates on events outside themselves as either the reason for success or failure. A leader in this situation would simply condemn Samantha and leave her with few options to move forward in her life other than existing in some second class state.

A person who lives in a disconnection between their mental model and the outcome of their own behavior and decisions creates a learning gap. This gap contributes to the process of denial and the development of a mental model that effectively insulates the leader from the consequences of his or her behaviors and decisions in their own mind. Notice the gap between the dotted line loop and the mental model in use represented by the three interactive boxes (theological reflection, personal experience, and worldview). This illustrates how a leader can insist on the same ineffective action or perspective repeatedly despite a negative result obvious to those outside that leader’s mental model.

For servant leaders the ethical decision-making process always results in reflection about the outcomes of decisions and behaviors as well as the process that generates the decisions and behaviors in the first place. As is clear in Figure 1 the outcomes of any particular decision or behavior either confirm and/or challenge our mental models. Hence, feedback is extremely important.  Feedback, whether positive or negative, is the essence of a learning process that sees the outcomes of decisions in an exercise of intentional reflection. Reflection considers how the servant leader made a decision in the first place, and the degree to which it is consistent to one’s ethical commitments and the degree to which Scripture forms one’s ethical commitments.

Feedback is also important to recognize because it represents cultural, familial or organizational norms. The summons to live together as resident aliens even within our own cultural setting is a summons to engage the world around us from the perspective of God’s working. This perspective can set up cross-currents with the moral assumptions and value choices of our own culture or of our organizational culture.  But more importantly, the summons to live as resident aliens allows us to use a wider perspective in our ethical reasoning.

Conclusion

Making moral and effective judgments based on a process of ethical decision-making is unavoidable in leadership. But more, ethical decision-making provides a means for early intervention to forestall either personal or organizational disaster.

Ethical decision-making is a process of responsible action based on explicit moral imperatives and values requiring that servant leaders be capable of explicitly defining the basis of their ethical reasoning.

Samantha did not answer the question of whether to have surgery or not in our time together. She did understand that the reconciliation she experienced with God was contagious and provided a basis for her to hope she could be reconciled to her parents. She returned home and began to work through what it meant to be a believer reconciled and transformed by the grace of God. How do you make ethical and moral decisions?

[1]Peter G. Northouse. Leadership Theory and Practice, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004), 313.

[2] 2 Kings 5:1-19.

[3] Daniel 3:1-30 relates the incident of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego and their refusal to worship a golden statute set up by Nebuchadnezzer.

[4] Esther 4:14.

[5] Esther 2:10.

[6] Esther 4:13-14 (NASB)

[7] Charles H. Kraft. Anthropology for Christian Witness (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 11.


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Leadership Takes Agility, Responsiveness & Commitment to Learning


OchoaMexico’s goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa illustrates the idea of skill and behavioral repertoire in leadership. Leaders can’t just use the same “play” over and over expecting to generate great results.

In the first half of play against Brazil in the World Cup competition the camera caught the breadth of his ability.

Like Ochoa, leaders must to keep their head and heart in the game – they have to learn new skills and exercise a growing self-discipline.  If they learn and exercise self-discipline their ability to respond to a changing situational dynamic, changing team-mate responses, and the competition grows.  If your leadership looks something like this photo you will experience more wins than losses. On the other hand if you thought leadership was the attainment of a position, power, or prestige you might find yourself flat-footed when you need to be nimble. How is your leadership development growing?


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Putting out Fires – Leadership Lessons from My Son the Submariner


040917-N-0000X-001I was talking with a client who recently moved to an international assignment. He is an experienced executive with earlier international experience but the tone in his voice alerted me to the fact he faced an unexpected level of adversity in his new move.  He started our conversation by saying, “This has been three weeks of hell. All I have done the last three weeks is put out fires, and it is exhausting.”

What kind of “fires” do leaders face? Common “fires” include:

  1. Rumors that undermine staff morale and productivity.
  2. Deliberate reputation hack jobs by competitors designed to undermine customer and stakeholder confidence.
  3. Revenue crises i.e., sudden drops in sales or donor gifts.
  4. Political crises that threaten market stability and employee safety (especially threatening and uncertain in countries facing military coups).
  5. Unexpected loss of key people.
  6. Surprise audits.
  7. Innovation breakthroughs by competitors.

In my experience there are three kinds of “fire-fighting” leaders. The first two are damaging to an organization. The third is the ideal because they reduce damage while maintaining productivity.

The first is the frantic leader. This is usually a new and inexperienced leader who expected everything to work without a glitch. This young/inexperienced leader is the most dangerous to an organization because their own panic in the face of crisis leads them to freeze or withdraw at a time that their presence and clear-headed perspective is most needed by employees and stakeholders looking for reassurance that the crisis is not fatal.  The frantic leader needs to understand that fires happen – they will occur and because of this reality contingency plans for dealing with fires must be in place.

The second is the distracted leader. This leader puts all their energy into extinguishing the fire and finding its source. The distracted leader is also dangerous to the organization. The distracted leader is aware of the potential for “fire” however, they have not put response mechanism in place. Because they focus their attention on the fire they temporarily suspend leadership activity needed to keep the organization on the right course in the midst of the fire. The organization becomes distracted and may fail to produce or pay attention to its stakeholders.

The third leader is the captain.  The captain knows fires happen and that they threaten the mission critical activities of their employees and organization.  Because of this the captain puts in place the response mechanisms needed to address the fire while continuing to manage the operational necessities that keep the organization productive and strategic.  The captain knows his vessel, he has response mechanisms and people in place and he directs their response. He is confident in their ability because he has trained and drilled his team to refine their skills.

Here is where my son’s stories of being a submariner kick in. As we talked about life aboard a submarine during his Navy days I walked away with two important insights. First, everyone is a fire fighter on board any kind of marine vessel.  Even on my visit to his submarine on parent’s day we were given instruction on what to do in case of fire.  We were instructed on where to go, what equipment to use, how to use it, and then we practiced using it. Everyone on board is trained to respond to fire. Second, a fighting vessel cannot afford to drop its operational functions to respond to a crisis.  It has to be able to maintain a dual focus of mission completion and crisis intervention. If a fire occur those at their duty stations remain attentive to their jobs, those off duty become fire fighters.

The application to leadership is important. On a submarine this dual focus is the subject of repeated drills. I observed the captain run several drills while aboard my son’s submarine. Practice, practice, practice so that when emergency situations arise people respond with discipline and not panic. The captain was attentive to multiple layers of activity.

My friend while an experienced executive is developing new capacity as a leader.  He has moved beyond the frantic leader model to the distracted leader model and to his credit he realizes that he cannot afford to be distracted.  As we talked his vision of being a captain emerged and I am confident that his current crisis will teach him what his organization needs to manage fire while completing their mission.

What kind of leader are you?  The question is really one of capacity i.e., the power to grasp and analyze ideas and cope with problems.  Does your organization have the mechanisms in place to respond to different kinds of “fires”?  Do your people know how to respond (or defer response) in the face of crises? Do you lead from the front in the face of “fire” or are you frantic or distracted.  Think through the “fires” your organization has faced in the past. What needs to be in place to find the nature of the “fire” and what needs to be in place to address it?

For example: in one company I worked with we set up social media monitoring to catch customer disappointment or complaints as soon as they appear. We drew up an action map to guide an immediate response to any complaint or disappointment. We drew up an action map for follow-up and designated specific follow-up by department. In another company I worked with I helped them create a legal response team to work with clients, state and federal compliance, and internal management. This team went into action when any of our employees inadvertently or deliberately violated state or federal law (sounds odd but in that industry the quick pace, high demand and tight regulatory boundaries made such infractions a distinct possibility). In this situation too we define action maps; we drilled people on their roles, responsibilities, and follow-up procedures. We moved from a frantic reaction to a disciplined response that not only reduced the damage but created an organizational culture that was more contentious about compliance and productivity.

How do you deal with “fires” as a leader?