Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


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How do you Stay Engaged as a Leader?


king_david_statueI have spent the year digging into the life of the biblical character David. I was drawn to David because much can be learned about how to survive the pressures of leadership when there is a way to get inside the head of a successful leader. That David was successful is apparent, he unified a loose confederation of tribes into a central government; he established the infrastructure needed to sustain a nation including the enormous task of shifting the “corporate culture” of the nation from one of tribal self-service and intrigue to one that engaged a sense of unified purpose and support. He survived several attempts to topple his reign and he engendered the kind of loyalty in others that gave them permission to speak the truth and express a willingness to put their lives on the line for him.  Success alone isn’t that impressive, a lot of jerks are successful. What makes David’s success so amazing is that he consistently came back to the kind of character and ethical decision-making process that raised the character of the nation. He openly admitted his faults and openly changed for the better.

It is possible to get inside David’s head because he wrote a lot.  David put his emotions, insights, fears, questions, distress, gratitude, and celebration. This is remarkable for two reasons. First, in my observation leaders who fail to express the full range of emotion ultimately derail into only anger and resentment. These leaders cannot see the impact of their behavior and emotion on others. They become toxic and abusive. Second, the leaders who exhibit emotional awareness and remain emotionally engaged are leaders who can then express a range of emotions appropriate to what they experience.

David wrote 71 Psalms that I analyzed for their major themes. The distribution of these major themes across the Psalms of David is illustrated in the chart below and defined in Table 1.

Chart 1: Themes in the Psalms of David

psalms-by-theme

Three things jump out at me when I review the chart. First, notice the preponderance of lament in David’s writing. Over one-third of David’s Psalms were laments in the face of disaster, disappointment, danger, and loss. I like this because those who study leadership seem to rarely write about how leaders face disappointment, betrayal, loss, danger, and disaster. All of these experiences are part of leading which is why many sane people avoid jumping into a leadership role.   David faced these things with an emotionally healthy expression of anger, grief, and howling. It’s a good lesson for leaders when they face the turbulence of leadership – get alone and have a good howl.

Second, David lived with a profound sense of purpose. It is meaningful because leaders who produce lasting results possess a transcendent awareness of purpose. They inspire others with it. It drives them to continue when every other aspect of their being may just want to throw in the towel. David worshiped and he worshiped with a sense of gratitude. He lived the practical, dirty, gutsy reality of leadership with a perspective that included a sense of the transcendent. This impacted his decision-making, his respect for the experience of others, and his decisiveness and compassion. Leaders devoid of purpose, leaders who have no real sense of the transcendent can fall prey to data pedantic that dehumanizes work and aims at efficiency in profit unaware of the stultifying impact on those who make profit happen.

Table 1: Definition of Terms

Theme Description
Lament Expressions of distress, grief, sorrow
Worship Expressions of devotion, adoration, praise, and love for God.
Worship/Gratitude Expressions of adoration, appreciation, and thankfulness.
Vindication Desire for God’s help to clear from accusation, imputation, or suspicion.
Wisdom/Reflection Expressions of what has been learned through experience.
Confession Repentance Acknowledgement of a lapse in moral judgment and deficiency in behavior.
Vulnerability w/ God Deliberate exposure of intent, dependency, and susceptibility.
Judgment Request for God’s direct exercise of justice and punishment of evil.
Benediction Innovcation of divine help, blessing, and guidance.
Prophecy Insight to the future promise and action of God’s working.
Reflection on Mortality Thought on the meaning of life in light of its ephemeral nature.

Third, the frequency with which David reflected on his experience and drew new insights into the present as he prepared for the future is impressive. The wisdom Psalms of David point to an element of healthy leadership i.e., healthy leaders learn from their experience and learning is defined by a change in behavior.  I am surprised at the number of leaders who relive the same experience over and over from one company to the next, from one year to the next without every asking what has happened and why it continues.  Some leaders operate like a tether ball running faster and faster with less and less a scope of influence until at last they hit the wall only to recoil and start all over again.

Thanksgiving is a good time to do some reflection as a leader. How emotionally healthy are you? Do you have an appropriate outlet for your emotions? Are you aware of your emotional health or distress? Learn from David and be a leader whose emotional awareness gets leveraged into new insights and deeper connections with your partners, employees, and clients.


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Refocus your energy!


downloadOne of the themes that emerging from my client conversations lately is the need to refocus. What do you do when you or your organization experiences gridlock and a lack of energy? Or when increased activities just don’t result in the desired ends? Being gridlocked shows up in three ways: (1) an unending treadmill of trying harder, (2) looking for answers rather than re-framing questions, and (3) either/and or thinking that creates false dichotomies.
Sometimes a leader just needs to stop and refocus. The pressures of the daily grind and challenges that constantly jump in the way of progress have a tendency of dulling clarity and shifting actions to activities that have no direct impact on results. Take several steps to refocus your efforts and the work of your team.
First, identify the questions that are nagging at the back of your head. This requires some honest reflection – identify the “self-talk” that develops just behind your conscious mind. One client paused for a moment and said, “Oh, I get it.” Then he began to list his nagging questions,”Am I making a difference? Is this really worth it? Is this what I really want to do? Why have I failed in every major endeavor?” He paused, “This is tiring, I’m exhausted just saying these things.”
I sat on the phone quietly for a moment then responded, “Didn’t you start this conversation by saying you were exhausted and lacked energy?”
“Yes,” he said.
He had been working harder, looking for solutions and all he really accomplished was reducing his field of vision to false dichotomies e.g., his team was either loyal or disloyal, customers were either about to leave or diminish their orders, his spouse was either supportive or undermining his success. He identified the nagging questions, now he was ready for the next step. “Let’s re-frame the questions,” I said.
Second, re-frame the questions that had been nagging you at the back of your mind. The client above re-framed each of his questions in the following way: “In what ways do I make a difference? In what ways is this worth the effort or in what ways can my efforts be better directed? In what ways does the present contribute to my ultimate contribution in life?” (He had done the work previously of identifying what he wanted his ultimate contribution to be.) “In what ways have past failures positioned me for success in the present?”
As he re-framed the questions the cadence of his speech increased, his tone sounded more optimistic, and his thoughts became more prolific – less ponderous. The more he worked to re-frame the questions the more energy came over the phone and the more creative his brainstorming became.
Third, go back to your personal mission statement. If you don’t have a personal mission statement its a good idea to build one. It helps to focus attention on activity that contributes to the right end rather than getting caught in the treadmill of activity seeking to convince yourself that you are legitimate. When I suggested this my client just sighed. “I think,” he said, “I lost track of my purpose somewhere in the midst of this year’s challenges.” He restated his purpose and immediately determined to drop three initiatives that had no bearing on what he really wanted to accomplish.
Each of these steps can help pull a leader out of gridlock and back into being a contributor to a measurable purpose.
Use the same steps to turn your team around. Brainstorm with them to identify the questions nagging their performance and identity. Re-frame those questions together and watch new alternatives and new ideas begin to accelerate. Return to the mission of the organization and review the activities people are engaged in – stop and redirect activities that have no bearing on producing the value associated with your organizational mission.
Everyone loses focus at some point. Don’t let the nagging questions become the pimp of your talent selling your best energy to actions that have no return and no promise. One of my students in Kenya responded to these principles in a lecture by saying, “You metaphorically ask me to eat and elephant. Do you know how to eat an elephant Dr. Wheeler?” he paused with a twinkle in his eye. Then after the appropriate pregnant hesitation, he continued, “One bite at a time!”  So, go ahead face your elephant and start eating!


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Beware your ascension to power


hand-fist-power1Motivations are sometimes difficult to isolate. The variety of experiences one gleans through a career of interactions with those in power has a significant shaping effect on how power is perceived. I have observed a sometimes benign and other times toxic reaction to bad leadership that sets the stage for amplified emotional impact at work.  I call this reaction, “backdoor leadership lessons.”

Backdoor leadership lessons are those insights one gains by watching leaders act in a way that contradicts constructive leadership action. Leaders who fail to manage their stress resort to manipulation, frustration, insults, or rage to force things through the system. Because they have power they have initial success as people comply out of fear. However, over time, the success are fewer and farther between as people feign compliance with a head nod, avoidance, and passive impertinence.

The benign and even constructive backdoor leadership lessons emerge from observation and an internal commitment to be a different kind of leader. If one could listen to the self-talk inside the emerging leader’s head they might hear thoughts like, “I will never treat my team like that. I will never cut innovative people off out of frustration. I will never be that headstrong.” These backdoor lessons often lead to constructive self-awareness and the development of emotional intelligence and skill. Stepping into benign or constructive backdoor leadership lessons requires the exercise of forgiveness and the rigor of critical reflection on both the actions of a toxic leader and oneself. Without forgiveness and critical reflection, a toxic backdoor lesson emerges in the life of the leader.

Toxic backdoor leadership lessons also emerge from observation but take a subtly different road when it comes to internal commitment. Instead of rendering a commitment to be a different kind of leader toxic lessons result in a commitment to expunge the influence and legacy of the toxic leader. Rather than forgiveness and self-reflection, smug self-confidence emerges that sees the eradication of a prior leader’s influence and legacy as a primary objective to the acquisition of power.  The self-talk that occurs in this emerging leader yields thoughts like, “I will destroy his/her toxicity.  I will redirect this organization to a more profitable or more effective strategy. I will pull this ship back into its rightful competitive position.”  Both forgiveness and critical self-reflection are absent in this response which yields hubris more than insight.

Hence, I state, beware your ascension to power. If you think the acquisition of power is the solution to the bad decisions, poor interpersonal skills, inadequate strategy, or abusive arrogance you are on the trajectory to be a step worse as a leader than the individual you react to. Why? Because that leader becomes the model of your leadership by an inability to step away to a different focus. I ran across this observation the first time in a heavy equipment operator in my first congregation. Jim (not his real name) was a man’s man kind of guy. He didn’t speak much but when he did he often had great insights I benefited from. I didn’t know the trauma that made up his personal life – that is until the day he dropped by my office.

Jim collapsed into one of the chairs in front of my desk and broke into sobs, the kind of sobs that men cry when they can no longer hold in the pain of their experience. “I hate my dad,” he blurted out between heaving agonizing howls of emotional pain. “And I have become him.”  Jim identified a connection that seems to me to be unyielding – the person you hate the most is the person you become because they are the target of your attention and affection.

In the words of one of my early mentors, “Ray, you will hit what you aim at.”

Beware your ascension to power. Strategy and vindictiveness are not the same. I have watched men step into roles of power with the only objective of erasing the memory and work of their predecessor. They present themselves as innovators and prophets of a new day. They tirelessly work on change. However, they don’t bring strategy, they bring destruction. They amplify the worst characteristics of their predecessors because they hit what they aim at.

Experience can teach leaders a tremendous amount of powerful lessons. But leaders gain little without the discipline of self-reflection and the exercise of forgiveness. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Do you see the dad, the boss, the mother, or the teacher that you hate?  Have you come to the revelation Jim came to?  Step back, consider your own behavior. Find a mentor or therapist who can help you walk back through the years of pain, bitterness, and the quest for revenge to get to the healing work of forgiveness. Don’t confuse vindictiveness for strategy.

If you talk with Jim today, you see a different man entirely. He emanates a grace, a wisdom, and life insight that is almost under spoken but has the effect of causing others to reflect on their own trajectory in life. He is no longer trying to not be his dad. He is discovering what it means to be himself. His ascension to power nearly broke him. Now, his ascension to power has become a source of dynamic innovation and healing. Those around him no longer give him head nods of passive impertinence. Instead, they engage each challenge with vigor, courage, and initiative – all of which they have learned from Jim. What are you aiming at?


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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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Change the Paradigm


51Pv2jzHD3L._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_The title is ambitious I admit. But, the way we think about leadership and express it in the church and in business needs a change in my view. I wrote this book because I see the possibility of unleashing something radically life changing by altering the way we lead. Why? Uncritically adopted leadership styles often promise efficiency and effectiveness but they just as often fail to address the challenge – congregations and businesses feel compressed, threatened, and lost in the radical shifts occurring all around them.  At worst churches and Christian organizations act no different from any other corporation in how they relate to their employees and their members.

Jesus changed the formula of leadership – he initiated a hope that is transforming and healing and not oppressive and disillusioning. This book is a blue print for how to lead like Jesus and produce extraordinary results. I am committed to being a part of a changing paradigm of leadership. Its my hope that writing a handbook on how to put a new perspective to work encourage a new conversation and a different way of leading.

Here is what those who reviewed the manuscript had to say about.

“…well written, organized, and amazingly detailed…Ray writes in an intellectual tone that doesn’t come off as arrogant or stiff, but rather uplifting and humble.” Editorial Team, Xulon Press.

“…challenges my paradigms on being a leader…. I wish I had read earlier on in my leadership experiences.” Steve MorganGlobal Leadership Development, CRU

“…elegant and powerful.  I don’t read Christian books on leadership. They just don’t have the content. But your manuscript is new and needed I could not put it down.”  Mark Simmonsbusiness entrepreneur,Seattle, Washington.

“…a must read for anyone seeking increased effectiveness leading an organization through a holistic approach aligned with Scriptural principles.”  Jim J. Adams, President, LIFE Pacific College

“…profound, practical and prophetic in its impact. I believe it can shape a culture that can change the world!” Glenn C. Burris, Jr., President, The Foursquare Church

“…will transform how you engage others. Dare to apply Ray’s assertions…they will change your life…from the inside out.” Dennis Bachman,Executive Pastor. NewSong Church, San Dimas, California

“This Book will take you to a place you were not expecting to go – the transformation of your own heart.” Casey Cox, Pastor, Living Faith Fellowship, San Dimas, California

Pick up a copy today at:

Amazon, http://www.amazon.com/Change-Paradigm-Raymond-L-Wheeler/dp/1498440169/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1436281607

Barnes & Noble, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/change-the-paradigm-raymond-l-wheeler/1122227562?ean=9781498440165


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One CEO’s Conundrum 


Scale“There are times that I wonder how to balance the needs of the organization with compassion.” My client sat pondering the issue for a moment then continued, “But then that is the responsibility of the CEO.” Jayne (not her real name) was right. There are few positions that juxtapose organizational and individual needs like that of the CEO. Everything hinges on the CEO’s ability to support the dynamic tension between the needs of the organization and the needs of all the stake holders – in this case a key employee.

Jayne runs a 30 million dollar operation in senior life care with 300 employees. She follows a CEO whose style can best be described as laissez-faire. The outgoing CEO neither had the emotional intelligence nor the drive to pull together a workable executive team. He focused on his own strengths and interpersonal forcefulness to build himself a legacy and push things through the system. Effective?  Yes, it got the things done that were important to his legacy. Healthy? No. As a result, Jayne is working through her executive team replacing toxic people with healthy ones and literally resetting the organization from the chaos left in the absence of the kingpin to a healthy team that knows what the organization needs and has the values and skills to get it there.  One of Jayne’s executive team (a VP) is struggling.

“She told me the other day that I intimidate her, I am not sure I feel bad about that,” Jayne said.

“Apparently your VP wanted you to feel bad about it?” I queried.

“Yes, that was the clear message – in her words I have ruined her life by demanding performance proper to her level of employment.” Jayne paused. “The VP said, ‘I can’t even get dressed in the morning without wondering if Jayne will approve of my wardrobe – I am not sure I will ever win your approval.”  Jayne locked eyes with me for a moment and said, “I have never said I disapprove of her wardrobe or of her as a person. She said I was killing her personality. She is right on one hand I do disapprove of her lack of performance.” Jayne’s tone changed as she turned to face me.

“I understand holding people to a change in performance.” Jane began. “But how do I hold them accountable for their personality?”

I could tell the question troubled her. I suggested, “Perhaps it is your choice of vocabulary that has you stymied. Your VP can’t change her personality and in fact, that is not the issue. The issue is behavior and she can change behavior.”

“Oh, that helps,” Jayne said.

The VP, like many challenging employees, sought to blame something external to herself (the CEO) for the consequences of her own behaviors. The fact is that concern on the part of the VP about her job is right. She should consider whether she wants to grow her capacity by modifying her behavior or look for job with less responsibility somewhere elsewhere.

On writing on the leadership of George Washington, Richard Brookhiser observed, “Problems, and a leader’s solutions to them, consist of ideas, forces, and facts of life. But they are always accompanied by, or incarnated in, people. Judging people accurately and managing them well can make the difference between success and failure.[1]

When leaders avoid the discomfort associated with addressing problems the result is that they only transfer conflict (the evidence of problems) to larger groups of people in the organization they serve.  This transfer has a cascading effect that disrupts large segments of the organization’s performance. This contributes to employee angst and job misery more than anything else in organizational life.

How do you work through conflict in the organization you lead?  Judging people accurately includes the awareness of their uniqueness and their stress points. Any leader’s job not only includes helping others work at their peak skills but also of performing in their most constructive behaviors.  Hold people, and yourself, accountable for both performance and behavior and watch your people become the high performing team you always wanted to see.

[1] Richard Brookhiser. George Washington on Leadership. (New York, NY: MJF Books, 2008), 83.