Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


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What script are you reading from?


conflict-in-recruitment“What did he say?” Bill (not his real name) was eager to find out what his partner had talked to me about. Bill and Abe (not his real name) were in the middle of a fight that threatened the productivity of their employees and gave the whole company and uncomfortable edge – even their customers had picked up on the tension.
“He is open to an engagement to facilitate your board meetings” I responded.
Bill and I had been introduced by his attorney because the attorney could not get these two partners talking and he knew that I did facilitation work. In the weeks preceding my conversation with Abe, Bill and I talked about the power of facilitation and the way it could help he and his board overcome the gridlock they were in. Bill had been consistently open and optimistic about the potential of facilitation – that is until I reported on the results of my conversation with Abe.
Bill jumped from calm and measured to intense and angry, “He’s not sincere – he will tell you anything you want to hear. It’s his pattern. I won’t continue this charade of change. I need to buy him out and get on with things.”
“Bill,” I queried, “Abe sounded pretty sincere to me. He asked probing questions, wanted to know how facilitation had worked in other organizations and expressed his own frustration with the gridlock. Why don’t we engage a face to face and define what facilitation looks like for your company and what objectives we need to hit?”
Bill continued his tirade about Abe. What I didn’t tell Bill was that Abe had spent the first forty-five minutes of our conversation expressing his frustration with Bill. These two men fell into the same pattern of offense, accusation, counter-accusation, and rejection in every conversation they engaged. I wondered what had started this down-spiraling pattern that now held each of them prisoner to their own silence about what they needed. In fact, it was their silence about their need that was most astonishing to me in the face of their loud protests about the suspected motives of the other.
Is there a way out of a toxic conversational pattern? The answer is yes, but with some significant conditions.
First, will you stop and recognize that the pattern that emerges in every conversation is predictable and toxic? Employees in Bill and Abe’s company told me that they could predict each board meeting’s conversational pattern. They actually had a pool on the side that predicted when the conversation would go off the rails and they could recite the “script” that Bill and Abe used on each other when the meeting decayed into hostility. It was the same script every time with very little alteration. People “addicted” to anger and one-up-man-ship, like an alcoholic, must first admit they have a problem. Once a person is willing to see that the toxic communication pattern is their problem, not the problem of their nemesis they take the first healthy step – they break the pattern.
Second, will you be vulnerable enough to talk about what you need from the conversation? It’s interesting to me that Abe insisted that he told Bill in every meeting that he needed real numbers to make sound decisions. “Abe,” I responded, “may I give you some feedback on that?”
Abe looked at me askance for a moment and then agreed, “Ok” he said.
“You don’t ask for what you need, you accuse Bill of massaging his numbers to manipulate the decision,” I replied.
“Yea,” Abe retorted, “I can’t make strategic decisions with numbers that I know don’t include realistic sales forecasts. I need clear cost analysis and projected gross profit that takes into account our history and the current market conditions. I tell Bill in every meeting this is what I need.”
“Abe, do you see the difference between a request for specific parameters and an accusation that Bill is trying to manipulate the meeting?” I asked. “Listen to what you just said, you don’t tell Bill what you need you tell Bill his numbers are wrong. He defends his numbers, you show him your numbers and the conversation disintegrates from there.”
“Ah,” Abe reflected for a moment, “I think I see what you mean.”
“Abe is the problem the numbers or is the problem that you don’t feel Bill respects your expertise and perspective?” I asked.
“Geese Ray, where do you get that?” Abe responded.
“You told me that in our last lunch meeting,” I replied.
Abe’s eyes turned to the carpet and he grunted. “Humph, I hate talking with you.” He looked up, “I need to think about this.”
Third, exercise low-level inference rather than high-level inference listening skills. How much do you infer from the verbal and nonverbal communication you receive? Low-level inference doesn’t “read into” what is said, rather it asks for insight into the reasons something is said or done. High-level inference assumes an understanding of unstated motivations and intentions.  If a listener cannot listen to understand rather than listen to respond and if they assume they understand unstated motivations – the conversation rapidly disintegrates into a volley of accusations and counter accusations.
Will these three skills resolve embedded and toxic communication patterns?  No, but they are a significant first step to that end. When practiced they open the door past conflict to communication where the real work begins. Can toxic communication patterns change without these three skills and the decision to employ them?  No. Without these first steps, the organization will limp along toward its ultimate demise while it sheds its best talent and misses its best opportunities while the principals in the conflict continue their charade of power.


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All Congregations Face Problems – Leaders Differentiate the Healthy From the Pathological


agree-to-disagreeThere are two kinds of problems in a congregation – healthy problems and unhealthy problems.  Understanding the difference is the responsibility of leadership.

Healthy problems propel congregations into recognizing a changing need or environment so that they pay attention to structural changes and development of their people. Healthy problems include: over confidence by the founding pastor who sees herself as indispensable; eagerness – high energy; evangelism orientation without a corresponding discipleship process; seeking new ways to serve the community; growth beyond the ability to deliver; insufficient cost controls; insufficiently disciplined staff meetings; and inconsistent salary administration. If you work in or attend a fast growing congregation, you probably have experienced all of these normal problems.

Unhealthy problems indicate that leaders have ignored needed change.  Unhealthy problems include: arrogance; lack of focus – energy too thinly spread; no boundaries on what to do; pressing for more growth despite inability to deliver quality care; no cost controls; no staff meetings – no communication; and grossly under paid or over paid employees.  These problems show that the congregation has lost its bearing and is adrift.

Even dynamic congregations can lose the drive of their mission when mission looses focus and clarity. The shift of focus is subtle because management strategies included in budgeting, cost reduction, rightsizing, or structural realignment can undermine and distract leaders from the true driver of their success – their mission.

Dynamism in a congregation is situational, it is not guaranteed. It is possible for a congregation to become malformed and enter a period of decline and thus act like an aging organization shortly after it is started. When early aging occurs, simplicity (the earmark of a vibrant congregation) gets lost in complexity as the people in the congregation struggle to explain the gap between their actions and their ideals or to explain how their actions fulfill the mission.

Dynamism induces simplicity as the earmark of a highly reproducible structure.  This kind of simplicity was described by Rainer and Geiger as, “…a straight forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth.”[1] This definition is important to think about.  Simplicity is not the absence of complex situations – this misnomer only causes frustration.  Complexity and growth go together. Simplicity is the ability of the congregation or Christian organization to support a direct line of action between its mission and its target in the midst of an ever-growing complexity of networks and stakeholders. When this kind of simplicity is lost activity around the mission becomes as congested as a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour.

So how is a simple and dynamic structure developed?  Start with a blueprint i.e., define how the congregation will bring people to spiritual maturity i.e., start with your mission.  Then remove congestion to build movement. Design what you do in alignment with a spiritual maturation process and your core values. Then recruit people to the process to help others grow in Christ. Use the same process in every aspect of how you minister to the community. Then practice your focus, say “no” to almost everything. People are drawn to momentum, but not every opportunity that emerges is something to be pursued as an institutional response. Recall Jesus’ response to the disciples request that he expand his work in Capernaum.  The crowds sought after more but Jesus stayed focused. At the disciple’s request to engage Jesus’ new found recognition Jesus said, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, in order that I may preach there also; for that is what I came out for.”[2]

When you align your congregation around the purpose it is supposed to be about, you not only keep it simple you also end up launching new ministry because of your focus.  Again, look at who Jesus said “no” to. What were the results?  How many others besides the twelve did Jesus commission to ministry in the New Testament?  Look at Matthew 8:19-22; Mark 5:18-20; John 5:10-17; and John 9:1-41 where Jesus did not inhibit the man from following in the crowd or restrict him from talking. The fact that each of these people immediately engaged in ministry points to the discipleship emphasis of Jesus i.e., act on what you know.  It is as people acted on what they knew that Jesus then followed up to help develop their content. Notice that Jesus did not recruit any of these emerging ministers to the twelve.

We often get it backwards, wanting people to have all right content but who often have no idea how to put it to work and then insisting that all ministry happen through the programs authorized by the staff. It is important to see that any time we organize, no matter what spiritual label we put on it, we pull people together toward a common goal and create tension.  Tension develops between the organization we create and the mission we seek to engage.  The reason tension emerges is that organizations work with four primary drives: self-preservation, growth, effectiveness, and efficiency. A leader’s tension between how they define the work of the gospel and what consumes their time emerges when the organization asserts its drives and imposes its needs on the mission of the congregation. Instead, organization must subsume its drives to the mission it was designed to facilitate as a means of moving people together toward that mission.

Organizations are not people so how does this inversion occur?[3] Organizations become inverted when the people running the organization use its structures and processes to amplify their own drives for power, prestige, and pleasure not serving others.

Organizations invert when its leaders hide in structures and processes to avoid having to take responsibility to serve.  This happens when lead pastors or executive pastors or CEOs hide in their offices each day, running new efficiency studies to wring more money out of the operation and not asking what people experience when they meet the congregation. It happens in congregations when the pastor gets lost in the internal aspects of the congregation and tries to make things more effective (read relevant) or more efficient (read removing objections to the latest trend he/she wants to try) and not taking the time to know the questions people are asking about God.

Hodgkinson adds another perspective to creating a dynamic organization that is particularly helpful to those leaders who inherit organizations or congregations that they must rejuvenate.  To help sift through the haze of complexity, Hodgkinson offers a series of insightful questions that pastors should ask about their congregations.[4]

  1.       Is the organization unjustified in its basic purpose?  Can it describe its basic purpose?
  2.       Is the organization unjustified in its complexity of ancillary purposes?
  3.       Should the organization grow? Consolidate? Reduce? Is the growth pattern valid and defensible?
  4.       What are the latent functions of the organizational effort and are they valid and defensible?
  5.       What, so far as reasonable analysis can reveal, is the shape of the non-quantitative cost benefit account? Is the quality of organizational life adequate under its constraints?
  6.       What consistency exists between the answers to these value questions and the core commitments/assumptions of the leader asking them?

These questions can be a source of hope and vision or a source of intimidation and threat. The emotion experienced when these questions are reviewed is itself a reason to stop and reflect.  Ask yourself what emotion you experience and why?  This practice of self-awareness may lead you back to the question Jesus asked James and John – are you willing to drink the same cup Jesus drank?

So, what problems is your congregation facing?  Are they healthy or unhealthy? Will you exercise the courage and faith to discuss these problems or hide and hope they will go away or that someone else will deal with them?

References:

[1] Thom S. Rainer and  Eric Geiger. Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2006), 60.

[2] Mark1:38 (NASB)

[3] Christian A. Schwarz. Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches (Carol Stream, IL: Church Smart Resources, 1996), 62-65. Schwarz’s discussion of a technocratic versus biotic approach to congregational life is another similar way to assess the tension that occurs in the organization of the church.

[4] Christopher Hodgkinson. Educational Leadership: The Moral Art (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), 109-110.


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If You Don’t Live Well You Won’t Lead Well


Rest and PlayResilience Depends on Energy Management

One of the benefits of truly knowing oneself is establishing the margins needed to maintain spiritual and emotional stamina without burning out.  The wonderful diversity in the way leaders are put together argues against simplistic formulas to avoid burnout and presses us to understand the principles that help create healthy margins and rhythms in service that are unique to the individual’s style and personality.

Resilience and endurance is dependent on how a leader manages their energy over time. Every venue of leadership presents the servant leader with a clamor of tasks, crises, and people who need attention. It is important to see that finding periods of energy renewal is not dependent on finding times of lower activity or demand but in recognizing the symptoms of diminished emotional resilience and knowing the negative impact this has on decision-making and relationships. In other words leaders who live well make time for personal renewal. Jesus illustrates this rather well,

And He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest for a while.” (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.) And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves.[1]

Recognize the Difference Between Activities and Results

Jesus’ suggestion that he and the apostles get away to rest was not made during a lull in popularity or activity.  He made it at the peak of popularity and demand. Jesus did not manipulate the momentum he maintained the activities that led to momentum. In contrast leaders who attempt to manipulate the momentum of their success end up in a distortion of reality by making the work of leadership more about momentum than about the activities that created the momentum. I call this working at maintaining the spin. Maintaining the spin is symptomatic of getting caught in the organizational drive to ensure survival. It manages results as though results were the focus. The focus must always be the activities that produce the results.

The shift from the right activities to maintaining the spin sets a trajectory toward burnout.  Burnout is an emotional condition characterized by fatigue and physical exhaustion, depression, mental fatigue, sleeping problems, etc., that interferes with job performance. Burnout results from extended periods of high energy engagement that is not offset by periods of restoration.[2]

The disciples had just returned from a period of high energy engagement.  The commission Jesus gave them was a development project that required them to engage the power of God, the provision of God and the people of God.  They were to be dependent on the hospitality of others and on the work of the Holy Spirit as they discovered how to work in concert with the works of God. (Mark 6:7-13)  They succeeded for the most part in this learning project. They saw results to their efforts. However, later they did not remember all the lessons they should have learned in their project.  Just two chapters later in Mark’s gospel Jesus asked them to feed four thousand. One can almost see that they had a deer in the headlights response.  How did they go from great results to stupefied inaction in the face of a new challenge? They got caught maintaining the spin and not growing in the right activities.  Over time maintaining the spin causes even formerly effective leaders to forget what created the results in the first place.

How do leaders keep up healthy boundaries around time, energy and spiritual renewal so that the leader’s own self stays strong and resilient versus weak and subject to spiritual/moral infection.  Staying strong and resilient is critical to maintaining perspective and avoiding the trap of working to maintain the spin.

Start with the End in Mind

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 really 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 priority than they had prior to the experience. Life itself becomes more precious than accomplishment, prestige or power. 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.[3]  She came up with 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 the 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 opportunity for the demonstration of God’s power that was catalytic to new insights and breakthroughs.

Leaders who Never Take a Break, Never “Get a Break”

In contrast leaders, who never take a break, never “get a break.”  Their flurry of activity never seems to move beyond mediocrity perhaps in part because the “chance” meetings that would lead to new insights, new connections, or breakthroughs are usurped by business and weariness. If you are working hard and wondering why those who have time to play seem to get all the “breaks” then perhaps it is time to take stock of how you manage your own energy.


[1] Mark 6:31-32 (NASV).