Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership


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spider web theology


spider webIt is known in my family, who find it simultaneously comical and comforting, that I don’t tolerate spiders or their webs. I even have a special broom that allows me to circumnavigate the house outside and inside destroying the vestiges of arachnid existence. I don’t mind the existence of spiders in the woods around our home, but I do mind when they invade my space. If I see a spider, I immediately dispatch it to its heavenly home.

On one afternoon after I had washed the windows, I lay down on the couch with a cool drink to relish the beauty around me now made more visible by the clean windows. Our home has a 360-degree view and that means a lot of windows some of which are on the wall near the top of our vaulted ceiling.

Movement caught my eye in the highest window. There, in plain sight and apparent disregard for the work I had just completed in removing all webs prior to washing the windows, an orb spider was busy re-spinning its lunch ticket. I watched it work, a painstaking and exacting process and it started me thinking.

I routinely destroy webs and spiders routinely re-spin them. Yet, I have never heard a complaint by said spiders. Re-spinning damaged or destroyed webs is part of their process of survival – stuff happens. I thought about my own responses to setbacks, as losing a web is surely a setback for arachnid survival. I often expended far more emotional energy than is needed when I face setbacks. Rather than simply rebuilding my “web” I complain, bemoan my misfortune, lament the added workload, and on occasion engage in passionate “intercessory” prayer. My eight-legged friend simply does the work of re-spinning.

Jesus once said,

I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution, affliction, distress, pressure. But take courage; I have conquered the world! (John 16:33, Wheeler expanded NIV)

The fact of the matter is that affliction, distress, pressure, and even persecution, sabotage, and setbacks are a normal course. Jesus gives a frame of reference regarding distress that is: the perspective from which we assess life events determines (a) whether they can serve a positive formative purpose and (b) the degree to which we recognize the working of God who is given to contradicting injustice, hurt, despair, oppression, and the afflictions of the human condition.

In a spider’s world, Murphy was right. If anything can go wrong, it will. In our world, the same is true. In fact, I have determined a corollary to Murphy i.e., if its bad it can get worse. In light of this, perspective is important. Given the very real suffering, sabotage, setbacks, and even persecution we may face we are promised peace. Peace is that security or tranquility that is the foundation for flourishing that comes from the reality that the systemic roots of evil and corruption are already defeated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Jesus has overcome the systemic roots (the world in a systems sense). We are therefore called upon to engage behavior that contradicts the hurt of set-backs. I like the summary of womanist theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher;

The significance of Christ’s response to weapons of evil is not a passive bearing of it all, but is God’s profound “NO” to evil. In following Jesus, we participate in the divine “no” to evil and suffering. For these reasons, it makes sense to follow Jesus while also challenging an adulterous relationship with world power, greed, and violence.[1]

In watching that spider rebuild its web that day I realized it served as an eight-legged evangelist to me reminding me that things I see as a setback are not only predictable but powerful in that they serve to form and shape my development as a person who flourished in life not because I live in an artificial environment but because I have a sense of well-being and purpose that sees what God is up to even in the mundane and enjoys that fellowship with the Almighty that says “No” to evil and suffering and “Yes” to a flourishing and abundant life.

 

[1] Karen Baker-Fletcher. (2006) Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.


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Avoid the weariness trap


ResistanceThe single greatest challenge I see in the leaders I have known is the challenge of weariness that isolates them from their team. Leaders who are weary become inconsistent in the enforcement of policy and disengaged emotionally from their team.
I am often asked to help organizations develop new systems or to engage in remedial coaching for a poor performing employee. I have learned in these engagements to insert a condition. If I don’t work with the CEO or owner as well as the challenge employee or group I don’t take the engagement. Why? Because poor performance is rarely a single issue event.
The place leaders wear down the most is the place they can least afford i.e., staying engaged and staying consistent.

Like it or not employees or staff take their queue from the posture of the manager or executive to whom they report. It doesn’t take long for inconsistency on the part of the manager or executive to cascade through the system of their direct reports as lethargy, poor follow through, or even deliberate sabotage of the company’s objectives. It is fairly easy to empower a group or individual to engage their work when two things occur.

 First, support the work of others with consistent application of existing policy whether it is informal (implicit as in past behavior) or formal (explicit as in an employee handbook and job descriptions). Set clear expectations and provide a consistent environment and people will generally exceed expectations. I watched an entire sales team languish in one company when one of the members of the team (the poorest performing member) was retained in a downsize over a long-term employee who was a better producer. Why? Because the employee was friends with the owner – they were a “project” of the owner. As a result, the entire team saw that reward for their effort was not a matter of their own work or mastery of their tasks but the result of the degree to which they curried the favor of the owner. There is no wonder then that better producers resented this setup and became unresponsive to doing any work outside of meeting the minimum number of tasks.
Second, recognize the negative impact of poor systems. Poor systems are not unusual in privately held companies where the owner still struggles with the concept of corporate sovereignty i.e., a system of control and policy that describes what can and cannot be done so that the organization becomes the sovereign rather than the owner. In many privately held companies, the owner is the first to violate the rules of operation that he demanded others live by. This situation is compounded by the fact owners often refuse to design a system so that control of the company can transition from his or her own activity to a clear operating process and people committed to executing on that process. Designing such a system takes work – it is the work of decentralizing power not just delegating tasks. That is what makes it risky and why it doesn’t happen on a whim. One mentor of mine was fond of pointing out that the first job of any leader was to develop other leaders. Owners who have this mentality focus their efforts on building a great company around a great system of policies and controls that allowed employees to fully engage their work. These owners develop others to step up to responsibility and commitment. On the other hand, if hard conversations are ignored or avoided leaders won’t be developed. A great company expects policies to be enforced. When a leader demonstrates that they can be intimidated or that they won’t consistently enforce policy then performance runs amok.

Both of these problems i.e., inconsistency and poor systems, contribute to leadership weariness.

First, leaders try to do the work of their entire team – their scope is too far reaching usually out of mistrust of others. This is a sure sign that the systems and controls that are needed to create a great company are missing. Instead of disciplined execution, these leaders run from fire to fire. People never know where this leader will land and resent the intrusion when they do because they are a flurry of activity and anxiety that contributes very little to the completion of the task. How many hats do you wear in your business or organization? Why? If your answer is that others just don’t have the commitment or the skill it is time to reassess your assumptions about your organizational structure and your hiring practice.  Up the game or the game will eat you. Create systems and processes that ensure the right controls and the right permissions so that others can excel along with you.

Second, leaders often don’t know how to rest. They violate their own physical and mental energy by overexerting themselves for fear that others won’t perform. The fear part of this equation is answered in designing clear processes and accountability. The exhaustion part of this equation comes from a lack of time away. This kind of leader hovers over the time clock, stays late, arrives early and present him or herself as the paragon of productivity. In fact, they often duplicate their efforts, give contradictory commands, and overturn other people’s work then hasten to get them to do it again without significant changes. Day’s off and vacations are not optional. A tired leader often thinks he or she is demonstrating deep commitment – however, their short fuse, inability to critically assess problems and emotional detachment undermine the commitment of those working for them.

If things are broken reassess your systems and the degree to which you are developing leaders.

If you are weary, get away before you destroy your own success by harboring resentment toward those you blame for your weariness (usually the people closest to you who have no idea of what you are feeling – they just sense your displeasure).