I had the pleasure of addressing the incoming class at Bethesda University in Anaheim, California this morning. They are a wonderfully diverse student body, many of whom are the first generation to enter college. In my time teaching there I was privileged to hear the stories of change, courage, and the desire to give back to their communities. In thinking about what would both inspire and challenge them this morning I thought of three blunt and transformative encounters Jesus had with his disciples.
The narratives of these encounters are stacked up together in Luke 9:46-55. In the first (v 46-48) Jesus addresses the idea of greatness. In the second (v 49-50) Jesus addresses the idea of synergy with others. In the third (v 51-56) Jesus addresses the subject of anger in the face of rejection. These three encounters frame the questions I find successful people ask themselves to remain focused on the important rather than the urgent. This kind of focus helps them see opportunity others simply walk past. And, it is this ability to see that seems to drop new opportunity at their doors step regularly. So, let’s look at the questions and how they work to generate focus and new ways of seeing.
What is your ambition?
The disciples clearly had ambition (a drive toward a new future and a trajectory away from a past). However, their ambition had gone down the road of power acquisition and prestige. Somewhere along the way, they began to run to the goal of dominance rather than destiny. This detour along the way doesn’t take a person toward their future – rather it reasserts the past as a diminishment to be avoided rather than a foundation on which to build a future. Those who are running from their past have not yet made peace with their past and end up running into an ever increasing intensity of shame and denial.
Jesus redirected the disciple’s debate by pointing to a child and asking them to receive or relate to the child. I think of my grandchildren who don’t care about the fact I have an earned doctorate, or that I own a successful company, or that I am recognized as an effect adjunct professor. All they know is that I engage them at their level with attentiveness, love, and a desire to see them succeed.
Jesus reduced the question about who is the greatest to a willingness to engage life like one engages a child. This generates a posture of learning v showmanship, curiosity v arrogance, and vulnerable v defensiveness. Refine your ambition – dream big AND do it as a learner, not an expert.
How do you see others?
Small minded people interpret knowledge as power and the means for exclusivity. Jesus redirected the disciples who shut down the effective efforts of some unnamed person flourishing in the works of God simply because that person wasn’t part of their “in-group.”
Jesus’ response had two parts. First, DON’T HINDER HIM. The success of others is not a threat – it is a point of potential synergy! If you view the success of others as a threat to your own power/prestige then you will never achieve the greatest part of your ambition. You won’t be a change agent you will be a toxic tyrant.
Second, Jesus’ lesson is powerful, listen to it. WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST YOU IS FOR YOU! This is a significant shift in perspective and will keep you from being so afraid of loss that you fail to see friends. Highly successful people have large networks of highly successful friends. Why? They don’t view the success of others as a threat rather; they see the success of others as a potential point of synergy and momentum to their own ambition.
If you are proud about getting rid of others who threatened your own prominence, then competitors are about to eat your lunch. You got rid of the very people who would both accelerate and help sustain your own ambition.
What do you do with anger?
James and John were furious at the way the Samaritans refused to help them. They wanted revenge for the rejection and betrayal they felt. The reality is that in life rejection and betrayal happen. The question isn’t whether one has face rejection or betrayal it is whether they will engage in the ruinous circle of revenge or the virtuous circle of forgiveness. The cycle of anger and revenge is what destroys many communities and organizations and holds them in poverty and mediocrity.
You can choose to break the cycle of revenge and anger and be a healing force in your community or organization. If you want to transform your community or organization you won’t do it through anger and revenge – you will do it through forgiveness
Forgiveness is a process (or the result of a process) that involves a change in emotion and
attitude regarding an offender. Most scholars view this as an intentional and voluntary process, driven by a deliberate decision to forgive. Forgiveness possesses behavioral corollaries i.e., reductions in revenge and avoidance motivations and an increased ability to wish the offender well impact behavioral intention without obliging reconciliation. Forgiveness can be a one-sided process. Johnson defines forgiveness as “A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her…” (Craig E. Johnson. Ethics in the Workplace: Tools and Tactics for Organizational Transformation, 2007, 116).
So, what are the three questions highly successful people often ask themselves?
- What is my ambition?
- How do I see others?
- What will I do with anger?
How do you answer these questions?
If you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with reliable information, they will create authentic vision and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization or community.
Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to blend into the perceived norm or power.”
- Find a good space. Choose a place to talk without distractions.
- Take the time. Let the other person tell their story.
- Respond (versus react). Choose your body language, tone, and intention.
- Show interest. Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don’t answer your phone or look at your BlackBerry.
- Be patient. It’s not easy for people to talk about important things.
- Listen for content and emotion. Both carry the meaning at hand. It’s OK sometimes to ask, “How are you doing with all this?”
- Learn. Listen for their perspective, their view. Listen for their experience. Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
- Follow their lead. See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
- Be kind. Listen with the heart as well as with the mind.
The last two years have started in the same way – a call from an attorney.
Motivations 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?