Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


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Engage Diverse Populations – Be a Learner


Engaging diverse populations in the church both locally and globally predictably generates conflict. This is true from the first day of the church’s existence in Acts and remains so to this day. “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1 NIV) Such conflict arises out of competing loyalties, divergent assumptions, and contending values. Hence, I engage diverse populations with three primary commitments.

First, I have a commitment to remain present and curious. It is easy to withdraw at the first tension felt in engaging cultures that differ or even regional differences within the same culture. I have learned along the way to take a deep breath and stay in the discomfort long enough to learn what the other’s perspective is. Routinely I enter such situations, whether the classroom, a local congregation, or denominational or organizational governance body with a verbal commitment to be a learner. Typically the statement sounds something like this, “I see that we come to this meeting (or class) from a variety of perspectives. Given that, I make two commitments to you. First, I will be as clear as possible in my communication, please ask questions if I am unclear. Second, when it comes to understanding cultural or gender differences that exist between us I am your student. I can only know your perspective if you teach me. So, if I offend you, it is not intentional. It is ignorance that only you can help me understand and be aware of.”

Second, I have a commitment to recognize and encourage the capacity of the group I am meeting with to address their context and think through their challenges and solutions as a facilitator not a dictator. The apostles asked the Hellenistic Jews to identify their solution givers. The apostles did not select the deacons. They did provide a parameter that got the process of selection and then solution development going. Likewise in facing diverse populations I attempt to limit my input to helpful parameters or possibilities that the group must work through using their own assumptions, values, and allegiances. Assuming the capacity and capability of the group to engage the realities of the gospel in the context of their frame of reference works similarly to The Pygmalion Effect – the group rises to the occasion of my belief in them.

Third, and this is where I have experienced the best bonding and trust, I eat with them. It sounds amazingly simple – and it is. When I demonstrate respect for their culture by eating their food I join their social/familial network. I was once invited by my Pakistani neighbor to enjoy a meal with him and his family, all of whom were visiting from Pakistan. I faced predictable scrutiny and suspicion as a Christian among Muslims. Other than my host, everyone was very reserved until I dished up a serving of every course. I sat with the men who waited to see my response to the spiciest yogurt like dish. I took a big scoop with bread and meat (as I had seen them do) while an audible gasp rushed across the room. I opened my mouth popped the mixture in and munched with a smile of delight. The room broke into applause, smiles, and conversations started from every direction. 

The church is always diverse where people live out authentic faith – encountering cultural and ethnic diversity is unavoidable around the God who loves the world. Perhaps the best overall advise? Be child-like in your approach to learning. You don’t have to “have it all together.” You just have to be easily approachable and engaging.

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Three questions successful people routinely ask themselves


successI 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).

 Conclusion

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?


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An Attorney Called


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The pattern of client requests this year paints a compelling picture of the reason why coaching is so powerful.

The last two years have started in the same way – a call from an attorney.

“Is this Dr. Ray Wheeler?” the voice on the other end of the phone began the conversation.
“Yes, I am Ray, how may I assist you?” I asked.
“I am Sam Smith (pseudonym) attorney at law and one of my clients has a challenge I would like your help with. My client is a privately owned business run by three brothers. They have been in business for 30 years but have recently been unable to agree on anything. They need someone to facilitate their board meetings and help them work through their conflict. Do you do this?”
And so the year began. As I have reflected on the year, I realized that the diversity of client requests I have had this year paints a compelling picture of the reason coaching is so powerful. The following is a list of client engagements in descending order of intensity as determined by the size of the engagement.
Executive team building – engaging the strengths and perspectives of executive teams when key members have changed or when the team has hit a stalemate in disagreement (this is more often rooted in interpersonal tension than in strategic direction). In one case the executive team was caught in a pattern of behavior that grew out of working around the dysfunctions of their former CEO. They realized that their behavior toward the new CEO was stuck in the same patterns and that as a team they were not making decisions or moving forward.
Organizational health – refocusing the organization’s vision and communication. When the owner of one company called, the urgency of his voice nearly pushed me against the wall. “I need help,” he began, “I recently bought a new agency and developed a new partnership – I have three different cultures and ways of looking at the market that will undermine everything we meant to accomplish by the mergers. Can you help with this?” We talked about the steps we could take together in coaching to work with his employees and key influencers to shape an organizational culture that supported the strategic direction of the new agency.
Executive coaching – with a focus on developing people skills, purpose, and communication skills. These CEOs felt the need to develop themselves to face new challenges in their organizations. They took the initiative to find a coach.
Board facilitation – like executive team building this board was caught in interpersonal conflicts that played the same disagreements over and over with varying levels of intensity and undermining. This engagement facilitated their meetings and engaged each member in executive coaching.
Coaching for change – with a focus on perspective in the face of rapidly changing market dynamics. These owners/executives simply needed a voice to help them go the balcony and identify the opportunity in the chaos of change.  These leaders understand that without someone to help them think through their situation they would either remain stuck in the rut of their past thinking/analysis or caught in the bog of panic. It isn’t that they lacked analytics or business acumen. Rather, they simply needed a nudge, the right questions, to analyze their situation and the data from a different perspective.
Remedial coaching – this client had managers who were stuck in their development and needed to see themselves and the impact of their behavior from a different perspective.  The reality is that in many organizations mid-level managers and supervisors are promoted into wider responsibility without the benefit of coaching to help them redefine their people skills or the self-understanding to know the impact of their behaviors. Coaching raises their self-awareness and helps them define their strengths in constructive ways.
What impresses me most about the diversity of these requests is that more companies have made a commitment to (a) develop their team members and (b) face and work through conflict because they understand both the cost of conflict and the high cost of losing/replacing talent.  It is an interesting year. How does your organization manage the need for coaching?


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Define Your Ambition!


Ray at summitWhat is it that you want to accomplish? How clearly can you state your ambition? Ambition defined is as an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.

Ambition has a bad rap with many and for good reason. There are those whose ambition for power, prestige, or pleasure has made them into users and abusers of people.

But does the abuse of a trait by some make it negative in every instance? Can ambition be good? I argue that ambition is imperative. It helps people clarify their goals and purpose and live/work with focus and impact. Jesus, the master leader understood the power of ambition and its potential for abuse. Consider for a moment that Jesus often asked people directly and indirectly to clarify their ambition.

Jesus’ questions intended to elicit honesty about what his listeners really wanted. In addressing the crowds about John the Baptist Jesus asked, “What did you go out to see?” He queried their deepest desire – people didn’t go to see John because he was eccentric, they went because he offered hope for change. In confronting religious leaders on the tyranny that resulted from their dishonest ambition Jesus told a story about two debtors both forgiven their debts. Then he asked, “Which of [the two debtors] will love him [the creditor] more?” The answer exposed these leader’s warped self-centered ambition. When approached by James and John who requested positions of prominence in Jesus’ kingdom Jesus asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”

Jesus’ response refocused the ambition of James and John. Jesus did not rebuke their ambition – he shaped it and showed it to be misdirected. The question any leader faces is whether they will come out from inside themselves to be as honest as James and John about what they are really after. Ambition exposed can be shaped, challenged, encouraged, or redirected. Ambition hidden only warps, deceives, tyrannize, and suppresses others. Have you been honest about your ambition? Are you willing to allow God to reshape and redirect it? Like James and John honesty will result in a much larger commission than their original ambition was able to conceive. God will “blow you mind.” Go ahead, expose and submit your ambition to God and see what God does in you.


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Leadership Lessons from the County Fair


220px-Baton_long“You need to get out of the office for a while, you’re stressed out,” my wife’s voice sounded with empathy and emphasis. I was in the middle of conflict. The organization I led was growing and I keenly felt new performance pressures on my own skills, disappointments from those around me, and open challenges to my leadership role (some people wanted me gone).

I agreed to meet my family at the fair and drove my body there at the appointed time. My mind however was still engaged in determining my next strategic and tactical moves. Neither my wife’s welcoming kiss nor the smell of deep-fried fair food was strong enough to disengage my thoughts. I wandered around the fair like zombie-dad – physically there but mentally unreachable by my children and my wife.

We turned a corner in time to see a Karate demonstration about to begin. Violence – now that sounded interesting to me at that point. The narrator explained he would play the part of a victim while his partner acted as an assailant. The assailant had a big pole which he maneuvered with the confidence of a tested warrior.  I felt a bit sorry for the narrator and awaited his ultimate demise – with a certain gleefulness. I wanted someone else to hurt like I was hurting.

In the blink of an eye the attack was over. I stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the assailant lay spread eagle on the ground with the victim standing over him. The victim stood with a foot on the assailant’ throat and the assailant’s weapon in his hand. I wasn’t sure what I had just saw.

The victim helped the assailant up and still narrating said, “Now, let’s slow things down so you can see what just happened.”

“Geese,” I thought, “this ought to be awesome.”

The players reset, the assailant with the pole and the victim with nothing but his hands. “Begin the attack,” the victim narrated.

“Notice how the assailant is swinging the pole at me,” the victim began. “The natural tendency is to move away from the pole – but the power of the swing is at the end of the pole. Moving away can result in a serious injury or death.  I move into the assailant.” He paused just a moment to let that fact sink in and the action continued.

“As I move toward the assailant I turn with his momentum,” the victim continued. “The natural tendency here is to attempt to overpower the assailant but in most cases the assailant has the advantage of momentum which means I do not have the leverage I need to mount a counter force. I intend to move with his momentum to lower the potential for injury.”

The victim had turned with the assailant’s momentum and continued, “Now I am in a place to act as a fulcrum. The assailant has committed his energy to swinging the pole and all I have to do is use his momentum against him,” the victim had not knocked the assailant off-balance and was taking away his pole as he fell to the ground.

Boom, victim became the victor!  I ruminated on the stages of the attack and the response of the victim as I compared it to my own situation.

In what seemed an eternal moment of pause, I felt as though God’s own voice was reaffirming the leadership lesson I had just saw.

Move toward the assailant.  I had tried to avoid the controversy swirling around the changes I had made in the organization. It seemed the harder I tried to extricate myself the deeper I fell into critical assessments.  I smarted under the power of my assailant’s swing as I tried to escape. I did not understand their motive or their concerns and had made the mistake of thinking I could avoid having to spend the time to know them.

Do not attempt to overpower their momentum. I had failed here as well as I was marshaling my resources for a display of power – if my critics wanted conflict I would give them a mega-dose. Going down fighting seemed like the only alternative I had – however, being new meant that I was playing the role of the martyr. It was foolish to attempt a head to head contest against people who had been in the organization longer. I thought, “What are my critics saying that I can agree with and thereby join not resist the momentum of their attack?”  I knew I had to understand their core concerns and discern their motive.

Use their momentum to knock them off-balance and remove their weapon. I wondered what the tipping point would be as I got to know my opposition. How could I disarm them and help us both win? Or, how could I defang them in such a way that I survived their push to oust me?

The next several weeks saw a significant change in my demeanor and my activities. I acted much less like a zombie-dad and more like a human engaged in life and relationship. I moved in close to those people who opposed the changes that I made in the organization.  I listened to their concerns. I spent time working to understand their motivations and needs. I did not pull back from the conflict and in so doing I was not hurt to the degree I would have been. Surprisingly to me, the one person driving the tumult exposed in his own toxic behavior. When I was finally able to define and address the differences in perspective this man’s behavior called to question his credibility and ability as a leader. Ultimately I had to let the tumultuous person go – I fired him. People grieved the lack of reconciliation between us but understood that I had finally done everything I could to turn the situation around.

The organization became healthier and our people more engaged. They realized that I would not hide from conflict nor would I arrogantly insist that I had all the right answers.  I have never been as happy to attend a county fair as I was that year. The lesson I learned at the fair have stayed with me all this time.


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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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Chance Meetings, Learning, and Career Advancement


Professionals barI meandered down to the lounge of our hotel while I waited for Janice to come down for dinner. We were at the tail end of our anniversary celebration and were flying out the next day.

The lounge is always a great place to meet traveling business people and this evening was no different.  As I entered a young man at the bar suggested several types of drinks I should try. We started talking.  Turns out he is a Vice President of Acquisitions on a five state tour finalizing deals he had put together. Assessing profitability, building company portfolios, and finalizing complex financial deals it is not my forte.  So, my curiosity was piqued. He gave me a rundown on what he and his team looked for in potential purchases. His background at Lehman brothers was the perfect foundation for his current role.

I asked him to what extent the corporate cultures of potential acquisitions played into his team’s assessments of potential acquisitions. 

“We don’t bother with that,” he replied.  “It is strictly a numbers game. We look at profitability, structures, and what duplication we need to remove or what systems will strengthen ours and we absorb what we can and eliminate what we don’t need.”

His background in statistics and finance give him a specific lens from which to view business yet several of his comments indicated that he had a greater than average people-sense behind all the analysis.  I wanted to get at that.   “You obviously enjoy what you do.  What the four most important lessons you have learned in your career so far?” I asked.

“I have thought about that,” he replied.  “They include: (1) patience – things don’t always move as fast as I want and being more deliberate helps me read whether I am working with a group that is on the same page or divided in how they approach challenges and whether they are critical thinkers or ‘yes-men;’ (2) numbers – I do the analysis work. People tell good stories but I want the facts.  It is the facts that tell whether a company is profitable and sustainable; (3) research – when I speak I have all the data I need. I watch some guys simply throw stuff at the wall.  It may work temporarily but when the CEO comes back with questions it doesn’t take long for bull*hit to unravel.  If I don’t know the facts I will tell the CEO that I don’t have the facts now but I will within the day; (4) competency – a person has to be able to do the work with excellence. 

I was impressed with the clarity and the speed with which he listed  these off – clearly he has been thinking about this. I still wanted to know more. “So what have you learned about people?” I asked.

Again he didn’t even pause, “My career started as a cop. I worked in undercover narcotics and one thing was true about every person I arrested – they were great story tellers.  They could have made millions as authors of fiction. Most people tell great stories – I don’t pay attention to the story, I look for the facts (the behaviors). It is just as true in business. That is why I am patient.  I hear the stories but I look for the track record.  This is why I will get to CEO role – I can separate the stories from the facts.” He paused for a moment and continued, “I recognized early on that technology was changing the way we did everything. I asked for an assignment in our IT department then I learned everything I could about technology and systems. I completed a degree in statistics and finance and I leveraged these at Lehman Brothers. I understand how to package business and to create systems to maximize it.”

I was enjoying the pace of the conversation, but I still saw that there was more to pull out of him – more about leadership. “You are clearly driven, so when you finally arrive at the top position how will you define success?” I asked.

He paused on this question.  “You are really perceptive,” he said.  He thought for a moment.  Then he continued, “I will be different than the c-suite leaders I have seen so far.  In my view the three most important things a C-suite leader has to pay attention to are: (1) numbers – always know what makes the business successful; (2) technology – most leaders lose touch with technology and when they do in this day in age they loose touch with their business; (3) people – they are the ones who make success happen.  A leader can’t ignore the people who make it happen. Too many C-suite leaders I have seen treat people as though they are mere automatons.  Without people things don’t happen – a leader has to appreciate and recognize the efforts of those around them.”

As he finished his thought his associate entered the bar. We made introductions and they congratulated me on our fortieth wedding anniversary and they left for dinner – I went to find Janice.

I did observe that his last statement gave him an “aha” moment and gave me the information I was looking for. His initial description of his work in acquisitions seemed devoid of the human side. This struck me as odd because his demeanor and the way he greeted me when I entered the lounge was much more engaging.  What I saw in his response was a growing integration between the demeanor he demonstrated and his approach to analysis.  His demeanor inferred an intuitive grasp on people dynamics. He elaborated on this a little more when he talked about patience. The more he moves his intuition toward an explicit understanding and integration the stronger the leader he will become.  In fact his aversion to the impersonal CEO model indicated that he had started down this very road.

So, what did I learn? I will spend more time in the numbers. I don’t have a finance background but I have collected some business acumen along the way and I am committed to adding to it. I also learned that leaders who exercise awareness of their own emotion learn more about the people they manage. My friend at the bar inferred his own frustration at being depersonalized when he described the short-comings of the CEOs he has worked with. Because he is willing to learn from his experience by openly contemplating his own emotion and experience he has arrived at a clear differentiation between highly effective and moderately functional CEOs.

What have you learned along the way in your career?  Are you as articulate as this young man in outlining what you have learned?  This young man took our conversation as a learning time just as much as I did. He gained insight into himself by the questions I asked. My questions led him to consider his experience from new perspectives.  I noticed that he was ready to engage conversations as learning tools but he also was ready to engage the conversation as an interview. I have noticed over the years that true leaders have this dual approach to conversation. Because they are learning every conversation potentially expands their knowledge.  Because they are interviewing they find opportunities others never see.

How do you approach conversations with total strangers? The next time you meet a stranger – ask some key questions.  Pay attention to the insights you pick up along the way and watch for opportunities. Most of all, have some fun – we did.