Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

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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).


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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If you Want to Lead Well Clarify your Values

Leadership word ScreenDick Costolo, CEO of Twitter has a reputation for being decisive, leading with high expectations, and remaining focused on the long-term, but he’s also known for being accessible, disarming and, of course, funny according to Jena McGregor.[i]  Why is this important to understand? The weakest and most toxic organizations are those led by people who are inconsistent, non-committal, people pleasers who engage their work as though tasks were amoral and not morally contingent.

Leaders like Costolo spend time thinking and speaking about leadership and what makes leadership work. Leaders who build great organizations understand that the tasks of leadership are morally contingent.  That is they know that the values of the person engaging the tasks of leadership actually shape the moral content of those values. This morally contingent characteristic of leadership tasks require that leaders routinely and explicitly review their own values and how these values find expression in the leader’s daily activities or disciplines.  Put another way, your organization’s behavior ultimately reflects your attention or inattention to making your own values explicit and understood.

Research routinely points to the importance of the leader’s self awareness and clarity about their moral commitments.

Based on nearly two decades of research, I have discovered that resilient leaders often have several traits: They are optimistic, innovative, decisive, trustworthy, willing to accept responsibility and able to communicate effectively.[ii]

The words, “decisive,” “trustworthy,” and “willing to accept responsibility” all point to the integrity with which a leader works.  In contrast an amoral view of leadership assumes that key leadership decisions are simple data driven exercises of logic. In fact key leadership decisions never reduce to simple data – any manager can make a data driven decision. Key leadership decisions are always far more complex because they must synthesize the various priorities and values of various functions across the organization.

An amoral view of leadership assumes that the leader’s values are universal.  This view cuts out all voices but the leader’s in key decisions. This leader is the “my way or the highway” tyrant. Consider for a moment that if values were universal the words disagreement and conflict would contain no meaning whatsoever.  Even in relatively small companies a leader must consider conflicts that arise in the differences in how various departments see their tasks. These differences are not data driven they are value driven. Values indicate what is important to getting the job done.

An amoral view of leadership ultimately seeks to avoid responsibility for decisions and actions. Simply put leaders shirk their core responsibility when they refuse to engage people and emotions. Lack of clarity about why the organization exists makes any group little more than a mechanism for evasion of responsibility and leadership.  Rather than define the “why” the business exists and persuade and recruit the right people to a vision for the future, this leader pushes for results in the short-term that few ultimately own for the simple reason that they have no reason to fully engage anything other than minimal activity to meet results. Additional this builds a culture of evasion manifested in internal bickering that seeks to assign fault.

Avoiding the hard work of defining the “why” behind the company’s existence results in significant blind spots in how the organization sees their opportunities and threats.  Competitors offer similar products or services. Competitors carry out their products or services in similar ways or through similar competencies. What makes your customers or clients want to do business with your organization?  The age-old sales adage is sell the sizzle not the steak.  There is truth in this.

Avoiding the hard work of defining the “why” behind the company’s existence means finding the right people will get lost in finding the least expensive talent. If profit is the reason for existence then reducing costs become the most important exercise the leader engages.  This short-term perspective works.  However it is unsustainable. Profits are a result not a means. This kind of profit orientation ultimately endorses cost cutting measures that reduce product quality and customer service. Again, it works in the short-term but customers are not stupid and as sales drop and talent exits the leader who never does the hard work of defining why the company exists will never understand why it dies.

So what is the role of the leader?  Organizations depend on shared meanings and interpretations of reality to facilitate coordinated action. The leader’s first job is to help the organization turn their tacitly held shared meanings to explicitly held values of why and how things get done. The leader encourages clear and sometimes tense conversations with the goal of pulling these meanings, inferences and beliefs into the open.  This requires a level of vulnerability on the part of the leader and ego strength significant enough to endure disagreement and the skill in asking the kinds of questions that get others to talk about their assumed perspectives of reality.

How the leader carries herself or himself is critical Effective leaders realize three things: (1) they work to reframe situations to demonstrate new perspectives that call others to action; (2) they articulate and define what had previously remained implicit or unsaid; (3) they consolidate or challenge prevailing wisdom to suggest new directions – this is a function of data analysis and challenging prevailing wisdom i.e., values.

People are drawn to leaders not because of their personalities but because they have:

  • a dream (what is possible that may seem impossible to others?);
  • a vision (what difference does the dream make in people’s lives?);
  • a set of intentions (an idea of what needs to be done to turn the vision into reality and the personal commitment to attempt it);
  • an agenda (a call to others to engage their abilities and belief in the same vision);
  • a clearly stated frame of reference (the values and assumptions and data that give plausibility to the vision).

If you lead an organization or group have you taken the time to think about and define these aspects of your values?  If you have difficulty thinking in these terms then find a mentor or a coach who can help you ask the deep questions that get you there.

[i] Jena McGregor. “What Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is Like as a Leader.” Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-leadership/wp/2013/09/13/what-twitter-ceo-dick-costolo-is-like-as-a-leader/#!; accessed 15 September 2013.

[ii] George S Everly Jr. “Episodes of Failed Leadership in 2010 Taught Lessons.” Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/30/AR2010123003273.html; accessed 15 September 2013.

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It’s Not About Experts – It’s about Nerve, Endurance and a Commitment to Learning

Convenient Misconceptions

The conversations started over a year ago when an executive in one of my clients approached me, “You are the leadership guru,” he began, “how will you get the CEO to become a leader?” I was a little surprised by the intensity of the statement especially because the scope of my assignment had little to do with directly working with the executive team.  However, this was not the first time a COO has approached me with this level of frustration.

“I won’t,” I responded.

He looked me up and down for a moment.

“What do you mean?” he continued.

“How long have you been with this CEO?” I queried.

“About 15 years,” he answered.

“Hmm, over that time how has the rest of the team, yourself included, adjusted to the CEO’s poor leadership?  What changes in your own leadership perspectives have to occur if the CEO did become the leader you want him to be?  What has changed now that makes the CEO, you and the rest of the team open to change that was not in play before now? What makes you think I can bring change you have either been unable or unwilling to initiate in the last 15 years?” I had more questions but I could see that I had already more than amply primed the pump.

It is not uncommon in a consultation to be viewed as the answer to all an organization’s most troubling problems.  In fact it is a little heady to be viewed as one possessing such power…that is until reality pops back up. In my younger days I would have jumped into the middle of this discussion and outlined a change project that failed to take into account the systems, organizational culture and long-term relationships that had authenticated the leadership of the CEO (warts and all) for so long. In my earlier days I often failed to appreciate that pushing on a system to change only meant having the system snap back with the same force to expel me.  The simple fact is knowledge is only a small part of a transformative process.  It opens the door to new perspectives and may inform future decisions.  But it cannot make people travel a path they don’t want to pursue.

The COO sat across the table from me silent. When the conversation started back up we talked about the questions I raised. “One thing that is different,” he began, “is that you have challenged the CEO in a way none of us ever have before. He is talking about change now where before he acknowledged that he was the limiting factor to the organization but he would not step away from his role.”

“What will you do with the observation you just made,” I asked.  “In what ways have I challenged the CEO that you have not? What makes this challenge so effective? What step will you take next since you are in a place to do far more change organizationally than I am?”

At this the conversation shifted to talk about how to define leadership and how leaders develop.  Over the course of the next several months the COO and I met periodically to continue the discussion and to talk about communication and where the company needed to go in his view.  The COO talked about his conversations with the CEO and how they had changed to be more transparent or open.

The COO’s opening statement about guru’s was a convenient misconception.  In his frustration and resignation with how things were it seemed far easier to assume a holding pattern that waited for some outside force to start the changes he felt were needed. Convenient misconceptions are simply ways to avoid the stress of upsetting the status quo. All of us weigh the cost to change.  We understand that in some cases acting like a turtle under duress seems safer – withdraw, pull down a paycheck and try to reduce the impact living at odds with either core values or sense of purpose. But, convenient misconceptions ultimately show up for what they are – denial.

The Change – it begins internally

Month’s passed and the COO invited me to lunch. “I want to talk about a different future,” he said in his call, “this is strictly confidential.”

“I understand, I will keep the conversation confidential and I would love to go to lunch” I replied.

At lunch the COO laid out his plan to either take over the role of the CEO or step down from his role as COO.  “I cannot continue in either the scope of my role as now defined or the tension of this role knowing that without significant change we may be in trouble in just a few years.  I want to do something significant. I can do it here or somewhere else,” he told me at lunch.

The problem in all interpersonal relationships is the challenge of preserving self in a close relationship.  Somewhere along the way the COO had lost his sense of self.  He now began to reclaim it and to decide how he would stay a differentiated person while simultaneously maintaining a healthy interaction with the CEO and the rest of the company’s leadership team.  This requires maturity that Friedman defines as, “…the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny.”[1]

Leadership is an emotional process and not only a process of analysis and data. The significance of this shows up in how a leader deals with resistance. In this case resistance from the CEO was not something to avoid.  Instead the CEO’s resistance was a reality associated with the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system of the company. Resistance was inherent in change the COO wanted to pursue and was not caused by the company’s “…specific issues, makeup, or goals….”[2]  The capacity of the COO to identify and manage this emotional process began a road to change.  This kind of self-management that addresses and not avoids emotional issues is paramount to success in leadership.

Now what?

The COO invited me to help with the changes he mapped out. I reviewed his plan and provided feedback.  When he presented his plan to the CEO and to the board the plan was enthusiastically received. We met again after the board meeting and the COO outlined his next steps.

“Your job is changing pretty dramatically,” I offered.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” he stated.

“May I suggest that the transition you are now entering, and that your entire team is entering, is the same as though you were moving to a new company altogether?” I asked. He agreed with this assessment and we talked about how he would approach his first 90 days. I recommended the book by Watkins, The First Ninety Days.  In his book Watkins points out that,

… transitions are critical times when small differences in your actions can have disproportionate impacts on results. Leaders, regardless of their level, are most vulnerable in their first few months in a new position because they lack detailed knowledge of challenges they will face and what it will take to succeed in meeting them: they also have not developed a network of relationships too sustain them.[3]

In the transition the COO has entered he has to manage the shifting balances of the emotional processes in the company and do this while matching his strategy to the situation. Understanding the situation of the company is the first step in outlining a strategy that has the potential to succeed.  It is now imperative that the COO find the right formula for success especially now that he secured the changes he wanted.  So what does it mean to match strategy to situation?

Match Strategy to Situation

Understanding the developmental stage of the organization provides a basis for engaging the right kind of leadership approach. If the business situation of the company is not understood then it is easy to set the wrong goals and then fail to meet them. In the first 90 days of a transition it is important to establish credibility and knowing the business situation is critical. Watson’s STARS model (i.e., is the business a start-up, turnaround, realignment or sustained success?) is a simple diagnostic tool that can guide critical leadership/management decisions.[4]

Figure 1: STARS model[5]


The goal in a transition is to focus energy on the actions that set up the greatest chance of success in a new environment. Figure 2 below summarizes the choices. Focusing energy in a new assignment is a function of three core questions:[6]

  1. How much emphasis will you place on learning as opposed to doing?
  2. How much emphasis will you place on offense as opposed to defense?
  3. What should you do to get some early wins?

Figure 2: Focus Energy on the Right Approach

By offense Watkins means activities such as identifying new markets, developing new products/technologies and building new alliances.

By defense he means protecting current market share positions, strengthening products and realigning relationships. In turnarounds a good defensive position includes pairing things back to the most valuable core and identifying the most valuable employees.  New relationships are important to forge with the right people so that the team that results is ready to work in a new direction. Friedman’s work around systems in leadership relationships is an important addition to Watkins at this point.[7]

Friedman defines the difference between healthy (differentiated) and unhealthy (non-differentiated) people and the dynamics involved in various relational triangles. His point that all relationships are three-sided versus two-sided is an important insight to a leader stepping into any new situation particularly in the case of the COO who has a team made up of new and existing members all of whom must now redefine themselves in light of the shifts in reporting structure.   The COO must decide the situation of his own company.  Consider your situation.  What challenges and opportunities do you face?

See the Challenges and Opportunities of Transition Times[8]

In a start-up people are excited and hopeful. The challenges include:

  • Building structures and system from scratch without a clear framework or boundaries.
  • Welding together a cohesive high-performing team
  • Making do with limited resources

The opportunities in a start-up include:

  • You can do things right from the beginning
  • People are energized by the possibilities
  • There is no preexisting rigidity in people’s thinking.

Clearly a leader has much more flexibility in a start-up.  Remember however that flexibility also means the leader’s own strengths and weaknesses will mark the company. Diversifying leadership by acquiring good mentors and choosing the right employees helps prevent adopting fatal flaws.

In a turnaround the focus stays on key issues like vision, strategy, structures and systems. The challenges include:

  • Re-energizing demoralized employees and other stakeholders
  • Handling time pressure and having a quick and decisive impact
  • Going deep enough with painful cuts and difficult people choices

The opportunities of a turnaround are:

  • Everyone recognizes that change is necessary
  • Affected constituencies (such as suppliers who want the company to stay in business) may offer significant external support
  • A little success goes a long way.

In realignment the goal is to pierce the veil of denial that has allowed the organization to get too close to irrelevance. The challenges a person faces in realignment include:

  • Dealing with deeply ingrained cultural norms that no longer contribute to high performance.
  • Convincing employees that change is necessary.
  • Restructuring the top team and refocusing the organization.

The opportunities a person faces when leading realignment include:

  • The organization  has significant pockets of strength
  • People want to continue to see themselves as successful.

When leaders find themselves in successful organizations where the assignment is to sustain success the objective is to invent a challenge the organization can rally behind.  The challenges faced by leaders in successful organizations include:

  • Playing good defense by avoiding decisions that cause problems
  • Living in the shadow of a revered leader and dealing with the team he or she created
  • Finding ways to take the business to the next level

Successful organizations present great opportunities as well:

  • A strong team may already be in place
  • People are motivated to succeed
  • Foundations to continued success (such as the product pipeline) may be in place


The COO’s journey has changed from tedious boredom plodding toward retirement to enthusiastic purpose striding to a new future. I appreciate the invitation to work alongside this team as they pursue a different future. The road ahead is not without deep challenges. Even though the team agrees on the need for change not all of them anticipate how the changing relational structures and strategic emphasis impacts their relationships, skill development and leadership capacity.  Those who are weakest in their self-differentiation will have the hardest time adjusting – if they do adjust.

Remember, it’s not about experts – it’s about nerve, endurance and a commitment to learning. So how do you assess your own sense of purpose and your role in the organization in which you work? Do you have the courage or nerve to be an agent of excellence and/or change?  The COO’s own change and self-differentiation ran parallel to his willingness to step away from a good paying job to pursue his sense of purpose and a more meaningful relationship. The CEO could easily have agreed to his departure. I suspect however that the COO would have found the pursuit of purpose a far greater force than the temporary loss of revenue. In your situation ask yourself the following questions and see where they lead you.[9]

  1. Which of the four STARS situations are you facing?
  2. What are the implications for the challenges and opportunities you are likely to confront?
  3. What are the implications for your learning agenda? Do you only need to understand the technical side of the business, or is it critical that you understand culture and politics as well?
  4. Which of your skills and strengths are likely to be most valuable in your situation and which have the potential to get you into trouble?
  5. What is the prevailing frame of mind? What psychological transformation do you need to make and how will you bring it about?
  6. Should your focus be on offense or defense?
  7. When you dig deeper, what is the mix of types of situation that you are managing? Which portions of your unit are in start-up, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining success modes?  What are the implications for how you should manage and reward the people who work for you?

[1] Edwin Friedman. Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing. [Kindle Version downloaded from Amazon.com], 2007), 235 of 5400.

[2] Friedman 292 of 5400.

[3] Michael Watkins. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2003), iv.

[4] This is another way to describe where a corporation or company is at in its life cycle. Compare Ichak Adizes. Corporate Lifecycles: How and Why Corporations Grow and Die and What to Do About It (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1988).  The model also takes into account the insights from Ken Blanchard in his work on innovation/revitalization showing how revitalization must occur as an organization approaches its prime.  See Ken Blanchard and Terry Waghorn.  Mission Possible: Becoming a World-Class Organization While there’s Still Time (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1997).

[5] Watkins, 63.

[6] Watkins, 69.

[7] Edwin Friedman. Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix Margaret Treadwell and Edward Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2007).

[8] Watkins, 66.

[9] Watkins 77-78.

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What Does it Take to Effectively Lead a Congregation?

What does effective leadership need?  What actions best enable pastors and pastoral staff to lead their teams to success?  How do they set standards that challenge people to new levels of commitment in ministry? Why do other managers and leaders seem unable to motivate their team to meet even minimum standards?  How do they allow for powerful leadership within others, without feeling threatened, and still offer direction around clear values and mission? Why do some leaders and managers succeed and others watch in agony as their team’s performance slowly fades to the point of crisis?  Why do some pastors seemingly drive away their best staff people in a flurry of spiteful suspicion and hurt?  What is needed?

I sat with a group of business owners listening to their comments about their pastors.  Each of these men ran successful businesses and consistently integrated their faith with their leadership activities.[1]  These men had a measurable impact on their communities, employees and professional networks.  However, their comments about their pastors were filled with frustration, pejorative exclamations, and cynicism.  They had come to expect poor leadership skills, socially detached behavior, dishonesty and ethereal theological reflection that failed to offer any real insight to the immediate challenges and problems of these leaders.  Why had the ministry partnership between these men and their pastors broken down?  Two problems presented themselves in the midst of our conversation.

First, the pastors in question (all of them leaders of churches over 800 in attendance) could not speak the language of these businessmen.  Pastors conversed about the need for salvation, social justice and the importance of giving but were not fluent how to mobilize the talented and the able toward these needs.  The absence of a clearly articulated ministry/management philosophy, employee guidelines, job expectations for staff and analytically measured outcomes for the money invested in the church contributed to the perception in these business men that the work of the church was misguided at worst and ineffectual at best. They wondered why the work of the church seemed unimportant enough to create clear strategies and accountable/measurable action-plans.

Second, as I listened it became clear that the pastors in question ostensibly lacked the skills needed to engage in honest relationships with these men.  Personal disagreements were framed as problems of spiritual immaturity.  Personal honesty was replaced with denial and ecclesiastical censorship. Pastors seemed more interested in securing the power of their domain than of partnering with gifted men and women in their congregations for extending the grace of God.

I pondered the wide gulf of both relationship and respect clear between these men and their pastors.  Could it be bridged?  What might that bridge look like?  What skills were needed by the pastors to bridge the gap?  What assumptions in the businessmen needed to be challenged in how they viewed the mission of the church?

I reflected on the lives of highly effective leaders. Effective leaders have the ability to successfully bridge between or integrate the “spiritual” and “secular” in how they frame meaning and the purpose of the church. Or to put it another way, highly effective leaders capably define meaning.  In my excursions into the business world and the church I have found both capable and incapable leaders.

While my remarks contrast business and church leaders in terms of ability (which was true in the context of the conversation cited) I have met just as many incompetent business leaders as church leaders.  The difference is that incompetent business leaders are removed or fail more quickly because the metrics of their success are less complex than those facing leaders within the congregational setting.

Admittedly Christian leaders are not always so socially ambidextrous in their integration of spiritual/secular concerns. However effective Christian leaders have a perspective of culture and their relationship to it that enable them to communicate functionally in both the context of the church and the society in which they live. Watching leaders interact with culture seems to render one of two types of approaches; those that invite cultural dialogue and those who rejects cultural dialogue.  In effective leaders, regardless of their orientation to culture, three things seem inherently embedded in their approach to ministry.

Frame a Clear Vision that Applies God’s Promise

The first is that they exercised the ability to frame vision and outline clearly measurable tasks in light of the promise of God.  This vision inspired a “mind to work” in those they influenced.[2]  Nehemiah’s context for example possessed rules and boundaries that find similar to the networks and relational histories inherent in today’s experience.  Nehemiah had to address the threat to the Babylonian worldview raised by his conviction about the prominent role of God in history, the tension of unmotivated followers, the opposition of divergent worldviews and power agendas, and the propensity for organizations to disintegrate into mediocrity and “group think.”

Demonstrate Courage and a Bias Toward Action

The second is that in the face of a very real threat to their well-being and their future, leaders exercise courage in action and decisions.  Like Nehemiah, leadership action involves spiritual/social courage, not only because of one’s expressed faith in the God of Abraham, but also because clarity in demarcating action can drawn one into a power struggle between faith and the prevailing deities and power structures of the leader’s context.  In today’s context every leader faces the same pressure.  On the one hand a pressure exists to avoid rocking the prevailing social paradigm and violating certain social taboos on the other hand the leader must decide how to express clear commitments without bigotry but with a sure purpose.

Inspire, Direct, Maintain, Correct and Celebrate

Third leaders like Nehemiah exercised leadership activity that inspired, directed, maintained, corrected, and celebrated the right actions of those who worked around them. Stated from the premise of the reference above, wouldn’t it be nice if a pastor had the skills to, (1) create a team  of business people, other congregational members and pastoral staff and (2) lead them to work at the peak performance of their gifts and abilities that (3) helped them work toward measurable social and personal change as a result of their faith?

I have had plenty of opportunities to experience the frustration of not knowing how to lead people.  As a result, I have asked lots of questions and fired off more than my share of acrimonious complaints about the lack of commitment and follow through I saw in others.  What does effective leadership need?  What actions make the most successful production managers or effective executive and senior pastors, and enable them to lead their teams to success?  How do they set standards that challenge people to new levels of performance, while other managers and leaders seem unable to motivate their team to meet even minimum standards?  How do they allow for powerful leadership within others, without feeling threatened, and still offer direction around clear values and mission? Why do some leaders and managers succeed and others watch in agony as their team’s performance slowly fades to the point of crisis?  Why do some pastors seemingly drive away their best staff people in a flurry of spiteful suspicion and hurt?

I offered three insights to these questions yet I am certain there are more. What do you think it takes to lead a thriving congregation?

[1] I did not sponsor the meeting, I was a guest.  I did notice that among all the business owners in this evangelical organization not a single female business owner was present, nor did it seem like this was expected.  I mention this because many female business owners run companies that exhibit cutting edge employee relationships, superior customer service and superior profit margins.  The National Association of Women Business Owners, of which my wife is a part, has industry leading female executives that are often overlooked or dismissed by their male counterparts.  I would like to say that in the church world things are different that women are recognized for their gifts and abilities and authenticated in their ministries and leadership – but the same bigotry faced by women in the market place is simply re-framed with spiritual language in the church world and is offered as a biblically authenticated model of gender relationships.  I want to call this into question.

[2] Nehemiah 4:6.  My premise has been challenged by other educators in Christian Leadership who suggest that business models and assumptions are inadequate for the church – I agree with the statement as it stands. The mission of the church is not reducible to profit.   What I disagree with is that the ministry of the church is not measurable.  The simple fact is that the reasons why pastors and some Christian educators say that the ministry of the church is not measurable mirrors the excuses I have heard from my direct reports in business where everything is measurable.  The same verbiage and the same reasoning from one context to the next suggest to me that such statements are excuses used to mask the fear of accountability.  So, in the absence of a compelling alternative I will retain my assumption that there are measurable aspects of ministry and organizational development that must be used in the church and para-church organizations that keep the missional focus sharp and the work effective rather than the dull irrelevance that is sometimes the case.


The Betrayal Part 3: Building Trust Not Toxicity in Leadership

The Challenge of Lost Trust

In the first and second installment of this series I looked at what makes trusted friends turn into fatal enemies in business.  When trust dissipates into posturing and the emergence of win/loose competition or attempts to annihilate a foe the result is a toxic impasse. In my example I cited the situation in which an owner became his own worst enemy – his quest for power, prestige and privilege divorced from the responsibility, discipline and trust needed to sustain his quest ended in the demise of his business and the blatant quest of his partner to put him out of business.

There is no single issue at work in the demise of interpersonal relationships. Personal histories show up in the stressors of a startup business with wildly different sets of assumptions.  Yet in the growth of any organization (for profit or non-profit) a tipping point exists that predicts stressors in the relationship among leaders and one of two outcomes: (1) leadership divorce or (2) leadership conflict toward discovery.

Predictable Tension Points

Dynamic organizations grow as a result of the driving vision of an entrepreneurial founder and reach a point at which the founder can no longer keep up with the multiple demands of the organization.  At this crossroad the owner or founder (remember this stage of organizational development occurs in non-profit and for profit organizations) realizes that he/she needs help.

The organization must develop its own identity and processes that move the vision and mission of the Founder forward beyond the skills and abilities of the founder.  One of my favorite organizational theorist calls this the need for organizational versus personal sovereignty.

Organizational sovereignty is an essential building block to the development of great internal structures and processes.  Leaders need to understand the logic behind the development of processes and rules that make sure consistent quality and accountability in the performance of the core competencies of a company or organization as it pursues the vision that birthed it in the first place.

Vision First

In my view organizations won’t die for lack of core competencies per se. I have been a part of growing organizations that suffered for lack of competence but survived because their vision temporarily moved them past the restrictions of incompetence.  This is not to say that the lack of competence in leadership has no eventual adverse or destructive impact.  When an organization possesses a vision for a different reality, and that the vision permeates every aspect of the organization it can weather periods of slowed momentum regardless of incomplete competencies.

However, when an owner/founder recognizes the need for new management talent yet consistently usurps their input once hired the talent will disengage. If this occurs the organization reverts to a earlier stage of development or begins a death cycle.  Owners or founders who find their organizations repeating the same growth and loss patterns should look in the mirror.

Conceptualizing the Tension Points – Organizational Sovereignty

The challenge an owner/founder faces is how to alter his or her perspective on leadership to proactively engage in the development of leadership at every level of their organization – this sounds simple until the owner realizes that developing leadership means redefining control. Two classic mistakes occur.

On the one hand the cost of talent leads an owner to reject the right talent in favor of the almost right talent.  The results of a bad hire are obvious almost immediately multiplying the owner/founder’s worries and work than streamlining both.

Similarly owners who hire the right talent, delegate the right decisions then panic and revert to withdrawing control also face the likelihood that (a) their talent will leave or (b) they will fire their new managers because they don’t know how to redefine the locus of control from themselves to the organization.  The result is disastrous.

If the organization is to thrive then it must successfully carry out a different approach to authority.  Adizes (1988) makes this observation:

The move to Adolescence requires delegation of authority.  In a society this is analogous to making the move from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarch where the king is willing to abide by a constitution.  The Founder must be willing to say, “I am willing to subject myself to the company rather than have the company subject to me.  I will be bound by the same policies that bind everyone else.”[1]

The illustration of a constitutional monarchy is an important one. In a privately held company the owner does bear the bulk of the risk in the early days.  Typically it is the owner’s house, savings, or equity that is on the line when it comes to the financial performance of the organization.  It is this risk that causes owners to jerk back on the reigns of delegation to override organizational sovereignty.  History demonstrates that any monarch’s attempt to reassert absolute control after having set up a constitutional existence is sure to end poorly.

In non-profits the same dynamic works.  It is still the founder’s assets, equity and sweat equity that has built the original organization (e.g., church startups). In this situation a pastor feels all the same sense of threat and fear a business owner does at the prospect of relinquishing control by subjecting themselves to an emerging leadership team of staff and governance members. The question remains – will the pastor abide by the same policies that bind everyone else?

The move toward organizational sovereignty is a screening time — “…it separates those organizations which will advance and flourish from those which will flounder.  It separates those organizations that have self-discipline and those that don’t.”[2] To become a great organization requires self-discipline to control urges and short-term temptations.  Organizational self-discipline keeps its focus on the long-term while simultaneously turning its attention to its internal controls and processes with the goal of doing fewer things better as defined by its core vision and core competencies.[3]

The transition even when done well is not instantaneous.  Adizes (1988) observed:

…management can spend a year defining the organization chart, determining its corporate mission (not only deciding what else its going to do but also deciding what it’s not going to do), developing training programs, salary administration systems, and incentive systems.  If this is done proactively, the reorganization can avoid the emergence of future problems such as lack of salary administration, lack of clarity in the organizational structure and hiring tomorrow, people who were needed yesterday.[4]

Does it take a year to carry out this kind of structuring?  Yes, my experience has been that organizations that need to define the systems of organizational sovereignty have already begun to experience the dissipation of their energy and resources by trying to be all things to all people – their leaders have already experienced mixed messages and bungee cord delegation that usually signals that the top decision maker or makers are overtaxed and not sure what the next steps should be.

What are the primary components involved in building organizational sovereignty?

1) Appropriately delegating authority (this is where defining organizational structure, determining mission and reviewing personnel occur).

2) Creating policies that consistently apply to all (this is where developing training programs, salary administration systems and hiring the right people occur).

3)  Creating a learning environment and the systems needed to help transform experience into knowledge.

Delegated Authority and Roles of Management

The definition of delegated authority depends on understanding the roles of management or leadership.  Managers or leaders must consistently solve problems and make decisions. Management defined here is the act, manner or practice of directing, supervising and controlling. Be careful to avoid mis-matching the adjectives in the definition to the wrong referent.  Management directs strategies and responses to market pressures and opportunities.  Management supervises the work of others offering mentoring, feedback and support.  Management controls processes and expenditures. Controls make sure the efficient use of resources produce a profit or execute a mission while retaining enough cash reserves.

If the activities and the referents (measurements or results) are confused, such as a manager may attempt to control people and not processes or expenditures then relationships turn dysfunctional and damage the morale and productivity of the company and set up the loss of trust that eventually leads to betrayal.  Management activities either undermine or reinforce the ownership of tasks in a department by the leadership skills employed.  In other words management either reinforces or undermines organizational sovereignty leading to an organization that is smart, responsible and agile or an organization that is stupid, irresponsible and impulsive. Management techniques characterized in Table 1 illustrate the difference in approach and outcome management activities and referents can have.

Table 1: Management Techniques

How can Owners Successfully Navigate the Change to Organizational Sovereignty?

In watching owners wrestle with the issue of organizational sovereignty I have several suggestions to offer:

Look for feedback from the right people.  Many owners suffer from self-inflicted injury by ignorance. Business schools, owner networking groups, consultants and successful entrepreneurs (who have already made the jump from personal to organizational sovereignty) offer a wealth of experience and insight.  There is an old adage that carries a lot of truth – if you hang around with turkeys you will never fly with eagles.    Some owners/founders find solace in those who are at the same level of development but that solace blinds them to the realities they should address.

Practice self-awareness. Stress and fear always distort a person’s most successful behavioral patterns. I have watched owners eviscerate their key talent with one of two common results.  In the best case talent that is consistently undermined leaves the company as a result.  This is best because it offers and immediate wake up call. In the worst case the talent stays but unplugs.  Demoralized talent looses its commitment and engagement with the critical issues.  Instead a survival mode results that resembles a brain-dead body animated with life support technology.  If the tension remains talent will work to sabotage all attempts to change the status quo (i.e., survival). Lipman-Blumen (2005) offers an important insight; “followers knowingly tolerate, seldom unseat, often prefer, and sometimes even create toxic leaders.”[5]  Why does this dynamic occur? Lipman-Blumen (2005) suggests that such behavior is motivated by six human needs:

Need for reassuring authority figures to fill our parent’s shoes

Need for security and certainty – which prompts us to surrender freedom

Need to feel chosen or special

Need for membership in the human community

Fear of ostracism, isolation and social death

Fear of personal powerlessness to challenge a bad leader

It is difficult to hear how others experience one’s behaviors. But if you will listen your business and your personal life will improve.  Find a coach. A good coach can help you identify the stress points in your behavior that tip the scales from creativity to chaos.

Realize that running a business is not being a technician.  Often people strike out on their own because they want to focus on what they love doing…if this is the goal the last place to be is a business owner unless you work out of your garage and make the kind of money that never requires the purchase of equipment, assets or hiring of employees.  If you dream of being a business success then you must learn to (a) run a business and find others who do the technical work or (b) hire someone to run the business while you run the R & D or the shop etc., while you learn how to read financials and balance sheets and check policies to make sure that the core values you set out to live by are invested in the daily operation of the company.  Assume a learning posture. The moment you stop learning is the moment you start your own demise in business.


The loss of trust is a contributor to organizational demise.  In young organizations the founder is often the biggest culprit in undermining trust because he or she does not understand the need for organizational sovereignty.  Organizations experience common developmental life cycles and predictable tensions.  The smart leader anticipates known tension points and learns how to navigate them successfully. The critical decision point young organizations face is the need to formalize structures away from the founder in a move toward organizational sovereignty.  If the founder fails to learn the power of delegation the odds for creating a toxic organization exponentially increase. Toxic organizations tend to be self-perpetuating because the creation of toxic leaders often helps people meet psychological needs. Diagnosing the existence of good delegation is possible by looking that the management techniques typically employed to decide if management behavior contributes to or undermines organizational sovereignty (Table 1). Organizational success or demise is not set in stone. Leaders, founders, owners committed to learning and open to input have the best possible chance of success.

What kind of organizational culture will you build or support?

[1] Ichak Adizes. Corporate Life Cycles (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988), 46.

[2] Adizes 1988:193

[3] Adizes suggests that a company needs to move from a sales driven organization to a market driven organization.  The same concept is fundamental to the success of high-tech companies that attempt to jump from its sales to early adapters to securing a segment of the mainstream market.  It is Geoffrey Moore’s contention that the failure to capture a market segment from which to anchor this leap to the mainstream market is root of a company’s ultimate demise.  See, Crossing the Chasm, (New York,NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002), 68.  Translated into the context of the non-profit organization this means that a disciplined action must occur that defines the primary focus of the organization and achieves success at rooting into its niche prior to expanding its base to related areas.  In other words it must integrate its core values and driving vision into all aspects of its structure in a way that helps its leaders and workers know when it is time to say “no” to demanding opportunity to focus on how it answers to its primary purpose in a consistent and effective way.

[4] Adizes 1988:197

[5] Jean Lipman-Blumen. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We can Survive Them (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 5.

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Are You Happy at Work – Does it Matter?

An Agitating Question – Investigating Hope

Are you happy at work? The question burned in my mind in fact I found it quite agitating.  The agitation did not stem from feeling like I was unhappy it was the opposite.  I am happy in the work I do. What became agitating is that my work in developing leaders in business or through the classroom or through consulting and coaching work lead me to conclude that how people felt about work is critical to how they perform.  But, I did not have a way to turn this observation into a reliable method of measuring hope or initiating change designed around the generation of hope in the organizations I worked in or with.

So I started to investigate the connection between happiness and work to the extent I left work long enough to complete doctoral studies while I immersed myself in the question. My research focused on the role of hope in leadership emergence patterns in complex organizations.  What I found was that people who had hope were not only more optimistic in their perspective or mindset they also had a much more realistic grasp of their situation whether positive or negative that seemed to lead them to make much better decisions than those who did not have hope. People who possessed hope worked proactively to alter the way things were done to improve processes and the work environment so that others felt recognized, challenged to do their best work and discovered a sense of deeper purpose or meaning in their work. People who possessed hope never remained victims even when they endured significant loss.  They possessed a resilience that got up and went forward again.

Hope in its essence is “…a combination of clearly articulating goals, believing that one can meet these goals, charting a course of action or a path, and arriving at the goal while experiencing a sense of well-being as a result of the process.”[1]  Psychologists have determined that hope and other positive emotions impact one’s openness or cognitive flexibility, problem-solving abilities, empathy, willingness to engage diversity/variety and resilience (persistence).

In my research I found that (1) the presence of hope predicts a framework that shapes leadership values and motives toward new outcomes and possibilities. (2) Hope engenders inquiries about reality that expose and subvert dysfunctional tendencies that suppress or reject emerging leaders and suppress or reject new possibilities. (3)  Hope synthesizes the attributes and transactional characteristics of the church and other organizational entities in a way that accelerates the construction of a dynamic and organic leadership development pipeline.  Writing from a theological perspective I was particularly excited to discover that the field of positive psychology had done much work in understanding the impact of positive emotions and hope that I mirrored in my research.

Hope serves as both a trait and a mindset.  In the words of Jessica Pryce-Jones it serves as “…a kicker to action and it is clearly associated with higher job performance and happiness.  In fact some psychologists call it a ‘Velcro’ concept as it seems to enable you to stick to your commitments regardless of your other attributes.”[2]

Hope – Happiness Connection

I had perceived happiness as an outcome of hope.  So, my focus was on discovering why people had or did not have hope and where hope came from for those that did.  I saw that hope stemmed from a belief or mindset specifically rooted in the promises of God.  People who believed the promise of a different future tended to live in a “future perfect” way i.e., their anticipation of the future altered how they approached the present and affected what they would or would not tolerate as acceptable.  In leaders this meant that those who had hope acted as contagious change agents.

However, my research included organizations that were not church related and I noticed the same type of leaders in those organizations i.e., men and women filled with hope that acted as visionaries and change agents.[3]  It was not that these people were more charismatic that others it was that they had a deep sense or mindset through which they interpreted the realities around them.  They saw opportunities others missed.  They saw a preferred future as possible when others saw only drudgery or failure.  The research by Pryce-Jones and her team introduced the idea of happiness and set it up as a precondition of hope.  So, I was intrigued.

So what is happiness? “Happiness at work is a mindset which allows you to maximize performance and achieve your potential.  You do this by being mindful of the highs and the lows when working alone or with others.”[4]

Happiness at work allows people to leverage their experiences regardless of whether they are positive or negative (high or low) to meet their full potential at work.  The theory behind the idea of happiness is rooted in positive psychology that builds on four ideas:

  • You are responsible for your own level of happiness
  • You have more room to maneuver than you think
  • You always have a choice
  • Self-awareness is the first step

Five Critical Factors of Happiness

I needed to know more about the research done by Pryce-Jones and her team. They began to research happiness at work because Pryce-Jones observed the connection between her own productivity and her happiness at work. She formed a team that through the process of data collection began to see data cluster around five different themes.  As these themes became clear they designed an assessment reliably measure these themes in people.  Their work resulted in an assessment that measures five factors that define happiness.

These factors include items typically included in human capital studies (employee engagement or job satisfaction). However the data collected via the research by Pryce-Jones and her team indicates that such things as employee engagement relates to 10 percent fewer items than happiness does.  The bottom line is that people who are happy at work are 108% more engaged than their unhappy colleagues, love their job 79% more and achieve their goals 30% more often. Happy people cut the costs of turnover, sick days, work slowdowns and absenteeism by as much as 50%.

The five factors that define happiness are:

Contribution: the effort an employee makes and their perception of this effort.

Conviction: the motivation employees have whatever their circumstance.

Culture: how well employees feel they fit at work.

Commitment: the extent to which employees are engaged with their work.

Confidence: the sense of belief employees have in themselves and their job.

Factors Thrive in a Healthy Corporate Culture Indicated by Pride, Trust and Recognition

Pryce-Jones and her team also found that these factors are supported by pride, trust and recognition which serve as proxies for the existence of the five factors.  In other words if one has pride in their work and feel they are safe in taking risks at work without the fear of a hidden agenda and where work recognizes their efforts the stage is set for employees to arise to new levels of productivity, creativity and effort.  People recognized for their achievements at work (in ways that are meaningful to them) their energy level and engagement skyrocketed.  Finally where people trust their organizations risk taking rises, they are more committed and relationships operate with greater transparency.  Conversely when these critical cultural components are missing productivity and engagement plummets – in fact the absence of these three factors often indicate that people are already engaged in looking for new jobs.

So What? 

Clearly the impact that happiness has at work is unavoidably significant at least if one takes the research seriously. If happy people are more engaged, if they make their goals more often if they take measurably less sick days or engage in measurable fewer work slowdowns then calculating a return on investment on happy employees is certainly possible.

But how are these employees identified?  Pryce-Jones and her team’s assessment offer a means of reliably measuring happiness at work for both individuals and teams.  Because they measure specific characteristics in the factors they also create a diagnostic that illustrates the relationship between personal happiness and organizational culture.  Their assessment makes it possible to effectively measure current conditions, design and ROI and engage in a pointed strategy to alter the work culture to achieve a greater level of employee happiness at work.  The net effect is higher productivity and lower costs of doing business.  What is not to like?

It is now possible to name the factors that contribute to hope, contribute to higher output and contribute to lower costs.  Not only does this help organizations respond to the emerging leaders working toward a new future in their organizations, it also helps create strategies to remove the barriers to the emergence of these leaders.

I adopted the assessment developed by Pryce-Jones and her team.  The results the assessment has generated in defining the psychological and social capital that determines the effectiveness of an organization’s human capital impress me. The reality is that “financial value is reduced or increased as a direct consequence of the relationships that individuals have with themselves and with others at work.”[5]  Pryce-Jones’ iOpener Assessment is a reliable and valid tool that turns the concept of happiness at work into a concrete means of achieving significant change and higher levels of performance in those organizations ready to rigorously embrace the facts behind their financial performance.

Are you happy at work?  The question is not just an inquiry into how one feels it is a diagnostic that predicts how well your organization is going to do. As it turns out it does matter. For more information write me at ray@leadership-praxis.com, I would love to discuss the application of this instrument in your organization.

One last question came to me from my own research.  What would happen if I asked people, “Are you happy at church?”  Are the factors of commitment, contribution, conviction, confidence and culture effective in measuring who is about to leave a congregation and who is really engaged in the mission of a local congregation?  I think so. Now, I need to find a way to test this hypothesis.  Any takers?

[1][1] C. R. Snyder. “The Past and Possible Futures of Hope” in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 19, no. 1 (2000):11-28.

[2] Jessica Pryce-Jones. Happiness at Work Maximizing your Psychological Capital for Success (West Sussex, UK: Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2010), 125.

[3] This is not to infer that the presence or absence of faith made no difference in how leaders approached their situations or their lives. Without turning this into a theological treatise what I concluded was that those leaders who had hope without referencing faith were also those leaders most open to discussing the impact of faith and the promise inherent in what Christian theological work calls the gospel. In other words these individuals were not opposed to God, they possessed a respect for God even though they expressed varying degrees of understanding about the message of Christianity. All of them found my theological approach to business/organizational research fascinating.

[4] Pryce-Jones, 4.

[5] Pryce-Jones, 7.

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Resilience – A Lesson on Leadership from Manufacturing

Resilience is a process of adapting in the face of difficulty, hardships, trauma, tragedy, or set backs.  Since I work in a manufacturing environment I often think about resilience.  For example the resilience of our foam or proprietary blow molded seat foundation. We design and test seating products to endure the stresses of routine use and support the comfort and durability that is the company quality brand. We go to great lengths to engineer our product to serve the unique demands of our market.

Product design and testing made me think about resilience as an adaptive response needed by leaders who face the stressors of routine activity. No one thinks about a chair failing.  A chair used week in and week out does not suddenly change in how it feels, how it performs and how it looks. Similarly no one thinks about a leader failing.  People expect leaders to be consistent week in and week out (i.e., compassionate, authoritative, certain, open, knowledgeable, inquisitive, courageous etc.).

Leaders unlike chairs actually experience stress inducing events and circumstances. Unlike chairs one cannot engineer leaders to be resilient and durable. The act of leading is more complex.  So, how are leaders tested and proven so that they grow in resilience?  Allow me to stretch my manufacturing analogy to illustrate my observations on leadership resilience.

Start with Purpose

When we think about new products the first question we ask is always how will a chair be used e.g., for a “3rd place”, a training room, a sanctuary – each application places different demands on a chair.  We look at design trends in facilities.  We look at aesthetic trends.  Why?  Manufacturing a top selling church or hospitality/banquet chair means it has to serve the customer’s purpose with distinction.

Developing resilience in leaders requires a similar intentionality.  Leaders who have a sense of purpose define the present based on where they are going in the future. Think about what you want your leadership life to look like in the future.  Imaging for a moment what it would feel like to experience that future – to be there and enjoying the outcomes. How do you feel – empowered, encouraged, confident, energized? Leaders always start at the future and work backwards.  This propensity to live “future forward” creates hope and a sense of purpose and lays a foundation for resilience.

Resilience doesn’t mean an absence of difficulty or emotional pain. Resilience develops in leaders who practice “future forward” thinking in the midst of difficulty and emotional pain and show a specific set of characteristics:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
  • A positive view of oneself and confidence in one’s strengths and abilities
  • Skills in communication and problem solving
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses
  • Accept that change is part of living.

Individuals or leaders who move through life without a sense of purpose typically share an opposite set of characteristics.

  • Lack the capacity to make realistic plans usually supplanting plans with “pipe dreams” that are disconnected from their context
  • Exhibit a victim mentality and lack of confidence offering the evidence of how life and circumstances have stolen their opportunity to make it big
  • No problem solving skills instead they shift responsibility for action to others
  • Demonstrate a lack of self-discipline as seen in impulsive actions and inappropriate and accentuated emotions (e.g., rage, fear, self-loathing)
  • See change as a threat to well being.

Great leaders like a great chair exhibit a structure in life that absorbs impact and returns to its design parameters.  For example, sit on a chair and stand up – the foam in the seat returns to its original shape after being compressed.  Great leaders show the same consistency in character – their sense of purpose helps them keep their emotional and intellectual shape as they live “future forward”.

Define the Cost

Once we understand the purpose of a church chair and determine a design that meets the use requirements and aesthetic sensibilities of the greatest number of customers we define the materials needed to manufacture the new church chair. The process of finding quality material at the best cost helps us decide whether future customers will be able to afford the price of the chair.

Jesus’ parable about the tower builder affirms the importance of cost awareness. (Luke 14:28-30)  Leaders recognize the cost of their actions and routinely reassess this cost.  What costs are associated with leadership decisions?  The costs of living “future forward” include more than financial costs. In a leadership context cost include factors such as:

  • Impact on relationships
  • Ethical challenges
  • Follower’s emotional capacity for change
  • Unexpected impact on facilities, regulations, and organizational structures

Even in successful leadership initiatives that propel an organization to a new level of prosperity and influence hidden costs arise because change has occurred.

The question we face in manufacturing is whether the value to the customer makes up for the cost of producing the product – the question of price.  If we design ingenious chairs but the associated costs cannot be offset by the value added to the customer the price would be too high.  If we design ingenious chairs and use substandard materials then the chairs fail in meeting their purpose.

Leaders routinely face similar dilemmas.  What is the best solution or direction for the organization and its people?  If grand plans use substandard processes and inadequate resources because a leader did not count the cost then resilience fails and the leader and the followers loose.

Our design process involves people from every function in the company as well as customer focus groups.  In order to understand purpose and cost we gather advice from as many sources as possible to expect as many potential problems as possible and see opportunity we would otherwise miss.

Leaders who count the cost are only as effective as the feedback they receive.  Make connections with family members, friends, and others who are important and who care about you and listen to you – listen to them.  Solicit their opinion.  This strengthens resilience by clarifying opportunity and identifying potential problems.

Be Persistent

Persistence is an outcome of resilience and a factor in developing resilience.  By persistence I do not mean meanness, spite, vindictiveness or ruthlessness.  I mean determination, perseverance, diligence and resolution.  Why must leaders exercise persistence?  Persistence is the practice that refines the leader’s vision and grows capacity for resilience.

Leadership vision is always incomplete.  This is one of the most important leadership principles affecting resilience.  The single greatest relational mistake leaders make is the assumption that they know best because they see a future or an opportunity clearly.  A leader may see a clear future. However the leader also must see the challenges, resistance, threats, opportunities and insights that have the potential of shaping or derailing a leader’s vision.  Leaders need to listen to feedback to gather intelligence about the path to the vision.

A leader’s level of resilience is a result of persisting in a purpose over time.  Persistence accepts help from others, looks for multiple break-out opportunities that set the stage for the future and spends very little time with entrenched opposition to the vision.  This does not mean leaders can ignore feedback. Leaders who persist recognize the difference between a naysayer (resister) and an early adapter or a neutral (who will ultimately contribute to the vision when they see it works) and choose to spend their relational currency strategically.

When we design a new product we persist in getting feedback all the way through the development process.  Persistence is like the actions of a great football running back like Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Terrell Davis, Tony Dorsett or Willie Gallimore.  Like running backs leaders bounce off tacklers, look for blockers, see the opportunities in the open field and always orient to the goal. Like a running back persistent leaders get up after being knocked down.  Persistent leaders look for new means when their planned strategy collapses. Persistent leaders listen for the encouragement of their team mates.  Leaders who exercise persistence are people who:

  • Meet obstacles as learning opportunities
  • Learn from set backs to refine communication and clarity
  • Ask questions to look for insights and correlations they did not see before
  • Interpret setbacks as an opportunity to test the validity of their strategy
  • Incorporate feedback into their tactical responses to new situations


Watching a leader under pressure says a lot about the leader’s future potential. Leaders who own a sense of purpose, exercise cost awareness and practice persistence are leaders whose resilience grows over time thus enlarging their capacity to deal with complexity, ambiguity, resistance, setbacks, and challenges.  More importantly leaders who are resilient see opportunities others miss because they keep looking and learning while others quit.

Resilience is a mindset that practices specific actions over time and adjusts those actions based on lessons learned along the way.  The combination of practice, learning and agility increases a leader’s resilience and enhances the value the leader brings to an organization.

How is your resilience?  Look at the factors I describe above (purpose, cost and persistence) if any of these are weak set aside some time to think about what you see in yourself.  Ask those closest to you for their input. Resilience is learned and is therefore a trait that can increase or decrease.