Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

Leave a comment

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?


Leave a comment

Leadership and Doing the Unprecedented – Lessons from the Life of Gideon

What is a Leader?

compass 1What is the difference between a leader and someone who simply holds a functional place in an organization?  Leaders have a commitment to act in unprecedented ways – sometimes with little empiric evidence of future success.  They have a vision, they understand the cost, yet they see (indeed almost taste) a different future that must change the present. Functionaries are precedent keepers afraid of failure almost as much as they are afraid of rocking the boat or standing out.

As part of my own development and personal renewal I read through the Bible every year. The experiences the Bible records of the intersection between faith and leadership is more than inspirational – I often find it deeply challenging. If the Bible is read with the humanness of its characters in mind (not simply read as a mystical book of inspirational thoughts) then it jumps off the page with a contemporary vibrancy that is astonishing.  Men and women portrayed in the bible face the same challenges of: decision-making, risk mitigation, managing outcomes, building trust, ensuring long-term results, building strong teams, delegating, developing others, courage, and resilience every leader today faces.  I find myself sometimes cheering them on and at others bemoaning their stupidity and the consequences that emerge as a result.

I read through Judges this week. The context of the book is that the third generation since their exodus from Egypt had forgotten the fundamental values and commitments so hard-won in their grandparent’s generation.  The parallels to what occur in family business the third generation from the founder are uncanny. Stalk and Foley note:

In the United States, a familiar aphorism—“Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”—describes the propensity of family owned enterprises to fail by the time the founder’s grandchildren have taken charge. Variations on that phrase appear in other languages, too. The data support the saying. Some 70% of family owned businesses fail or are sold before the second generation gets a chance to take over. Just 10% remain active, privately held companies for the third generation to lead. In contrast to publicly owned firms, where the average CEO tenure is six years, many family businesses have the same leaders for 20 or 25 years, and these extended tenures can increase the difficulties of coping with shifts in technology, business models, and consumer behavior.[i]

Israel found themselves under the competitive pressure of a group called the Midianites who had dominated them and were in the process of pillaging their livelihood.  Gideon was no one of particular importance prior to where the narrative picks him up. He was however an apparent cauldron of burning questions.  What unfolds in the narrative presents five principles of leadership emergence that I see played out constantly. The case study of Gideon is worth the time for every organizational leader to review to avoid the trap of precedent. For every future leader the narrative should be mandatory so that they understand what they are getting into.   The five principles listed here are explained below:

  • Principle 1: the emergence of leadership begins by pondering a different future, a different reality. Emerging leaders interrogate the present by asking, “why?”
  • Principle 2: facing the test of their personal fears and sense of inadequacy is the first hurdle in acting on their vision of the future.
  • Principle 3: facing the test of public scrutiny and backlash clarifies the leader’s vision and galvanize their deepest commitments and values.
  • Principle 4: the greatest challenge a leader faces is not failure but success.  It is success that tempts them toward arrogance.
  • Principle 5: leaders who successfully pass the test of arrogance are positioned to create systems that sustain greatness.

Principle 1: the emergence of leadership begins by pondering a different future, a different reality. Emerging leaders interrogate the present by asking, “why?”

Gideon was approached by an angel who greets him with a destiny shaping statement, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12 RSV)  This divine encounter uncorks a flood of pent-up reflection. (I won’t make a defense for the presence of angelic beings here – if you have ever had a divine encounter you need no one to convince you of the possibility or the impact. The fact is that the presence of questions does not need a divine encounter for the principle to apply.)  The observation is that leaders spend time considering the unprecedented which makes those around them nervous.

If you work with a leader you have no doubt learned to (1) be sounding board for their “why” questions and their exploration of alternative futures and (2) manage your own cognitive dissonance and emotion as you help these leaders focus on the next productive action.

If you are a leader like this, understand you are not the only one who generates puzzled looks and nervous laughter from those closest to you. Like other leaders you may have received your share of veiled threats from those serving around you that aim to reign in your “insubordination.”  The most important thing you will wrestle with if you are a leader like this is the realization that what you see as possible not only alters your destiny but the destiny of those around you.  This presents the responsibility inherent in leadership to not “go off half-cocked.” Leadership decisions impact other people’s lives. At the same time you have to ask the questions. These “why” questions are the beginning of innovation.

Principle 2: facing the test of their personal fears and sense of inadequacy is the first hurdle in acting on their vision of the future.

The answer to Gideon’s “why” question was unexpected. “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian.  Have I not sent you?” (Judges 6:14 NASB) The acceptance of personal responsibility is the differentiation between lazy negativity masquerading as insight and true leadership.  Anyone can complain – it takes courage to act. This point really brings up three aspects of effective leadership: (1) legitimization; (2) courage; and (3) authenticity.

If you work around this kind of leader you will see that they work from a vision larger than themselves. Your support and their larger vision is the authentication of their leadership. Gideon received an invitation to put faith to work – or using a colloquialism – to put his money where his mouth was. Leaders who ask the “why” questions discover a deep passion within themselves to act on what they see.   God asked Gideon to put his own faith to work. Wrestling with destiny questions always ultimately forces leaders to make a choice to act or stop asking the questions.

If you are a leader, courage is required. To act Gideon must do the unprecedented and work against the prevailing mental model of his community.[ii]  The idea of leading has the idea of going first. Think about being the first one to try something.  How often have you stepped up to be the first?  Many so-called leaders prefer to have someone else (like a younger sibling) go first.  Then, if all goes well the so-called leaders can step up and claim credit for the success.  It takes courage to go first.

If you hang out with real leaders it doesn’t take long do discover that they are authentic – not super human.  If you are a leader you need people around you who can listen to why you are not the best person to go first. Like Gideon you may not have the experience, or the recognition (pre-established support or track record), or the confidence in your ability to lead.  Some people see this as a contradiction in leadership.  It really is a deeper wrestling with an intuitive awareness of the risks involved in leading.

Principle 3: facing the test of public scrutiny and backlash clarifies the leader’s vision and galvanize their deepest commitments and values.

Gideon’s first act was to topple the community idol and offer sacrifice to God.  Theologically speaking, an idol is any symbolic source of security, provision, protection, or reverence that has usurped the place of God in a person’s life. Idols become symbols and explanations of success. The problem with these symbols of success is that: (1) they are never causative and (2) they empower mental models with an aura of unchallengeable authority. The result is that a defensive reasoning emerges as a means of self-protection. Defensive reasoning is a learned behavior for dealing with difficult situations.  These mental models set up a bifurcation between espoused theories of action and a very different theory-in-use.[iii]  The latter are usually resorted to in times of stress.

Theories-in-use in organizations have four similar values: 1) unilateral control; 2) maximization of winning and minimization of loosing; 3) suppression of negative feelings; and 4) appeals to rationalism.  The stress of introducing change to any system results in defensive reasoning because it alters the political and symbolic frames of the organization or group i.e., it attacks their idols.

If you are a leader don’t avoid conflict.  Conflict pushes the theory-in-use to the front of everyone’s conversation and causes them to test the utility and actuality of their mental models.  If conflict is avoided then the myth of a mental model’s unassailability will continue to keep people from knowing a new reality.  They will remain under the thumb of whatever belief keeps them from moving to an alternative future.

For leaders conflict clarifies their thinking and helps them galvanize their actions. In Gideon’s case an important theological assumption emerges. Notice that in the conflict Gideon does not stand alone, he has a first follower – his dad, Joash. Joash made this statement when the community threatens to kill Gideon for tampering with their idol, “Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? …If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his alter.” (Judges 6:31 NASB)  What is the important lesson?  God is self-authenticating.  By extension the most important thing a leader gains in conflict is: (1) the emergence of first followers – early adopters; and (2) the awareness that their motivation for acting is self authenticating to those who do step in as first followers.  The synergy that formed between Gideon and his first followers became contagious as it does of any leader in this situation.

Principle 4: the greatest challenge a leader faces is not failure but success.  It is success that tempts them toward arrogance.

The potential for failure at any point in the story of Gideon seems more probable than success.  For leaders who have stepped out and faced the conflict inherent in challenging the mental models of those around them failure is sometimes seen as a preferable exit. Why do I say this?  I have seen leaders in the middle of success and conflicts orchestrate their own failure to escape the pressures of leading. Success in leadership is the greater challenge. Success can lead to arrogance and hubris that ultimately undoes a leader who believes they can do anything they want and still experience success.

Gideon recruited a significant army as a result of the synergy developed in conflict. However, God asks him to cut the numbers of volunteers so that a victory would not be misunderstood to be the result of purely human effort but the intervention of the same God Gideon questioned at the beginning of the narrative. It is interesting to me that every great leader “…apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck)” according to Collins’ research.[iv] Whether or not you belief in God’s intervention great leaders understand that it is not their efforts that ultimately lead to or sustain significant discovery or sustained success. It is luck or divine intervention.

This is why the development of character in leadership is imperative if success is to be sustained over a life time and leaders are to grow in their capacity to lead.  Peter said, “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and area increasing, the render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8 NASB) Leadership character is appropriately defined by Peter’s admonition to develop these virtues.

Principle 5: leaders who successfully pass the test of arrogance are positioned to create systems that sustain greatness.

Unfortunately sustained greatness was not the case with Gideon. He was tested by the request of the people to be their king and he initially rejected that offer pointing them to God as king. However, in rejecting the offer he determined to commemorate his victory with a gold-embroidered garment often used as a symbol of priestly authority by ancient Israel. The commemorative garment became an idol. Gideon had a chance to significantly alter the political and social values, symbols, and commitments of the country but it seems that he preferred to return to a quiet life away from the challenge of leadership.  His meager attempt at commemoration rather than transformation set up ultimate failure. Leaders today face the same temptation.


What is your leadership context? Have you been irritated with nagging “why” questions?  Are you honest about your questions? Will you accept responsibility to make a difference in what you see or do you find it easier to simply join the chorus of cynicism and negativity that exists somewhere in every organization?  Are you authentic in your self assessment? If you are willing to make a difference do you see that conflict is unavoidable?  How will you process these questions and ultimately how will you finish well in life?  The lessons of Gideon are still lively and troubling.

[i] George Stalk and Henry Foley. “Avoid the Traps That Can Destroy Family Businesses” Harvard Business Review. January – February 2012. Source: http://hbr.org/2012/01/avoid-the-traps-that-can-destroy-family-businesses/ar/1. Accessed 20 Mar 2014.

[ii] Mental models: Beliefs, ideas, images, and verbal descriptions that we consciously or unconsciously form from our experiences and which (when formed) guide our thoughts and actions within narrow channels. Source: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/mental-models.html#ixzz2wXvPmx1x. Accessed 20 March 2014.

[iii] Chris Argyris. “Good Communication that Blocks Learning” in Harvard Business Review. July August 1994, 77-85.

[iv] Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Other Don’t (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001), 35.

Leave a comment >

BoringI was running through McDonald’s with just enough time to grab a burger between client engagements. A little boy walked into the store from the play area with his father. The boy noticed the big screen TV in the corner of the dinning area – it was playing highlights from the weekend’s NFL games. The boy sauntered over to the big screen, stood there for a minute then waved his hand as though he was erasing the screen and declared, “Boring – boring.” Apparently satisfied with his verdict he walked out of the store with his dad.

I thought about the several times I have wanted to do the same thing in poorly run meetings.  Like the young man in McDonald’s I want to wave my hand and declare, “boring – boring” when I see any of the following practices. And then I want to walk out and go back to work.

Boring practice 1: calling a meeting without a purpose and being unprepared.  I don’t mind getting together with you for lunch or after work to shoot the breeze but don’t pull me away from my team to sit in a room without a purpose. My mind simply backs up with all the tasks I need to complete before the end of the day, end of the quarter, end of the year etc.  Give me an agenda that differentiates between information you want to give, decisions that need to be made, and brainstorming we need to do to set direction to face the unexpected.

Boring practice 2: calling for people to give reports on data we all read prior to the meeting.  Expect people to be ready – this will save a lot of time.  However, be sure you specify what you want people to know before every meeting and how we will use it to get things done.  Most the companies I have been a part of go to great cost to have the right dashboards, data and instant reports. Make meetings an opportunity for your team to use their unique data sets to highlight various perspectives of a decision. Don’t use meetings to rehash by reporting on data everyone already has access to. 

Boring practice 3: asking for opinions as a prelude to telling us what we are going to do. If you need to pull us together to give a directive just give the directive and some context for it. Don’t ask for opinions if you don’t plan to alter your decision (because you have already made a decision).  On the other hand if you have options in mind and want some feedback on them ask away – need help in how to do this?  Watch reruns of Star Trek to see how captain Jean-Luc Picard pulled feedback from his line officers.  Then have everyone watch the same Star Trek scene to see how to give feedback.  (There are other options but as a Trekky since the 60s I like Jean-Luc.)

Boring practice 4: rambling on about the need for employee engagement without providing an opportunity for feedback.  Seriously any time I hear leaders complain about the lack of employee engagement I simply want to record the session – then play it back with the understanding that I am about to let them hear why the reason for poor employee engagement.  If you see me in the room with my Recorder Pro app ready to go you will know why.

Boring practice 5: announcing new policies destined to needlessly hamper the productivity of every department because one person won’t exercise common sense. Do you really need to hide behind a policy to correct the misdeeds of one or two employees?  My favorite example of this is when the company pulled back all its company issued credit cards because one sales person could not seem to complete their usage reports. We all had to pull cash advances for our travel – it was a nightmare. Go yank the chain of the offender don’t penalize your peak performers.

Boring practice 6: showing us a power point slide presentation containing 45 slides with 8 pt font and then reading each slide. Please learn how to give a presentation. There are plenty of self-study helps on the internet.  Just because you just stepped into your new CEO role or president role doesn’t mean you are exempt from developing better communication skills. You have not arrived – you have just started your journey.  A little humility and a learning posture will go a long way. 

Boring practice 7: arguing with your department’s nemesis while blaming them for your inability to meet your goals. I have sat in meetings almost as entertaining as an MMA fight. Two Vice Presidents went after each other like fighting cats. Unfortunately our employees were not amused they were filled with anxiety.  The result of the VP rant was that the employees  quick offering their insights and became siloed from one another across departments.  If you need to have one of those intense conversations do it off-line.

Boring practice 8: announcing the time limitations of the meeting then going over the allotted time to discuss the need for discipline in execution. This is not hard to understand. If you are the exception to every rule you propose then everyone will follow your example.  Then if you don’t like how things are going it is strongly recommended you look in the mirror for the reason things are becoming FUBAR. (If you don’t know what the acronym stands for ask one of the more experienced managers in the plant or office.)

Boring practice 9: introducing a consultant who then spends 45 minutes trying to convince us of his qualifications.  The better approach is simply to engage your qualifications by leading the meeting, or exercise, or training.  Please vet your consultants – work with them so that they don’t violate boring practice 1.

The bottom line is that leaders should treat people like they have the insight, wisdom, and drive for mastery that makes for an enduring great company or organization.  Expect people to work at their best. Reward the top performers. Discipline the poor performers. Have fun. Make 2014 a year of superior vision, inspiration and execution – don’t be boring.

Leave a comment

You’re New, You Made It – and you’re scared to death.

successI looked out my office window toward the open office floor where my team was working. I had just secured a senior management role that seemed ideal.  I knew that the other candidates were awesome but I had made the cut…and I was scared to death. Yea, I know no one admits this readily. But, I made a transition from an industry I had learned to master to a new one.  I was in the middle of a steep learning curve because the company wanted my leadership skills. I knew that leaders who transition into organizations from the outside often suffer a higher rate of failure because they are not familiar with the organizational structure and informal networks. I did not really know this corporate culture and understood that I had to work to be assimilated. I knew I had to earn credibility inside the organization.

So, how does a new leader succeed?  Michael Watkins book, The First 90 Days, offers some great insight I recommend to all new leaders.

  1. Establish a clear break point: discipline yourself to make a mental transition in terms of job responsibilities especially in those occasions you must work both your old and your new job in transition.  Take time to celebrate your move.
  2. Hit the ground running: the transition to a new job begins the moment you understand you are being considered for the role. Within the first 90 days your boss, peers and direct reports expect that you will get some traction in the new role. Hence, plan what you want to accomplish by specific milestones. The simple act of planning will help you keep a clear head.
  3. Assess your vulnerabilities: promotions occur because those that hire you thought you had the skills to succeed. You probably do. Avoid the temptation to work at the level below where you are hired to be. Do this by assessing your preferences and comparing these to the demands of your new role.  In your early career technical advice is all important however the focus on technical expertise diminishes in comparison to the need for conceptual and human skills as one promotes up through the ranks to executive roles. If leaders succeed through others then it makes sense that the most effective leaders who those who know how to identify and marshal the skills/capabilities needed to succeed in strategic plans.
  4. Watch out for your strengths: every strength has attendant pitfalls, you need to watch out for these as much as you watch out for your weaknesses. Your strengths could lead you down the fatal path of micromanagement or other forms of demoralizing your direct reports. (The use of an assessment like the Birkman Method assessment is an excellent tool for understanding your perceptual strengths and interests as well as your potential blind spots and the impact of stress on the way you are perceived by others.  For information on this see http://leadership-praxis.com/unseen-potential/.)
  5. Relearn how to learn: exposure to new demands typically results in feelings of incompetence and vulnerability. While these emotions are normal to learning they become problematic when they unconsciously cause you to gravitate toward areas you feel competent (usually the next level down from where you should be functioning).  Learning strategies that go wrong result in behaviors that are defensive, screen out criticism and blame-shifting.  Be committed to a learning process.
  6. Rework your network: as you advance in your career your need for advice/coaching changes. Part of promoting yourself is reworking your advice-and-counsel network. The higher up the chain of command you go the more important it is to get good political and personal advice. I really can’t over emphasize this. Add to your mentoring constellation new mentors who can help you stretch into your new role. Consider a coach as well. Many of my friends who entered new C-suite roles have confided in me that their coach was a life-saving catalyst to their adjustment.
  7. Watch out for people who want to hold you back: consciously or unconsciously people exist who do not want you to advance. Negotiate clear expectations about what you will do to close out your old job.  Be specific about what projects or issues will be dealt with and to what extent things will or will not be done. Recognize that mixed emotions are involved including those who do not want relationships to change (they will change), jealousy, suspicion of favoritism etc. Your authority will be tested. Meet such tests by being fair and firm. “If you don’t establish limits early, you will live to regret it. Getting others to accept your promotion is an essential part of promoting yourself.”[1]
So, what was the most important thing you did to succeed in your last transition?

[1] Michael Watkins. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2003), 30.

1 Comment

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

Rest and PlayResilience Depends on Energy Management

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

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

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

Recognize the Difference Between Activities and Results

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

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

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

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

Start with the End in Mind

One of my graduate professors, Bobby Clinton was fond of repeating, “Begin with the end in mind.” He started his leadership emergence classes by asking everyone to write their epitaph i.e., the inscription they wanted on their tombstone. This exercise sounds easier than it really is for some people. Many of us thought and thought to say something succinct enough to fit on a tomb stone and of sufficient gravity to appropriately summarize the work of a life time. Bobby’s point was simply that leadership is a life-long process of learning.  If leaders intend to finish well they must begin with the end in mind.

Living with the end in mind is profoundly focusing.  I am intrigued by stories of near death experiences. People emerge from such experiences with a completely different hierarchy of priority than they had prior to the experience. Life itself becomes more precious than accomplishment, prestige or power. An interesting take on living with the end in mind came from a palliative care nurse who summarized the regrets of the dying she had heard over the years into a book.[3]  She came up with five recurring regrets including:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Clearly Jesus’ actions are the opposite of these regrets – he began with the end in mind.  Jesus was true to himself.  Jesus did not get caught up in maintaining the spin. Jesus took time to rest.  Jesus expressed his feelings openly – we even have non-verbal indications of his feelings. (Mark 7:24; 8:12)  What is interesting about Jesus’ times of rest and rejuvenation is that these times themselves provided or opened opportunity for the demonstration of God’s power that was catalytic to new insights and breakthroughs.

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Powerlessness, Greatness and Choice – what every leader needs to remember

leaderHave you ever felt frustrated or powerless at work? A friend of mine recently admitted, “I am at odds at work.  How much commitment do I really want to give to a company that seems compelled to undermine its own success?  Any commitment I do make seems like an exercise in futility.”

The question was not trite. The question stemmed from frustration. My friend is a remarkably gifted leader recruited to the company for which he now works to change to a struggling department. However, he feels stymied in the continued development of his department. The impulses of his Vice President derail planned action thus limiting the traction needed to produce consistent positive results.  Unsurprisingly this is a common experience for many managers and directors.

Last week I heard Jim Collins speak – he always encourages and challenges me.  I was reminded of something he wrote,

Most businesses also have a desperate need for greater discipline.  Mediocre companies rarely display the relentless culture of discipline – disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action – that we find in truly great companies.  A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness….we need a new language…reject the naive imposition of the language of business…embrace the language of discipline.[1]

The concept of being great hits me every time I read it. The question I ask myself is, “do I have the discipline and perspective needed to contribute to a truly great enterprise?”  Further more do I contribute to a culture of discipline? The challenge here is to buck any trend toward mediocrity by building a culture of discipline around my responsibilities.

Collins’ research concluded that building a great company occurs in four stages. Think about these stages as I have outlined them in Table 1 and consider; (1) how you contribute to these stages; (2) how do you encourage others to step into this mind-set; (3) whether you are hirable today as one who contributes to these stages and (4) if you are not hirable today in a great company what do you need to change?

One of the most important insights Collins presents in his monograph on the social sector is the insight that Level 5 leaders often exist within diffuse power structures and can be effective in creating pockets of greatness.  Collins identified two kinds of power i.e., executive and legislative.

In executive leadership enough concentrated power exists to simply make right decisions. Executive power makes right decisions no matter how painful they may be. However, many Level 5 leaders do not have this kind of concentrated power. Many leaders in the middle are not the CEO but work somewhere in the mishmash of organizational structure and political reality.

Legislative leadership on the other hand possesses enough structural power to create the conditions for right decisions via persuasion, political currency, and shared interests.  Many leaders have legislative power within their departments or divisions and can take the responsibility to move toward greatness not-with-standing the pressures that push the rest of the organization toward mediocrity.

Table 1: Inputs of Greatness[2]

Inputs of Greatness Defined Actions I can take
Stage 1: Disciplined people
Level 5 Leadership Exhibits personal humility i.e., they are ambitious for a cause and  the organization and professional will i.e., fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition
First who, then what First, get the right people into the right places and the wrong people out and then think about what you need to do i.e., the “what”
Stage 2: Disciplined thought
Confront brutal facts Identify and remove those barriers to being great live the Stockdale paradox i.e., confidence you will ultimately succeed while also identifying all the barriers to that success.
The hedgehog concept Attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, then exercise relentless discipline to exit those things that fail the test – (1) what are you deeply passionate about? (2) What drives your economic engine? (3) What can you be best in the world at?
Stage 3: Disciplined action
Culture of Discipline Accepting one’s responsibility (larger than a job) to consistently work to greatness.
The Flywheel Relentless action toward the goal that builds momentum on small successes
Stage 4: Building Greatness to last
Clock Building not time telling Great organizations prosper through multiple generations of leaders – build mechanisms that stimulate greatness
Preserve the core/stimulate progress Great organizations run on a fundamental duality: (1) a timeless set of core values and reason for being and (2) a creative compulsion for change and progress.

What kind of leadership power do you have?  Are you willing to take responsibility to exercise your power in building a great department or division? If you are unwilling to take responsibility what does this say about you as a person and a leader?

One of the things I find consistently true in leadership is that the very act of leading forces me to engage in an assessment about whom I am as a person and whether I can live with myself as that person. My friend’s question shook me up.  It made me think. Taking responsibility to exercise greatness in my corner of influence is not an option – it is the only rational course by which I can make a lasting contribution to the good.  How about you?

[1] Jim Collins. Good to Great and the Social Sectors (Boulder, CO: Jim Collins, 2005), 1-2.

[2] Collins 2005:34-35.


Need a Big Idea? Ask Questions.

ideaBig ideas and significant breakthroughs come by asking questions.

According to Rich Warren courage determines the quality of your life and work.  It takes courage to question what you are doing and it is by asking questions new insights reveal themselves.  What kinds of questions does it take courage to ask?  He suggested eight.

Use these insights to systematically ask yourself and your team the kinds of questions that will transform the way you work.

  1. Termination. What do you need to stop?  You will never have the margins and the energy to innovate if you don’t first stop doing what is no longer effective.
  2. Collaboration. How do we do it faster, cheaper, or larger with a team?  How can we coordinate the resources in front of us to get things done?
  3. Combination. What can we mix to make something new – what can we combine to create a synthesis?
  4. Elimination. What part can we take out to make it simpler?  What barrier can we remove to give greater access?
  5. Reincarnation. What has died that we can bring back in a new form?
  6. Rejuvenation.  How can we change the purpose or motivation for what we are doing to recharge our energy and engagement?
  7. Illumination. How can we look at this in a new light?  What can we see by simply altering our perspective?
  8. Fascination. How can we make it more interesting or more attractive?

These are more challenging than they sound. Spend some time asking these questions about what you do – you just may discover a deeper insight into the purpose you really want to pursue.  Don’t stop however until you have asked all the questions.  Testing your insight with the full scope of these questions will help you avoid the pitfall of short-sighted enthusiasm and engage long-term transformation.