Leadership is Important

Someone mentioned to me today that my blog entries have been awfully lopsided toward leadership recently. There are two reasons for that: (1) I'm taking a huge leadership step in the next several months and leadership is occupying a lot of my thinking. (2) I'm preparing for a class at Dallas Seminary at the end of July and all my required reading is in the area of organizational leadership.

Book reviews and a more balanced blog will return once I start reading other things and get a chance to catch my breath.

Even so, leadership is important. I would even argue that good leadership principles are more important for churches than corporations. John Gardner agrees (though he applies it to all nonprofits). He describes a poorly managed nonprofit organization as a "bad" organization

"[Bad] in the sense of pious continuance of not competent or creative work, which in a way is damaging. Damaging because it uses up well-meaning dollars, because it breeds discouragement in people who just feel 'We're working so hard and we're just not getting anywhere.' And I think there's a fair amount of that in the nonprofit world. And there's something about lofty ideals that are at odds with clean-cut self-evaluation. You know, "How can you criticize us when our ideals are so great?" That's why I like that cartoon of Peanuts on the pitcher's mound saying "How can we lose when we're so sincere?""

If we are ambassadors of Christ (and we are); cities on a hill (and we are); lights reflecting the Light of the world (and we are); shouldn't our organizations be led at an even higher level than organizations with a less lofty goal?


Do an Amazon search on books about "leadership" and you'll find hundreds; maybe thousands. Do a search on "followership" and you'll find next to nothing.

We've attached a scarlet letter to the idea of being a good follower, as if "following" is only for sheep and members of cults. As a result, there aren't a lot of kids in the world who grow up wanting to be followers.

That's a shame, because I'm convinced that if you're not a good follower, you won't make a good leader. That's important for leaders to realize, because they'll always be following someone.

The CEO follows the board or else he follows the person ahead of him in the unemployment line.

The board follows the shareholders, or the stock ticker.

The associate pastor follows the senior pastor. The senior pastor follows the elders (or congregation, or nominating committee...). The elders follow the Scriptures.

Everyone is accountable to someone, or something. If you don't pay as much attention to being a good follower as you do to leading those who follow you, the system will self-correct and you'll find yourself doing a lot more following than leading in a relatively short time.

John 5

Our small group has been studying the Gospel of John together. My favorite book of the Bible is generally whichever book I'm studying at the time. Even still, one of my favorite favorites is John's Gospel. It accomplishes what every evangelist hopes to accomplish: simple and profound at the same time.

A couple of weeks ago, we studied John 5. I can't stop thinking about John 5:1-8.

You know the story: Jesus goes to a pool near the Sheep Gate to Jerusalem. The superstition was that an angel would dip down and stir the water of the pool. When the water was stirred, the first person in the water would be healed.

Jesus meets a man who had been a quadriplegic for 38 years, and asks him what seems like a really dumb question: "Do you want to get well?"

Seriously Jesus? This guy has been unable to do anything for himself for 38 years. He reveals he doesn't even have a hope of getting in the pool on his own. He can't do it and has no friends to help him. While he scoots and rolls and struggles to get in the pool, someone else always beats him to it.

You know the rest of the story too: Jesus speaks to the man and the man goes home well.

Here's what I love about this story: The lame man by the pool is every man or woman who has ever lived.

We can depend on superstition; we can depend on others; we can depend on ourselves. We can scoot, roll, flop and strain. We can show up in places where supernatural things are reported to happen, hoping against hope that they'll someday happen to us. But at the end of the day, there will always be someone faster, quicker, better than you, and you'll be left lying on your mat by the side of the pool.

If healing depends on you, you'll never find it. You need a Savior.

Jesus asked what seemed like the ultimate in stupid questions, but when we look at our lives, we realize it's a question that needs asking: Do you want to get well, or do you just want to sit by the pool and take your chances?

Horizontal Fast Track

I read an article the other day by Charles Handy that talked about the Japanese concept of promotion.

They call it the "horizontal fast-track."

Rather than taking a great young leader and shooting him through the ranks of leadership as quickly as possible, the Japanese take a great young leader and try to expose him to as many different areas of the organization as possible. They don't promote young leaders, they move them laterally as fast as they can over the first few years so that they can experience different responsibilities, different groups, and different processes.

They've made a decision: before giving a young leader power, he needs exposure so that he can leverage power sympathetically as he leads.

Makes a whole lot of sense...

Who is the Leader?

We tend to talk about "leadership" as if it is a trait that you either have, or don't have. If you "are a leader," we assume you are a leader in everything. If you aren't a leader in a particular area, we assume you will never be a leader in anything. You either have the gift or you don't.

This kind of logic is why we promote great salesmen to management positions where they don't sell anything. We take great engineers out of engineering and ask the great engineer to oversee a group of mediocre engineers. Then we're puzzled because the guy who was a leader in his field is a lousy leader.

I think this view of leadership is a mistake.

As in a lot of teams, different leaders lead in different scenarios. A person who is a dynamite leader in one arena might be a lousy leader, but dynamite follower in another arena.

With a football team, the quarterback is the undisputed leader when the offense is on the field, but an offensive lineman might be the undisputed team leader off the field. If we promoted the lineman to quarterback, we would waste his gifts and likely lose the game. If we asked the wrong quarterback to lead the team off the field, the results could be equally disastrous.

Great leaders aren't leaders all the time. Sometimes the very best leaders are the ones who willingly defer to the leadership of someone else.

Systems and Statements

Systems are stronger than mission statements.

If your organization has a strong mission statement but dysfunctional systems, you ensure your mission statement is cheap talk; it will never be accomplished.

If you believe that people should be developed and empowered, but set up systems that force them to check-in with headquarters before every decision, you ensure that people will never be developed or empowered.

If your church is trying to connect people into meaningful community where they can grow together but have systems in place that make the connection process muddy, you can talk about community all you want...

If you believe that an organization is about serving people, but your employee policy manual is 5 inches thick, you ensure that you will spend so much time serving the organization that you will never get around to serving people.

Systems are stronger than statements. Systems reflect what you're doing; statements reflect what you talk about doing.

If you really want to help your organization, pay close attention to the systems that are in place. Spend as much time talking about how you are actually doing what you are doing as you do talking about what you hope to accomplish.

What the Bible Says

I'm fairly sure I ran out of good blog topics somewhere around three years ago. So, I'm always really excited when I remember some smart advice I received in the past but had forgotten to blog about. That happened earlier in the week when I talked to my socialist... ahem "Canadian" friend Drew.

He and I were talking about one of the various theological issues people like to get themselves wrapped around and where we landed with respect to that position when I remembered some advice a professor of mine gave me one time: "It's almost never a good idea to define yourself using someone else's categories. It is far more helpful to begin your sentences with "I believe the Bible says..."

That's really great advice. Anyone who leads with "I'm a Calvinist" will have to spend the rest of the conversation trying to distinguish himself from the wackos who don't believe that it is important to talk about Jesus because "God's already predestined people anyway." Anyone who leads with "I'm an Arminian" will have to prove that they're not a part of a Pentecostal snake-handlers movement from the Appalachian mountains. A "dispensationalist" will instantly be lumped in with people who believe that the Left Behind series is an inerrant third testament of the Bible.

When you define yourself in a category, you will be instantaneously lumped-in with everyone who ever held that point of view, and normally caricatured alongside the most bizarre person someone can think of.

Rather than categorizing yourself, it's far more productive to answer a question, "I believe Scripture teaches..." and couch your theology in light of what the Bible teaches rather than which group we like the best.


As a younger leader, I always had a misconception that things get clearer the higher you go in leadership. The higher I've gone in leadership, the more I've realized how wrong that assumption is.

The further in front you are, the more uncertainty you'll face. If the future was certain, we wouldn't need leaders.

If you want to be a good leader during uncertain times, you don't have to have certainty. You have to manage uncertainty with Truth and clarity.

By "Truth" I mean a theological grid that helps narrow the scope of the decisions you make (even if you're not leading a faith-based organization). In uncertain times I will not make decisions that are short-sighted, immoral, unethical, or a distraction from an eternal perspective because of Who I believe God is. Obviously, in my job a theological grid is even more helpful in thinking through specific decisions, knowing what is at stake. A firm grounding in Truth allows leaders to approach uncertain times knowing with one-hundred-percent certainty what cannot happen.

By "clarity" I mean just that. Many soldiers have followed Generals into battles in which the outcome was uncertain. Few soldiers have followed Generals into battle when orders are unclear. You don't have to be certain to be clear but you do have to be clear if people are going to follow you. That doesn't mean pretending to know something you don't - it means making sure that if you fail to reach your goal it won't be because the people didn't understand where you were leading them.

Gripes Go Up

The movie "Saving Private Ryan" has a great scene in which a squad of troops is engaged in the pursuit of an Private named James Ryan. The squad is tired of the mission, feels like their skills are being wasted, and that the pursuit they're on is a mis-allocation of resources in light of the war at hand. So they gripe.

After a while, they notice Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) isn't griping. One of the Privates, Private Reiben says "What about you Captain? I mean, you don't gripe at all?"

I love Captain Miller's response: "I don't gripe to you, Reiben. I'm a captain. There's a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don't gripe to you. I don't gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger."

That's a good lesson for employees, wherever they are on the food chain. Wherever I am in an organization, if I hear people griping to me about someone above them, I instantly lose respect for them and make a silent note to myself that if I ever rise above them in an organization I'll be careful about how much I trust them.

Gripes should go to people who can do something about them, or they shouldn't be voiced at all.

The flip side of this is something Captains and Generals have to remember: if your employees gripe appropriately, their gripes deserve your attention. Don't write off gripes (or Privates) who are handling their issues the right way. Chalk it up as part of the responsibility that comes with your stripes.

Good Illustrations

I saw this video on a friend's blog.

Good illustrations are powerful. They tell the story but don't miss the point for the sake of the story.

Nobody will ever remember this story as "the one about the girl dressed like a fairy." They'll remember the image, but the image will be inseparable from the point.

When the illustration is over, the story is vivid, the intention is clear, and the point is unforgettable.

Myopic Leadership

One of the big stories connected with the BP Oil Spill is the recent comments of one of the victims' brothers to BP CEO Tony Hayward.

Gordon Jones' brother Chris was one of the 11 people killed on the oil rig that exploded, triggering the massive oil spill that is threatening life as we know it on the gulf coast. On Sunday Tony Hayward, CEO of BP stated that he would "like [his] life back." Gordon Jones responded early this week by addressing Mr. Hayward saying, "I'd like my brother's life back."

Now, the easy angle in this story is to vilify Hayward. After all, his comments were insensitive and near-sighted.

It's harder to be a little more introspective. The truth is, all leaders pull against the tendency to define reality through their own experience. We all struggle to identify with the things others are feeling, experiencing, and struggling through. We tend to think everyone processes life like us, and that everyone is experiencing the same things we are experiencing.

As leaders, it's important to consider perspective from several different realities. Otherwise, we'll always lack the perspective we need to move forward. And we'll betray the selfish, myopic, insecure introspective bias that creeps up if it isn't intentionally and ruthlessly mortified.

Dealing with Doubt

For the past several weeks we did a series in the book of Daniel about Daniel and his four friends; guys who lived their life in light of a question: "What would someone in my shoes do who was completely convinced that God was in control?"

All four guys were able to walk away from a posh buffet in Daniel 1; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were able to face a fiery furnace in Daniel 3; Daniel was able to stare down hungry lions in Daniel 6 because they lived their lives with character, convictions, and courage, doing what anyone would do in their shoes who was completely convinced God was in control.

This morning, a mom asked me if I ever thought that at some point in the middle of those circumstances those guys had a moment of crisis and thought "What the heck have I done?"

Obviously, Scripture doesn't tell us. But it doesn't take a lot of imagination to think those guys might have had a moment or two of sweaty palms and dry mouth.

But here's the thing: they moved forward anyway because they were completely convinced God was in control. When that's the starting point, even moments of doubt become opportunities for personal worship.

When there's no chance that God might not show up, there's no opportunity to trust that He will.

Doubt can be a powerful force in the life of the believer, either positively or negatively. When unattended, doubt can be paralyzing. When it's leveraged, it can be a tool God uses to keep us focused on our need for Him.

When You Blow It

As a huge baseball fan, I have been fascinated to watch the fallout from the perfect game that wasn't last Wednesday night. If you missed it, a virtually unknown pitcher for the Detroit Tigers named Armando Gallaraga was robbed of a perfect game (no walks, no hits) by veteran umpire Jim Joyce with two outs in the bottom of the 9th. If Joyce gets the call right, the game is over and Gallaraga goes down in the history books as having done something that only a handful of pitchers have ever done. But, Joyce blew the call by a mile.

After the game, Joyce faced the media. You can listen to his comments here (beware, there is some adult language).

I tell you what: Jim Joyce is a man. He may be a blind man, but he's a man.

No excuses. No justifying. No blame shifting. He says, "I missed it... The biggest call of my career and I blew it."

Jim Joyce got it right. Not the call - the response to the call once he realized he had blown it.

Nobody makes the right call every time. Sometimes we blow it when it matters the most. In those times, it isn't your accuracy rate that makes you a leader; it's the way you respond. Good for Jim Joyce.

Leading and Defining Change

One of the major areas where I'm doing a lot of thinking these days because of some of my continuing education is in the area of leading change. Lots of organizations - secular, sacred, for-profit, non-profit - don't do change well.

I think the number one reason change fails in organizations is that those leading the change fail to define precisely what kind of change they're leading toward. If the goal and the path aren't defined on the front end, the only way they'll be reached is by accident.

When it comes to change, there are at least 4 different kinds of change:

1. Re-packaging - This is when an organization is keeping the exact same thing but giving it a different look. This kind of change rarely works because the only change it provides is cosmetic. Still, on occasion, all that is needed is a facelift and re-packaging is the direction to go.

2. Re-branding - Similar to re-packaging in that neither affect any kind of wholesale change to the actual product or philosophy, although re-branding carries more than just a cosmetic punch. Re-branding usually involves re-packaging something in such a way that an attribute that was present but previously unnoticed is brought to light.

3. Re-modeling - Re-modeling takes an existing structure but refashions it to meet a new purpose. This is often tricky in organizations because just as in remodeling a house, certain load-bearing structures may not be movable. Re-modeling often involves a complete change in the look, purpose, and feel of an organization, program, or philosophy.

4. Renovation - Renovation involves the complete rebuilding of an organization or program that might or might not resemble the previous structure at all.

All of these have benefits and all of these have perils. The biggest peril, however, comes when organizations or leaders miss which type of change they're leading. If you're aiming for re-modeling but only re-package, you'll crash and burn. If you're aiming for re-packaging and communicate renovation, the organization might not ever recover.

Dog Fights

I've been working through some new mentoring material with several guys from our church. Last week one of those guys and I were having breakfast, talking about why Christians still struggle with doing things deep down we don't want to do.

As we talked about Galatians 5:16-17, he came up with this analogy:

"If you'll forgive the association, it's like a dog fight. It's always going to be messy, but there's one way to ensure victory: If you only feed one dog, that dog is bound to win. Starve one dog and he's sure to lose."

He's got a point. Which dog are you feeding?

Efficiency of Discipleship

A lot of models for spiritual growth within churches involve a primary teacher and a group of people who sit around and listen. Obviously, those environments have some significant benefits: they usually use the gifts of a "master teacher" who has invested a significant amount of time planning and can be more easily held accountable for the validity of his message. Also, they ensure the entire group is being led in a similar direction. Those environments are critical for keeping everyone on the same page.

However, if your goal is truly spiritual growth, smaller environments will always yield better results. In fact, rather than a person sitting under a master teacher for their spiritual growth, people will grow more as soon as they can become the master teacher for someone else.

William Glasser did some studies in the area of retention and learning styles and estimates that we remember:

10% of what we read
20% of what we hear
30% of what we see
50% of what we see and hear
70% of what we discuss with others
80% of what we experience personally
95% of what we teach to someone else

If you really want someone to grow, simply hearing the message is horribly inefficient. Instead, put them in an environment where they are responsible for teaching someone else.

That's why the discipleship model works so well.