One of the Myths of Leadership

“…I get to be the leader!… You got to be the leader last time!…No way, its my turn….” Where have you heard those words before? Please don’t answer “In my department” or “During our senior management team meeting!” I would imagine that most of us heard those words when we were kids on the playground, or heard our own kids saying them (or, perhaps we even can remember saying them ourselves). It’s interesting that the driving passion to be a leader is evident even in children and youth. Sometimes you want to interrupt those conversations and say “Hey kids, I am a leader, and trust me, it’s a tough road—stay a follower as long as you can!”

One of the appealing things aspiring young leaders are attracted to is the myth that leaders have power – huge power. They get to call the shots. They can come in when they want, go home when they want and no one challenges them. They get to spend the resources of the company, hire and fire at their discretion – hey, who wouldn’t want that kind of power? So many dream and work towards the goal when someday they will get to rule their own little universe.

One of the sobering lessons of leadership is that yes, leaders have a degree of power, but it is not the raw, despotic power devoid of accountability. In fact, most organizations have more mechanisms to hold leaders accountable, not less don’t they? Leaders also carry a moral obligation to their organizations and their communities to make a positive contribution there. And when it comes to subordinates, there is definitely an aspect of accountability that comes into play. Just talk to any leader whose church or ministry is going through hard times, and they will tell you that the thing that keeps them up at night is worrying about all those who depend upon their decisions for a livelihood. Such is the level of accountability attached to the power of leadership.

A verse from the Old Testament that has been one of my favorites when it comes to framing our leadership—especially the exercise of power—is found in Micah 6:18. “He has shown you, O man, what is good and what it is that the Lord requires of you: To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God.” Justice is about aligning yourself with a set of values that have fairness, kindness, and self sacrifice at their root. Mercy is the posture that puts others first – true servant leadership. Humility is the careful lifestyle of one who knows that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and that there is a greater level of accountability beyond himself.

We do well to remind our students that great leaders are not made that way by the unrestrained use of power, but rather in their responsible use of their role, recognizing that “responsibility is the true price of greatness” (Winston Churchill)

Let’s Be Pragmatic

“OK, let’s be pragmatic now….” Have you ever heard those words in your leadership context? I have in many discussions I have either participated in, or listened to. Usually this phrase is a call to be realistic in light of a leader’s propensity to dream wildly about a plan or a project. It’s a bit of a warning to remind us to keep our feet rooted on terra firma so to speak. The words are a recognition that every leadership context –regardless of the organization—is limited by some constraints. These can be related to the vision and values subscribed to, the particular culture of the organization that limits certain options, and of course financial constraints, which make any leader think twice before dreaming big dreams. The words force leaders to count the cost, and evaluate the risk of a particular course of action. “Be pragmatic….”a helpful warning in that context for sure.

Where being pragmatic can cause us some difficulty is when our pragmatism actually becomes the ethic by which we work. As a philosophy, pragmatism proposes that things are only true when there are observable outcomes – that is to say, when they work. In the political arena, pragmatism advocates that the actions that are most desirable are those that achieve results, not necessarily those informed by a particular ideology. A pragmatic ethic would say that “the ends justify the means”. “Might makes right” is an example of this form of pragmatism speaking. The golden rule of this perspective is simply “The one who has the gold makes the rules!” The jaded response to suffering that “life is just the survival of the fittest” is the voice of that pragmatic ethic drowning out our care for those less fortunate than ourselves.

While it is always good for an organization to be rooted in a pragmatic understanding of its reality, it is lethal for that same organization to make pragmatism lead its vision and values statement. An unchecked commitment to a pragmatic ethic often causes us to sacrifice making good long term decisions for some short term (and short lived) gains. It causes us to devalue people – using them as a means to an end. Without the constraints of a set of values that limit its reach (such as the Judeo‐Christian ethic), this form of pragmatism leads to chaos. If you don’t believe me, just read European history from about 1932‐1945. I rest my case.

So be pragmatic – be real. Just don’t allow the pursuit of the carrot on the end of the stick the only thing that defines your life!

Dreaming

“Hey!…Wake up!…Pay attention!…STOP DAYDREAMING!”  Ever had your thoughts interrupted by a teacher, angry that your mind was a million miles away?  Kind of nervy of them to think their lecture was more important than the issues of life that were on your mind at that precise moment!  Experiences like that often repeated classroom scenario reinforce in all of our minds that there is a bit of a stigma to dreaming – in fact some would argue that it is an absolute waste of time.  I would argue to the contrary, that taking time to dream is a vital discipline for the mind of the leader.

You see, much of the task of leadership is taking our churches, departments or organizations from the status quo to a preferred, and successful future.  A quick scan through the Bible’s account of the histories of Israel, and the church shows that God infuses leaders with his vision, and they carry it forward in His strength.  It’s part of the leader’s task to envision that future, to create ownership for it, and by working backwards from it to the present, articulate the steps involved to realize that vision.  Someone once said that the minute your memories excite you more than your dreams, you’ve begun to lose your leadership edge.

Part of the dynamic of leading into the future is found in mastering the skills necessary to lead yourself into your future.  What are your goals and aspirations?  What are you doing to grow yourself into the leader you wish to be in the next six months?  Year?  Five years?

There are some things that keep a leader from dreaming – both for his/her own life, and that of his company.  One of these is the amount of time spent by every leader in dealing with the complex problems found in today’s organizations.  Another is the uncertainty of our world (that seems to be reinforced daily!) – How can we plan for a future that looks so tentative?  The speed with which things change also make long-term vision-casting a challenge as does the sheer volume of work that crosses our desks each week.  Still another is not taking time to quiet ourselves in the presence of God and hear his voice of direction.

Many times, dreaming gets bumped out of our lives because of the tyranny of the many urgent issues that we have to attend to.  Consequently, we need to be deliberate about including what I would call “disciplined dreaming” into our weekly schedule.  While the concept of disciplined dreaming sounds contradictory, it’s amazing how ideas begin to flow when you set aside some time to clear your mind, and allow God to excite you with future vision.

Many of you who know me, know I write almost exclusively with a fountain pen.  The way to make these things work is to keep the ink-flow channel clean – once you take away the clutter and build-up sediment, the ink flows.  In a way, this is what taking the time for disciplined dreaming does for us – clears away the clutter, so that we can plan and dream freely.

Have a great week!

Change

Change…transition…new beginnings…  These words come to mind as we begin a new season here at Summit.  We have added six new staff, and transitioned 3 to new roles since the end of April.  On our family front, we are praying into Brent and Taryn’s transition to starting as church planters.  And of course we continue to thank God for our newest addition – Bennett—who arrived into the Hawkes/Demchuk worlds in July.

Seasons and events like these remind us of the fact that one of the most predictable aspects of life, after death and taxes is change.  We see it in our personal lives, in our friendship circles, in our churches, and in our culture at large.  In fact, a large part of the role of the leader in our contemporary world, is anticipating, leading, building ownership, and retooling through times of change.  To choose not to respond to the changes that come our way can turn our successes into overnight disasters.  John Wooden, a coach at UCLA once said “… and failure waits for all who stay with some success made yesterday”.

But change is never easy.  It often comes with a degree of personal pain – whether that is the twinge you feel walking past the empty bedroom of a child that’s left home for university, or the sense of risk you feel in starting a new initiative or program.  It also brings a level of insecurity, as none of us have complete control over the future that the changes we experience are creating for us.

So how do we manage change – whether on a personal level, in our departments or in our churches?  I have some thoughts—they are by no means exhaustive, but a place to begin:

  • Anchor your soul (or the “soul” of your organization) in a set of core values that remain constant, and give meaning to the process of change.  As a kid growing up on the BC coast, I remember seeing tugs pulling large booms of logs to Vancouver anchor to buoys in the strait in front of our town to wait out storms periodically.  Those buoys were the anchors that gave the ship’s crew a sense of stability and centeredness in the shifting environment of a wind-swept sea.  One of the core values I anchor my life to is my faith in God.  In Psalm 125:1, the author celebrates that “those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.”
  • Be discerning in what you need to change.  Someone once said that it is as important to determine what not to change in an organization as it is to determine what to change.  Ensure that you are prompting a needed change within your organization, and not just mixing things up because of a personal need to change.  In his book “Change is Like a Slinky” Hans Finzel reminds leaders: “don’t worship change – learn to separate the enduring principles (in your organization) from the outdated.”
  • Don’t be Afraid of Failure.  In learning to skate or ride a bike, you ultimately need to learn to relax and  forget about the fear of falling before you can conquer the task.  There are times when we simply have to relax and risk, knowing that we’ve thought through all the issues. Henry Ford said that “Failure is the opportunity to begin again – more intelligently!”
  • Don’t let the uncertainty of change rob your optimism or joy of living.  I recall a friend of mine often saying through times of uncertainty: “The sun will come up tomorrow, and children will play in the streets….”  That was his way of asserting that he kept a positive perspective on life overall.

So this week, as you reflect on changes that may be impacting your life, or as you stick-handle through what feels like a particularly rough patch of “change-management”, keep anchored and optimistic!

Dave

Deciding

Decision Making – part of the role tasked to leaders, and one of the most challenging aspects of the leadership calling. We’ve all read books, and been schooled in the theory of decision making. You know, gather all the information, reflect, consult, sleep on it, hold a couple of retreats….I jest at this point of course. Much of what we learn about decision making is helpful, and true, but the reality of many of our situations tends to mitigate against following all that good advice. Sometimes, we simple can’t get all the information we need to make effective decisions. In fact, I have come to understand that most leaders consider themselves fortunate to have 55‐60% of the information they need to make any significant decision. Often, because of the constraints of time, you have to rely on past experience, as clear a current perspective as you can gain, a quick confab with an associate, and of course, trust in a sovereign God who can save us from ourselves, and make good out of the messes we create. When we are tempted not to make important decisions because the time is not optimum, and things do not line up exactly as we think they should, we need to remind ourselves of Patton’s axiom on decision making which states that “a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow!”

Sometimes our “decision makings” are stymied by what some have called “The Paralysis of Analysis”. I have experienced this in every one of the major writing projects I have undertaken in the last few years. Most students also know what I am talking about. You can be so concerned that you have researched a subject thoroughly enough that the drive to know more actually keeps you from putting the pen to paper (or opening your laptop—pick your paradigm!). I’ll never forget the call a friend and mentor of mine made to me as I lamented this rut I had gotten into. “You know” he advised, “sometimes you simply have to start writing!” I took his advice and made the decision to begin, and things fell into place…amazingly so. In the Paralysis of Analysis, I lost sight of my ultimate goal, and realized in the words of the Roman writer Seneca, “to the person who does not know which way he wants to go, there is no favorable wind.”

In a page out of Israel’s history an interesting word picture is painted of indecision. During the time of the charismatic  prophet/statesman Elijah (during the first part of the 9th century BC) we find many examples of his challenge to the people of the nation to live up to their covenant responsibilities. One on memorable occasion, you hear his frustration as he asks his hearers the provocative question “How long will you hesitate between two opinions?” (you can read the whole account in 1 Kings 18). The interesting word in the account is the word in the Hebrew translated “hesitate”. It literally means “to limp” – isn’t that what indecision does? It robs us of momentum and energy to complete the task at hand. Napoleon said that “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious than the ability to decide.”

Have a great week – and remember, sometimes you just have to start writing.

Interruptions

I trust that you had a restful weekend. I’ll bet that you’ve already transitioned back into Monday work mode, have your schedule open, and have your week organized to the max. There is something satisfying about have the week ahead clearly charted out. After all, we all like to know that we have our lives reasonably under control don’t we?

However, there are some things that we can never schedule are those distracting calls away from the routine we’ve established – they are called interruptions. They consist of things like intrusions by co-workers or others into our activities, phone calls, urgent tasks that appear from nowhere, and little crises that scream for our immediate attention. They often feel like moments of chaos in a beautifully polished and ordered week. And true to their nature, they always manage to show up just when we need them least!

Henri Nouwen has provided me with a new perspective on the interruptions that show up during my week. In reflecting on his time as a professor at the University of Chicago, he noted that some of the most meaningful interactions he had with students were in those unscheduled moments they invaded his world of scholarly research. He coined the phrase “interruptions are our business” to describe his new attitude towards these moments in his week.

A reflection on the life of Jesus will uncover an important fact in this regard. Many of the significant accounts of Jesus’ care for others occurred during an interruption in his routine. It was usually as he was teaching or traveling somewhere that someone with a dire need broke through and he touched their lives. In a word where adults were doing adult things, he took time for little kids who broke through to him – in fact he said “Let the children come to me—Don’t stop them! For to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven” ( Mark 10:14).

So this week, be alert to interruptions that come your way. They may be opportunities to care, to capitalize on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, or to really make a difference for another.

“The great thing is, if one can, to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions in one’s “own” or “real” life. The truth is, of course, that what one regards as interruptions are precisely one’s life.” C. S. Lewis

Have a great week!

Counter Intuitive Thinking

I remember the scenario well ‐ I was trying to take a tool apart in my garage. My endeavor ground to a halt when I encountered a stubborn bolt that didn’t want to be removed. I tried force – then WD 40, and even a heat gun, thinking that something had gummed up the threads preventing me from loosening it. In a moment of frustration (or a flash of brilliance), I had a look at the user’s manual, and discovered the answer. The particular bolt upon which I had declared war was reverse‐threaded! All of my efforts to loosen it were tightening it further! What was required was to think outside of the paradigm I had grown up with, which saw bolts tighten in one direction, and loosen in another.

That paradigm shift was a move from the intuitive to the counter‐intuitive – in other words it was actually doing the opposite to what I would have expected to do. Let me illustrate further. I remember a day with some friends bringing their sailboat up from Point Roberts to Granville Island. The experience was both relaxing and educational. While the sea was very calm throughout the trip, it was a rainy day, so both the rain and clouds impaired visibility on the water. My friend paid pretty close attention to the course set on the on ‐board GPS, deferring to its direction rather than where he intuitively thought we should go. That counter‐intuitive move kept us on course and ensured the timely (and safe) arrival at our destination. Later that day he remarked that in the case of a conflict between yourself and the GPS, the GPS always wins!

Both of these scenarios portray times when we are wise to think counter‐intuitively, rather than follow an instinct, a hunch or the way we’ve always done things. Conventional wisdom and history serve us well until we bang up against a problem that defies all of our attempts to solve it. Then we have to see with a “different set of eyes” and think a little differently about applying a solution. Remember the definition of insanity? It’s doing the same thing (or applying the same solution) to a problem, while expecting different results!

We’ve seen examples in the world financial markets where this kind of thinking could be applied in the last few years. In an economy where cash is scarce and credit is becoming unavailable, our natural response is to curtail spending and save. However, on a large scale, that action removes much needed cash from the economic system, and actually can make things worse.

The concept of servant leadership is also pretty counter intuitive. In our command and control culture leading by serving others goes against our grain. It was Jesus who both said, and illustrated through his life, that if you want to be great in God’s economy, you have to learn to be the servant of all. If you want to lead, you first have to follow. If you want to get, you have to give. It seems so backwards….but it works. Trust me.

Dissonant Voices

I recently heard a story from a well know evangelical leader about a management consultant’s experience in two well-known faith-based organizations he served.  After spending time in the first organization, he met with the leader, and asked him a simple question – “Who says no to you?”  That leader recounted the structures he had set in place in his organization for accountability.  The consultant, satisfied with the answers replied “I think I can help you.”

The consultant’s experience in the second organization progressed to that same point – where the leader was asked the question “Who says no to you?”  That leader smiled and called in his personal assistant, repeated the question to his assistant, and they both shared a knowing chuckle.  The leader then responded to the consultant’s query: “No one says no to me.”  The consultant looked at the leader and responded “I’m sorry, I don’t think that I can help you.” and left.  Within a short period of time, that organization was rocked by a scandal that today has become the benchmark by which all other ministry failures are measured.  What a disappointing legacy!

In the mid 1970’s, organizational psychologist Irving Janis identified a phenomenon which occurs in group decision making processes – especially those groups that are dealing with a particularly urgent or stressful situation.  As those cohesive groups made decisions, the members often had a common sense of moral superiority – that their group processes and ultimate decisions were inherently correct.  They subsequently experienced pressure to conform, without questioning or challenging the group’s conclusions.  He named this process “Group Think”, and identified its characteristics in several political processes that “went sideways” – most notably, the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960’s.  In a word, group think occurs when no one says “no” to a leader or a leadership group.    The organization is subsequently blind-sided by the “law of unintended consequences”, with no one taking the time to expose the shadow-side of the group’s thinking.  Its results were and often are very catastrophic.

Have you ever met a child whose parents never said “no” to them?  We all have and it isn’t a very pretty picture is it?  The picture gets even uglier when that child grows to adulthood!  Here’s the bottom line:  we all need people in our lives who will challenge our thinking and say “no” to us.  In so doing, they expose the faults in our thought-processes, and sometimes prevent us from acting in haste without full information.

These are the people Solomon described in the first phrase of Proverbs 27:6 when he said: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”   This week, think about the people in your life who God has placed there to challenge your thinking, and maybe even say no to you.  They may be greater allies to your cause than you give them credit for.

Some of you do that for me….Thanks!

Choose Your Hills

I am a dog-lover.  To paraphrase the American humorist Will Rogers, “I’ve never met a dog I didn’t like!”  Well, that isn’t exactly true.  There has been at least one dog that has driven me crazy over the years.  One that comes to mind was a German short-haired pointer owned by some neighbors of ours.  The dog was a beautiful specimen of the breed with attractive coloring.  He had one fatal flaw however—he hated cars.  When off the leash, he would chase every car that passed along our street.  On busy days, it was not unusual to see him madly chase one, then another, and yet another, until he collapsed on the boulevard in a panting, salivating heap.  Senseless dog.

I’ve also encountered leaders who remind me a bit of this dog.  They grab on to every conflict and crisis like it was a hated car, and pursue it with a vengeance.  Often, they are so idealistic in their outlook that they feel the need to correct every little flaw or mistake in their world.  They wear themselves out trying to fix things, and for all their admirable efforts are largely criticized or ostracized by others within the organization.  They need a dose of vitamin CYH to bring their idealism back into check.

CYH – Choose your Hill.  Not every battle is going to be equally worthy of your noble efforts.  You need to choose the hills you are going to die on very carefully – unless of course, you want to die early in your career.  That being said, there are certain hills that are absolutely worth dying on – here are some of mine:

  • Hills where justice is being sacrificed. There are some things that are just plain wrong, and people are hurt by them.  Leaders must correct injustice – it’s a no-brainer.
  • Hills where the organization’s culture is being defined in a way not in keeping with the stated or desired values of that organization. Your organization’s culture is like its DNA.  It informs every aspect of who you are.  Guard it.
  • Hills that compromise the ethical stance of the organization – in the case of many of our organization that would be an ethic informed by Biblical truth.

So to end off my earlier analogy—there are some cars that need chasing.  Go for it with a vengeance.  Leave the rest.

And while we’re on the subject of dogs, here’s one of my favorite proverbs from the mouth of Solomon: “Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.” (26:17).

Good Advice.  Choose your Hills wisely.

Hubris

In his recent book “How the Mighty Fall”, business author Jim Collins and his research team perform a follow-up task which began in the book “From Good to Great”. Rather than explore the unique pieces that bring an organization success, in the new book, they discover the characteristics that plunge an organization into mediocrity. The first stage he notes in that downward spiral is “hubris born of success”. “Hubris” is the Latin word for “pride”, and the particular pride success engenders evinces itself in a sense of arrogance, entitlement and the loss of a learning posture within the organization. He also notes that this attitude also loses the sense of “why” the organization does what it does.

Benjamin Franklin once said that “a man wrapped up in himself makes a pretty small package”, and the same holds true for an organization or college. While it’s important to celebrate our “wins” and rest for a season in our achievements, it’s also important to be circumspect in our outlook. A circumspect leader recognizes that organizations are not static – the work we do today to realize goals has to be replicated for tomorrow. This leader or leadership team also refuses to succumb to the siren call of success in his decision making, realizing any organization is only a wrong decision or two away from trouble. That’s sobering. He or she is also “sails” with one eye fixed on the far horizon and one on the changing weather conditions, and is prepared to make mid course corrections when necessary. Pride blinds a leader from these realities—and like the little kid learning to ride a bike for the first time, he takes a tumble because he is more interested in watching who is watching him, and not looking out where he is going.

A familiar proverb reminds us (and our institution) that “Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall”. The same author reminds us that ‘Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.”(Proverbs 11:2). Finally the same author (in a different book) reminds his readers that it’s not the momentary wins, or a good beginning that counts, but how you end:
“Finishing is better than starting, and patience is better than pride” (Ecclesiates 7:8)

Unchecked pride is destructive – for organizations as much as for individuals – watch that you don’t get blinded by its spotlights.

Have a great week