The Vulgarization of Leadership

There are times in history when the character of leadership takes on a vulgar quality. The vulgarization of leadership is not new. Plato, for example, rightly indicated that leaders armed with only with an untrained mind that naively accepts perception as real, whether that is the confused and contradictory messages of the senses or the equally inconsistent popular notions of morality are not ready for leadership. Yet, there is a sense in which the political and popular rhetoric evident in many discussions today fail to rise above this level of reasoning – Plato’s lowest level of cognition.[i] Abraham Lincoln’s behavior in the face of the greatest threat to the union we have faced until now stands in stark contrast to the virulent monologs that characterize much of today’s political and social discussion. Lincoln made it clear that vengeance or spite could not function as the foundation of leadership. Lincoln wrote regarding Louisiana’s readmission to the union, “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”[ii] Listening to today’s politicians on the threat of terrorism it appears we may have lost that lesson.

By the vulgarization of leadership, I mean that quality that is incapable of ascending above the ostentatious, showy, gaudy, and distasteful behaviors of the lowest common denominators of society. Such men or women become so enamored by the ability to exercise raw power in the manipulation of others that they mistake inciting the frustrations and fears of people as a vision for the future. Inciting rather than leading a trap described in part by James MacGregor Burns who warned: “Divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique.” Incitement does not have the will to investigate the ethical implications of its claims and furies. Incitement languishes in fuzzy half truths and an accusatory tone that fails to either credit other’s good ideas or work toward a mutually beneficial public policy.

Examples of the vulgarization of leadership abound. Hillary Clinton rightly observed,

I really deplore the tone of his campaign, the inflammatory rhetoric that he is using to divide people and his going after groups of people with hateful, incendiary rhetoric," she said after a campaign event in Fairfield Tuesday. "Nothing really surprises me anymore. I don't know that he has any boundaries at all. His bigotry, his bluster, his bullying have become his campaign. And he has to keep sort of upping the stakes and going even further.[iii]

Yet, Clinton is not above using the inflammatory rhetoric of her own to incite popular support. This is perhaps most notably evidenced in her assertion that ISIS is "going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists."[iv]

Donald Trump is a virtual cornucopia of examples of the vulgarization of leadership. Trump's speeches have rendered so many examples that I prefer to avoid repeating them here. To find examples of Trump’s vulgarization of leadership simply Google “Trump” on any subject to find ample material to make the case.

Rubio and Cruz are also guilty of half-truths and falsifications all used in an attempt to strengthen their position in the eyes of voters. A quick check of provides numerous illustrations.

So, what exactly is the problem? I venture that there is no leader who hasn’t stretched the truth in their presentation of themselves or their data. If the exercise of falsification is so common what makes it warrant my derisive title, the vulgarization of leadership?  In short the question is a postulate of my position. If vulgarization is behavior that meets the standard of the lowest common denominator then its commonality is the verification of my title and its consequences make my point. The vulgarization of leadership does not summon people to a higher vision that works for change but to a coarse vision that seeks to ensconce prejudice, fear, and isolationism as the core values of our society.

The vulgarization of leadership calls out the worst in people rather than the best in people. It calcifies ideologies rather than exploring ideas with a critical eye. It contributes to reactionary regulation rather than negotiated policy. The vulgarization of leadership is, as Burns insists, a reduction of leadership to mere management and technique – it looks only at the zero sum game of political brinkmanship and hence loses a sense of the common good in its periphery.

Like other critical periods in human experience, we need leaders today who are capable of instilling a commitment to change that mobilizes and focuses the energy of a diverse populace, who call people to responsibility in the formation of a different future. We need leaders capable of explaining their moral foundation clearly and who are then ready to rigorously explore how to work with those who hold different perspectives.

At its birth, the United States attempted to make assumed moral assumptions explicit,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness[v].

The Declaration of Independence assumed: (1) a transcendent moral foundation versus a utilitarian one (i.e., endowed by their Creator); (2) unalienable rights, which we have attempted to define within the kaleidoscope of culture and social difference ever since; and (3) the responsibility of people to design and sustain a form of governance that worked in harmony with this moral foundation and unalienable rights of every person. The United States has never gotten this perfect, the exclusion of women or the exclusion of slaves, or the exclusion of those who did not own property under its colonial beginning illustrate this. The biases against the Irish or the internment of Americans of Japanese decent are well-documented failures that illustrate our ongoing struggle.  But struggling to align behavior to the ideal is not a failure unless we learn nothing in the process. A failure to learn is a failure to exercise metanoia i.e., a shift of mind. As Senge asserts, “To grasp the meaning of ‘metanoia’ is to grasp the deeper meaning of ‘learning,’ for learning also involves a fundamental shift or movement of the mind.”[vi]

So what is the escape from the pattern of vulgarized leadership I see in today’s political and social dialogue? First, it is a movement toward metanoia, some of our perspectives are wrong; we are stuck in the cave of Plato’s allegory blindfolded by biases and prejudices we can’t see to admit. Without this first step of change, we will only run deeper into the cave. Leaders must be open about admitting their lack of knowledge or miscalculations or faulty information. Fact checks should not be an afterthought but part of the process of learning especially for politicians.

Second, it is a movement of engagement that addresses difficult and complex issues of the day with the courage to admit our core convictions and moral foundations. Zero progress is possible without this kind of vulnerability and admission of our differences. No one has a corner on truth; even those who may claim perception of the truth have to admit they only “see through a glass darkly” rather than with clarity and comprehension.[vii] Every leader must start with a clear description of their core commitments and follow that up with a clear understanding of the core commitments of their opponents. This calls for true debates that remained disciplined enough to get at the positions without degenerating to school yard name calling and insults.

Third, it is an effort to create a culture of critique rather than cynicism, of investigation rather than accusation, of the will to act in the common good rather than pacing one’s step along the path of the latest poll. Encourage dialogue. Let people disagree but back their disagreement with reasons based on their own commitments. Then engage the conversation with awareness and vulnerability.

What kind of conversation do you contribute to the issues?  Are you caught up in the vulgarization of leadership or will you stand boldly out from the cacophony of noise to raise the questions and clarify the values that we need to wrestle with together? Let’s have the conversations that we need to engage.

[i] Plato. Republic 7.514

[ii] Donald T. Phillips. Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1992, 58.

[iii] Hillary Clinton. Source:; Accessed 23 December 2015.

[iv] Source:; Accessed 28 December 2015.

[v] Source: Accessed 28 December 2015.

[vi] Peter M. Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990, 13.

[vii] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13.

My Birthday: A Reflection on Mortality and Flourishing

As I reflect about my life, influence, and future plans on my birthday, I also reflect on my own mortality. "That's great Ray, way to be a happy person" you might say. Ah, but the exercise is not rooted in feeling morose. Instead, it's rooted in feeling purposeful and alive. Such reflections serve to recalibrate efforts around what is: important and not just urgent, significant and not just productive, and sustainable not just impactful. I wrote about this kind of reflection elsewhere.[i] 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 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 priorities than they had before the experience. Life itself becomes more precious than accomplishment or power. People who have this experience rearrange their lives with a new perspective that keeps the end in mind. 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.[ii] She documented 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 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 opportunities for the demonstration of God’s power that was catalytic to new insights and breakthroughs.  In contrast, leaders who never take a break, never “get a break.”  Their flurry of activity never moves beyond mediocrity. Perhaps this is because the “chance” meetings that would lead to new insights, new connections, or breakthroughs are usurped by attempts to maintain spin and the weariness that results. If you are working hard and wondering why those who have time to play get all the “breaks,” then perhaps it is time to take stock of how you manage your own energy.

Clinton’s point that leaders live with the end in mind is reflected in the renaissance works of western art. For example this work by Marinus van Reymerswaele (1490-1567) showing Jerome in his study.[iii]

Figure: Jerome in His Study

Figure 7.jpg

What do you see?  Notice the juxtaposition of the skull with the picture of the resurrection the illustrated text. See the crucifix and the skull suggesting Jesus’ own identification with our mortality. Jerome’s hands point to the dual reality that mortality is inevitable and so is the power of the resurrection. The entire picture points us toward the nature of God’s working that summons us to a hope that is alive and working and is yet not consummated. This is the eschatological nature of the kingdom of God i.e., that God’s reign and power is revealed in Christ and made available in the present but is not yet consummated. Death has not yet been destroyed. In Christian history the contemplation of death was not a moribund exercise. Contemplating death in light of the resurrection of Christ has served as a way of checking in with the tenuous nature of life that helped great men and women of faith focus on what was important in life.

The regrets of the dying illustrate the importance of beginning with the end in mind and exercising this kind of reflection on our own mortality. The behavioral and perceptual changes in those who have described near-death experiences serve as a tutorial for those who listen.  In recent years, researchers have spent time cataloging the following changes in those who experience near death events:[iv]

  • Life paradoxes begin to take on a sense of purpose and meaning
  • Forgiveness tends to replace former needs to criticize and condemn
  • Loving and accepting others without the usual attachments and conditions society expects
  • Loss of the fear of death
  • More spiritual and less religious
  • Easily engage in abstract thinking
  • More philosophical

In what ways might you be more effective as a leader if you adopted these behaviors and perceptions?

[i] Raymond L. Wheeler. Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's World. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015, 135-138.

[ii] Source:; Accessed 26 September 2013.

[iii] Source:; accessed 16 April 2013.

[iv] P.M.H. Atwater. “After Effects of Near Death States.” Source:; accessed 16 April 2013.

The Practice of Servant Leadership is an Ethical Exercise

It All Started With a New Friend questionAn attractive young woman, Samantha, started attending Sunday services in my first congregation. I noticed her one Sunday in our second service – she appeared deeply engaged in every aspect of Sunday morning. She asked questions of those around her – exhibiting deep curiosity and deep pain.  She was searching.  She attended for several weeks and then she indicated that she wanted to meet Christ.  Those who had journeyed with her made this introduction and her response to Christ deeply moved the entire group.

Several weeks later I noticed Samantha on my appointment schedule but did not recognize who she was.  “Becky,” I called out from my office into the lobby, “who is Samantha on the appointment scheduled for ten o’clock?”

Becky walked into my office and said, “You know that attractive young woman who started attending several weeks ago and then met Christ?”

“Do you mean the woman with the long brown hair who was so earnest in her search of faith?” I asked.

“Yes,” Becky said, “that is Samantha. She has some questions about what it means now to be a Christian.”

The time came for the appointment and after introductions I asked how I could help. Samantha talked about her search for meaning, how she happened to meet some people in the congregation and arrived on a Sunday to investigate.  She described meeting Christ personally in faith and she seemed to light up with joy in talking about her new sense of purpose, release from the pain of her past, and hope for the future. I was thrilled until she came to her question – then I was dumbfounded.

“So,” she transitioned, “now that I know Christ, do I have surgery again and return to being a man or do I remain a woman?”

I was not ready for Samantha’s question. I found myself floundering in my own biases, ignorance, and convictions without a way to structure and organize a response much less find the root of my struggle.  Was I even asking the right questions in my mind?  I relate this experience in every class on servant leadership when I talk about how leaders grapple with ethical reasoning.  I ask the students what they would say to Samantha.  What would you say?  What kind of ethical reasoning would you use? Is the model you use the most effective for the issues involved?  Does the model you use result in direction for the question Samantha raised?  Does the model you use effectively bring you and Samantha closer to Christ and the image of God?  Or are you unable to even frame a model? Remember that leadership capacity directly correlates to a leader’s awareness of his or her mental/theological models, biases, experiences, and cultural points of view.

Samantha’s question illustrates the impact of the preserving and purifying effect of God’s grace – she entertain new questions about her future as a result of engaging Jesus as savior and Lord. Samantha’s question also pushed me to step up in my ethical reasoning. Leaders cannot ignore moral issues. As Northouse writes:

...leadership is not an amoral phenomenon. Leadership is a process of influencing others; it has a moral dimension that distinguishes it from other types of influence, such as coercion or despotic control.[1]

Ethical reasoning and decision-making address moral issues. Ethical reasoning and decision-making depends on the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior and define right and wrong.  Generally speaking, there are three approaches to ethical reasoning.  These approaches divide into two domains namely guidelines to conduct and guidelines to character.  Ethical models offer a way of talking about the character and conduct of leadership in something other than esoteric terms.

Guidelines to conduct include:

  1. Teleological Theories e., working from consequences or ends
    • Ethical Egoism: an individual should act to create the greatest good in himself or herself i.e., do what’s best for yourself.
    • Utilitarianism: an individual should act to create the greatest number of good for the greatest number of people.
  2. Deontological Theories, working from a sense of duty or moral law. Deontological theories subsume egoism and utilitarianism under the necessity of fulfilling moral law.

Guidelines to character includes:

  1. Virtue-based Theories focus on who the leader is as a person. The leaders strive to live out core virtues such as:
  • Courage
  • Temperance
  • Generosity
  • Self-control
  • Honesty
  • Sociability
  • Modesty
  • Fairness
  • Justice
  • Substitute Galatians 5:22-23 for this list of virtues.

I Just Do What the Bible Says - Really?

Ethical models are attempts to explain in simpler terms the complex dynamic of human behavior and thus aid in decision-making. Often students in my leadership courses reject these ethical models as though they were somehow anti-biblical. Their response to Samantha’s question is, “I simply do what the Bible says.” What becomes clear as I ask questions of what the students mean by, “doing what the Bible says,” is that they are treating complex situations through an ethical lens, but are unable to explain or define the lens they used. The problem with this is twofold.

First, an inability to show and define the basis for an opinion or decision typically results in blind spots stemming from aspects of a decision or situation rooted in the leader’s unconscious frame of reference. Blind spots contribute to poor decisions and it is poor decisions that set up inconsistent and toxic behavior by leaders.  In the Samantha story my students typically want to debate the merits of gender identification and gender surgery.  Typical, they missed Samanatha’s question because they did not hear it. Their inability to show the basis for their convictions results in tirades against moral collapse in the nation.  Such responses are not helpful nor do they give leadership.

Second, the inability to show and define the basis for an opinion or decision makes it non-reproducible. How do new leaders assess the situation to arrive at an outcome consistent to the work of God and the greatest good?  If a leader cannot train others in how to think then they will not develop leaders; they will develop super followers who do what they are told and nothing more. Leaders must have an ability to manage complexity in decision-making and in analysis. The need for ethical reasoning in a story like that of Samantha is clearly evident. But what model?

A deontological model would be like closing the gate after the cows got out. A deontological model asks her to repent for actions already committed – which by the way she had.  But now what? Is it ok to shift one’s physical attributes to match one’s gender identification? Is the way we define gender in the first place ethically and theologically sound? I often have students create a list of male and female attributes. I then have them share their lists.  I teach in a university that is broadly diverse culturally speaking. The discussions become intense at multiple levels as differing cultural views play out. But, what shakes my students up most is that I have them take that same dimorphic list and mark the characteristics that describe Christ. Consistently to their great surprise Jesus demonstrates characteristics they assign as both male and female. What is right in the discussion? Where does your answer start? Perhaps Samantha’s challenge would be completely different had she met Christ before her surgery. But even then, what kind of ethical reasoning would have helped her think about her gender identification?

A virtue model could shed light on how to live going forward. What kind of character should she show as a believer?  But this also does not answer her question about surgery. Is it possible that she could live a spirit-filled life as a woman who has come to know Christ? What is at issue in a virtue model is how she decides to move forward and the degree to which her behaviors reflect the character of Christ.

A teleological model might explain why the future held promise for Samantha. She was not rejected by Christ but grafted into the body of Christ with the gifts and talents that are hers by creation and redemption. Regardless of how she decided to act or not act on surgery she gained a purpose in life and meaning in life in her encounter with Christ. Does her existence as a woman (formerly a man) rob her of the imago Dei that makes us human? No.

Grappling with what being a disciple looked like for Samantha used all three models of ethical reasoning.

Ethical Models in Biblical Case Studies

What if we apply these models of ethical reasoning to biblical case studies? What do we learn?

Character or virtue ethics works off the notion that good people make good decisions.  The strength of this approach is its ability to consider various situational factors in determining what makes for a good decision.  The ambiguity leaders often experience requires an approach to ethical decision-making that takes account of the situation.  For example: while the Jewish Scriptures are very clear about not worshiping other gods, the prophet Elisha faced an interesting cross-cultural ethical question from Naaman after being healed of leprosy and made a confession of faith in the God of Israel. While Naaman committed himself to only worship the God of Israel, he was often required to go with the king in idolatrous state rituals. Elisha apparently recognized the shift in Naaman’s perspective and acknowledged that Naaman’s position could fulfill this role without compromise to his faith.[2]

Elisha used character ethics in sending Naaman off to live a different kind of life and leadership expression than he had prior to his meet with the living God.  Naaman’s healing from leprosy would not be unnoticed. It placed him squarely in a discussion about the reality and efficacy of God’s works. From the stand point of the law of Israel (a deontological view), there was no room for Elisha’s response.  But notice, Naaman had already committed to worship only the God of Israel. Naaman had to deal with the complexities of living in a culture that had no frame of reference to the law of Israel other than Naaman’s own character.

Elisha does not express a use teleological ethics specifically.  However, we can analyze the text from this perspective as well. The ethical end in this situation was the placement of a living witness to the power of the God of Israel in a culture in which God was not yet known as God was in Israel. From a teleological perspective Elisha’s blessing infers a teleological utilitarianism in that a concern for the impact of Naaman’s life changing encounter on the populace around the king’s court was in view.  If Naaman’s question was motivated by mere teleological egoism, Elisha certainly could have counseled against participation in idolatrous rites.

Virtue ethics allow for situational flexibility. Situational flexibility or consideration is helpful in many cases even though it can lead to relativism and subjectivity. How is this weakness avoided?  Virtue ethics requires a guide to decide vice from virtue. Aristotle first evaluated actions or virtue as the mean between excess and deficiency.  Admittedly, this does not escape the problem of subjectivity or moral relativity. Aristotle used the mores of society to anchor his definition of virtue.  Obviously, social standards slide sometimes toward excess and sometimes toward deficiency on earlier positions (just think about how we define vulgarity today versus how it was defined in the 1950s).   However, using Aristotle’s model is still helpful if we allow a relationship to God to be our starting point.  For Aristotle, a virtue expressed excessively or a virtue expressed deficiently, ceases to be a virtue and becomes a vice.  For example, what if a parent refused to discipline a child out of a claim of love?  Would we say that love ceased to be a virtue in this instance and became a vice because it became excessive?  Or we could say that discipline ceased to be a virtue and became a vice because it was deficient?

Second, Aristotle observed a variety of situational impacts by describing voluntary and involuntary acts.  Voluntary actions are those a person chooses to do.  Involuntary actions are something a person is forced to do by some outside coercion. For example; murder is a vice.  But what if an individual was forced to commit some vice to save their friends and family be killed in front of them?  Would the vice then become a virtue because it resulted in a greater good in sight as an involuntary action?

Look again at the case of Naaman – the king coerced his participation in ritual idol sacrifice yet Naaman did not compromise his faith. Contrast the situation of Naaman with that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego who faced a furnace for refusing to take part in ritual idol worship.[3]  What are the differences between the situation Naaman faced and that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego?  How did their situation impact the decisions they made?  The context of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego is different. Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego lived within the covenant community of Israel in exile. This exile was the result of a failure to stay in relationship with God. In this situation, the test of covenant integrity summoned a deontological declaration that the core values of covenant with God cannot and would not be violated.

Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego used a deontological foundation for their decisions. The strength of deontological ethical decisions is that they work to simplify right and wrong – deontological perspectives help to clarify complex situations and give a starting point that avoids the slide into subjectivity. The Decalogue (e.g., the Ten Commandments) provides an illustration of a deontological foundation.  Laws and regulations for example offer a deontological starting point for decisions in business.

The law provides some guidance but cannot anticipate every situation so that even in the clarity of the law people must still make moral decisions supplemented by something more than a deontological commitment.

Aristotle noted that involuntary actions must be qualified as meeting some greater good, such as avoiding a worse evil to be considered a virtue not a vice, or if not a virtue a pardonable act and not an unpardonable one.  Before we dismiss Aristotle as being simply an ancient Greek out of touch with good biblical reasoning, we need to consider another well-known event in the Scripture.  Mordecai’s destiny words to Esther are often quoted without regard to the fact that in Esther’s case she was involuntarily placed in the Harem of Ahasuerus. Her presence in the harem and the favor bestowed on her after her courageous confrontation of Haman and his plan for ethnic cleansing is considered a virtuous act of faith and is celebrated in the feast of Purim.[4]

The case of Mordecai and Esther also illustrates a proper use of a teleological ethical egoism (an individual should act to great the greatest good in himself or herself, i.e., do what’s best for yourself). Consider that upon her entry into the harem of Ahasuerus, Mordecai counseled Esther to keep her ethnic identity secret.[5]  Had Esther not done this, it is unlikely that she would have lived to be in the place she was to expose Haman’s plot of ethnic cleansing.  Mordecai understood the banal character of evil.  Discussions of ethical decision-making are often derailed by the inability to acknowledge the reality of evil. Mordecai could have held a firm line and told Esther to reveal everything about herself out of a misguided definition of integrity. Esther never denied her identity – however it turns out that the timing of her admission meant the difference between death and salvation.   When the time came to declare her ethnic identity and act for forestall Haman’s genocidal plot Mordecai used a teleological ethic to encourage Esther’s intervention. Look at how Mordecai framed the situation,

…Do not imaging that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?[6]

Mordecai not only appeals to a teleological ethic but emphasizes the need for Esther to take responsibility as a leader to serve her people. Reviewing stories like that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego or Mordecai and Esther illustrates how the use of theological reflection.

Sound Ethical Reasoning Consists of Three Interactive Components

The point is that a model like Aristotle’s is helpful yet limited in that it does not reflect the impact of God’s revelation which serves as an anchor to limit moral decision-making from devolving into an exercise in subjectivity. The exercise of ethical reasoning by servant leaders attentive to God’s self revelation requires a leader’s self awareness in three interactive components: theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience.

Theological reflection is the anchor that continually refocuses and sharpens the moral reasoning of a servant leader so that she or he avoids the trap of subjectivity and the haze of situational overload. Theological reflection assumes that the use of the Scripture requires decisions about the mode of ethical discourse contained in Scripture. In other words, when we read the Scripture it is important to differentiate whether the text has:

  • Rules: direct commands or prohibitions (deontological approach).
  • Principles: general frameworks of moral consideration e.g., Mark 12:28-31(teleological and virtue approach).
  • Paradigms: stories or summary accounts modeling exemplary or reprehensible conduct (blend of approaches).
  • Perceptual categories: symbols by which we interpret reality e.g., nature of human condition or character of God or kingdom reign of God.

These various categories of literature each offer a different kind of biblical warrant that function authoritatively in making moral decisions. A leader’s formation as a servant leader requires utilizing a mode of appeal and sources of authority.  (A warrant is a justification for an action or a belief).

Worldview. Consciously or unconsciously people formulate a grid by which they make particular ethical decisions that blend their cultural perspectives/traditions. A worldview is how a person sees or understands the world in which he or she lives. Servant leaders work to make their worldview assumptions, allegiances, and values explicit. Servant leaders understand that the process of discipleship is a process of transformation and learning and that some of their deeply held cultural values or perceptions may in fact work against the kingdom of God. Assumptions, allegiances, and values of a worldview defined:

  • Assumptions: a fact or statement taken for granted. For example many in the western world, “…assume that the only personal beings in a given room are the ones we can see, we are following a worldview assumption taught us as we learned our culture.”[7]
  • Allegiances: the loyalties that define what is important for example: family, job, friends, country, organization, and etc.
  • Values: something intrinsically valuable or desirable and useful and important for example: freedom, loyalty, high mobility, interpersonal competitiveness or interdependence.

Personal experience generates the practice needed to refine or develop. Personal experience includes: the conceptualization of self, experience of social change, family history, and lessons learned or avoided in the consequences connected to decisions and actions. Personal experience does something with the feedback generated by action. Feedback accepted creates a learning cycle. Feedback rejected creates a gap between behavior and the consequences of behavior as illustrated in Figure 1.

Engaging ethical reasoning with a conscious awareness of the interaction between theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience expands a leader's capacity to manage complexity. When a leader exercises awareness the possibility of change through learning occurs. The way theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience interact provides a mental model for interpreting situations. A mental model is a unique and personal generalization, mental picture, or image that influences how one understands the world and takes action. The importance of defining one’s mental model rests in the fact that learning does not take place without a conscious awareness. See Figure 1.

In Figure 1 the mental model (the interaction of theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience) results in a moral decision. When the process of ethical reasoning is conscious a person moves from decision to recognizing the outcome of their decision. The outcome allows responsible reflection to decide whether the outcome was desirable or undesirable. It is important to see that regardless of the outcome the feedback loop illustrated by the solid line process results in learning. Learning results in a realignment of theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience to account for new data.

Figure 1: Ethical Decision Making Grid

Wheeler Ethical Decision Model

Conversely if the process of ethical reasoning is unconscious, the chance of working out of bias and blind spots amplifies and the risk of becoming a toxic leader grows. Figure 1 illustrates the risk of blind or unconscious action in dotted line loop titled, “externalized loop.” This process avoids analyzing the outcome of a decision and results in a failure to learn. Instead of accepting responsibility for the outcomes generated by one’s decision or behavior this person fixates on events outside themselves as either the reason for success or failure. A leader in this situation would simply condemn Samantha and leave her with few options to move forward in her life other than existing in some second class state.

A person who lives in a disconnection between their mental model and the outcome of their own behavior and decisions creates a learning gap. This gap contributes to the process of denial and the development of a mental model that effectively insulates the leader from the consequences of his or her behaviors and decisions in their own mind. Notice the gap between the dotted line loop and the mental model in use represented by the three interactive boxes (theological reflection, personal experience, and worldview). This illustrates how a leader can insist on the same ineffective action or perspective repeatedly despite a negative result obvious to those outside that leader’s mental model.

For servant leaders the ethical decision-making process always results in reflection about the outcomes of decisions and behaviors as well as the process that generates the decisions and behaviors in the first place. As is clear in Figure 1 the outcomes of any particular decision or behavior either confirm and/or challenge our mental models. Hence, feedback is extremely important.  Feedback, whether positive or negative, is the essence of a learning process that sees the outcomes of decisions in an exercise of intentional reflection. Reflection considers how the servant leader made a decision in the first place, and the degree to which it is consistent to one’s ethical commitments and the degree to which Scripture forms one’s ethical commitments.

Feedback is also important to recognize because it represents cultural, familial or organizational norms. The summons to live together as resident aliens even within our own cultural setting is a summons to engage the world around us from the perspective of God’s working. This perspective can set up cross-currents with the moral assumptions and value choices of our own culture or of our organizational culture.  But more importantly, the summons to live as resident aliens allows us to use a wider perspective in our ethical reasoning.


Making moral and effective judgments based on a process of ethical decision-making is unavoidable in leadership. But more, ethical decision-making provides a means for early intervention to forestall either personal or organizational disaster.

Ethical decision-making is a process of responsible action based on explicit moral imperatives and values requiring that servant leaders be capable of explicitly defining the basis of their ethical reasoning.

Samantha did not answer the question of whether to have surgery or not in our time together. She did understand that the reconciliation she experienced with God was contagious and provided a basis for her to hope she could be reconciled to her parents. She returned home and began to work through what it meant to be a believer reconciled and transformed by the grace of God. How do you make ethical and moral decisions?

[1]Peter G. Northouse. Leadership Theory and Practice, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004), 313.

[2] 2 Kings 5:1-19.

[3] Daniel 3:1-30 relates the incident of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego and their refusal to worship a golden statute set up by Nebuchadnezzer.

[4] Esther 4:14.

[5] Esther 2:10.

[6] Esther 4:13-14 (NASB)

[7] Charles H. Kraft. Anthropology for Christian Witness (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 11.

Leadership Takes Agility, Responsiveness & Commitment to Learning

OchoaMexico's goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa illustrates the idea of skill and behavioral repertoire in leadership. Leaders can't just use the same "play" over and over expecting to generate great results. In the first half of play against Brazil in the World Cup competition the camera caught the breadth of his ability.

Like Ochoa, leaders must to keep their head and heart in the game - they have to learn new skills and exercise a growing self-discipline.  If they learn and exercise self-discipline their ability to respond to a changing situational dynamic, changing team-mate responses, and the competition grows.  If your leadership looks something like this photo you will experience more wins than losses. On the other hand if you thought leadership was the attainment of a position, power, or prestige you might find yourself flat-footed when you need to be nimble. How is your leadership development growing?

Putting out Fires – Leadership Lessons from My Son the Submariner

040917-N-0000X-001I was talking with a client who recently moved to an international assignment. He is an experienced executive with earlier international experience but the tone in his voice alerted me to the fact he faced an unexpected level of adversity in his new move.  He started our conversation by saying, “This has been three weeks of hell. All I have done the last three weeks is put out fires, and it is exhausting.” What kind of “fires” do leaders face? Common “fires” include:

  1. Rumors that undermine staff morale and productivity.
  2. Deliberate reputation hack jobs by competitors designed to undermine customer and stakeholder confidence.
  3. Revenue crises i.e., sudden drops in sales or donor gifts.
  4. Political crises that threaten market stability and employee safety (especially threatening and uncertain in countries facing military coups).
  5. Unexpected loss of key people.
  6. Surprise audits.
  7. Innovation breakthroughs by competitors.

In my experience there are three kinds of “fire-fighting” leaders. The first two are damaging to an organization. The third is the ideal because they reduce damage while maintaining productivity.

The first is the frantic leader. This is usually a new and inexperienced leader who expected everything to work without a glitch. This young/inexperienced leader is the most dangerous to an organization because their own panic in the face of crisis leads them to freeze or withdraw at a time that their presence and clear-headed perspective is most needed by employees and stakeholders looking for reassurance that the crisis is not fatal.  The frantic leader needs to understand that fires happen – they will occur and because of this reality contingency plans for dealing with fires must be in place.

The second is the distracted leader. This leader puts all their energy into extinguishing the fire and finding its source. The distracted leader is also dangerous to the organization. The distracted leader is aware of the potential for “fire” however, they have not put response mechanism in place. Because they focus their attention on the fire they temporarily suspend leadership activity needed to keep the organization on the right course in the midst of the fire. The organization becomes distracted and may fail to produce or pay attention to its stakeholders.

The third leader is the captain.  The captain knows fires happen and that they threaten the mission critical activities of their employees and organization.  Because of this the captain puts in place the response mechanisms needed to address the fire while continuing to manage the operational necessities that keep the organization productive and strategic.  The captain knows his vessel, he has response mechanisms and people in place and he directs their response. He is confident in their ability because he has trained and drilled his team to refine their skills.

Here is where my son’s stories of being a submariner kick in. As we talked about life aboard a submarine during his Navy days I walked away with two important insights. First, everyone is a fire fighter on board any kind of marine vessel.  Even on my visit to his submarine on parent’s day we were given instruction on what to do in case of fire.  We were instructed on where to go, what equipment to use, how to use it, and then we practiced using it. Everyone on board is trained to respond to fire. Second, a fighting vessel cannot afford to drop its operational functions to respond to a crisis.  It has to be able to maintain a dual focus of mission completion and crisis intervention. If a fire occur those at their duty stations remain attentive to their jobs, those off duty become fire fighters.

The application to leadership is important. On a submarine this dual focus is the subject of repeated drills. I observed the captain run several drills while aboard my son’s submarine. Practice, practice, practice so that when emergency situations arise people respond with discipline and not panic. The captain was attentive to multiple layers of activity.

My friend while an experienced executive is developing new capacity as a leader.  He has moved beyond the frantic leader model to the distracted leader model and to his credit he realizes that he cannot afford to be distracted.  As we talked his vision of being a captain emerged and I am confident that his current crisis will teach him what his organization needs to manage fire while completing their mission.

What kind of leader are you?  The question is really one of capacity i.e., the power to grasp and analyze ideas and cope with problems.  Does your organization have the mechanisms in place to respond to different kinds of “fires”?  Do your people know how to respond (or defer response) in the face of crises? Do you lead from the front in the face of “fire” or are you frantic or distracted.  Think through the “fires” your organization has faced in the past. What needs to be in place to find the nature of the “fire” and what needs to be in place to address it?

For example: in one company I worked with we set up social media monitoring to catch customer disappointment or complaints as soon as they appear. We drew up an action map to guide an immediate response to any complaint or disappointment. We drew up an action map for follow-up and designated specific follow-up by department. In another company I worked with I helped them create a legal response team to work with clients, state and federal compliance, and internal management. This team went into action when any of our employees inadvertently or deliberately violated state or federal law (sounds odd but in that industry the quick pace, high demand and tight regulatory boundaries made such infractions a distinct possibility). In this situation too we define action maps; we drilled people on their roles, responsibilities, and follow-up procedures. We moved from a frantic reaction to a disciplined response that not only reduced the damage but created an organizational culture that was more contentious about compliance and productivity.

How do you deal with “fires” as a leader?

A Global Conversation - is a two way conversation

Countries 2013 The visitors to my blog in the last year represent a variety of countries - which is as it should be in a conversation about leadership. The challenges of leadership are not limited to a single worldview or cultural setting. The perspectives on what it means to lead and how to work with people differ in nuance from culture to culture but the challenges are amazingly similar.

I appreciate the fact that this blog has a wide readership - readership encourages me to keep writing and thinking about leadership both from what I see in the practice of leading and what I learn from research.

If I were to change anything at all it would be to encourage readers to talk back more often.  I need your comments even when they may question or disagree with what I write. Help me sharpen my thinking about leadership with your own insights.

The best learning is always what is learned in the process of leading and in conversation with others who lead. Without feedback and comments I run the risk of simply being a noise and not a mentor. Thank you for reading and thank you for your comments. I am a student and that qualifies me to also be a teacher.

Servant Leaders Show Up With Great Effect

Publication1Leaders who understand the power of servant leadership share an important characteristic - they “show up” in every relationship and are able to adjust to the needs of the person in front of them. By “showing up” I mean that the servant leader is attentive to other people’s motivations and needs.  Servant leadership is an approach to leading that is identifiable in the belief that others want to bring their best selves and their best contribution to work. As a result servant leaders engage and develop the knowledge and energy of all employees.  Simultaneously servant leaders expect and encourages the best contribution of others. Jesus’ encounter with Nathanael illustrates what it means to "show up" in a relationship and provides a great insight into how servant leadership works.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets spoke, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And Nathanael said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”[1]

Jesus recognized that Nathanael was a man intent on knowing and deciphering truth – this is the meaning of saying Nathanael was without fraud or deceit. Jesus’ assessment amazed Nathanael for the insight into Nathanael’s character and for the verdict of guileless inquiry. Nathanael was a skeptic. Jesus did not shy away from addressing skepticism head on. Nathanael’s skepticism is rooted in his awareness that Nazareth (Jesus' home town) did not play into the prophetic narrative of Jewish Scriptures regarding the Messiah.  The skepticism of today’s workforce is often rooted in their experience with leaders who are uncaring, inconsistent and concerned only for their own prestige and survival.

In contrast to Jesus, some leaders fail to “show up” in any relationship because they are distracted by what must be accomplished or recent challenges or new opportunities. Distracted leaders are self-absorbed leaders who would not have recognized the potential in Nathanael much less exhibited the presence or insight to speak directly to Nathanael’s skepticism. Instead distracted leaders often interpret anything other than compliance as insubordination and see skepticism as equal to disapproval.

How a leader is present in every relationship demonstrates the degree to which they believe that it is important to know and address the needs of those in front of them. This is one of the reasons why being with servant leaders is encouraging and inspiring to others.  Servant leaders call out the kind of commitment and behaviors that lead people to be their best. Barclay’s description of Nathanael’s experience is profound,

…Jesus had read the thoughts of his inmost heart.  So Nathanael said to himself: “Here is the man who understands my dreams! Here is the man who knows my prayers! Here is the man who has seen into my most intimate and secret longings which I have never even dared to put into words!  Here is the man who can translate the inarticulate sigh of my soul!”[2]

Who wouldn’t find a leader like this intriguing? This simple, direct, and abbreviated encounter between Jesus and Nathanael illustrates the power of believing in others and knowing what they need to thrive and be their best.  Servant leaders make explicit what is implicit. This kind of insight into others is not out of the reach of servant leaders if they exercise six practices of effective servant leadership.

First, believe that others want to be and give their best. Servant leaders work at knowing others. When a leader pays attention to knowing others through observation, vulnerability and questions significant insights into others emerge.

Second, recognize that people are intrinsically motivated and that this motivation possesses three critical elements: (1) autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives; (2) mastery, the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and (3) purpose, the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.[3] Mastery and purpose are understandable in common usage.  Autonomy requires definition. By autonomy I do not mean independence and a quest for narcissism. Instead I use the word as Pink describes it,

Autonomy… is different from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy.  It means acting with choice – which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others.[4]

Jesus gave invited people to decide to act. A 2004 study of 320 small businesses illustrates the power of choice and autonomy. Researchers found that those businesses offering autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented, top-down management companies and had one-third the turnover.

Third, stay engaged. The recognition of autonomy does not mean that servant leaders must practice a laze faire approach to organizational leadership. Servant leaders stay engaged with their operations and the development of their team. They use the right kind of controls. Controls help shape the culture and effectiveness of an organization.  Not all controls however are helpful.  The difference between helpful and damaging controls is the assumptions behind the controls. Controls that presume trust in others are far different in their impact on participation and contribution than controls that assume people cannot be trusted and need extrinsic motivation to work.[5]

Fourth, avoid a focus on empathy that mollifies the emotional immature.  Mollifying the emotionally immature is regressive and toxic in outcome – it is impossible to relate to another person as a peer when the other person fails to exercise responsibility for their well-being and is by nature all take and no give. Servant leaders recognize the difference between causing pain in others (as is often the case in making difficult decisions) and in causing harm to others. The challenge induced by painful experiences is often the development of a greater capacity for self differentiation.

Fifth, use tools that help you define other’s usual behavioral style is and to play to those strengths. Use the tools that do not insult the complexities of each person. I have found that the Birkman Method is the best in providing leaders with an understanding of the unique perspectives and needs of each individual.  The Birkman Method helps people understand the multi-dimensional aspect of human behavior that starts with recognizing the diversity of observable behavioral characteristics.[6]

Sixth practice vulnerability. That servant leaders expose their vulnerable side to enhance communication and relationship seems counter intuitive particularly in times of interpersonal stress. However, vulnerability is an adaptive tool that owns personal emotions and encourages others to take responsibility for their emotions.  Vulnerability is accepting the uncertainty and risk associated with emotional exposure. What is the benefit to this approach? This approach gives opportunity for love to grow.  "Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”[7]  Love is no stranger to servant leadership. Love has everything to do with engaging work as the real you not the “you” others think you should be.


High capacity servant leaders understand their strengths and needs and have developed the skills needed to approach people differently depending upon the unique strengths and needs of their team.  Servant leaders engage interpersonal relationships authentically with attention to the needs and aspirations of the person. Jesus’ illustrates how to use the skepticism so common in organizations today as a foundation for commitment and contribution by identifying the person’s desire for authenticity and interaction.

Those people who understand the importance of relationships and work to enhance their skill in building strong authentic interpersonal connections set the stage to multiply the effectiveness of their organization and multiply leaders around them. Will you be a servant leader?

[1] John 1:45-48 (NASV)

[2] William Barclay.  The Gospel of John, Volume 1, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1956), 78.

[3] Daniel H. Pink. Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us ( New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2009), 204

[4] Pink, 90.

[5] Douglas McGregor. The Human Side of the Enterprise, Annotated  ed., (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006), xii.

[6] Sharon Birkman Fink and Stephanie Capparell. The Birkman Method: Your Personality at Work (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 65.

[7] Brené Brown. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (City Center, MN: Hazelden, 2010), .

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).

If you Want to Lead Well Clarify your Values

Leadership word ScreenDick Costolo, CEO of Twitter has a reputation for being decisive, leading with high expectations, and remaining focused on the long-term, but he’s also known for being accessible, disarming and, of course, funny according to Jena McGregor.[i]  Why is this important to understand? The weakest and most toxic organizations are those led by people who are inconsistent, non-committal, people pleasers who engage their work as though tasks were amoral and not morally contingent. Leaders like Costolo spend time thinking and speaking about leadership and what makes leadership work. Leaders who build great organizations understand that the tasks of leadership are morally contingent.  That is they know that the values of the person engaging the tasks of leadership actually shape the moral content of those values. This morally contingent characteristic of leadership tasks require that leaders routinely and explicitly review their own values and how these values find expression in the leader’s daily activities or disciplines.  Put another way, your organization’s behavior ultimately reflects your attention or inattention to making your own values explicit and understood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[i] Jena McGregor. “What Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is Like as a Leader.” Source:!; accessed 15 September 2013.

[ii] George S Everly Jr. “Episodes of Failed Leadership in 2010 Taught Lessons.” Source:; accessed 15 September 2013.

Get Real to Succeed - vulnerability, love, and clarity

Growth chartI am accustom to encountering friendly (sometimes intense) competitive posturing when entering a new situation. A little verbal sparing sets the tone for who is stronger in position and perspective. Once the first probe of potential strengths and weakness passes the conversation gets down to business.  It is like a hazing designed to determine the level of competence and connection. So, imagine my surprise when entering a tense conversation when the CEO started with, "Your perspective (referring to an email) hurt me.  I don't think it captured my intent or characterized my actions well."

I sat back in my chair, grasped for a new sense of orientation to the meeting and responded with, "Fair enough, help me understand.  I thought you made clear in our last conversation that you were quite agitated with the course we decided to take. Was I wrong?"

Feelings change the “rules of engagement” in interactions. They can introduce vulnerability instead of competitiveness in communication in a way that accelerates clarity.  I don't often see this kind of vulnerability in organizations.  Communication is more often a muddle of dishonesty and irritation punctuated with rare moments of personal honesty that infrequently slips out from the edges.  This "usual pattern" is horribly inefficient.

This CEO was in the middle of a deliberate culture change.  He had inherited a corporate culture permeated with a cover your backside attitude, pettiness, excuse making, blame shifting poorly performing company.  He wanted to move it toward a responsible, accountable, vision casting quest for excellence. There are still burps of regression along the way but wow, a little honesty about feelings seems to have gone a long way in getting at clear communication. Three factors help start then negotiate a culture shift.


Brené Brown has made an impact on the way leaders think about vulnerability by defining vulnerability accepting the uncertainty and risk associated with emotional exposure. What is the benefit to this approach? The opportunity for love to grow.  "Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” ― Brené BrownThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are  What does love have to do with business or leadership?  It has everything to do with engaging work with who one really is rather than what people think they should be.

I remember my first VP in business after my transition from pastoral ministry to the corporate world.  One day he asked me what I thought about being in the "real world."  I turned and laughed at him.

"Real? You think this is real? All I see are people afraid to be themselves, filled with competitive envy who are confident of only one thing - the moment they let down their guard someone will view them as less successful.  You want real?  Come to my pastoral office where people pour out their fears, describe their losses, unveil their shame and guilt and ask for help in becoming the person they want to be...that is real.  This is mostly a farce where some people enjoy what they do yet worry that they may be truly known and others hate what they do and will never allow themselves to be truly known."  The VP looked stunned for a moment then wandered off muttering something about my being really different.

Vulnerability makes the shift from hiding to walking into the open with all the skills, insights, interests and passion that sit at the core of people's true engagement.  Without the willingness to embrace the chance of failure no real success will ever occur.  I have a quote hanging on my office wall from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States that summarizes this idea.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”


James Autry, retired president of the magazine group at Meredith Corporation, reflected on one of the most transformative encounters he experienced as a leader. He was listening to Bob Barnett, then CEO of the Meredith Corporation in 1968.  According to Autry, Barnett reflected on the importance of self renewal as a leader pointing out that the most important thing in this process is love.

Love in business?  Why not? Love is not being a jolly, well-liked sap who cannot make difficult decisions or who has lost the respect of others and become an impotent in leader. Rather it is a commitment to act out beyond ego to recognize when denial or hubris has misdirected critical thinking. Love is the humility to learn from others regardless of their status and a commitment to grow personally. Love sets a tone in which others can risk excelling - an act that requires they also risk failing.

So did love work for Autry?  Under his tenure the magazine group went from $160 million in revenue to $500 million.  In Autry's words "I tried to integrate love in the corporate setting. And it just kept working; I just kept getting results."

My CEO friend is on the verge of becoming deliberate about love. He clearly has compassion for his employees and cares about their well-being.  However, he has not yet defined love in a way that allows him to also exercise difficult leader decisions. As a result he sometimes lacks clarity in the muddle of his own duplicity in action. He affirms when he needs to correct and sometimes corrects when he needs to affirm.  He has retained less than capable people with the hope they will improve and not designed a development plan to move them toward improvement or replacement.


In my conversation with this newly minted CEO I asked him to tell me what his vision was for the company.  He outlined a profit target.

"Ok," I said, "hitting a profit is great and necessary to continue in business but what inspires you to work to that end? What will you use to rally the people in your charge to truly invest themselves in the work of the company?"

"Hitting the profit goal," he responded with even greater intensity. He appears to see profit as the means to an end. It is of course in one sense, he will not keep his position or meet his other goals without making a profit.  However, he has fallen into the great distortion of the American corporation.  The real work of any business is not making profits; making profits is the result of the real work.

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink noted that purpose was one of the core aspects of motivation.  When people own and work toward a greater purpose their internal drive reduces any need to force a motivation onto them. Most managers learn that extrinsic motivators are not consistently reliable and often work to undermine rather than amplify motivation.

The greatest businesses I have had opportunity to engage all have and live in a sense of purpose and they can describe their purpose clearly and succinctly. Sure they are aware of their metrics and check their profit.  However, their profitability (and all of them are profitable) does not arise out of their monitoring of profit but out of their passion for their work.

When I pressed this new CEO for a purpose his communication became a muddled disarray of incomplete thoughts.  It seems to me that once the CEO becomes clear about love he will also become much more clear about purpose. Clarity in purpose is essential for any company that seeks to thrive and walk toward greatness.  Those companies that only walk toward profit are not great, they are wreaks of burned out employees and bitter executives living to avoid the next round of cuts.


I see vulnerability, love and clarity as revolutionary in force and outcome. In my own leadership I have seen the power these unleash the gifts and abilities of others and myself. These characteristics always probe my weaknesses and push on my strengths. These characteristics consistently help turn negative poor performing units and companies into thriving and financially successful operations in my experience. However, they clearly need a commitment to personal change and growth. How does vulnerability, love and clarity factor into your leadership?  If they don't, why? How can you introduce them? Do you need help - who will you talk with? I am always game for a conversation - I am still learning.  Let's talk.

Make a Significant Difference in the World - network with those making a difference

village churchMaking a difference in the world for me is investing in leaders - helping them find their own voice and engaging the power of their own unique personality, abilities and vision. I often get to do this through business. I have opportunity to do it through education. But the most exciting vehicle I get to be a part of is the church.  Why?  I think Rick Warren said it best:

‎"Even if we had the cure for AIDS right now, you couldn’t get it to everybody in the world without the church because I can take you to 10 million villages in the world where the only thing in it is a church. They don’t have a school. They don’t have a post office. They don’t have a government. They don’t have a fire department. They don’t have a business, but they’ve got a church. The church is the only truly global organization. Nothing else comes close. Everybody else just plays at globalization."

(Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, founder of the PEACE Plan and author of the New York Times best-selling book, "The Purpose Driven Life," at a recent forum on religious freedom at Georgetown University.)

How to you respond to Warren's statement?  Let me know.

a teenage advocate

Terry's article on the fate of Malala Yousafzai captured my own sense of being stirred to action in light of this atrocity.   The capacity of humankind for injustice in action and in inaction points to the reality that the world needs a transformational influence.  It is this need that I find answered in my own encounter with Jesus the Messiah.  If you are a reader of my blog then I hope you see that when I talk about faith I am not talking about blind parochialism but an encounter with God that I cannot avoid and will not treat with triviality but with deep curiosity, enduring reverence and explicit impatience with any form of religious expression that fails to reflect that nature and character of the God revealed. I commend this article to you. a teenage advocate.

You are Stalled as a Leader Because you are Lost as a Person

The most dynamic leaders I know are also the most interesting people.  Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so. Developing leaders is a multifaceted process that has much more to do with helping leaders develop who they are than it does developing a technical understanding of leadership. Growth as a leader is multifaceted because people do not develop along a linear path of skill sets that build capacity. Instead leaders simultaneously develop technical skills, interpersonal styles and conceptual ability in a complex interaction between their internal sense of purpose, the context in which they lead (i.e., the relational dynamics of the organization) and the varying demands of the market place for product.

Identifying the factors of development along linear paths, as I have done in the diagram above, helps define the components of a leader's development and illustrates that simply learning new skills is not the most significant aspect of leadership.  The failure of many leadership development programs is that they focus solely on attempts to develop the skills and ability of leaders without addressing the far more important aspects of the leader's identity as rooted in his or her personality and their spirituality (consciousness i.e., how they perceive reality).

Real success in leadership is not so much a technical skill as it is the ability to read the emotional environment and reassure people in the face of anxiety.  Leaders who are most effective in reading the emotional environment of their organization and offering reassurance stand out – they exude confidence (not hubris) that reassure others and moves the conversation from anxiety to possibility. They have a secure identity. They have a differentiated sense of self.

If the leader understands his/her differentiation from the group then they are able to act without being affected by the group's (institution's) own emotional processes.  Without a clearly differentiated sense of self the leader fails to develop clear values, a unique vision or a defined moral foundation.  Instead the undifferentiated person looses the nerve to be his or her own self in the face of the emotional reaction of the group to both internal and external events. The leadership challenge inherent in being a differentiated person is succinctly described by Friedman:

A leader must separate his or her own emotional being from that of his or her followers while still remaining connected.  Vision is basically an emotional rather than a cerebral phenomenon, depending more on a leader's capacity to deal with anxiety than his or her professional training or degree.[i]

A differentiated person possesses clarity about their life goals and clarity about their own capacity potential. A differentiated person is unruffled by the reactivity of others.  A differentiated person or leader is able to express his/her self without blaming.  This person takes responsibility for their own destiny and emotional health.

Without a differentiated sense of self leaders become caught up in the organization’s emotional processes. As a result often agitate anxiety instead of steering the group through it.  When a leader agitates his or her organization’s anxiety then behaviors such as reactivity, herding (quest for uniformity versus individuality in which the organization adapts to its least mature member), blaming, a quick-fix mentality and a lack of leadership occur.

I met Steve Moreau some time after he stepped into a CEO role in 2005. The way he presented himself impressed me.  He consistently emphasized three core values: excellence, engagement and execution.  He emanated conviction, energy and commitment.  He did not seem to be merely mouthing a formula or the tag line of the latest business book. Steve capably lead the hospital he lead from loosing money to being one of the top 100 acute care hospitals in the nation and he did it in two years.  How?  Rather than blame his staff for poor engagement, or blame the situation Steve initiated change in how he and the organization related – he did not allow the least emotional mature members of the staff to decide the emotional climate of the hospital.  He brought in coaches to work with his executive team and key managers to help them define their own individuality and he affirmed that individuality by rewarding performance and creativity.

How are you doing as a leader?  Are you unruffled by the emotional reactivity of others?  Do you hold others accountable for their own emotional wake?  Do you insist that the least mature of your staff to grow?  If you are then you most likely face the sabotage and resistance real leadership generates but you also experience progress and breakthroughs in how people on your team assess their situation and possibilities.   Are you a differentiated person? If not, it is time to hire a coach or find a mentor capable of helping you change the way you see yourself and overcome the imaginative barriers that keep you from risking new thinking. If you are stalled as a leader you may be lost as a person. Don’t attend another seminar boasting 12 great breakthrough strategies – do the hard work of knowing yourself.

[i] Edwin H. Friedman. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix [Kindle Version], 430 of 5400. Retrieved from

When Crap Lead to a Leadership Breakthrough

A friend of mine told me a story I have not forgotten.  He was traveling up a mountain road stuck behind a cattle truck.  He wanted to pass but could not get a clear shot when one of the cows let fly and covered his wind shield in well, fertilizer. “I nearly crashed…the stuff doesn’t respond to wind shield wipers well.”  He said.

“What did you do?” I queried.

He laughed and said, “I prayed as I pulled over; ‘crap, God why me?’"

“I was really pissed,” he continued.  “I envisioned my paint job being ruined, I smelled like a barnyard – that was going to go over well in my next meeting. Then something strange happened.”

“What?” I asked.

"I don’t way to say God talked to me" he began "…don’t think I am loosing it, but it was like God was talking to me and answered the question I asked in my self-pity, 'Because you were following too close much like you do with your team, back up enough to coach and not be blinded by the stuff that happens.'"

The encounter changed his approach to leadership – he moved from micro managing (stage managing) his team to holding them accountable for their roles while trusting and mentoring their decision-making processes.

It is amazing what happens when leaders hold their teams to account for outcomes and then mentor them along the way pushing decisions back to the right people when those people attempt to slide out of responsibility.  He stopped retaking delegated authority and then resenting the fact all the work landed on his shoulders.

He took the crappy experience to heart and his team became one of the most effective and efficient management groups in his industry – and they started having fun.  Actually leading and not dictating and micro managing changed the way he viewed his team.  He respected them more versus resenting them. He trusted them more instead of being constantly suspicious of their activity.

On the flip side his team started trusting him.  Understanding mentoring as a leadership activity is the back story about what he learned.  Check out these other two articles and think about how to put mentoring to work in your leadership situation. and

But, be careful.  No one is exempt from crap happening – make sure your positioning as a leader accounts for the unexpected and that you have the mentoring skills to lead others through the mess.

4 Ways to Mentor Your Team to Success

The Challenge – Control, Trust, Delegation and Accountability How do leaders expand their organizations without loosing control of vital functions? A small business owner in a rapidly growing business said it this way, “I am one of those small but fast growing companies but like you said some of the issues here at my office might certainly start with me. My biggest issue, I can’t let go. I have to do it all myself. It's like the saying ‘If you want things done you have to do them yourself’ which takes so much time from my schedule. My problem is trusting my team or teaching them.” (Owner of a Tri-state Business)

Is the choice founders make really a choice between quality or quantity; control or delegation; trust or effectiveness? The owner quoted above like many leaders in both business and the non-profit sector suffers from a false dichotomy. Organizations need both quality and quantity; control and delegation; and trust and effectiveness. Notice that the assumption is clear – no one has the same degree of ambition as I when it comes to my organization’s success. While this is true it is true in degrees and not absolutes.

In an earlier article ( I discussed the impact Moses’ father-in-law (Jethro) had on changing Moses’ perspective about his role as a leader. It is important to return to the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and Moses’ role in this exodus for a moment to set the stage for what might be called the Moses conundrum i.e., no one has the same ambition I do for this organization.

Nature of the Moses Conundrum

Owners and founders have a unique perspective of their organizations. Consider for a moment that Moses, like almost every founder, faced impossible odds and steep opposition to his vision. Empowered by a catalytic encounter with God in the desert Moses not only faced the opposition of a well established nation as he pursued the dream of a unique identity for his people. He was initially rejected by the very people he worked to liberate because his first efforts at liberation made their lives more miserable. He faced the backlash of Egypt’s pharaoh who sought to squelch the upstart Moses and the idea of an emergent new nation. Owners put everything on the line for their vision – one false step and they lose everything.

I once worked for a privately held company that hired me to help them expand to new markets. I turned down a more lucrative offer to work in a publicly traded company because (1) the privately held company demanded that change happen with greater speed – I could have a direct and immediate impact on outcomes verses the indirect and much slower impact on outcomes in a publicly traded company and (2) I had a greater potential for short-term gains in my own financial position in the privately held company. So, I traded a long-term career opportunity for a very risky but potentially lucrative gig in a privately held company.

I will never forget my shock a few weeks after turning down the third recruiting offer from the public firm (each one more lucrative) when the owner walked into my office and declared, “I don’t trust you.” I felt like decking him on the spot. Several thoughts ran through my mind including the frustration of facing mistrust when I had just sacked a fantastic career offer to engage the adventure of building something from scratch. What was the catalyst to this frustrating encounter? The owner had just put up a million dollars of equity (everything he owned) to fund the expansion. Whose sacrifice for the vision was greater?

Answering the question of sacrifice and investment offers an important insight into what I call the Moses conundrum – no one initially pays the same price as the founder in the first stages of the organization’s lifecycle – everyone takes a risk of significant harm to their future to join the vision of the founder. The conundrum is that even though the founder pays a high initial price – he/she must learn to recruit people to assume an uncomfortable level of risk for the organization to continue to thrive. For example: someone had the guts to be your first hire (unless you hired the first warm body that walked in from the street). If you recruited your first hire because you knew what they could do to be a force multiplier to your time and effort as the owner then recognize and appreciate their risk and recognize/reward them appropriately. Note: recognition has a much greater leverage potential at every stage of the organization’s lifecycle. This doesn’t exclude the need for reward – it is to say reward without recognition and relationship often leads to disappointment and betrayal.

This introduces two big mistakes I see founders make (1) they don’t hire force multipliers they hire stabilizers and (2) they don’t recruit the best they hire to survive another month. If employees or partners are not going to serve as force multipliers they will do more harm than good. A vicious cycle emerges. Founders need force multipliers. They know that no one they hire has made the same initial investment. They don’t know how to find force multipliers so they hire stabilizers (employees who can do exactly what they are told) because they don’t trust anyone with the essence of the business. Stabilizers end up failing to exercise critical thinking skills reaffirming that employees can’t be trusted so the founder takes up more the tasks he/she tried to escape. Employees act slighted and show an entitlement attitude infuriating the owner causing a greater gap in trust and so on.

Owners who fall into the Moses conundrum show one or more of the following dysfunctional behaviors:

  • Impulse versus Innovation. Focus: new ideas. Result: demoralized staff who cannot find consistency in action. Manages by flirting with new ideas, is unpredictable and fails to follow through. Prime focus is on why.
  • Working harder versus working smarter. Focus: task at hand. Result: hard work with the FISH time-table (first in, still here). Manages by crisis without delegation, training, long-range or short-range planning. Prime focus is on what. (See Adolescence and the role of delegation.)
  • Control versus accountability. Focus: doing things right. Result: orderly processes while what needs to be done is eclipsed by how it should be done. Manages a well controlled disaster; the company may go broke but it will do so on time. Prime focus is on how.

Get Out of the Vicious Cycle of Mistrust

How did Jethro’s mentoring help Moses cross the trust threshold to find force multipliers? I have highlighted several points in the text that name the principles founders need to multiply their force multipliers in leadership. Read the text then think through what I have to say about below.

17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain —and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied. Exodus 18:17-23 (NIV)

Jethro illustrates four critical force multipliers leaders need to stay vital and sane as their organizations grow and become more complex:

  1. Outline and explain your core values
  2. Look for People who exhibit characteristics of trust
  3. Delegate based on each person’s capacity and capability
  4. Collaborate on complex issues leave routine issues

Outline and explain your core values

Jethro told Moses to spend time educating the leaders around him on how to live. In other words Jethro wanted Moses to make explicit things that he held implicitly. Your team cannot read your mind. I once gave what I thought was a simple assignment to my administrative coordinator, “Jim,” I said, “we need some signs around this property to direct people – our facility is too confusing.” We had purchased existing structures next to our original site to expand our operations. I was concerned that the hodgepodge of buildings and new parking left visitors confused about how to find their way around the chaos.

On the day the signs were installed I parked in the sanctuary parking lot and climbed out of my car anticipating a professional looking, easy to read “road map” to the facility. What I saw instead were signs nearly too small to read, remnants of a hardware store closeout that neither matched the ambiance of the congregational facility nor the vision we had to present our message and mission with excellence in a community used to spiritual charlatans. I was both frustrated and angry at myself for not communicating with greater clarity what I wanted to see in the signage. I proceeded to rip each sign from the building and walked into Jim’s office with a mangled menagerie of metal scrap. I dropped the now unusable mass on his desk watching in his face that he was horrified at the expectation of what I was about to say. “Jim, this isn’t right. I don’t know what I did wrong in communicating my expectations but when I figure it out I will be back and we can talk about it. Until then don’t worry about the signs.”

That last word of encouragement did not lighten his countenance. I went into my office seething with anger. I recognized that my frustration was not at Jim but at a dissonance I was feeling with the entire staff. They were not doing things the way I wanted them done. We had begun to have exchanges in the office that had an edge to them. I sat and prayed that God would help me, I felt like we were missing an important ingredient to our team.[1]

I asked myself why Jim would buy such junk. It occurred to me that Jim loved to save money, in fact having him serve in the role of administrative coordinator had gotten us some great deals. I continued my rumination, Jim likes a good deal. In fact, he values good deals. I value cost savings too but I also value excellence. Cost savings and excellence balanced each other out in my mind. In Jim’s mind a good deal trumped most other concerns. Jim had not bought junk, he had saved money.

“Ok,” I thought, “I am onto something here.” I continued my list of “most important” things to me. “Let’s see, I value cost savings, relationships, excellence, commitment, truth-telling…” My list of values grew.

I returned to Jim’s office the same afternoon. “Ok Jim,” I began “here is what I did wrong. I gave you a job to do and you did it on time and under budget. But I failed to instill in you the values that have been at the core of my work here the last 7 years.” Thus began a conversation that became a turning point in how I lead.

I illustrated nine core values in an interactive matrix and told Jim that I wanted him to do the assignment again only this time to make certain that he incorporated all nine values in his actions. He tried to hand the assignment back to me – I didn’t blame him for being gun-shy but I insisted on trying this new experiment in leadership action. I had to get past the frustration I was feeling. “Jim, even if I don’t like the final outcome, if you can prove to me that all the values meet in your decision, your decision will stand.” Why? Because I felt these core values were the foundation of our success. The tension I felt with the staff I had recruited rested in the fact I felt dissonance with what had made us successful in the first place.

On the appointed day I parked out back to check the work again. I bounded out of my car with a sense of expectation and laughed the moment I saw the signs. They were excellent, Jim later told me that he negotiated with a sign painter (the best in the county) for custom signs by bartering for our signs by offering the use of our building by sign painter's family reunion. The source of my laughter was not that the signs were well done. I was delighted with the quality. I laughed because the base color of the signs was maroon, I hate maroon. I walked into Jim’s office still laughing. He looked at me with growing expression of uncertainty. “Jim the signs are great. You met every core value, well done.”

“Then why are you laughing?” he asked.

“That is not important; you did an excellent job meeting our working values. I think I am on to something with this Jim. I think it will make our communication fun again.” I said.

“I agree, but why are you laughing?” Jim pressed for an answer.

I finally relented, “Jim the signs are great, you met the values but I hate maroon. So, just as a matter of my personal taste – I acknowledge that this has nothing to do with our core values – could you avoid doing anything else in that color?”

Jim’s face grew white with anxiety. “Jim, are you ok?” I queried.

“Yea, I am alright but you know those usher shirts you asked me to order? I ordered them in maroon.” Jim said.

I broke into such loud belly laughs that the entire staff gathered around Jim’s office to share the joke. It turned into a great day for me, great because I learned, tested and successfully implemented one of the most important leadership principles I have ever caught.

Reflection spent identifying and applying core values determines to a large extent the success or failure of any team. If the core values of an organization are understood they serve as the coxswain who keeps the tempo and direction clear helping the team work together.

Your own values will decide which alternatives you seriously consider.[2]

Look for people who exhibit characteristics of trust

Next Jethro told Moses to look for capable, God-fearing and honest men. Allow me to translate these characteristics to read: capability, caring and integrity. Jethro helped Moses define trust explicitly thus making it easier to decide what needed to be delegated and who was capable of doing the job.

The research of Burke, Sims, Lazzara and Salas (2007) confirm that a leader’s ability to be successful in encouraging or managing organizational effectiveness is enhanced or reduced by the degree to which their subordinates and co-workers trust him/her and vise versa. Burke, Sims, Lazzara and Salas’ review of research literature concluded that trust within organizations (i.e., person to person, person to leader, team to team and person-organization) possess three broad qualifications: ability (capability), benevolence (caring) and integrity. These are qualifications are elaborated in the table below.

Capability, caring and integrity as factors of trust[3]




  • Setting compelling direction
  • Creation of enabling structure
    • Task knowledge
    • Situation knowledge
    • Setting functional norms
  • Create/sustain supportive context
    • Transformational leadership behaviors
    • Consultative leadership behaviors
    • Transactional leadership behaviors
  • Coaching
  • Accountability
  • Perceptions of justice
  • Value congruence

Delegate based on each person’s capacity and capability

What is important to see in Jethro’s advice is that he not only identified specific qualities of trust but that he also made clear that trust is dynamic and not an either/or proposition. In other words trust people to the degree they are capable of fulfilling that trust. It is as big a mistake to trust people with tasks they are incapable of completing as it is to fail to trust others at all.

Building capacity in your team requires that you provide them with the opportunity to grow their knowledge, skills and abilities in an environment that offers the proper level of risk, feedback and safe guards to compartmentalize the consequences of bad decisions. The aim is not to avoid all bad decisions – after all you have made your fair share – it is to make sure that the scope of decision-making power matches the capacity and capability of the decision maker to deal with a decision’s complexity. This is why Jethro encouraged Moses to build into the judicial system of Israel scope limiters of decision-making power that triggered needed collaboration when the complexity of decisions over reached the experience and ability of the team.

Collaborate on complex issues leave routine issues

Jethro’s identification of the dynamism of trust introduces another important variable in the founder’s success – relationship/collaboration. Jethro’s suggestion to create decision-making scope limiters put Moses in a place of continuous mentoring and collaboration.

The founders I meet often suffer from two leadership deficits related to mistrust: isolation/insulation and task saturation. In following Jethro’s advice Moses avoided the trap of isolation by collaborating with his leaders on more complex decisions. When founders isolate themselves from their teams they cut off the feedback (i.e., become insulated from reality) and suppress the organization’s level of trust. When founders don’t trust their teams they work themselves until they burnout or blowup. By collaborating Moses avoided the burnout inevitable in “doing it all myself” and maintained the proper involvement of strategic activity and decision-making.

Because trust is a two-way street it is important to realize that how people first approach trust is different. While the qualifications of trust seem universal the way people approach trust with another person appears to exist on a continuum. On the one end of the continuum are those people who extend trust once they see evidence for extending such trust. On the other hand are those people who extend trust de facto until one violates their trust. Put these two people in the same company and mistrust occurs almost immediately and often irrevocably because they violate each other’s sense of integrity (i.e., doing what is right by either extending trust in the first place waiting until enough evidence of care, capability and integrity exist to extend trust).

The problem for many leaders is that once trust is lost they cannot explain the dynamics of that loss. Hence the model of Jethro as verified in the research of Burke, Sims, Lazzara and Salas (2007) offers a vocabulary and conceptual model for training and correcting trust. Any leader may become jaded over time when they experience a violation of trust, possessing a model by which to identify the reason for the loss of trust encourages the right kind of conversation to occur between and founder and his/her team so that trust can be restored.

If an organization sustains growth beyond the capability and capacity of the founder it is because the founder has learned to delegate key functions on the basis of her/his explicitly stated core values and explicitly defined trust.


Jethro’s advice to Moses is timely for leaders and founders who find themselves caught in a cycle of burnout because they don’t fully trust their employees. We noted three common traps that develop out of mistrust:

  • Impulse versus Innovation
  • Working harder versus working smarter
  • Control versus accountability

The solution according to Jethro was to find and empower team members who demonstrated the qualities of trust i.e., capability, care and integrity. In finding the right stuff founders, business owners and leaders must consistently execute the following aspects of effectiveness:

  • Outline and explain your core values
  • Look for people who exhibit characteristics of trust
  • Delegate based on each person’s capacity and capability
  • Collaborate on complex issues leave routine issues to others

Do you trust your team? Or are you headed to burnout? Are you fighting to control minutia or do you control the right things to set up force multipliers in the way your team works? The case study of Moses is insightful, Israel was ready to dump him as a leader more than once before Jethro’s influence helped Moses turn back seat drivers into a team of leaders growing in effectiveness. If you don’t have a mentor like Jethro in your life it is time to start looking.

Finally, don’t read this article without comment. Find out how other leaders respond and elaborate on these concepts by offering your own. I know I appreciate comments – so do others. Thanks.

[1] Indeed, I was caught in one of the 10 most common mistakes leaders make. Hans Finzel calls it leadership chaos, we simply were not singing off the same page. Finzel reminds us of four important communication realities, (1) never assume that anyone knows anything, (2) the bigger the group, the more attention must be given to communication, (3) when left in the dark, people tend to dream up wild rumors and (4) communication must be the passionate obsession of effective leaders. I was obsessed alright, but not with communication. I was obsessed with why my staff couldn’t get things done right. The problem, I discovered, was me. (Finzel 1994:113)

[2] Bennis & Nanus 1985:104

[3] Shawn C. Burke, Dana E. Sims, Elizabeth H. Lazzara, and Eduardo Salas, “Trust in Leadership: A Multilevel Review and Integration.” Leadership Quarterly 18, no. 6 (2007): 606-32.


The Leadership Challenge - Why Mentors are Needed Is it better to improve what exists or create what isn’t yet?[1]  Today’s context requires that a leader do both.  Leaders face the tension of living in the present and the future simultaneously.  In today’s world the rate of change often exceeds a leader’s ability to define change.  As one author points out change has changed.

Leaders today must own two important factors of success.  First is faith.  Faith summons us to live in the present as though the future were here now.  Without faith leaders tend to show the mediocrity that leads their organizations to live as though they were bound to the past than the future.  Even once great organizations find themselves irrelevant, powerless and more connected to the past than the future.  Their best people seem muddled and their leaders hamstrung.

Second, effective leaders all have mentors. If any leader in history seems to be exempt from the need of having a mentor it was Moses.  Moses had a face to face and daily relationship with God according to the scriptures. Who needs a mentor when one can check in with the Almighty?  The lesson seems to be that connection with God does not make independent super hero as much as it shapes authentic humanity that recognizes the interdependence of relationship that plays such a significant role in human development.

Moses and the children of Israel had experienced one of the greatest miracles of history in the Exodus from Egypt but when they landed in the wilderness they faced a problem, the success of the past would not carry them into the future unless they connected to the future than the past as their point of reference.  Moses ran smack into the limitations of leadership capacity on the one hand and the necessity for expanding his capacity as a leader on the other.

Mentors Play a Critical Role in Leadership Development

When entering a harbor ship Captains often use experienced “pilots” to guide their vessels safely to dock.  A pilot is familiar with the channel, hazards, currents and traffic the ship will face.  As great a leader Moses was he needed a pilot at one point – a mentor to help him understand his own blind spots and develop an appropriate strategy for moving forward.  Jethro served as Moses’ pilot or mentor.  Jethro “piloted” Moses through new leadership terrain (cf. Exodus 18).  Jethro modeled the tone as well as the content of an effective mentor.  The encounter between Jethro and Moses offer seven insights into an effective mentoring relationship.  Consider the following insights. How do these observations reflect the approach you take with mentees?  What insights can you glean to improve the effectiveness of your own mentoring?  I extracted the observations below from Exodus 18:1-27.  What tools did Jethro use to enhance Moses' leadership capacity?


Jethro journeyed to the wilderness to meet Moses and Israel.  Principle: Effective mentoring occurs out of relationship.  Mentoring or consultations of any type do not take place or give help if engaged in as a backseat driver or detached prognosticator.  Mentors are often incarnations of divine assistance. The bottom line is a mentor knows you, initiates contact and identifies with your unique situational challenges and strengths.


Jethro heard of all that God had done.  Principle: Effective mentors are attentive to the needs of their mentees.  They act on what they hear or see.  Mentors have the ability to see the wider perspective of purpose and meaning.  Mentoring is not a one-size-fits-all approach but an approach that seeks exposure to the leader’s context, a larger frame of reference and sensitivity to the direction of the Holy Spirit. It is a personal and at times nearly an intimate interaction that identifies with the leader and empathize with their situation and personal victories and challenges.


“I your father-in-law Jethro; am coming to you.” Principle: Effective mentoring possesses and expresses a passion for leaders.  Jethro’s relationship to Moses resulted from the marriage of Moses to Jethro’s daughter.  If a mentor does his or her job well they will foremost act out of care and respect for leaders. Benevolence as a motivation helps reduce barriers to advice and understands that a foundation of honest communication and respect is an essential ingredient to building trust.


“Jethro said, ‘blessed be the Lord, who delivered you…’”  Principle: A mentor must not only see things to improve they must start with things to celebrate.  Note that up to this point Jethro had done nothing but see and understand the context, goals, past and present work Moses was involved in.  A significant part of any mentoring engagement or consultation takes place in celebrating the accomplishments and the passion from which the leader draws both courage and vision.  It reinforces the leader, demonstrates respect for what the leader has accomplished and sets the stage for the leader to express or recognize any boundaries to the development of their capacity as a leader as demanded by their situation.


“You will surely wear out; both yourself and these people…Now listen to me.  I will give you counsel.” Principle: The benefit of mentoring is introduced – Jethro’s observations based on his wider perspective and appreciation for the great work God was doing in Israel had two primary goals; that Moses successfully engage his task with energy and endurance and that the people embrace their changing destiny and situation with peace.  Jethro diagnosed and prescribed with sensitivity to the context and the insight of experience and intuition.  Warning: a double jeopardy exists in an overburdened leader – the leader and the people wear out.  This one-two punch guarantees that an organization will eventually suffer a collapse and if left untreated die.


Moses listened.  Principle: The best mentors in the world are worthless if a leader or leadership team is unwilling to listen to questions, direction and carry out a plan that applies the advice.  Mentoring and consultation is a partnership that culminates in new implementation and immediate follow-through.

Punctuated Time Frame

“Then Moses bade farewell to his father-in-law, and did all he said.”   Principle: Effective mentors know when to disengage from directive communication. When the mentee owns the implementation of a new concept mentoring is a success.  This is sometimes called “freezing change” – mentors know when change must be frozen and consolidated in action.  When Moses and Israel accepted the need for altering their leadership and followership behaviors they experienced a revitalized perspective.  This observation reinforces the reality that effective mentors own a clear sense of their own identity and do not engage leaders as trying to shore up their own sense of importance, value or influence.  This is not to say that mentoring is not rewarding but that mentors who work out of their own need for recognition ultimately attempt to suppress the important step toward differentiation and interdependence the mentee most make to be a healthy leader.


Jethro’s approach to Moses illustrates a mentoring framework that mentors today would do well to use. Notice that Jethro’s approach builds a foundation and then leverages Moses’ capabilities forward.  See Figure 1.

Figure 1: A Model Mentoring Approach

Figure 1 represents a model approach to mentoring that provides guidance to emerging and experienced mentors alike.  Try working through these steps in your next mentoring conversation and see how it impacts the readiness of the mentee to listen to advice.

Who are your mentors? Are you listening?  In what ways have you altered your behaviors as a leader?  Who do you mentor?  Do you know when to engage and when to disengage?  Do you exercise the discipline and skill of honest feedback? Do you celebrate your mentee’s successes with them in front of their followers?

In the next article I will offer a synthesis of this approach to mentoring and organizational development cycles.  I invite your comments – share your experience.

[1] Ken Blanchard and Terry Waghorn.  Mission Possible (San Francisco, CA: McGraw Hill, 1997),  xxi.


You Can Make a Difference - Why Don't You?

We Saw it in the Arab Spring – How about a Corporate Spring?

You say you want a revolution Well, you know We all want to change the world[1]

The events of the Arab Spring affirm the observation that revolutions do not start at the top where the past and tradition is especially venerated – revolutions start at the bottom where the most diversity and possibility of broad-based adoption. But the Arab Spring could dwindle into narcissistic self-absorption like many of the “revolutionaries” of the 1970s in the United States who are now near retirement some of them wondering what happened to the idealism of their youth.

I was talking to a more experienced friend of mine about the challenges I faced in one organizational context in which I work.  “You need,” he said after listening for while, “to read Gary Hamel’s book.”

He loaned Leading the Revolution and I have thought about a couple of the insights that live between the covers of this fascinating thesis.

Hamel insists that in business (or any organization) the responsibility for innovation must be broadly distributed.  I know from experience that the caveat is that those at the top typically derail attempts at broadly distributing responsibility for innovation as a means of protecting precedent (the prerogative of a few). In fact when operating models, business models, mental models and political models are in perfect alignment then the chance of innovation breaks down under the pressure to silence dissenters who threaten the status quo and the rewards inherent in being at the top.

Nurturing innovation requires that the organization’s mental model (deeply cherished beliefs) be challenged (pushed out of alignment with the business model) so that assumptions can be rethought.  This however is not possible without first throwing the political model (distribution of power) out of alignment long enough to redistribute power so innovation can take hold. If power remains narrowly distributed at the top then the chance of successfully innovating from the bottom is next to impossible.  This gives me pause to think about (1) how I have acted when I have been at the top and face dissenters who want to review how we do things and (2) how I manage the political power of organizations in which I do not exist at the top.

Figure 1: Creating Space for Business Concept Innovation[2]

So what is it that moves the mental and political models of an organization to make room for innovation as illustrated in Figure 1?

It takes two things to push mental and political models off-balance enough to introduce innovation according to Hamel: imagination and passion.  The risk is the potential for political backlash (e.g., Bashar al-Hassad in Syria during the Syrian uprising of 2012).  However, without becoming an imaginative and passionate activist unleashing innovation has little or no chance of occurring. Hamel makes an important point about becoming an activist in an organizational sense:

Activists are not anarchists.  They are, the “loyal opposition.” Their goal is to create a movement within their company and a revolution outside in.[3]

In discussing activism in a purely organization sense, activists are committed to their company and to a cause that is at odds with pervading values or practices within the organization. Activists can behave responsibly and be a source of alternative ideas according to Hamel. Activists refuse to fit in on the one hand and live out street-smart pragmatism on the other hand.  It is this second point - street smart pragmatism - that is often missing in inexperienced activists.  They fail to see the potential backlash or pitfalls inherent in activism and so become the walking wounded who give up because they miscalculated the severity of the backlash.

So why care enough to engage in the behaviors of an activist?  Hamel offers three compelling reasons:

  1. A person needs to live and work with purpose over and above their paycheck.  Research demonstrates that those people who experience flow are also people who work out of a sense of purpose.[4]
  2. The organization is not "them" – it’s you. Whining about "them" is simply an excuse to justify inaction.
  3. You owe activism to your friends and colleagues – they deserve to make a very cool difference in the world.


Many of the leaders I work with both in the class room and in the board room can profit from this insight by Hamel. They don’t want to be  an empty suit or disillusioned has-been. On the other hand some people simply don’t want to risk the potential backlash nor the work needed to engage in true innovation. How about you?  Are you an imaginative and passionate contributor to purpose and meaning in work?

Here is another question, what if you are at the top?  Are you ready to be an activist?  What does it mean for those who follow you?  What does street smart pragmatism look like for you around your board or other stake holders?  Remember, your employees and colleagues deserve to make a very cool difference in the world.

[1] John Lennon (credited as Lennon-McCartney) Recorded: July 10-12, 1968 (Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London, England)

[2] Gary Hamel. Leading the Revolution  (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 150.

[3] Hamel 153

[4] Csikszentmihalyi, M & Rathunde, K (1993). "The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation". In Jacobs, JE. Developmental perspectives on motivation. Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 60.ISBN 0803292104.  Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1975), Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass,ISBN 0875892612. The concept of happiness and “flow” both observe that happy people or people who experience flow possess a sense of purpose in their work.

Cross-cultural Lessons – Learning to See Through Other Frames

Elephants and Power The lecture was on ethics in decision-making and the discussion moved, as it always does when I teach outside the USA toward American foreign policy.  In the midst of the discussion these Kenyan graduate students gave me a proverb that fits political realities all leaders have to work with in corporate as well as in public service contexts.

"When elephants fight the grass gets crushed, when elephants make love the grass gets crushed."

Effective leadership (leadership that does not destroy or damage people) recognizes how organizations allot and display power. It is not uncommon for good leaders to get crushed not-with-standing their skill, insight and alliances when they are at the wrong place and time e.g., a regime change or economic downturn. Such experiences push leaders through crucible experiences and boundaries to growth. I did not catch a sense of fatalism from these students as much as a clear view of reality and a warning to know where the elephants were at all times. I found this helpful in corporate life. One of my graduate professors was a specialist on organizational change.  “Ray” he said on several occasions, “remember power wins.”  It was his way of reminding me to be aware of the elephants.

Eels and Change

A friend of mine had invited me to China to help train managers in a start-up hospitality consulting firm. The hospitality market in China was on fire, hotels and motels were springing up everywhere.  The challenge for my friend (we had met in graduate school) resulted from a rate of growth that threatened to outstrip the firm’s ability to develop the necessary leadership skills not to mention any kind of bench.  At the end of the session on recognizing the predictable barriers to personal development in career and personal growth my interpreter turned to me with the mixture of epiphany and interrogation.

“You are an eel.”

“Help me understand what you mean by that,” I said.

“Do you see the fish in the market when you come to the office?”  He aked. “They sit in the tanks all day and over time they become listless.  When this occurs no one will buy them because they don’t look fresh.  So, the fisherman places an eel in the tank.  This makes the fish come back to life,” he explained.

The insight about change has a bearing on trust.  The effect of the eel depends on the perspective of the viewer.  To the fish the eel is a threat.  The fish snap to in the presence of the eel yet the effect is short-lived. The observation of my interpreter made me stop and think about the pace at which I was moving and whether I was helping these managers think through the concepts I explained in the lens of their own worldview.  From the owner’s perspective I challenged lethargy and encouraged action. The larger challenge my interpreter helped me see was how to synthesize the needs of the owners for rapid change with the needs of the managers for deeper understanding and engagement i.e., a function of trust.

Can an eel be simultaneously a source of change and hope?  Not if you are a fish.  Leaders must exercise awareness of how followers perceive your actions. The ends you expect may not be the results others generate. Learn to use a variety of leadership roles and styles.

Storks, Frogs and Epiphanies

I was still chewing on the what to do with the eel story a couple of days later when my interpreter served also as my mentor with another bit of wisdom.

“You are a stork.”

“Is a stork better than an eel?” I queried.

“No, a stork is different.” He responded in what I understood as a correction of my western proclivity for either/or resolutions to ambiguity or dissonance. He reminded me to exercise an “opposable mind” as Martin calls it. Highly creative leaders avoid reducing decisions between alternative options but seek instead to hold the tension of apparently opposing decisions to create an entirely different kind of approach.  This ability to rest comfortably in the ambiguity of tension results in an integrative thinking that seeks out “…less obvious but potentially relevant factors…” then considers “…multidirectional and nonlinear relationships among variables….”[1]   With this done the effective leader pursues the problem as a whole and not the parts and “Creatively resolve tensions among opposing ideas; generate innovative outcomes.”[2]

“What does the stork do?” I asked with a greater awareness of my need to learn.

“The stork shows the frog that there is a greater reality than that which the frog sees from the bottom of the well.  You see, the stork appears to be supernatural (read exceptional or unreachable) to the frog.  It appears and disappears at will at the top of the well and the frog cannot understand how the stork accomplishes such a miraculous feat.  One day the frog asked the stork to help him understand the wonders of the stork’s miraculous existence.  The stork laughed and lifted the frog from the bottom of the well to see the world from on top of the well.  You are helping us see a different world.” (Remember Plato’s cave of allegory?)

I was moved and encouraged – apparently I inspired both fear and hope in my time with these leaders.  More importantly I was learning to hold apparently opposite or mutually exclusive views of reality in a dynamic tension.


Parables or stories connect with the experience of the hearer and offer a lens for dynamic reflection.  So, my conclusion is simply a launching point for many more insights in fact if you have other cultural unique parables please share them with me in the comments.

  1. Highly effective leaders exercise awareness of how organizations assign and use power.  Leaders who lack this awareness end up trampled to death. The leader who is unaware of their power will trample to death those he/she leads.  All good leaders have a tool kit of influence, authority and power.  Power is the last of the tools a leader should use.  Those leaders who abuse the use of power are like a rogue elephant. The destruction caused by rogue elephants and toxic leaders motivates people to end the threat of damage by changing jobs or eliminating the threat.
  2. Highly effective leaders exercise self-awareness and situational awareness.  There are times all leaders must act like eels.  Recognize however that change management requires an awareness of the fear change engenders. In experienced leaders scare their employees to death resulting in disengagement and turn over. Neither alternative generates long-term success in meeting business goals. Great leaders understand that change is only as effective as a shift in how people see their situation.
  3. Highly effective leaders work to redefine reality.  They work with an opposable mind that discovers new alternatives and inspires people with the possibilities inherent in seeing a problem or challenge differently.

My students and the employees I work with often become my mentors and teachers. Part of the delight I have in leading rests in the influence I exert but the greater joy rests in the exposure I have to new insights and learning from the lives of those I have the privilege to serve.  Are you learning?

[1] Roger Martin, “How Successful Leaders Think,” Harvard Business Review, June 2007, 60-67.

[2] Ibid. 65.

When Followers Attack: Facing the Inevitable Interpersonal Conflict of Leadership

Every leader endures the challenge of being under the microscope of critical dissatisfaction.  In my experience effective change agents and leaders face a myriad of disheartening personal attacks often from people they know and always with gut wrenching repercussions.  Slander, inference and complete misrepresentation are part and parcel of the leadership experience.  I was reminded of this again from a friend of mine grieving the betrayal they felt by members of their own leadership team. Members of my friend’s team masterfully undermined my friend’s leadership without ever specifically talking with them about the dissatisfaction they felt. The conundrum faced by many leaders I work with is rooted in a misconception about conflict i.e., that interpersonal conflict is to be endured not addressed in hopes that at some future point the integrity of their motives and their service would be recognized by all and their leadership decisions vindicated. Often this misconception is rooted in faith convictions around the actions of Jesus Christ during his trial.  A quotation anticipating the betrayal and kangaroo court Jesus faced from the prophet Isaiah is regularly repeated to me as I ask them about their response, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7, NIV)  This strategy of silence is great if one anticipates dying I suppose.  However, while it reflects the outward confidence and inner character Jesus exhibited in the face of false accusation during his trial it is not literal – Jesus did speak during his arrest and trial and questioned the inconsistencies of his accusers and answered their direct inquiries.

When Making a Defense is Important

Silent leaders in times of conflict abdicate the narrative of the situation to their critics. The result is that followers feel rudderless in the organization and ultimately feel betrayed by the leader’s unwillingness to step up to the demands of the pressure. (See my Article, “Servant Leadership and the Exercise of Discipline” at

It occurred to me once in reading Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that I was reading a blatant defense of his role (authority and influence) as a leader. Clearly the legitimacy of Paul’s leadership was at stake in the minds of the Corinthians who had already received a rather pointed missive correcting their misapplication of the Christian message.  The resulting dissonance in the relationship between the Corinthian church and Paul forced him to defend his integrity, position and role toward the Corinthians.  Apparently his first letter generated controversy and even rejection.  As is often the case in conflict, his authority was challenged (7:8-16).

Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians anticipating seeing them after his exposure to their slanderous incrimination of his character and motives (13:1).  Paul states he prefers a warm and collegial reception, but is prepared to be a disciplinarian if need be for the sake of the health of the Corinthian church (12:20-13:1).

The entire letter of 2 Corinthians models transparent and authentic leadership conversation.  Read Paul's second letter to the Corinthians. Pay specific attention to the fact that Paul defends himself and does not allow misconceptions or accusations about his motives and intention to assert themselves without a challenge.

Recriminations Are Unoriginal – Don’t Give Them Too Much Power

The recriminations aimed at Paul were personal and direct.  They came from people for whom he cared deeply and for whom he had suffered greatly.  I found it to be extremely encouraging to simply list the recriminations Paul faced.  Why?  Because they once they are down on paper two things emerge. First, they are unoriginal.  Recriminations are common place and rooted in a variety of motives. Second, when I observed how common the recriminations leveled at Paul were (the same recriminations have been leveled at me as a leader) innuendo and incrimination lost the power to command my attention to the point of immobilizing my ability to make decisions and lead.  If you are a leader you will face incrimination unjustly delivered.  You will also make your share of mistakes.

Put Recriminations into Proper Perspective  

Review the list of recriminations made against the Apostle Paul.  As you read these think about the recriminations you face or have faced as a leader.  I am certain your experience will parallel Paul’s – you are not a distinctively bad leader if you face these recriminations.

  • 1:17; that he was two-faced, saying one thing and doing another (6:8).
  • 2:4; that he was insensitive and uncaring (6:12).
  • 2:10; that he was unforgiving.
  • 2:17; that he was into the gospel for the money or personal advancement (7:2).
  • 3:5; that he was ineffective (specifically inadequate to the task).
  • 4:2; that he was self-seeking and manipulative (7:2).
  • 4:5; that he was self promoting.
  • 5:9; that he was ambitious.
  • 5:12; that he was arrogant (boastful, 10:8).
  • 7:2; that he took advantage of others (11:9; 12:14; 12:11-17)
  • 8:13; that he was inconsistent in his policies.
  • 8:20; that he absconded with church funds.
  • 10:1; that he was a coward, afraid to personally face the issues.
  • 10:10; that he was not much of a teacher.
  • 10:14; that he claimed credit for things he had not done.
  • 11:5; that he was inferior in his gifts and abilities (it was this summary accusation that he pointedly addresses in ch.s 11-13).
  • 12:13; that he had treated the Corinthians as inferior.
  • 13:6; that he had failed the test.
  • 13:10; that he was overly severe in his treatment of failure.

Admit Mistakes Quickly and Learn from Them

Paul’s tone in response to these recriminations is authentic (personal) and direct.  He addresses both the overt and the implied attacks on his character and motives by holding out his life as an illustration and explaining details surrounding his decisions that the Corinthians could not have known.  Similarly Paul exhibits and openness to learning and feedback from the Corinthians.  The letter does not smack of arrogance of excuses.

Paul’s response indicates clear boundaries – he served, he willingly accepted suffering but also expected reciprocity.  He was neither a patsy nor a pushover.


If you lead well expect conflict from those closest to you. Engage the conflict humbly and honestly.  Keep the mission of your organization clearly in front of you.  Hold people accountable to that mission – hold yourself accountable to the mission. Do not shirk from defending decisions made with information not commonly available. On the other hand do not hesitate to admit bad decisions based on poor or incomplete information – they happen. Those who follow want to know two important things.

First, followers want the assurance that leaders stay engaged in the realities the organization faces and are willing to both listen and make difficult decisions.

Second, followers want leaders to help them define reality.  What external pressures challenge the organization?  What internal resources are needed to meet the challenge?  What strategy is in place to secure more resources if the internal resources are insufficient? What support exists for followers who are called upon to sacrifice for some future benefit?

If your communication as a leader is anything but authentic and personal the confidence of your followers (employees, stake holders, peers) will wane accordingly. Take a lesson from Paul and embrace conflict, address innuendo and communicate transparently.