Tag Archives: leadership

FRIDAY NUGGET: 6 Growth Practices of Leaders

one of my coaching peeps asked recently for thoughts about growth practices of leaders. i did a little brainstorming while listening to others respond, and came up with this list (uncharacteristically, for me, all starting with the same letter!):

  • Rhythm — some refer to this as balance; but i’m not a big fan of balance. i think the issue, instead, is sustainability. great leaders pursue a rhythm of work and non-work that leads to sustainability.
  • Read — you know the saying, “Leaders are Readers.” read widely.
  • Risk — there is no growth without risk.
  • Renew — healthy leaders find meaningful pursuits that provide recalibration, refreshment and renewal.
  • Reflect — great leaders make intentional time to reflect. this requires a discipline of slowing down (at times).
  • Retreat — overlapping with some of the other practices on this list (particularly rhythm, renewal and reflection), growing leaders pull away for extended times on a regular basis. short bursts of renewal and reflection are great; but real growth also requires more extended retreat.

stop and consider which one of these you’re missing.

FRIDAY NUGGET: 3 characteristics of the best leaders

i was listening to one of my coaching groups share final reports they’d prepared, looking back at the last year of growth, and setting goals for the next year, and it struck me:

the very best leaders–those who are extremely high capacity, inspire people, and really get things done–have three characteristics:

  • confidence
  • focus
  • humility

without confidence, leaders are risk-averse, avoid conflict, and don’t have the self-knowledge needed for excellent leadership.

without focus, leaders can have great ideas and/or be good managers, but don’t possess either the ability to stay anchored in values, or the intellectual (and spiritual!) blinders needed to develop and evaluate ideas and initiatives.

without humility, otherwise good leaders disconnect from the people they’re supposed to lead and rely on themselves too much.

which of these three characteristics do you need to grow?

10 leadership soundbites off the top of my head

soundbitesreally, i’m going to make this up right now. ’cause i gots me a little burst o’ passion that i think will translate to twittery bits (ooh, “twittery bits” probably used to mean something very different). so here we go… i’m gonna wing this!

  • sometimes you fake it until you’re able to break it. that’s when things might get good.
  • “the ways we do things around here” could be, just might be, a really wonderful and good thing. take a second look before you discard it.
  • might is shite
  • “who i’m responsible for” can be legitimately in tension with “what i’m passionate about.” but not for long, or you’ll wilt.
  • you need a “how could this possibly succeed?” moment at least twice a year.
  • crossing t’s and dotting i’s is for scribes. is that all you are?
  • there are a thousand legitimate things you could do with the next hour.
  • loosening your grip is the second most important component of growth.
  • i want to play with people who are weird. i want to work with those who are odd. the edge of change is always populated with weird and odd folk.
  • see that line? put a couple toes over it. there you go.

Orbiting the Hairball: Innovation without Disconnection (part 3 of 3)

(part 1 of this series explored the need for most of us, despite the desire to be innovators, to stay connected to our organizations via the gravitational pull of orbiting. part 2 looked at forces that corrode innovation.)

bow thrustersTwo Essential Thrusters for Sustaining Orbit
Spaceships and Large Ocean Vessels share a technology that helps them make minor directional adjustments without firing up their engines: thrusters. On a boat, bow thrusters move the front of the ship left or right. On a spacecraft, they provide short bursts of propulsion to move in any direction.

In order for us to stay in the sweet spot between a useless trajectory of our own and getting mired in the disabling affect of the hairball, we need two thrusters.

Anyone with healthy or unhealthy resistance to change (most of us have this) need a dose of courage from time to time to push us in the direction of innovation. Here’s what I have learned: I cannot make myself have courage anymore than I can make myself have the fruit of the Spirit. Spiritual courage comes from the Holy Spirit.

The etymology of the word itself tells us this. The root of courage (“cour”) means “heart”; and courage literally means “to have a full heart.” Excitement and praise and rewards and potential can partially fill my heart. But they’re not sustainable. My heart can only be truly topped off in the face of significant risk by the fuel of the Holy Spirit.

I’m done being an arrogant risk-taker. I want no part of innovation born out of my own hubris. Instead, I long to experience a life of humility. Humility can keep me from believing my innovations are sure-fire. Humility can keep me from steamrolling people. Humility can prevent me from dismissing others, made in the image of God, who do not agree with my inventions.

I long to experience a life of Jesus-y courage tempered by Jesus-y humility.

I long for a tribe of youth workers who will fire up their thrusters of courage and humility, overcome their fears and insecurities, and move into orbit together, not disdaining the hairball, but exerting our own gravitational pull on it while it reciprocates with us.

How I Changed My Mind

I had convinced myself that I was speaking the truth; and whether it was spoken “in love” or not, speaking the truth was the thing leaders were supposed to do. But the young woman in my office started crying, and something tipped sideways in my self-analysis.

This crying young woman was the third meeting in a single day, all in my office, where I had spoken “the truth” to someone, only to have them end up in tears. After the first of these meetings, I felt a rush a power, confident that I was doing what leaders do. After the second, my confidence waned a bit, and I had an inner-Scooby-Doo saying “Huh?” But that third meeting; well, it started me on a path of change.

I’d always been a leader who was willing to be vocal with my thoughts and opinions (I’m sure, much to the frustration of everyone in my life). On those spiritual gifts tests, I’d always scored a flat-lined zero in the area of mercy. And here’s the silly part: I was proud of that.

When I worked in a church going through a massive transition, I was asked to be on a transitional leadership team, and was taken under the wing of the two older pastors leading the process. They were both naturally gifted leaders, but had similarly convinced themselves of the strength of their weaknesses. In fact, I remember to this day the exact wording of the mentoring I received from the two of them in one meeting. They said, “Marko, your lack of mercy is the strength of your leadership.” Hey, that sounded good to me (embarrassing and stupid as it sounds to me today). And for the next few years, I steamrolled people left and right under the ruse of “strong biblical leadership.”

What a crock.

But that crying young woman loosened something in me. And through divine revelation or long overdue common sense (or some combo), I immediately knew I needed to change. But I had no idea how to make that happen (and, I was accustomed to “making” everything happen in my world).

I carefully selected two older men who I perceived to be gifted leaders, but also to be merciful, and asked them to mentor me in the areas of mercy and gentleness. At one of my first meetings with one of these guys, he stated the should-have-been-obvious: I couldn’t make myself have mercy; I could only ask God to give me mercy, and pursue a life of mercy. They other guy helped me understand something that became a framing idea for me: I’ll likely never score high in mercy on spiritual gifts tests; but I can still grow in mercy. This same kind of parallel plays out all over my life (I’ll never be perfect, but I’m still called to righteousness; I’ll never love perfectly, but I’m still called to be loving).

These two new understandings re-framed leadership and mercy for me, and put me on a multi-year quest of change. I met with these mentors; I read books on mercy (and the kind of leadership that was more Jesus-y than CEO-like); I journaled and prayed; and I asked friends to help me.

About two years later (yes, it took that long!), I received a great double-confirmation from God that I was making progress. In the span of one week, I had someone comment to me (who didn’t know of my quest) how gentle he thought I was. I could hardly believe someone would ever use that word to describe me. Then, a few days later, one of the secretaries of the church told me that the other secretaries had a nickname for me: the gentle steamroller. I laughed out loud when I heard this: yup, I still had that steamroller way about me at times; and I’m not even sure what a “gentle steamroller” would be. But I responded, “Hey, I’ll take that!” I thought it was the best compliment I’d received in a long time.

As I write this, it’s about 17 years later. I’m still a merciless jerk on a regular basis. I am still very capable of possessing the gentleness of a sledgehammer from time to time (and even of being momentarily proud of it!). But I can see change. I wish it were more immediate. The only thing that was immediate was my recognition of need for change. The process of change has been, and will continue to be, a long, slow journey of transformation.

How are you growing and changing as a leader? In what areas do you need to be transformed?

insecurity and confidence

i launched a new initiative via my blog some time ago, something i was extremely proud of and excited about. within a few minutes, i received my first comment. it was from and old college buddy, who i’ve loosely stayed in contact with thanks to our digital world.

his comment was negative and dismissive, along the lines of, “this is a bad name, and i hope, for your sake, it’s not too late to change it.” his terse little comment, on the public space of my blog, rattled me and left me on edge all day long.

i’m not a newcomer to criticism – including both the well-meaning kind and the mean-spirited kind. in fact, there’s even a website or two that have called me out as a heretic! and i receive plenty of negative comments on my blog, and in real life. but there was something about a comment this strong from a friend that really threw me off balance and filled me with anxiety.

i told my patient and calm wife about the comment, making it clear that my friend was being an idiot. she responded, in that gentle spiritual director voice of hers, “you like to think of yourself as thick-skinned; but you’re really very sensitive, and you can have very thin skin sometimes.” she smiled.

my first response was defensiveness. i knew better than to verbalize this (i knew i’d “lose”); but i thought about how wrong she was, and what a complete tool the guy was being.

but, reality slowly sunk in. ok. i’ll admit it – even to myself: i am sometimes caught off guard by my insecurity. i come off as this over-the-top confident guy; and, most days, most minutes, i do experience a sense of drive and purpose that provides confidence rails to run on. but there’s this fragile guy in there also, cowering in a corner when Mr. Confidence has the stage.

this whole thing is such a tension for those of us in ministry (or any kind of leadership, i suppose). confidence misplaced is arrogance and a complete lack of dependence on god. we’ve all seen that kind of leader. nope, don’t want to be that guy.

but the ragingly insecure leader, whose every word and action is colored by his or her lack of confidence is equally undesirable. i’ve been around those leaders plenty, and i can’t trust them. i never know if what they’re saying is actually true.

so this must be one of those tensions to be nurtured, rather than problems to be solved. i need to bring my insecurity to god, as well as my confidence. i have to cultivate dependence and assurance.

and i have to notice, rather than react. if i can give myself a fraction of the grace god flows my way, maybe i can pay attention to my extremes and submit both of them for transformation and growth. at the end of the day, maybe my “thin-skinned” moments can remind me of my humanity. i am not the messiah. that role has already been taken.

conviction, collaboration and calling: the piece-parts of a 21st century leader

leadership is changing. and this is a very, very good thing.

the era of the autocratic, top-down leader is gone. a new kind of leader — one who leads without power — is on the rise.

while it’s fantastic to see this new approach to leadership gaining ground in the world of business, it’s sad to me that the church — the place where this jesus-y style of leadership should have been in place all along — is behind.

i’ve just finished a year with my second youth ministry coaching program cohort. and as i wrote ‘growth affirmation and challenge’ sheets for each of the participants, naming the amazing transformation i’ve seen in each of their lives this past year, i was once again struck by how many churches are riddled with lousy leadership. during one of my 1-on-1 coaching sessions with a participant, on the last day, we were talking about leadership, and i surprised myself when the subject of this post came out of my mouth (all starting with the same letter — how rick warren of me!). i said,

great leaders are anchored by three things: conviction, collaboration, and calling.

conviction isn’t about being the sole vision castor.
it’s not about forcing an agenda onto everyone.
it’s not about being the heavy.

conviction is about being a culture evangelist and mission curator.

conviction is about ruthlessly protecting the values, and not being swayed by attractive ideas (financially beneficial, numerical growth beneficial, keeping the peace, pleasing the powerful) that erode the values.

collaboration isn’t about forced fun.
it’s not about tokenism.
and it doesn’t mean democracy.

collaboration is about being a uniqueness dj. collaboration is about creating space and processes and an ecosystem the values meaningful input, and offers active participation at every level.

and calling. calling isn’t about filling seats.
it’s not about manipulation.
it’s not about isolation.

calling is about being a storytelling host, a champion of hope, and a trust guard.

calling is about living into who you were made to be. it’s the self-actualized leader, humble and open, rooted in a spiritual sense of urgency, committed to the mission and unwavering in a sense of movement. it’s about living this, and calling others to this greater purpose.

conviction, collaboration, and calling. how are you living them out this week?

the counter-intuitive leadership strength of asking for help

we americans love our self-sufficiency. and in the world of leadership, self-sufficiency is seen as a sign of strength. we are groomed, over years, to believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness. a bigger lie: we are groomed, over the years, to believe that asking for help will push people away from us. and while we often don’t live on that plane of emotion, our deeper needs of connection and relationship drive us to this (counter-productive) “i can do it by myself” approach.

here are two counter-intuitive truths:

asking for help is a sign of a strong, self-actualized leader with a high level of personal awareness.

when a competent person asks for help, she draws people to her, emotionally, rather than driving them away.

these themes were one of the central focuses of the year-long coaching program i went through with john townsend. my cohort had 10 leaders at the beginning. as john started to make these themes clear at the first meeting, two participants couldn’t connect with it. one of them made a presentation at our very first meeting. he talked all about his great success and all the amazing things he was doing. in light of townsend’s themes, i asked at the end of the presentation, “what do you need from us?” he was lost, and uncomfortably said, “i don’t think i need anything.” but that was counter to the entire focus of the program, and he didn’t return for our second meeting. another man dropped out after three meetings (and this one was actually quite needy). but the 8 of us who stuck with it learned so much, and each had major breakthroughs i trusting others, expressing our needs, and asking for help. there were often tears connected to this, as the needs we learned to express weren’t at the surfacy levels of “i need a contact for this” or “i need an idea for that;” but were more along the lines of “i’m deeply wounded and need someone to tell me what happened to me as a child wasn’t my fault,” or “i’m feeling very insecure about this, and need help in dealing with my fears.”

i don’t know that i realized it much during my latter years at ys, but i was stumbling into this learning myself. our leadership team began to hum like none i’d ever been a part of (before or since), as we got truly honest with each other and relied on each other at both personal and work levels. and the broader team at ys seemed to withdraw from me when i presented a “i’ve got it all together” vibe, but was drawn together (and to me) when i was fully, uncomfortably honest.

a week ago, a friend popped up on google chat while i was working one day and simply wrote: “new learning: asking for help is hard, but so much better than going it alone.”

this was from a strong leader, an extremely gifted man. and he’s experiencing a breakthrough into a new level of growth and wholeness that will cause, i believe, his future leadership to far surpass the successes he’s experienced to this point in life.

all of this was floating in the back of my mind somewhere last week when i had coffee with a local ministry leader. we made small talk for a while (you know, “ministry small talk”). then he started into an ask, something along the lines of, “i’d like to figure out how we can help each other. i’m not sure what that looks like, but if we could start meeting regularly, i think we could provide things for each other that would grow both of our ministries.” suspicious, i asked, “like, what kinds of things?” he went on to try to talk about iron sharpening iron and stuff like that. but it was clear to me that he wanted help, and wasn’t comfortable asking for it; so he had to pose it as a mutually beneficial thing.

i went into coaching mode, figuring some honesty and coaching might be more helpful to him than me just blowing him off or agreeing to something i wasn’t going to follow through on. i asked his permission to speak bluntly. with his consent, i said, “the things you’re suggesting you can help me with aren’t things i’m asking you to help me with. and they’re all things for which i have people who provide that help. what i think you’re trying to ask is if i would be willing to help you. and here’s the reality that could be a learning moment for you: when you pose the question laden with soft ideas about how it would be mutual, you drive me away, because i’m not asking for help; but if you would just come out and ask for help, i’d be drawn to you — both emotionally, and as a local ministry leader. don’t try to manipulate me by offering help only to get it. just be honest and ask for what you need.”

since then, he has written me a few emails, clearly re-articulating his ask. and i’m quite sure i will do what i can to meet with him and help him. and it’s very possible that will shift, over time, to a friendship that offers something to me also. it’s possible that i will have requests of him at some point, even.

knowing when you need help, clearly articulating it, and asking is strong leadership, not weakness.

(as an aside, and personal application: i’m currently at a cabin in the desert for a few days (there’s no wi-fi or cell phone reception there – i wrote this before leaving). i’ve had a practice of doing this quarterly for years now. but i’m changing it up this time. when the townsend coaching group ended, 6 of us continued meeting every other month for another year. as that wound down, recently, i felt a need to replace that space of honesty about what i need. so for this trip to the desert, my first 24 hours will be alone; then two friends (both youth workers) are joining me for another 24 hours. we’ll be sharing life and asking each other for help. we hope to make this an every-other-month practice.)

plotting will and competency: a helpful self-evaluation tool

i am committed to growth. i want to be a life-long learner. i want to grow in self-knowledge, become a better leader, a better youth worker, a better husband and father, a better human being, and a better follower of jesus. not that i always nail this growth thing, to be sure. but i’m thrilled when i see growth in my life.

recently, i was sharing a little leadership self-evaluation tool with someone in my youth ministry coaching program, and thought it might be helpful to pass along.

where it came from: less than a month before i was laid off from ys/zondervan, i had an annual evaluation with my boss. by this point, i was under such horrendous stress (trying to keep ys from imploding during the upcoming transition from zondervan to youthworks, and trying to figure out how to remain true to who i was while being asked to be a kind of leader that wasn’t me). it was the single worst year of my life, and i wasn’t enjoying my work. my relationship with my boss was strained, and i didn’t see a way out of that. i knew ys was either going to get broken up and sold, or get shut down, or some other alternative i didn’t see (but didn’t expect would be good). when i sat down with my boss for my evaluation, i said something like, “i hardly see the point of this, and i’m not very excited about it.” she asked why, and i responded, “well, i think that within a month, i’ll either be going with ys to a new supervisor, or i’ll be out of a job; but either way, an evaluation of how my leadership should change here doesn’t seem worth the time or effort.” she said, “i don’t see it that way at all.” and she meant it.

what came next surprised me: an opportunity to grow, and to learn more about myself.

she set our evaluation forms (hers and mine) aside, and asked me to stand at the whiteboard in her office. she asked me to draw a simple 2-axis grid, with low to high will along one axis, and low to high competency along the other axis. this created four quadrants:

then she asked me to think of all the responsibilities, tasks and other roles i played as the president of youth specialties (and a leadership team member of zondervan). with each, i was to place it on the grid. things like “financials” (meaning, staying on top of the details of ys’s budget and financial performance) got plotted in the lower left quadrant. things like championing the values of ys, and understanding youth workers got plotted in the top right quadrant. but the truly fascinating stuff were those things that got plotted in the other two quadrants — stuff i wanted to do, but wasn’t good at; and stuff i was good at, but didn’t want to do. she suggested additional responsibilities and functions i hadn’t thought of, and i placed them on the chart.

then she revealed a similar chart she had created about me, with almost exactly the same list of responsibilities, roles and functions. to my great surprise, there were only a couple items (out of about 20) where we had disagreement; and even then, the difference wasn’t great.

the process was wildly helpful and insightful. not only was it a good discussion around the differences in our perception and expectations, it was helpful for me to plot myself. i wrote the whole thing down, and brought it home for further reflection. again, the two quadrants i found most helpful to plumb were low will/high competency and high will/low competency. had i continued in that role, it would have been a great tool for making adjustments in the things i spent time on, a great tool for identifying areas i needed help (or needed to delegate), and a great tool for identifying those areas i needed to work on even if i didn’t like them.

i’d encourage you to take 10 minutes and do this exercise yourself. it might be helpful to make the list of responsibilities, role, function first, before plotting them. once you’ve got the whole thing completed, show it to your spouse, or a co-worker, or a supervisor, and ask for feedback. it could be a wonderful opportunity to grow!

the slow and arduous process of change, and the need for help

i’d just finished leading a seminar on organizational change yesterday, called “the flywheel of change”, when i popped online and saw this video (it’s short – watch it):

given the conversations i’d been a part of only minutes earlier, the video quickly became a metaphor for me. i had presented adizes’ model of organizational life-cycles (see this post for a little unpacking of that model). we’d talked about the hard path of rebooting an organization (business, church, youth ministry) that is already into entitlement and bureaucracy. we’d talked about the courage and challenge required for the first couple pushes on a flywheel of change, which have to (counter-intuitively) occur when everything seems to be going well, and most leaders want to ‘stay the course’. i’d shared stories of this from my youth specialties days, and consulting work i’ve done with churches and other organizations. and participants in the seminar shared stories of their attempts, as well as the organizational inertia or outright opposition that resisted their change efforts. it was encouraging, in the sense that we were all acknowledging the difficulty, as well as suggesting pathways to new vitality and life. but it was also discouraging in some ways, because change is hard and slow, and fraught with blind alleys and saboteurs, human and systemic.

the poor three-toed sloth just wants to cross the pickin’ road, for goodness sake. but even getting to the road (the metaphorical transition space of change) is a plodding effort. stepping (or crawling) onto the road is to offer himself up, unknowingly, to become likely roadkill. really, without the intentional, careful, knowledgeable (did you notice how the guy knew where to grab the sloth?) assistance of a gracious guide, the sloth would likely not have reached the other side of the road.

but… but, when the guy picks him up (did you notice this? watch it again if you didn’t.), the sloth becomes superman in flight — reaching out to the lush life on the far side.

in our attempts to bring change to the organizations in which we work and serve, we need help. the helper dude is a metaphor for many things:
the holy spirit, on whom we must rely for discernment while crossing the life-threatening space and duration of change.
the community of people who enter into change with us. leading organizational change (from a position granted that responsibility, or from a “leading up” position) is not, cannot be, a solo endeavor. in order for change to occur with both minimized risk and minimized damage, it absolutely has to be a collaborative process.
outside input, wisdom and ideation from others more familiar with the road.
hope. belly down to the road, the sloth could barely see the other side, and certainly couldn’t see all the oncoming threats. but from his elevated superman, flying position, hope rears its head. this isn’t x-games, no-fear hope; nope, this is peeing my slothy underparts fear mixed with a view of the destination. this is biblical hope: choosing confidence when it doesn’t feel logical.

the sloth can’t hop the road or run to the other side. change isn’t quick or easy. it’s slow and arduous and risky. how wonderful that (if we are wise) we don’t have to cross the road alone.

what are you dreaming of changing?
what are the risks you see?
who might have a better view of the risks you don’t see?
who is joining you in moving toward change? who’s on your team?
what role can/should the holy spirit play in your process of change?
where is your hope placed?