why true leaders are powerless: a reflection on the cross.

It was my first magazine interview.  And by magazine I mean ‘denominational publication’ and by interview I mean a Q & A sheet.  In fact, they really just wanted to fill the last page with something, so I was picked for “Meet The New Guy”.  One of the questions asked was for a favorite quote.  I really wanted to sound smart and well-read, especially since I was new to the position…

So one Google quote search later, I picked a Henri Nouwen gem you might have heard.  It is from In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.  In it he says, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”  I read that and thought, ‘I’m definitely going to look good quoting this guy.’

Then life happened.

Five years later, two different jobs later, ‘coming out of retirement‘ later, I met Henri Nouwen again.  It was amazing how insightful he had become in that time.

the temptation of power…

I was just asked recently by one of my seminary professors, “How have you seen leadership give in to the temptation of power?”  He wanted us to answer it after reading Nouwen’s leadership text.  Some of my classmates chose to identify prominent pastors and other failures of Christian leadership.

This stung a little as all I had to do was look at my own story.  While I know this is a Christian professor teaching Christian content, I do want to call attention to the fact that all leadership is tempted toward power because all leadership is human.

I can easily point to historical figures like Pontius Pilate, Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon who yielded to power.  To point out the failures of bishops and pastors isn’t wrong but it doesn’t get at the root of the matter.  I’m tempted to power and control not based on my position but based on my humanity.

It just so happens that when a leader has an audience and they give in to the temptation of power it’s broadcast for all to see.  The temptation to manipulate power can take any shape and form and I would dare say that we look no further than our own hearts to find it.

According to Henri Nouwen, the temptation for a Christian is to consider power as an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel.  In fact, he would even say it’s the greatest temptation of all.  What Nouwen is driving at is that we are all guilty when we choose power as a means of control.  Based on this definition, many of our most successful leaders have given into the temptation of power and been praised for it.

I’m one of those leaders.

Five years after first proclaiming that “it’s easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life”, I still find myself wanting to be God, control people and own life.

powerless is good…

This same seminary professor immediately followed up with another question, “How is the cross a symbol of power and powerlessness?”

I knew what he was driving at even though I’m sometimes tempted to think of the cross as neither a power-full or power-less symbol but rather a commodity to my faith.  Or worse, a commodity to my religion.

The truth is, I believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I believe the cross is the centerpiece of history.

I do believe the cross is a power-full symbol of power in that it represents the sovereignty and providence of God.  It is because of the cross that I am free from sin and brought into right standing before and with God.

Nouwen again writes, “Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.”

It’s when I look at the cross as a symbol of powerlessness that I find shelter from the temptation to manipulate others with power.

In fact, I see the cross is more than a symbol of powerlessness, it is an instrument of powerlessness.  It was an instrument of torture and death.  There are only a few sadistic machinations from human history that match the depravity of death by cross.  The cross means to kill us.

One doesn’t climb onto a cross and hang for a little while, hurting until they are brought down.  Once you have been hung on a cross, you don’t come down until you are dead.  If I or anyone could come down from the cross before death then I would have defeated its power.

It’s only when I am powerless to come down from the cross that I have discovered its nature and purpose.  Essentially, Christ gave up his power to come down.  He chose it.  A common criminal couldn’t make that choice…you and I couldn’t make that choice but the Son of God could.

For a brief moment, He gave up His access to the powers of the universe so that at our hands He could die.

why true leadership is powerless…

We are commanded to take up that instrument and let the due diligence of its weight work on us.  If I could add an additional point to Nouwen’s, it would be this, “It’s easier to like the cross, than to die on it.”

Knowing, being and doing aren’t always hand in hand.  To lead, as Nouwen points out, is to be led.  It is to offer ourselves up.  It is to trade our dreams of power for something beyond ourselves.

Five years later, Nouwen still says it best: “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?  Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

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how to know when your employee is about to quit.

Frustration (was: threesixtyfive | day 244)

Image by Sybren A. Stüvel via Flickr

Working at and managing a department in a major retail store has it’s lessons.  One of those lessons is keeping an eye out for the folks who might be on the verge of quitting.  While turnover is high in occupations like ‘retail sales’ it doesn’t necessarily have to be.  In fact, I’m convinced that if you watch out for these ‘conversational’ red flags you might head off a potential break down on the sales floor or in the office.

Flag #1 – “No one cares but me”  When you hear someone say this, what they mean is “I feel alone.”  I know this may sound too Freudian but it’s true.  Most of the time a salesperson doesn’t care entirely too much about one specific product or aspect of the job.  What they thrive on is the sense of community that comes from others caring at the same time.  This flag usually shows up in random and unsolicited conversation.

Respond by asking why they feel that way and then just listen.  While this will always be an appropriate response, in this case, most people just want to be heard.  By giving them space to vent, they may realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them or what they are doing.  It’s always good to be reminded that we’re on a team, each person needing the other.

Flag #2 – “I won’t be here forever” This is often said by that high school student bagging groceries.  It’s justified and worthy of saying at this stage.  However, the 26-year-old with a degree should hopefully be saying, “I could see myself here a long time.”  This certainly isn’t the case always.  I’m not advocating that someone stick it out when a truly horrible work environment exists.  What I am saying is that one bad day won’t justify quitting.

Whenever you hear this on the sales floor or by the water cooler, ask the person, “Where do you see yourself in the next few years?”  It’s amazing how much intrinsic insight we have when we verbalize our thoughts.  Stepping stones to another job are not necessarily wrong.  Lagging performance due to frustration is.  Help the person find a niche in the company or help them find another company.

Flag #3 – “I hate my boss” No brainer, right?  Unfortunately, people stick it out in these situations despite having psychotic dreams of violence toward their superiors.  While not every relationship with a manager or leader is going to be peachy keen, it should be professional.  The number one reason most people leave their job positively is for higher pay somewhere else.  The number one reason most people leave their job negatively is because they couldn’t get along with their boss.

This is probably the trickiest red flag to navigate.  While “hating my boss” might not be the exact words, some derivation of it betrays a big problem.  A potential rescue does exist:  If the employee/volunteer is a tremendously talented asset to your organization AND they haven’t shared this with others, try negotiating new terms for work and communication.  Find out where the break down is.

Unfortunately though, if this venom is being spewed by the employee lockers and you’re getting it third hand, it’s time to cut the cord and move on no matter how talented the person is.

Flag #4 – “I don’t care”  This flag is at the opposite end of Flag #1.  When someone is truly invested in a company, an idea or a vision they usually have some form of opinion on almost everything.  Whether that’s what color the walls will be, what product will go up for sale next or who wins the “employee of the month” plaque.  Sure, it’s not normal to have an opinion on literally everything…you just don’t have time for it.  However, when not caring about anything becomes a motif, it’s time for change.

While you can never make someone care about something, you can always show care for someone.  A simple thank you card, some time off or a  new project are all ways to show that you care about someone.  Hopefully, that caring will be contagious.

These flags are just some things to listen out for but the real key is to always have your ear to the ground.  To be a good leader, you have to be a good listener.  The best is yet to come for most people, we just have to know how to look for it.  If you are thinking about quitting, quit well.  It’s not that a good leader doesn’t quit, it’s just that they know how and when to.


the space between absence and presence.

Do you ever wish there was a delete button for your life?  Like, you could highlight a certain thing you said or did and just magically erase it?

What if our entire life was written out on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper and editing was simply a matter of ‘undo, redo, cut, copy and paste’?  What would you rewrite?

I used to think (and still act to a degree) on the notion that if I could just get rid of a certain mistake or prevent a temptation or stop a sin then my paper would be perfect and I wouldn’t need the delete button.  I was convinced that then my 8.5 x 11 would make my Father proud.

This idea, however, met reality when I found that sins like to lurk behind each other.  For example, when I felt that pornography didn’t have near the stranglehold as it once did, there furtively waiting in the shadows of my soul lay a bed of anger, perhaps an even more dangerous enemy.

I’ve spent so much time trying to erase what I have done or focused on abstaining from a sin, I’ve forgotten that freedom is found in a better way.

The freedom that I’ve longed for isn’t in my energy to abstain; it’s in my energy to pursue.

The object of that pursuit isn’t to be a “better person“.  I’m not interested in the next self-help bestseller.  My pursuit is for the presence of God, manifested in what I know, who I am and what I do.

However, that presence won’t be manifest just because I was able to abstain from a sin.  That would mean it’s about me and about my attempt to manipulate the Father.

The mere absence of a sin doesn’t suddenly mean that God is now able or even willing to invade my life with blessing or clarity.  I’ve spent a majority of my life focusing on the absence of one sin or the other when God has been saying, “Spend less time on that absence and more time in My presence.”

If my 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper were filled with the pursuit of His presence then I would find much less need for the delete button.  Unlike the false space between love and obedience, there is a very real space between the absence of sin and the presence of God.

Seeking that absence would mean I’m more than human, more than frail and broken.  Seeking His presence would mean that I accept my humanity, that my frailty and brokenness are His delight.

It’s in His presence that I will find fullness of joy and strength.  Finally, here are the words of Eugene Peterson, paraphrasing the Apostle Paul:

I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.

why focusing on ‘platform’ might be your worst move.

preaching

Image via Wikipedia

The retail buzzword is “brand”.  The health industry buzzword is “wellness”.  How about “postmodern and paradigm shift” for ethics or philosophy?  Or one of my personal favorites – “leverage” for business.

Relatively new to the scene is “platform” which by strict definition means “a raised floor or stage used by public speakers or performers so that they can be seen by their audience.”  Here’s the thesis: the greater your platform, the greater your influence.  According to this definition, the people interested in platform are public speakers and performers, but really it’s anyone who either has a voice or wants a voice.  I have this sneaky suspicion you’re one of the two.

I might compare ‘platform’ to “Search Engine Optimization“, the process of improving visibility of a website in search engines via “natural” search results.  SEO for websites and platform for speakers are increasingly synchronized in pursuit of that influential voice.  The difference (if there is one) is really only in your product, whether that’s a piece of plastic from China, a get-rich-quick scheme or some social justice.  My concern exists in the increasing dichotomy of platform and product.  The pendulum seems to be swinging from what we’re saying to how we’re saying it.

The potential danger intrinsic to this sudden and increased emphasis on platform is in exerting more energy and effort into the volume of our voice vs. what we’re actually saying.  Competition for your ear, your wallet and your vote is off the charts.  What we’ll see in this next presidential election is evolving socio-digital synchronization – where the candidate who stands on the most electronic soapbox wins.  Why not when you can actually pay for followers on Twitter?  It’s the new Direct Mail.  Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign proved it’s not what you say but how you say it.

So you want platform?  The first question to ask is “what are you actually trying to say” or “what are you contributing?”  This may sound like an old argument of chicken vs. egg or Jim Collins’ ‘get the right people on board before determining the destination.’  However you want to slice it, the bottom line is that our headlines are driving our business, not our content.  Do you want loyal customers and committed followers/fans?  Then build your platform on the content, not your content on the platform.

Your platform will grow and it will shrink with volatile markets.  Impulse will drive the consumer more than intent.  Is your product worth riding these storms?  Is your message changing lives?  Worry a little less about the size of your platform and focus a little more on quality product.  You’ll discover that this strategy delivers longer-term life-changing results.

don’t make me angry.

The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962). Cover art b...

Image via Wikipedia

I have a counselor and mentor who spent a lot of time working in a maximum security prison as well as treatment facilities for sex offenders.  Almost two years ago now, he once asked me, “Do you know what the common theme is for all the inmates I’ve worked with?  Guys in prison for pedophilia, rape and other sexual deviance’s?”  I thought for a few seconds about what it might be.

My first thought was that these guys all had daddy issues.  They must have grown up in dysfunctional homes, been exposed to abuse themselves, emasculated by a distorted gender identity or some other term from the DSM IV and then never appropriately coped.

What the counselor said next took me by surprise.  He said, “Anger.  They are all very angry and don’t know how to deal with it.”

Now, he wasn’t for one second saying that anger was a justifiable excuse for the atrocities that imprisoned these men.  He was, however, saying that anger became a framework for expressing all the crap that had built up over time.  Was anger in and of itself the culprit?  Hardly.  Was it always the healthiest expression?  Nope.  Then this counselor/mentor, with his Charles Xavier-like mental probe, poked my heart and asked, “How’s your anger?”

My mouth was frozen and I started to numb a little.  I literally felt the weight of the past bearing down on my chest.  Have you ever been in those situations?  Where the air in the room suddenly gets hot and thick.  I know for a fact that God uses men and women like this to call a ‘time-out’, where all the other stuff you’re doing, working on, creating suddenly becomes distant and less important.  I wanted to get out of there and fast.  Here’s why…

I’m not a crier.  It’s not how I typically navigate my emotions.  Frustration for me doesn’t lead to tears or a pouting lip.  That’s not to say I haven’t in the past but as I’ve changed over the years, crying is less and less of an emotional response for me.  If you do see me cry it’s usually from one of two things: 1) I’ve just watched the closing scene of Braveheart (it get’s me every time) or 2) because I’m hurting pretty deeply.  Since I don’t cry easily it leaves me with another emotional response that does come easy: anger.

Not just angry in a loud annoying way but in an intentionally mean way.  Almost like the “where is this coming from” kind of way.  It really does make me think of when Ted Cassidy narrated the opening scene of the TV version Incredible HulkDavid Banner would say “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry.  You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”  That is me!  You seriously would not, will not like me when I’m angry, specifically in my self-righteous exertion to be right all the time.  It takes so much energy to be right all the time, doesn’t it?

So is anger wrong then?  Of course not!  There is legitimate anger at the injustices of the world.  That dead Somali children are lining the refugee trail to Kenya enrages me.  That almost 1 million people die every year from Malaria is heart breaking.  This is where we hear the Psalmist most acutely, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?”  However, the expression of anger that I’ve struggled with over the years and discuss in this blog is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

It’s the kind of anger that doesn’t produce the righteousness of God.  Thinking of my past and perhaps that of the inmates my counselor mentioned, I discern one summation: that hurt begets hurt and what I do with that hurt is what defines the outcome.  My challenge is to surrender the need to be right, the need to be justified, the need to hurt another just to make myself feel better.  Want to strip the Incredible Hulk of his power?  Ask yourself, “Why am I hurting…?”

Let me finish with this true story: A few years ago we built our first house in Cleveland, TN.  A proud moment for a young newlywed couple.  In this new neighborhood were more empty lots, including the two on either side of ours.  One Sunday, coming home from church I found two guys randomly mowing my grass.  Looking at my yard, I realized they had driven their truck through our front lawn to drop off cinder blocks in the next lot.

Not only had they damaged my fresh grass, they were trying to cover it up!  I proceeded to stop and ask one of them what was going on and who they work for.  Through broken English, I got a sarcastic response and that’s all it took to set me off.  The green monster had awoke.  I proceeded to curse, yell, threaten deportation and other very non-Christ-like things.  I was on the border of calling the police and having a heart attack at the same time.  It was a bad day.

What’s funny is that here we are a few years later and lo-and-behold, the lot next to ours is under construction.  Mowing my grass yesterday, I watched as one of the workers drove his Bobcat through my yard.  The green monster was itching,clawing and growling to come out…but I remembered something called mercy.  I remembered that I had surrendered my right to hurt another just to feel better.  I remembered that it’s only grass.

I once told a cabin full of boys on the first day of camp, “You don’t want to see me angry.”  One of the bolder campers immediately spoke up and said, “Yeah, he turns into a big hairy butt!”  Thank you, Jeremiah.  It’s still true.

if i’ve ever known mercy.

I had gone four months without a paycheck and my pride was no longer calling the shots. I was in a position where I couldn’t blame the economy, the president or fate. In the words of Led Zeppelin, it was “nobody’s fault but mine.” I had lost my job because of selfish, poor choices but at this point, more than my job was on the line…my marriage was at stake.

In the not too distant past, in what feels like another life, I betrayed the trust of many people, most importantly so the trust of my wife. Honestly, I don’t expect ever getting over the infinite ache of hurting my best friend like that. Somewhere between the borders of anxiety and regret, guilt had possessed both my piety andIf pride.

In rebuilding our lives, I just wanted a job that brought a sense of esteem and purpose but that would not be for some time. Thankfully, God had plans for my heart long before He had plans for my wallet.

I landed two interviews, one at Caribou Coffee and the other at Target. Caribou never called back, but Target did and I landed a position working in their backroom, pulling and stocking merchandise. I vividly remember leaving the drug test place, driving back to my brother’s house where we were staying at the time and being overcome with emotion.

I wept for the rest of the ride as I realized that I was starting over, literally earning a little more than minimum wage.  I was crying from my self-pity as reality shook me out of the disillusionment I had been trapped in.  I pulled into the driveway as the song, “Take My Hand and Walk” by The Kry played on the radio.  It felt like concrete gripped my hands and feet…I didn’t want to go inside.

Amy was anxiously waiting for me at the top of the stairs interested in our financial future.  The pain of my previous decisions were still fresh and she was very sensitive still to my every word and action.  I walked up the steps, looked at her and could barely get the words out through my tears…”I got the job.”  Now here is where my wife is the most amazing, phenomenal woman to grace this broken life.  Here is where I, as a man, humbled, shattered, bruised from self-inflicted wounds and having wounded her deserved nothing.  But this was her gift…she reached out, embracing me deeply, leaned into me and whispered, “I’m proud of you.”

If ever in my life I have known mercy, it was here in this moment.  Two years later, this gift of mercy remains the greatest tool of leadership she has employed in our marriage.

A quick Google search on ‘leadership tools’ is a recipe for information overload.  The very word ‘tool’, in the context of leadership, can hint at Machiavellian power struggles, just another manipulative accessory for climbing a ladder.  I would hesitate to use this utilitarian word, ‘tool’, if it wasn’t for its perfect definition – something (as an instrument or apparatus) used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession.  Even for more abstract enterprises, like “leadership” or “marriage”, there is a gamut of tools for success.

From psychology to technology you will find top 10 “tools” proclaimed everywhere in this digital frontier.  Things like vision, mission, personality type, coaching, empowering, social platform, etc.  These are all fine and can serve leaders well whether sacred or secular.  However, the ‘tool’ I am espousing, when employed faithfully, can keep you out of the rat race or the Machiavellian camp and settled peacefully in the, ummm…Jesus camp.

From this story, you probably already know the ‘tool’ I’m espousing is mercy.  What better way to shun manipulative tendencies than to surrender one’s pride and offer something far less lucrative like mercy?  What better way to laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry than through the lens of mercy?

Finally, and most importantly, what better way to use mercy as a tool for leadership than to remember a time where you were granted mercy yourself.  If I’m anything at all today, as a leader or as a husband, it’s because I was given the unmerited mercy, grace and favor of my Savior and my wife.

May you too one day know the triumph of mercy over judgement.