Character & Competency

A few days ago I posted the first in a series of essays on what I have found to be five attributes of a high-capacity leader. These attributes seem to function in two ways that matter to everyone of us. On the one hand they are like horses harnessed together to pull a load. And at the same time, individually they have the capacity to sabotage what could be accomplished by the others. This is the second of four essays on this theme.

There is a good shift taking place. While it seems that the majority of training and leadership expectations focus on one’s competencies, there is a lot of emphasis these days on the character that lives deeper than competencies. To that extent we are on the right track. As I and many of my colleagues believe, influence flows out of who you are not what you can do. Character is not the only thing that matters, but without it nothing else matters much.

However, in the popular conversations, it seems we often speak of leaders ‘having character’ as if that means they possess a strength of will to sustain them through the challenges they face. Or, we use character as a synonym for integrity.  To be sure these qualities flow from a leader’s character. However, I mean to imply something more.

The character of a leader is the personalized imprint of God on the inner life. It is not merely the imposition of a predetermined list, (i.e. the Boy Scout Law: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly,etc.) I think of character as the comprehensive and unique landscape of one’s soul — the integrated package of convictions forged by experience and the internal formation carried out by the Spirit of God which shape our behavior.

Character makes an imprint on everything we do, every relationship we maintain, and every facet of our behavior. It is more than who I am when no one is looking. It is also who I am when everyone is looking.

It is a matter of soul and spirit. Spiritually, it is reflected in 2 Chr. 16:9
“The eyes of the Lord search to and fro throughout the earth, that he might fully support the man whose heart is completely his.”

At the same time, leaders need to have skills–significant skills! In a changing world, leaders must continually develop and sharpen their abilities in order to lead with effectiveness. Good intentions are no match for competent leadership.
Don’t misunderstand my comments on character to mean that skills don’t matter.  We live in a demanding world. In fact, most leaders find they are expected to be competent in a wide range of arenas they were never trained in.

Influence flows out of character, but high capacity leaders are also highly competent. They don’t flaunt their expertise, but they are constantly working to develop their skill-set. Character-deep leaders understand the relationship between character and competency. While character may be the key to influence, they have also learned to rely on their competencies much like a master-mechanic relies on tools. When the tasks demand it, they pull out different tools, use them with wisdom, and then put them back into the tool chest for another day.

In a world characterized by quantum and continuous change, we will always need new skills. We can benefit from skills that minimize personal deficits, but more importantly, we need to hone those skills that build on personal strengths.
Biblical parallels:
Ps 78:72:  “David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hand he led them.”
1 Tim 4:11-15:  “…do not neglect your gift…be diligent… so that everyone may see your progress.”

Five C’s of High Capacity Leaders

In a world that crowds after the illusion of simple formulas, what I am about to say might venture too close to that black hole. However, my conviction is that the five attributes below represent the journey of a leader’s life long development. As a matter of fact, our quest for quick-fix, simple leadership formulas is actually what derails us from the depth of this developmental journey.

The extent to which a man or woman has cultivated all five dimensions of his or her life, is the measure by which they will find the influence of their life growing exponentially. By the same token, every dimension that is missing or stunted  sabotages the scope of that influence.

I have taught on four of these five dimensions for some time, perhaps even beginning to take for granted that everyone already “gets it.” But this past week in a conversation with a very sharp woman leader I discovered that I have also come to understand the fifth dimension. So, whether this serves as a review of the familiar or as fresh thinking I hope it serves you.

I also make the assumption that you live with a God-given desire to live a life of influence — to make a mark that cannot be easily erased. In that spirit, I invite you to consider the shape of the following in your life:

CHARACTER :: Influence flows out of who you are more than what you do. Character is more than force of will or consistency. It is that unique combination of who you are when no one is looking and the formation of your soul through intimacy with Christ.

COMPETENCY :: At the same time, leaders need to have skills. In a changing world, leaders must continually develop and sharpen their skills that they might lead with effectiveness. Good intentions are no match for competent leadership.

CALLING :: Leaders are surrounded by those with an agenda, expectation, or demand for them. Yet, leaders of influence are those live before the Audience of One rather than for the applause of the crowd. They do so because they understand and align their behavior with a clear sense of calling and contribution.

COURAGE :: Unfortunately, the crowd won’t like it. Therefore, leaders must be people of courage. You cannot lead without conflict, even when you are doing the right thing in the right way. And, you cannot wade toward or through that conflict without courage. Without courage, you will dodge the hard stuff.

COMMUNITY :: Leaders don’t live or lead in isolation. While leading is often an isolating experience, leaders seek out, form, choose, and live in interdependence with others. They create safe places of community for others by the way they pursue it themselves.

So, if you were to give yourself a grade of ‘A’ to ‘F’ on each of the five, what would your report card look like today?

I am going to post an essay on each of these five every few days over the next couple weeks. I’d invite you to absorb them one at a time. Post a thought or two about how you are learning work on each dimension.

After I have completed the series,  I’ll post it as one downloadable .pdf and add some group reflection questions so that you might use it as a resource with those who lead beside you.

Runner’s up for Book of the Year 2008

Getting beyond the wow factor of technological advancements can be hard at times. After all, today my phone has more memory, speed, and graphic computing power than my first computer ever dreamed of. But the real issue for all of us is how we are going to leverage the opportunities created by technology in order to exercise leadership influence? How do we participate in the social-networking and web-based explosion of the likes of Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, or blogging phenomenon.

Tribes is about that kind of leverage. In fact, in the surprise I didn’t expect, Godin’s book offers powerful principles for effective leadership in an information age. I an such a fan o the book that I have been highly recommending it to our staff. Every leader of the day faces the challenge of getting beyond the surface and superficial use of technology and informational systems and getting to the real issue: leadership. Here is a book to help you do just that.

Tribes invites all of us into a fresh look at the opportunities and necessities of leadership in the environmentof our day.

The second book in my Runner’s Up category is Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero.  I have written on this in an earlier entry that you can read.  But, as I look back on the year, I realize that I am continually having conversations that link back to EHS and to the journey that book sent me on.

One component of the book I have thought a great deal about lately is the way Scazzero addresses the need we all have to grieve our limits and our losses.  We all have God-given limits and our ability to discover genuine emotionally healthy spirituality is connected to how well we learn to deal with loss and with our limits.

I don’t know about you, but I have found that my emotional well-being and my spiritual well-being are inseparably intertwined. Here is a tool to guide the integration of my (and I hope, your) journey.


the illusion of mentoring

Gandalf…Dumbledore…Yoda… fictional icons of wisdom and in the minds of many the epitome of the perfect mentors.  The only thing is, they aren’t real. They are part of the fiction that actually inhibits mentoring.

It seems that we are collectively waking up to the power of mentoring these days, however at the same time, behind this momentum at least two illusions sabotage access to mentoring for most people.

The first illusion is the romanticized notion that mentoring relationships should be dramatic experiences of breakthrough replete with fireworks in the sky and a soundtrack in the background. It is as if we expect mentoring to feel like semi-magical encounters with an all-knowing guru. However, real mentoring feels pretty mundane most of the time.

The second illusion actually discourages people who are in the game. Most days, the real experience of mentoring feels more like the simple exchange of friends over a cup of coffee than a lightning bolt of earth-shaking insight. At any given moment in a mentoring relationship, the conversations feel small, slow, incrementally laborious…anything but glamorous.

This second illusion is the subtle deceit which makes people doubt the value of the time they are spending together. It is the lie that these mundane and incremental conversations are unremarkable. The opposite is actually the truth. The remarkable impact of mentoring is not in the drama of a single moment, but in the cumulative impact of one person sharing their life and their experience with another over time.

The reality behind the illusions of mentoring, is that the small non-glamorous interactions between mentor and “mentoree” add up to life-changing influence over time. Operating under the radar, mentoring can actually change the world, one life at a time.

And that is my point. If you can let go of the grandiose guru-like or overly structured academic notions of mentoring, you will see that there are scores of people around you who might help you with the growth, challenges, or possibilities you are facing. Seek them out for a simple conversation where you learn from their insight and experience.

Let go of the fanciful notions of mentoring and you will discover that you have scores of life experience and insight that might serve people around you as well.

Who could you share your life with?
And, who could help you with the things you face?

The Relationship Between Focus and Impact

the clutter of busyness

Here’s the problem, my brain is always thinking about possibilities. What else could be done? What new projects could we tackle? What new goals? What improvements?

However, impact is directly related to focus and focus is about doing fewer things not more. Impact is not the result of doing a lot more. Focus is a process of saying no – so that you have the time and energy to say yes to the right stuff.

In a culture where habitual drivenness is the water we swim in, there is an invisible pull to say yes to more. And if your wiring is at all like mine, some of those possibilities and projects dangling before you are so alluring that it is easy to be deeply invested in far too many commitments to make a focused impact.

Wise leaders are constantly clarifying and focusing their personal “DO and DON’T DO LIST.” That is, they continually focus their activities and commitments so that maximum energy can be directed for greatest focus. They are clear about when they should say yes and when they must say no.

I think there are at least three major areas of vulnerability that lure us into an over-committed out-of-focused life. These are the areas where saying no does not come naturally.

Leaders are generally people of passion. They long to make a difference, to leave the world a better place. Charlatans masquerade as leaders, but are actually concerned about recognition, self-advancement, and the like. True leaders seek to give themselves away. And this is where the trouble lies. When you are passionate about making a difference, it is easy to yes to that one more responsibility.

Over time every one of us develops some legitimate competencies. Some of them were developed at a great price–with great pain and effort. When opportunities arise to leverage some of your core competencies it is easy to feel needed and valued. It is seductive to say yes when you get to use what you have learned to do well.

You know how this one works. A friend asks you to take on a new responsibility because your abilities would meet a need they have. You know you are already overly committed, but it is just one more thing and this relationship is important to you.

My point: Less really is more. There is a direct correlation between the narrowness of a leader’s focus and the depth of their impact. The key to focus is to say no to more so that you might say yes to the right stuff.

Two suggestions:

1.) Define your DO and DON’T DO list. In light of the focus of your life – the one thing that is most important for you to give yourself to – make a list of the responsibilities and behaviors you must do and a second list of those things you must (even painfully) say no to.

2.) Schedule a monthly review where you pull up a few thousand feet to review what has climbed onto your plate that you shouldn’t be doing and the things that have slipped off your plate which you must be doing. Then plan your schedule forward accordingly.

Leadership Coups and Other Power Plays

It is time for a conversation about the darkside of leadership.

For some reason, even when heinous leadership behavior occurs in Christian circles it is common to gloss over these behaviors with polite and spiritually baptized verbal gymnastics.

I want to lobby for a new day. I want to suggest that it is time we name inappropriate behavior for what it really is. I think it is time we recognize that there are “sins of leadership” which do long term damage to the very people leaders are called to serve. By becoming more honest in the way we describe our actions, we have the chance of becoming more aware and more accountable for them as well.

Just two categories of such behavior.

You know what a coup looks like during a hostile military takeover. In the church or other organization, it is a coup when one person or party which is not in power, manipulatively or clandestinely consolidates power and then forcibly ousts currently appointed leadership.

An example:
A church planter seeking to build a culture of shared leadership in his church, was caught by surprise when one of his elders had been working his relationships in order to develop a larger personal platform. Ultimately, this elder had gathered enough support to call for the “philosophically-driven” decision to eliminate paid ministry staff and in the process oust the founding pastor. What happened in phase two of his effort was that he maneuvered himself into the role of senior pastor. It was a coup.

Blackmail is the act of holding someone or a group of people hostage through either the threat of painful action or an expensive demand of some sort. The key threads to recognize are: 1.) there is always a threat; and 2.) that threat carries very painful consequences to it.


A ministry leader, unhappy with the direction of his church, networked a group of wealthy church members and presented an ultimatum complete with specific demands and details about what should be done to please them. The bottom line of this ultimatum? If the change we seek is not made, all of us will withold our financial support.

We need to look each other in the eye and call that kind of public threat what it is, blackmail. To threaten a group like that, to give an ultimatum, puts the entire congregation into a no-win situation. It forces people to choose sides and creates only painful options. It is an intimidation tactic. It is blackmail.

Power plays might be one way to get what we want, but this kind of political maneuvering leaves radioactive fallout that takes forever to dissipate. There are always other options for how people, decisions, processes, and leaders can be treated. But when people act this way, it’s time we call power plays like these what they really are. Furthermore, it is time that all of us pay careful attention to the way we wield influence of leadership.

Legacy of My Life

Hi my name is Gary and I am an achievement-aholic. I was weaned by a success-crazed culture and have refined the trend with my goals and projects. We all joke about it, but there is part of us that still believes, “he who dies with the most toys wins.” We are seduced by the illusion that the legacy of our lives will be measured by the cumulative value of the stuff we create-acquire-build-plan-say-do.

What if the true legacy of our lives is something completely different?

A few weeks ago I was in the Chicago area-my old stomping grounds.  While there I spent a nearly perfect afternoon at a reunion of old friends for whom I had once been their Youth Pastor. We told stories, we laughed, we gagged over how old our children are, and we caught up on different ways God has been at work in our lives. The fact that these “former kids” are now in their 40’s is more than a little frightening. Their age says more than I’d like to admit about my own.

At one point in the afternoon, I was standing off to the side watching these old friends interact with each other. I couldn’t stop thinking about what quality people they had become. Lost in my thoughts, I failed to notice when another friend came up beside me. He put his arm around me and said, “these ‘kids’ are the legacy of your life-it must make you feel proud.” It does.

I think about all the things that we did together back in the day. The camps, retreats, mission projects, outreach efforts, etc. it was all terrific stuff, but none of it was the stuff that lasts. My legacy is not in all the stuff I have done, it is the people God allows me to do stuff with.

In the 21 years since I moved from that town I have been a privileged man. I have had the chance to lead and serve people in a huge variety of contexts in a number of states and a host of foreign countries. I have created programs, designed curriculums, written books, and spoken at a host of gatherings. It has always felt meaningful. It has usually been challenging. And, while there have been some very forgettable efforts, most of what I have done has had some level of influence.

But the legacy of my life is not in all that activity. It is the people of my life who go on to touch and shape the world beyond my reach.

As a leader I have to remember this lesson. It creates breathing room when I am under pressure. It gives perspective when I feel driven by a big project. It reminds me that the things I do actually create the context in which I get to share my life with someone else. It helps me pull up when I am preoccupied with details and demands, because it reminds me that what really matters in all of this is people.

The imprint of my life lives in the people of my life. The same is true for you. And that is our real legacy.

Sometimes, it is a Squirrel

the squirrel
“What is grey, has a furry tail, and collects nuts for the winter?”

“I know it sounds like a squirrel, but since this is Sunday School, the answer must be Jesus,” answers the eager student.

Yeah, I know you know the joke. The story is so familiar, most of us can jump over the punch line and joke about Jesus vs. the squirrel answers that dominate our religious-speak. But the thing is, sometimes the answer is a squirrel-plain and simple.

There is this habit of talking in spiritually coated words when we are in church or around other Christians. Whether in leadership meetings or in the pulpit, we struggle to talk plainly about the issues staring us in the face. We gloss over ugliness with candy-coated optimism. We speak of tragic dilemmas with platitudes. We attempt to be cheerleaders for God’s reputation. We rarely call a squirrel a squirrel. Sometimes our spiritual lens coatings are so thick, we don’t even see the obvious in front of us.

Behind it all is a deep-seated dualism, a man-made divide carved between the secular and the spiritual. We operate as if church-related activities, (Bible studies, church services, small groups, mission teams, etc.,) are spiritual and therefore good. Then we treat everything else in life, (doing laundry, going to work on Monday morning, paying bills, family vacation,) as secular and therefore second-class, only a necessary evil, not necessarily bad, but not truly good.

However, there is one Lord of ALL heaven and earth. He is not only the sovereign of so-called spiritual life, He is the beginning and end of all life. As a result, all of life is deeply spiritual. There is no secular-sacred divide. All work is spiritual. All creatures are holy. ALL of life is a sacred created thing. Every vocation is a holy calling-a chance to live on mission in a broken world.

Following Christ is a journey into reality not away from it. Jesus was never interested in disconnecting from the tangible issues of life that surrounded him nor did he urge his followers to do anything less. He talked about and engaged the real stuff. It is part of what made him so attractive. He was truly one of us.

It’s no wonder that people who live outside the bubble of Christianized vocabulary don’t see our faith as a relevant answer to a complex world. We would connect with that broken world and the people trying to navigate through it far better if we learned to speak directly about the things right in front of us. Let’s call conflict conflict. Let’s be honest and straightforward about our emotions. Let’s voice our confusion or hurt or fear without conditions attached. And, let’s celebrate without apology when life calls for it.

I think it’s time for leaders who’ll champion the squirrel.

Endurance and Success

Good leaders with good ideas and good plans still fail on a regular basis. Sure, sometimes they fail because of inadequate resources, sometimes they fail because of flawed implementation plans, and sometimes failure is the result of character weakness.

But as often as not, the reason a new project or initiative fails is nothing less than a lack of endurance–when the going got tough they stopped going.

For the last couple years my wife, Margaret, and I have discovered that we love cycling together. Our favorite weekend ride is a 25 mile loop to Huntington Beach. We ride to the beach, have coffee on the patio at the Main St. Starbucks, and then ride back home. However, somewhere along in our cycling journey we decided to try something much more ambitious.

102 miles in Palm Springs

February 9th we accomplished our goal of completing a full “century” — 100 miles in one day. (It was our second attempt.) Crossing the finish line in Palm Springs with energy to spare was a victorious moment, but, it wasn’t a bed of roses. It was a long hard, demanding day on our bikes.

Along the way, I recognized that the physiological-psychological journey I was experiencing had significant leadership parallels. Maybe someday I will write on some of the others, but the biggest lesson of all was that the key to success was simply to not stop. Even though we were making great progress, even though we had trained, even though we were experiencing success, there were lots of times when quitting felt like a sensible, even desirable idea.

Between mile 40 and 60, after the initial fun of the adventure had long since been exhausted, when we were barely halfway, when physical and mental fatigue were growing, I had the big “Aha!” of the day. The key to successfully completing 100 miles is simple: Just don’t stop! If you don’t stop pedaling, you will succeed.

Sure, I have heard and even said that the key to success is to keep going. However, in many endeavors it actually makes more sense to say to yourself, just don’t stop. Since today is the only day you can control, just don’t stop today. If you take that approach every day at every step, before long, you will have succeeded.

Anyone who has tried to lead change or tried to launch some new enterprise knows that there are long seasons in the middle zone of your initiative when the hard work ahead is still as great as what you have already done. Those are discouraging, dark, non-glamorous days. Those are days when the return on your sacrifice is still far off, when fatigue is palpable, and when there are still enough variables in play that success can not be guaranteed.

Whether you are leading change, starting a business, planting a new church, trying to lose weight, spearheading a new program in your company/ church/ or community you will face days plagued by logical reasons you should quit. Don’t. Solicit help to assess the effectiveness of your methodologies, but don’t stop. Trust yourself and all the preparation you have done.

You see, on a daily basis, endurance simply means that today I just won’t quit.

Somewhere about mile 85 or 90 we could taste victory. Our speeds increased, our enthusiasm returned, and with a great deal of excitement we leaned into the final corners heading to the finish line. 102 miles after we had started, the pain and fatigue of those difficult earlier miles evaporated. Success has that effect.

So, what are you working on these days that calls for extraordinary endurance?

What reasons are you giving yourself for quitting?

Is what got you started still valid?

Whatever you are telling yourself in this moment, it’s time to do the most important thing. DON’T STOP.