Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Art of Self Leadership

(from Christianity Today's Library)
Your toughest management challenge is always yourself.

Imagine a compass—north, south, east, and west. Almost every time the word leadership is mentioned, in what direction do leaders instinctively think?


Say the word leadership and most leaders' minds migrate to the people who are under their care. At leadership conferences, people generally think, "I'm going to learn how to improve my ability to lead the people God has entrusted to me."

South. It's a leader's first instinct.

But many people don't realize that to lead well, you need to be able to lead in all directions—north, south, east and west.

For example, good leaders have to lead north—those who are over you. You can't just focus on those entrusted to your care. Through relationship and influence good leaders lead the people over them. Much of what I do at Willow Creek, through relationship, prayer, and careful envisioning, is to try to influence those over me—the board and the elders.

Effective leaders also learn how to lead east and west, laterally, in peer group settings. If you don't learn how to lead laterally, if you don't know how to create win-win situations with colleagues, the whole culture can deteriorate.

So a leader must lead down, up, and laterally. But perhaps the most overlooked leadership challenge is the one in the middle. Who is your toughest leadership challenge?


Consider 1 Samuel 30. David, the future king of Israel, is a young emerging leader at the time. He is just learning to lead his troops into battle. He's green. But God is pouring his favor on David, and most of the time the battles go his way. One terrible day though, that pattern changes. After returning home from fighting yet another enemy, David and his men discover soldiers have attacked and destroyed their campsite, dragged off the women and children, and burned all their belongings.

This would define "bad day" for any leader! But it's not over. His soldiers are tired, angry, and worried sick about their families. They're miffed at God. A faction of his men spreads word that they've had it with David's leadership. They figure it's all David's fault, and they decide to stone him to death.

In this crisis David's leadership is severely tested. Suddenly, he has to decide who needs leadership the most. His soldiers? The officers? The faction?

His answer? None of the above.

In this critical moment he realizes a foundational truth: he has to lead himself before he can lead anybody else. Unless he is squared away internally he has nothing to offer his team. So "David strengthened himself in the Lord his God" (1 Samuel 30:6). Only then does he lead his team to rescue their families and what's left of their belongings.

David understood the importance of self-leadership. And although self-leadership isn't talked about much, make no mistake, it is a good part of the ballgame. How effectively can any of us lead others if our spirits are sagging, our courage is wavering, and our vision or commitment is weak?

Last summer I read an article that created some disequilibrium for me. The author, Dee Hock, challenged leaders to calculate how much time and energy they invest in each of these directions—people beneath them, over them, peers, and leading themselves. Since he's been thinking and writing about leadership for over 20 years and is a laureate in the Business Hall of Fame, I wanted his wisdom.

His recommendation: "We should invest 50 percent of our leadership amperage into the task of leading ourselves; and the remaining 50 percent should be divided into leading down, leading up, and leading laterally." His numbers bothered me so much I put the article away. But I let it simmer, which is my normal practice when someone messes with my mind.

While that was simmering, I read an article by Daniel Goleman, the author of the best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence. Since that book was released in 1997, Goleman has been spending his time analyzing why some leaders develop to their fullest potential and why most hit a plateau far from their full potential.

His conclusion? The difference is (you guessed it) self-leadership. He calls it "emotional self-control." What characterizes maximized leadership potential, according to Goleman? Tenaciously staying in leadership despite overwhelming opposition or discouragement. Staying in the leadership game and maintaining sober-mindedness during times of crisis. Keeping ego at bay. Staying focused on the mission instead of being distracted by someone else's agenda. All these indicate high levels of emotional self-control. Goleman says, "Exceptional leaders distinguish themselves because of superior self-leadership."

As I read his corroborating data, I thought, Maybe Dee Hock's percentages aren't all that absurd!

Recall the first five chapters of Mark's Gospel. Remember Jesus' pattern of intense ministry quickly followed by time set aside for reflection, prayer, fasting, and solitude? That pattern is repeated throughout his ministry. Jesus was practicing the art of self-leadership. He would go to a quiet place and recalibrate. He would remind himself who he was and how much the Father loved him. Even Jesus needed to invest regularly in keeping his calling clear, avoiding mission drift, and keeping distraction and temptation at bay.

This is self-leadership. And nobody—I mean nobody—can do this work for you. You have to do this work yourself. Self-leadership is tough work—so tough, Dee Hock says, that most leaders avoid it. Instead, we would rather try to inspire or control our people than to do the rigorous work of reflection.

Some years ago a top Christian leader disqualified himself from ministry. A published article described his demise: "[He] sank like a rock, beat up, burned out, angry and depressed, no good to himself and no good to the people he loved."

When this pastor finally wrote publicly about his experience, he said, "Eventually I couldn't even sleep at night. Another wave of broken lives would come to shore at the church, and I found I didn't have enough compassion for them any more. And inside I became angry, angry, angry. Many people still wonder whatever happened to me. They think I had a crisis of faith. The fact is I simply collapsed on the inside."

He failed the self-leadership test. He should have regrouped, reflected, recalibrated. Maybe taken a sabbatical or received some Christian counseling. Goleman would say that this guy lost his emotional self-control. Now he's out of the game.

A little closer to home, I'll never forget when three wise people came to me on behalf of the church. They said, "Bill, there were two eras during the first 20 years of Willow Creek history when by your own admission you were not at your leadership best—once in the late seventies and again in the early nineties. The data shows Willow Creek paid dearly for your leadership fumble. It cost Willow more than you'll ever know when you were off—not hitting on all 8 cylinders."

Then they said words I'll never forget: "Bill, the best gift you can give the people you lead here at Willow is a healthy, energized, fully surrendered, focused self. And no one can do that for you. You've got to do that for yourself." And while they were talking, the Holy Spirit was saying, "They're right, Bill. They're right."

Because I know what's at stake, I ask myself several self-leadership questions on a regular basis.

Is my calling sure?

On this matter, I'm from the old school. I really believe that if you bear the name of Jesus Christ, you have a calling, whether you're a pastor or a lay person. We all must surrender ourselves fully to make ourselves completely available to God. Ask, "What's my mission, God? Where do you want me to serve? What would you have me do in this grand kingdom drama?"

Remember what Paul said about his calling? "I no longer consider my life as dear unto myself. Only that I fulfill the mission or the calling given to me by God himself" (Acts 20:24).

What happens when you receive a call from the holy God? Your life takes on focus. Energy gets released. You're on a mission.

I have to keep my calling sure. So on a regular basis I ask, God, is your calling on my life still to be the pastor of Willow Creek and to help churches around the world? And when I receive reaffirmation of that, then I say, "Then let's go! Let's forget all the other distractions and the temptations. Burn the bridges!"

If you've been called to be a leader, it's your responsibility to keep your calling sure. Post it on your refrigerator. Frame it and put it on your desk. Keep it foremost in your mind.

Is my vision clear?

How can I lead people into the future if my picture of the future is fuzzy? Every year we have a Vision Night at Willow Creek. You know who started Vision Night? I did. Guess who I mainly do it for? Me. Every year when Vision Night rolls around on the calendar it means that I have to have my vision clear.

Every leader needs a Vision Night on the calendar. On that night you say, "Here's the picture; this is what we're doing; here's why we're doing it; if things go right, here's what the picture will look like a year from now.

We prepare very diligently for Vision Night at Willow Creek. We have countless meetings to discuss the future. We spend many hours in prayer: "God, is this what you would have?" We search the Scriptures. By the time Vision Night rolls around, the vision is clear again. But it takes a lot of work to clarify the vision and to keep it clear. Nobody can do that work for you. It's the leader's job.

Is my passion hot?

Jack Welch, the celebrated leader of General Electric, says, "People in leadership have to have so much energy and passion that they energize and impassion people around them."

I couldn't agree more. When I appoint leaders, I don't look for 25-watt light bulbs. I look for 100-watt bulbs because I want them to light up everything and everyone around them.

Whose responsibility is it to keep a leader's passion fired up? The leader's. That's self-leadership.

Last year, at an elders' meeting, a couple of the elders asked me, "As busy as you are, why do you fly out on Friday nights to speak in some small out-of-the-way church to help them raise money or dedicate a new facility? Why do you do that?"

My answer: Because it keeps my passion hot.

Last year I helped a church in California dedicate their new building. One guy took me to the corner of the auditorium, peeled the carpet back, and showed me how everyone in the core of their church had inscribed the names of lost people in the concrete. Then they covered it over with carpet. In that auditorium they're praying fervently that the lost will be found.

It was a four-hour flight back to Chicago. I was buzzed the whole way. That church fired me up! I just love watching men and women throw themselves into the adventure of ministry. It inspires me. I know that my passion has to be white-hot if Willow is going to catch it. I can't become a 25-watt bulb—nor can you.

We do a lot of conferences through the Willow Creek Association. At times pastors of flourishing churches will pull me aside and say under their breath, "I have to come here once or twice a year just to keep my fires lit." They seem embarrassed about being here so often, as if it's a sign of weakness.

I tell them, "If you're a leader, it's your job to keep your passion hot. Do whatever you have to do, read whatever you have to read, go wherever you have to go. And don't apologize. That's a big part of your job."

Is my character submitted to Christ?

Leadership requires moral authority. Followers have to see enough integrity in the leader's life that high levels of trust can be built. When surveys are taken about what it is that inspires a follower to throw his or her lot in with a particular leader over a long period of time, near the top of every list is integrity.

A leader doesn't have to be the sharpest pencil in the drawer or the one with the most charisma. But teammates will not follow a leader with character incongruities for very long. Every time you compromise character you compromise leadership.

Some time ago we had a staff member who was struggling in his leadership. I started poking around a little bit. "What's going on here?" I asked.

Then the real picture emerged. One person said, "For one thing, he sets meetings and then he doesn't even show. He rarely returns phone calls and often we don't know where he is."

I spoke to that guy and said, "Let's get it straight. When you give your word that you're going to be at a certain place at a certain time and you don't show up, that's a character issue. That erodes trust in followers. You clean that up, or we'll have to move you out." If character issues are compromised, it hurts the whole team and eventually impacts mission achievement.

I don't want to be a leader who demoralizes the troops and hurts the cause either. So on a regular basis, I sing Rory Noland's song in my times alone with God:

Holy Spirit, take control.

Take my body, mind, and soul.

Put a finger on anything

that doesn't please you,

Anything that grieves you.

Holy Spirit, take control.

It's the leader's job to grow in character. No one can do that work except the leader.

(This is only half of the original article. I will post the second half in the coming days)

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Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

This is probably one of those times where I really doubt Hybels' wisdom.

First of all, to use Jesus and David as models of leadership is pure eisegesis - it puts the philosophical idea being put forward as the basis by which to hang certain verses from. David and Jesus are unique individuals in the bible and, while the character is obviously something that we can learn from, to argue that a theology of leadership can be discovered from their lives is not biblical. David and Jesus (along with many others in the bible) are God's means of rescuing his covenant people - therefore their leadership positions are closely aligned with God's plan of salvation - that God saves his people through their actions. The same canot be said for church leaders of today - they are not God's means of salvation, but used by God to point towards salvation through Christ. This is where Covenant Theology and Biblical Theology fit in.

Secondly, and related to the first point, Hybels tends to focus upon worldly experts as he has done in this article. This is not a huge problem per se, but his reading of the worldly experts is completely in tune with the texts they have written. By contrast, Hybels does not read the Bible as a proper text. So while Hybels can read worldly experts correctly, he reads the bible through preconceived glasses.

Thirdly, the only direction leaders should aim for is not north nor south nor east nor west nor in the middle, but "up". Ultimately, church leaders should aim to please God not just most of all, but solely. It is only by serving God solely that a church leader can discover how to serve those around him properly.

Fourthly, his use of worldly experts and people like Jack Welch bely the fact that he is essentially taking on board secular management and leadership theory as the basis of his arguments. While I have said above that taking worldly experts into account is not wrong, the fact is that Hybels is basing his entire spiritual message in this article upon worldly pragmatism. What is good for Jack Welch, Bill Gates and others is NOT good enough for the church. The fact that these men succeed in leadership does NOT mean that they should be used as examples that Christian leaders should follow. When this occurs, the Christian leader essentially becomes a CEO and the church becomes a corporation, with red-tape and organisational structures that attempt to direct outcomes that are not necessarily biblical in nature.

Everything leaders need to know to please God can be found in the bible. Only by approaching the relevant biblical passages without worldly preconceptions can we find out what these things are. Hybels and other Christian leaders have made the grave mistake of imbibing worldly philosophies without critical thought.

Chris Meirose said...

Again, I don't know if I would disagree with you here OSO. I wrote a paper a while ago critiquing Hybels' exo/eisogesis in a presentation he gave at last year's Willow Creek Leadership Summit. Frequently I agree with Hybels' on the leadership theory, but disagree with how he came about getting to that point (which seems you're in the same boat). But with that said, I find him to be interesting and a spur that causes me to rethink how churches operate. Many/most churches in my life's experience are not lead as well as they need to be, and the world and the Kingdom both suffer because of it. I have been on staff of a church the last 3 years greatly suffering from this vacuum of leadership, and I'm afraid to say it may be closing its doors some time in the next calendar year because of it.
I do think there is a lot to be learned about leadership from the corporate world, but I think the corporate world has a lot to learn from the Bible. I'm big on servant leadership (my M.Div. concentration is Tranformational Leadership) so this is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about the past 4 years.
I love the book of Nehemiah as a great OT source for Biblical methods of leadership, and of course the ministry of Jesus has fantastic examples in the NT. You have any "favorites"?

Big Chris