Finding a Path without Anxiety or Blame

This is my take on where we are as country at the beginning of the Trump Administration.

Here is the video transcript. Please remember that it will read like a conversation, not a term paper (maybe that’s a good thing).

Hey there, Jack Shitama. Today is January 21st 2017, the day after inauguration day. That means the Obama administration is over. No cheering. And that means the Trump administration has begun. No booing. And for the most part we’ve had a peaceful transition of power, something that’s a hallmark with our country.

I want to share with you that I love Barack Obama. I loved what he did and stood for as a president. I love his family. I love how he carried himself in the office and so I’m sad to see him go. Before you start yelling at me I need to share with you that I do not make decisions about my values rationally. They come from a place in me that’s deep and not logical and I don’t really understand. I am biased. I make my decisions about my values and then I rationalize it.

Now here is something you need to understand. You’re not rational either. None of us makes rational decisions about deeply held things or even economic decisions. If you don’t believe me Google “behavioral economics.” There’s all kinds of research that shows how we don’t make decisions based on logic. We make them based on something else and then we rationalize them.

So here we are on January 21st, 2017 and we have people who are happy about the new Trump administration. We have people who are angry. We have people who are fearful. We have people who are troubled. All of these people disagree but that doesn’t necessarily make any of them bad people.

I think we have a problem in this country. Clearly, we’re divided but it’s not even the division of belief that’s the problem. It is that we demonize those with whom we disagree. We make them into the enemy and I believe that that comes from a deep rooted anxiety in our country. I don’t know if he originated this statement but, Seth Godin says that anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. And there is something about the way our country is right now that people are anxious about the future and they are experiencing the demise of our country even before it happens.

I read a book this fall by Edwin Friedman, who wrote Generation to Generation about family systems theory. The book is called A Failure of Nerve and in it he says that we live in a chronically anxious society. And this anxiety makes it hard for people to function. It makes it hard for leaders to innovate. It makes it hard for communities and for states and nations to see a path into the future, where they can feel hopeful.

One of the symptoms of this chronic anxiety is blame. Friedman calls it “blame displacement.” What happens in a chronically anxious family, in a chronically anxious system of any kind, a chronically anxious country, is people blame other people for their own problems.

Let me try to make everybody mad here. Just think about this. How many people are blaming blacks or whites, the rich or the poor, manufacturers or Mexicans, police or Planned Parenthood, corporations or congress. Well, everybody is blaming congress. Even that’s not fair because congress or legislators are our representatives. They are a reflection of who we are in our divided country. Our country is designed so that when things are divided in this way things don’t happen very quickly. So give your legislator a break, they are doing the best they can.

Getting back to this blame displacement, when we start to blame others for our own condition, what it means is we are not taking responsibility for our own feelings, for our own beliefs, for our own situation. When we don’t do that it is nearly impossible to find a path into the future. So what do we do about it?

Viktor Frankl was a survivor of one of the Nazi death camps in Auschwitz. After he survived, he wanted to see what it was that contributed to those who survived versus those who didn’t. One of the things he found, he shared in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.  According to Frankl, the most important factor in survival was the ability for someone to have a vision of the future that included hope. Even in the situation where one is in a concentration camp and likely to die, those who survived could envision getting out. They could envision a future where they were living a productive and decent life again. They could envision a future that didn’t include the death camp, a future that included hope.

Here is what Frankl says about our human condition. “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing, the last of the human freedoms. To choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one’s own way. When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space is our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

So whether you are hopeful or nor right now about the direction of our country, the question is, how are you going to respond to people who disagree with you? How are you going to respond to those who don’t believe what you believe? I think we can choose to show respect. I think we can choose to value another even if they disagree with us. I think it’s critically important if we’re going to make any kind of progress in our society.

Now that doesn’t mean that you don’t work for what you believe in. You can work to change laws, you can work to change policy, you can work to make a difference in the world but just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t make them evil. They are another person and they are worthy of our respect.

In that space between when we’re stimulated by somebody that we don’t agree with, we can choose to respond with anger, with blame, or we can choose to respond with respect. More importantly I believe as a Christian we can choose to respond with love.

Less than a week ago we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Dr. King was an ordained minister and his movement of non-violent change was based on his following of Jesus. Because Jesus was the one who showed us how to love others, even those who persecuted us, even those whom we think are evil, even those with whom we disagree.

Here is what Dr. King said “We must live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools. Hatred polarizes life, love releases it. Hatred confuses life, love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life, love illuminates it. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend”.

Now there ARE evil people in this world. There are people who do things that are clearly evil. But Dr. King reminds us that even in that case, we are to hate the evil but love the person. And I want to suggest that most people aren’t evil they are just different. They are not any more rational than we are and they have beliefs that are deeply held.

I learned a few years ago that people don’t change their deeply held values. So rather than trying to convince them to change their minds, can we own our own feelings? Can we say this is what I believe, this is what I stand for but also love and respect the other? I think if we’re able to do that, we’re able to change the dynamic. We won’t get the other to agree with us but perhaps we can live with the other differently, with love and respect.

This is not easy, it means that we need to look inside of ourselves and ask ourselves the question, what is it in me that’s making me angry? What is it in me that makes me want to blame? And then ask God to fill us, to take that away from us and to fill us with love and with grace so that we can show care and respect even those with whom we disagree and those that seem hateful to us.

This is not easy. It’s hard work. Leadership is hard work. And if we are going to be leaders who help change the world, if we are going to be people that help show others that there is a way of hope, then I think that’s our responsibility.

That’s our challenge for today. To be the kind of leader that is able to show love and grace to everyone, especially to those that we want to despise. If we can do that we can change our culture. It’s not going to be easy.

Brene Brown has done a lot of work on vulnerability. I was listening to her on a podcast recently and she said, “One of the things I’ve learned is to choose courage over comfort.” To show love and respect and grace is not easy, it makes us vulnerable. But can we choose courage over comfort? I believe that if we can, we can change our world and we can find a way together, even with those with whom we disagree.


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The Key to Doing Your Best Creative Work: Sleep on It

I admit it. When I was preaching every week, I used to write my sermons on Sunday morning. I would get up very early, sit in the quiet and the words would flow. I did my best work this way. The few times that I tried to write a sermon on Friday or Saturday it just didn’t work as well.

If you are preparing a sermon every week, it can be a daunting task. Even if you are not preaching every week, when it’s time to prepare one, it can be daunting. Here’s some advice: don’t try to do it all in one sitting.

I neglected to mention that I WROTE my sermon on Sunday morning. HOWEVER, the preparation began long before. I would plan out my sermons three months at a time, selecting scripture, title, subject and theme for each Sunday. At the beginning of each week, I would dig into the scripture. Every day during the week, I would spend some time doing exegesis, making notes, collecting illustrations, etc. I typically had an outline by the time Sunday morning came around. Then I would write.

As it turns out, breaking up this type of work into smaller chunks enables your brain to do things that it can’t do all in one sitting. If you were to sit down and spend eight hours preparing and writing a sermon, it is not likely to be as good as if you broke the work into several sessions over a week’s time. This is true for any kind of creative or problem-solving work. Here’s why:

The brain does amazing things while we sleep.

While the rest of your body is resting, the brain is working. Your subconscious mind is doing work that you don’t even know is going on. You can read more about it in this Huffington Post article: 5 Amazing Things Your Brain Does While You Sleep.

Here are the three things that happen during sleep that help you to do your best work.

Your brain consolidates and organizes memories.

This is essential for learning. Whether you are studying scripture, researching a project or learning a new skill, sleep will help to solidify what you learn in your long-term memory. When you are preparing a sermon, this means that the work you do one day becomes the foundation for the work you do the next, the day after that and so on. The same would be true for any type of work that requires learning to truly be effective.

Your brain processes complex information to prepare for decision-making.

Once you have worked on something, the brain can take that information while you sleep and prepare to act on it. So, not only are you consolidating your learning, you are better prepared for what to do next.

Have you ever worked on something and gotten stuck? Writers call it writer’s block. A quick google search yielded similar experiences for mathematicians, programmers, entrepreneurs and innovators. If you are doing creative and/or problem-solving work, you are bound to come across times when you feel stuck. The standard advice is to take a break. Neuroscience research indicates that if you sleep on it, you not only have a better chance to get unstuck, you are likely to have an idea of your next step.

Your brain makes creative connections.

One of the hallmarks of creative people is the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. As it turns out, the brain does this while you sleep. According to a 2007 University of California at Berkeley study, upon waking from sleep, people are 33% more likely to make connections between things that seem to be distantly related.

This is a great reason to have a time of prayer or meditation first thing in the morning. You are most likely to have an “Aha!” moment if you create space for it when you first wake. If you are listening for God to guide you, then what better way than to make use of the biological processes with which you are created.

So, whether it’s a sermon or any other important creative or problem-solving work, the best approach is to do some work, then sleep on it. Do some more work, then sleep on it. Your brain will make progress for you while you sleep. How great is that?!

Questions for Reflection:

What important work are you doing right now?

How can you organize your work to best take advantage of the work your brain does while sleeping?

How has your view of sleep changed after reading this blog?

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The Problem with Annual Goals: They’re Too Long (and Too Short)

As we begin a new year, you might be thinking about annual goals. This could be personally or professionally. It could take the form of the dreaded New Year’s resolution. Or it could be part of an annual plan that you’ve developed at work. Regardless, a year is too long.

I’ve made annual goals before. My problem was two-fold. One was that life happens. Other things would pop up that demanded my time and attention. The other was a lack of urgency. A year seemed like a long time. It was easy to rationalize putting off getting started or making progress because there was plenty of time.

This past summer, I heard of the concept of the 12-week year. The book, by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington, is subtitled, “Get more done in 12 weeks than others do in 12 months.” Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book or bought any of their resources. But I learned enough about the concept listening to a podcast that it changed the way I think about planning. I don’t make annual goals anymore, but I do make quarterly goals.

At about the same time, I read the book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth behind Extraordinary Results, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. This book changed the way I think about time management. My main takeaway was to focus on the few things that matter most and make regular incremental progress toward achieving my goals.

So between the two, I developed my own quarterly goal system. Here’s how it works.

Begin with the End in Mind

The One Thing reminded me of something Stephen Covey taught in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Begin with the end in mind. I started writing down where I wanted to be in seven to ten years. With the ministry I serve, with my personal and spiritual life, and with, at the time, a budding idea to share what I’ve learned about leadership. Then I worked backward and set milestones that might be one, two, three or more years out and would indicate that I was moving in the right direction.

This is why annual goals are too short. They aren’t as meaningful if they don’t fit into a larger vision for your life. Without context, they are easier to put off. Set in the context of an inspiring personal vision, annual goals can make sense, but they still are not energizing.

Set Quarterly Goals

This is where I got energized. Annual goals are too long. They are easily put off. Three months is a long enough time that you can achieve something significant. But it’s short enough to create a sense of urgency.

I limited the goals to three areas. Two ministry-related and one related to sharing about leadership, which was to launch this blog by the end of September. Three is probably the max that I can handle and may be too many. The problem with setting too many goals is that it’s hard to stay focused. That’s the premise of The One Thing. Or, as Covey wrote, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Focus on Effort, Not Outcomes

This was where things really changed for me. Rather than making lists of things that kept getting put off, I focused on blocking out time for my three priorities. This was most important in launching this blog. I have a day job, so if I was going to make any progress, it meant putting in 30-60 minutes in the morning before I got ready for work. I didn’t do it every day, but I knew if I was going to achieve it in three months, there was no time to waste. Finding a domain name, choosing a blog platform, learning how to set it up and learning how to set up an automated subscription list were just some of the things that had to happen for me to reach my quarterly goal.

Some people might find it helpful to set weekly goals to achieve their quarterly goal. This is great, but it’s not my style. I’m a “perceiver” in the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI), which means I don’t like to get boxed into a prescriptive set of plans. So instead, I kept a list of all the things that needed to happen and every day that I could, I did something to make progress.

The important part of this for me was that it kept me focused on putting in the time and the effort. I believed that if I did that, I would achieve the goal. I launched the blog on September 3rd, about a month ahead of schedule.

If you’re the type of person who likes lists and plans, a “judger” in MBTI, then you can break down your quarterly goals into smaller goals and check them off. This will make you happy. Either way, by focusing on effort, you’ll make progress.


Finally, I started journaling a few weeks before I started working on my quarterly goals. I don’t journal every day. I’ve journaled 80 times since the end of May. What it did was help me to reflect on what was working and to stay focused on what matters most. I wish I could remember where I got the questions that I used as a framework. In any event, I adapted them to fit my own situation. Here are the questions:

What did I learn today?
What did I do today that was really important/energizing?
What didn’t I do today that I should have?
What could I do without?
For what am I grateful?
Where did I experience God today?
Three things I will accomplish tomorrow are?

The last question is the one that’s most relevant to this topic. The three things weren’t always from my three priorities. A lot happens in life and sometimes you just have to get things done that aren’t a part of your main thing. But, in general, focusing on three important things each day moved me toward my quarterly goals. I found that if I spent just a few hours each day, no more than one before work, and a couple at work on my ministry-related priorities, then I would make progress. It wasn’t that I didn’t put in a full day’s work, it’s that there are thousands of other things that are part of the job, but aren’t the main thing. For the most part, all these other things got accomplished, as well. More importantly, I spent quality time on my most important tasks. Time that could easily have been gobbled up by less important priorities.

Questions for Reflection:

What is your vision? For your life? For the ministry you serve?

If things went well, where would you be a year from now?

What can you do in the next three months to make significant progress?


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Looking for Bright Spots: How Small Things Lead to Big Change

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches

Matthew 13:31-32

Thinking about big change is overwhelming. Especially if it involves other people and organizations. We may know where we need to get, but getting there is a monumental task. Planning the steps, convincing people to change and then executing the tasks can seem impossible.

And, if it seems big to you, it’s almost unthinkable to others. They haven’t put near the amount of thought into it that you have. A wise pastor once told me that we need to allow others three hours of process time for every hour we’ve put into developing a plan. So if you’ve spent 20 hours obsessing over the big change you want to see, as well as developing the rationale and action plan, you need to allow 60 hours for others to get it. That’s a lot of discussions, Q&A and receiving feedback.

There is a different approach.

In 1990, Jerry and Monique Sternin went to Vietnam to try to fight severe child malnutrition for the Non-Governmental Organization, Save the Children. Analysts had determined the causes were many: poverty, poor sanitation, lack of education, etc. Sternin called this information “TBU,” true but useless. Instead, he went looking for what might already be working. He asked the question, “Are there children from poor families who are much healthier than the norm?”

Once identified, Sternin discovered that the mothers of these children were doing little things that made a big difference. They were feeding their children four times a day instead of two, using the same amount of food in smaller portions. They used brine shrimp from the rice paddies and sweet potato greens in their children’s diet, even though they were considered “low-class” foods. Sternin described these situations as “positive deviance,” an idea first posited by Marian Seitlin. These are situations that deviated from the norm in a positive way.

The Sternins were then able to replicate these bright spots to teach other mothers these simple changes in food preparation. In six months, 65% of the children in the villages Sternin served were better nourished. The method ultimately reached 2.2 million children across Vietnam.

Out of this came the Positive Deviance Initiative, that has improved childhood nutrition in 41 countries around the world. That’s BIG change.

But it started with a small bright spot.

When we are following God, the entire path is seldom, if ever, revealed to us. If it were, it wouldn’t really be faith. It starts with small steps. Like a mustard seed. As Stephen Covey says, you can begin with the end in mind. But the path from here to there is not always clear. That’s OK.

Dan and Chip Heath put this in perspective in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. I found this book helpful because it shows how change is possible without power or resources. Like Jerry Sternin in Vietnam. It deconstructs the change process into understandable components that can be replicated in a variety of situations.

They help us to understand that our rational side has a weakness. It loves to solve problems and it tends to focus more on the problem than the solution. We love to analyze and go deeper down the rabbit hole of why a problem is a problem. It is the wheel-spinning of the paralysis of analysis. Bright spots get our rational side thinking positively instead of negatively. Plus, they motivate our emotional side.

The book is predicated on a metaphor originally developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. The model argues that humans have two sides:

  • An emotional/irrational side called the elephant.
  • An analytical/rational side called the rider.

According to Haidt, the rider is rational and can plan ahead, while the elephant is irrational and driven by emotion and instinct.  The Heath brothers put it this way:

“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to loseHe’s completely overmatched. 

If you convince the rider, you’ll have direction but no motivation. If you convince the elephant you’ll have motivation with no direction. That’s why bright spots are so critical. They motivate the elephant and focus the rider on what’s possible.

Bright spots give us hope. And hope gives us the faith and energy to take a step. And then another. Then another. To start with the small change that leads to the big change.

Like a mustard seed.

Questions for Reflection?

What is the big change you are seeking as a leader?

What are the bright spots, the positive deviance, that show that the change is possible?

How can you communicate those bright spots to others?

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How to Develop Your Most Important Asset as a Leader: Trust

You can’t lead without trust.

Stephen M. R. Covey put it this way in his book, The Speed of Trust:

“Trust is the one thing that changes everything. The lack of it can bring down governments, cripple businesses (and churches) and destroy relationships. Conversely, when cultivated it has the potential to bring unparalleled effectiveness…the ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust with all stakeholders is the key leadership competency of the new global economy.”

Dr. Paul Zak, the preeminent researcher on the neuroscience of trust, demonstrated two decades ago that trust is the one thing high performing cultures have in common. Whether they’re companies, cities or countries, there is a direct correlation between trust and economic well-being.

Zak goes even further to say that even in the corporate world, employees are volunteers. Just because somebody is on the payroll, doesn’t mean they’re going to bring passion and energy to what they do. That requires trust.

This is even more true in the church.

You can’t lead without trust.

Learning how to build trust is not rocket science. But understanding a bit of biology is helpful. That’s where oxytocin comes in.

Oxytocin is both a neurotransmitter that’s released in the brain and a hormone that’s released in the bloodstream. It is the molecule that enables us to bond with others. It facilitates both trust and trustworthiness.

Zak has shown in studies that people with higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to trust strangers. He’s also shown that showing trust to others increases levels of oxytocin, making them more likely to trust you.

Without oxytocin, most of our decisions would be fear-based. Sounds like the church.

So how can understanding oxytocin help us to build trust?

Let’s take the log out of our own eye first.

It’s no accident that certain practices cause the release of oxytocin:

  • Gratitude-write down something for which you are thankful every day. This is, in large part, the power of journaling.
  • Pray and meditate-give thanks to God. Pray for others. Just thinking about others, especially those you care about, increases oxytocin levels.

Oxytocin does not last long. It has a half-life of three minutes. In other words, in three minutes after its release, there’s only half as much oxytocin in our system. The important part of these practices is that the more we do them, the more the release of oxytocin becomes natural for us.

So how do we build trust?

In a word: empathy.

Zak, in his book, The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, says, “Oxytocin generates the empathy that drives moral behavior, which inspires trust, which causes the release of more oxytocin, which creates more empathy.”

There is a virtuous cycle to building trust. When we connect with others in meaningful ways, oxytocin levels increase in both parties. Here are four things we can do as Christian leaders to build trust:

  • Listen-as Zak says, “Conversation creates a sense of community, which builds trust, which leads to oxytocin release.” When we listen more than speak, when we show that we understand what the other is saying, we are showing empathy.
  • Be generous-with your time and with yourself. When someone receives a gift their oxytocin levels rise. Giving your time and effort to help another is the best gift we can give. Every time we do something to help someone else, without asking for anything in return, we gift them a gift.
  • Choose to trust-this is hard, especially when we’ve been burned. But when we trust others, their oxytocin levels rise, making them more likely to trust us.
  • Be trustworthy-this is obvious (or maybe not). When we do what we say we’re going to do, people trust us. This causes our own oxytocin levels to rise, making it easier to trust them. The virtuous cycle.

The most important takeaway from this:

Building trust requires time.

And it’s not just the passing of time. It takes an investment of our time to really build relationships with others.

In a world of email, texting and social media*, the human touch still matters. Visits, phone calls and handwritten notes are not just niceties. They are essential elements of Christian leadership. Without them, it’s harder to lead.

That’s how God made us.

Questions for reflection:

With whom do you need to connect today?

What daily practices can you develop to build your own oxytocin levels?

What daily practices can you develop to do the same for others?

*Zak found that social media can increase oxytocin release when it makes us think of people we care about.

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Three Ways that Gratitude Will Make You a Better Leader

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! 2 Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”

Psalm 100:1-5

The benefits of gratitude are well-documented. This Newsweek article highlights that grateful people are healthier and sleep better. They are also more hopeful, more empathetic, more resilient, more helpful and have greater self-esteem. Just 15 minutes a day spent giving thanks can change your life.

Besides these benefits, gratitude will make you a better leader. Here’s how.

Gratitude reminds you that it’s not about you

Whether you work for a church, nonprofit or mission-based organization, it’s not about you. If you’re focused on what you can get out of it, you’ve missed the point. On the other hand, if your personal mission is aligned with your organization’s purpose, then you realize that the work you do is about something much greater than yourself.

When you’re grateful, you’re more likely to think about the good things that are happening because of the work you do. It’s not all because of you, but you are part of something that is making a difference in the world.

The mission of The United Methodist Church, of which I’m a part, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This outward focus is all about loving God and loving neighbor, especially those most in need. As I have grown in my Christian walk, I find that I feel most blessed when I see something good happening in someone else’s life. When I have had a part in that, I’m filled with gratitude. It’s not about us, but about the God we serve and the people we serve.

Gratitude reminds you that you can’t do it alone

None of us can do it alone. You work together with others to achieve greater things than you can do on your own. Whether a family, church or organization of any size, relationships matter. Giving thanks for those relationships will make you a better friend, spouse, sibling, child, co-worker and leader.

My daily prayer time includes a litany of prayers for immediate and extended family, the sick, the grieving, the Pecometh staff, our Bishop and cabinet, colleagues in ministry, my pastor and the staff of a ministry in which I volunteer. I pray for each of these persons by name.

When you pray for other people you think more kindly of them. It’s also a good time to express your gratitude for them. Instead of thinking about what they haven’t done for you, think of how knowing them, living with them, working with them makes your life better.

Gratitude helps you keep your priorities in order

When you are grateful you are less self-centered and are better able to discern what matters most. Gratitude can give you the resolve to focus on those things, even as you feel pressure from all aspects of your life.

This can mean spending time with a friend or family member even when work demands are relentless. It can mean helping a person in need even when you don’t feel like it. It can mean helping a colleague or staff member meet their goals even when you haven’t met yours. It sometimes means taking time for yourself so you can better serve others.

Why does all this matter?

Because people will follow a leader who is clearly aligned with their mission and who appreciates the work they do. They will work for a leader who is not about himself or herself, but who knows that their effort is as important as the leader’s. Gratitude helps you do that.

Questions for reflection:

What improvement in someone else’s life makes you grateful?

Whose effort has really made a difference in your life?

What really matters in your life? How are you grateful for this?

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A Leadership Lesson from Saturday Night Live

If you look at it objectively, it’s a miracle that Saturday Night Live even produced its first episode, let alone its first season. Instead, it became one of the longest running and most successful TV shows in history.

The original cast and writers were a collection of egotistic, competitive, drug-abusing, promiscuous young adults who all had tremendous talent. Writers and actors had to pitch their sketches. If a sketch was chosen for the show it meant someone else’s sketch wouldn’t make it.

So how did they do it?

Credit the leadership of the show’s creator and producer, Lorne Michaels.

If you follow this blog, you will see a lot about leadership through self-differentiation. This is a family systems concept from Edwin Friedman’s book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. Friedman’s definition is:

“The basic concept of leadership through self-differentiation is this.  If a leader will take primary responsibility for his or her own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow.  There may be initial resistance but, if the leader can stay in touch with the resisters, the body will usually go along.

The emphasis on a leader’s self-differentiation is not to be confused with “independence” or selfish individuality. On the contrary, we are talking about the ability of a leader to be a self while still remaining a part of the system. It is the most difficult thing to do in any family. (p. 229)”

In practice, leadership through self-differentiation comes down to being a non-anxious presence. You do this by not letting your own anxiety spew forth into the interaction, while staying connected emotionally. There is a tension created when you try to be non-anxious and emotionally present.

It’s easy to be non-anxious and not emotionally present. This is detachment.

It’s also easy to be present and not control your anxiety. This often manifests itself as overfunctioning.

Leadership through self-differentiation is the ability to say “I believe” when everyone around is saying “you” or “we,” what Friedman calls surrounding togetherness pressures. Some examples:

  • You should or we should…telling you what to do directly or indirectly using group pressure.
  • You always or you never…whatever follows is typically blaming you for their own condition.

Anytime someone is not taking responsibility for their own goals, values or feelings, it makes it harder for you to do likewise. Yet, that is when it’s most important.

You know you are leading through self-differentiation, whether in your family, church or business, when you say “I believe” or “I feel” in a non-anxious way. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel anxious. You’re just able to control it in a way that prevents it from poisoning your interactions.

What goes unsaid here is that you are giving others the freedom to say “I,” as well.

Why does this matter?

Charles Duhigg, in his book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, cites a large Google research project, code-named Project Aristotle, that sought to determine what social norms characterized the most effective teams. Duhigg summarized the results as coming down to two things: psychological safety and social sensitivity.

Psychological Safety is the sense that you can be honest and vulnerable without being embarrassed or punished by the group.

Social sensitivity is the ability to read non-verbal cues to gauge how others are feeling.

When these two norms are present, people feel free to speak their mind. They don’t have to get their own way, but if they have an opportunity to give their input, they are more likely to support the final decision, whether it is consistent with their opinion or not.

Furthermore, team members are more willing to take appropriate risks. Innovation and adaptation become possible because people are willing to risk failure.

Back to Lorne Michaels.

From Duhigg’s perspective, Michaels was able to create an environment where everyone felt heard, had a chance to give input and were aware of the feelings of others.

From a family systems perspective, I believe Michaels was a self-differentiated leader. He believed he knew what would make a great show. He was willing to express that in a way that created vision and direction. At the same time, by being a non-anxious presence, he encouraged others to express their own opinions passionately. By staying connected emotionally, his team knew that he valued their self-expression, even if their sketch didn’t make the show.

By leading through self-differentiation, Lorne Michaels led a group of gifted people with strong personalities to do their very best work for the sake of the show’s greater good.

In the church, there are many gifted people with strong personalities. When a leader is not self-defined, anxiety and chaos result. On the other hand, a self-defined leader creates the emotional space that enables God’s spirit to work…to do great things through gifted people.

Questions for Reflection:

As a leader, how able are you to state “I believe” or “I feel” in a non-anxious way?

In what leadership situations do you feel anxious? How do you manage it?

In what situations are you playing peacemaker when you should be leading through self-differentiation?

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Bad Habits, Good Habits and How to Change Your Life for the Better

Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, changed how we think about leadership. Yet, the title is a bit of a misnomer. The “habits” were really practices or approaches to an effective life.

A habit is something you do without thinking (more on this in a minute).

Covey’s “habits” were certainly things you’d ultimately like to do without thinking. But for most people, they require being intentional about how we do things. I want to address habits in the more conventional sense and how to make them work for you.

Charles Duhigg does a great job of breaking down how habits work in his book, The Power of Habit. According to him, a habit requires three components:

  • A cue
  • The action (habit)
  • A reward

He shows how to deconstruct a bad habit in this video about his habit of getting up from his desk every day at 3pm to buy a chocolate chip cookie (you may decide that’s not a bad habit, but he did). How did he do it?

His cue was 3pm. Break time. Like clockwork, so to speak.

The habit was to get on the elevator and ride up to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, go talk to somebody for 10 minutes while he ate the cookie, then go back to work.

The reward, so he thought, was the cookie.

As it turns out, the reward was actually socializing. Once he understood this, he was able to rework his habit so that every day at 3pm he would get up, go to a co-worker’s desk and chat for 10 minutes, then go back to his desk. The reward was essentially the same, but the habit no longer included the cookie. He also lost weight.

Duhigg has a great flowchart if you’re trying to deconstruct a bad habit.

But what about good habits? And why do they matter?

As it turns out, good habits are the bedrock for people who get things done in this world. Why is this? Because willpower and self-discipline are an exhaustible resource and good habits enable us to do things without using that willpower.

This Atlantic magazine article documents a now famous experiment in 1996 by Roy Baumeister and his Case Western Reserve University colleagues. They subjected participants to the aroma and presence of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Some of the participants were allowed to eat the cookies. Others were told they could not and were told to eat radishes instead (they were not happy).

The participants were then asked to go to another room for what seemed to be an unrelated challenge. There they were asked to solve what they didn’t know was an unsolvable puzzle. The result?

The radish-eaters made fewer attempts and spent less than half the time attempting to solve the puzzle compared to the cookie-eaters or a control group that faced neither cookies nor radishes.

The conclusion: self-discipline, self-control, willpower are exhaustible resources. The more you use them, the less you have available.

In their book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, list the factors that deplete your willpower:

  • Implementing new behaviors
  • Filtering distractions
  • Resisting temptation
  • Suppressing impulses
  • Taking tests
  • Trying to impress others
  • Coping with fear
  • Doing something you don’t enjoy
  • Selecting long over short term rewards

This explains why you can’t resist that quart of ice cream or the bag of chips after you’ve had a taxing day.

The authors go further and contend that self-discipline is not something that is available at our beck and call. So if you think you are not self-disciplined, you’re not alone. Sometimes we are, when our willpower hasn’t been depleted. Other times we’re not.

Here’s the key: people who get the results they want aren’t any more self-disciplined. What they ARE able to do is to focus their efforts long enough to develop a positive habit. Once that habit is developed, they are able to do it without thinking and without depleting their willpower. They can then do it again to add another positive habit.

If you apply this process to your life, you will be doing amazing things without depleting your willpower much at all. This leaves that willpower available to deal with the many challenges that each day brings.

We can apply this process to our spiritual lives: prayer, meditation, reading scripture and journaling are habits that, when developed, keep us focused on what really matters. That’s a must for effective leaders.

We can apply this process to our professional lives: reading, writing, research, sermon preparation, planning and learning new skills are just some habits that can boost our productivity tremendously.

We can apply this process to our physical lives: eating right, exercising, flossing and drinking plenty of water are habits that will help us feel better, live longer and work more effectively.

Keller and Papasan maintain that research supports the idea that it takes an average of 66 days to develop a habit. They also caution to only try to develop one habit at a time. Focus on it until it really becomes a habit and it will no longer require any willpower. You’ll just do it (that would make a great slogan). Then you can focus on a new habit.

Here are two tools to help you get started:

This flowchart from Duhigg will help you determine the cue and reward for your new habit (he’s assuming you know what the action is, as that’s the habit).

The has a downloadable 66-day calendar (scroll down once you get there). Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was asked to what he attributed his success. He said early on in his career he decided he would work on writing one new joke each day. By doing this, he would hone his craft. Each day that he did this he would mark a big red X on his calendar. After a while, the string of red X’s encouraged and motivated him. And he didn’t want to break the chain. My guess is, after about 66 days, he didn’t even have to think about it. He just did it. The 66-day calendar is a place to mark your X’s.

So that’s it. Go develop a new habit.

Questions for reflection:

What habit would you like to break?

How can Duhigg’s chart or approach help you to deconstruct and rework that habit?

What new habit would you like to start?

How would your life be different if you did?

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Why the Supporters of My Candidate’s Opponent Don’t Upset Me

I have found that the key to being an effective leader is learning to be a non-anxious presence. That means not letting your own anxiety affect your relationships while still staying emotionally connected. It’s easy to not let your anxiety interfere if you disconnect emotionally. It’s also easy to stay connected emotionally without keeping your anxiety in check…although others might not find it so pleasant.

The challenge is to behave in non-anxious ways WHILE staying connected emotionally.

I’m not going to tell you who I’m voting for. It’s not like I’m shy about it. I have a sign in my window. If you want to know you can drive by my house. But this post is about emotional process and emotional process functions independently of content.

As we say in family systems, it’s process not content. Pay attention to the emotional process, regardless of the subject matter,

So you don’t need to know my candidate for this to make sense. In fact, it’s easier to understand without knowing.

This presidential election is filled with a lot of emotion. The “unlikeable” rating for each major candidate is historical. People are really angry. They are emotional. I get angry at times.

Yet, the opponent’s supporters are my friends, neighbors and perhaps even relatives.

In the end, who someone votes for is not really going to bug me.

Here are five reasons why.

People Don’t Negotiate Closely Held Values

In many ways, this election is not about the candidates but about a pretty clear division in values in this country. About 40% of the country will support each candidate, regardless of who they are because their party represents a particular world view. And that world view is not likely to change. It’s the people in the middle who will decide who is president.

I don’t agree with the other 40%, but I’m not going to change their minds. So why would I waste my energy trying?

People Don’t Make Decisions Rationally

That’s right. Decisions are made in the limbic brain, which has no capacity for speech. We really do make “gut decisions” or “go with our heart.” Then we rationalize them with whatever reasons we can articulate.

We’re selective when we rationalize. We emphasize the positives and ignore or dismiss the negatives.

So when I think to myself that the opponent’s supporters are doing this, I remind myself that I’m doing the same.

It’s Not Worth the Energy

Family systems theory has a concept called leadership through self-differentiation. It is the ability to articulate one’s own goals and beliefs while staying non-anxious and emotionally connected. It’s all about working on our own responses to the system in a way that takes responsibility for our own condition.

It’s saying “I believe” or “I feel” rather than using the blaming “you” or the guilting “we.”

The blaming “you” tries to make others responsible for our condition.

The guilting “we,” as in “we should” or “we need to,” uses the pressure of togetherness to get others to change.

In either case, we use a lot of emotional energy trying to convince others that they’re wrong. And that emotional energy is often filled with anxiety.

Leadership through differentiation, on the other hand, reverses that. By being able to take emotional stands (“I believe”), it is the others who get anxious and who will try to change us.

It’s not that we don’t listen or are not willing to change our mind. Our task is to stay non-anxious while staying emotionally connected. That makes it easier to articulate what we believe and makes it easier to listen. It’s not easy, but it’s a lot easier than trying to change the minds of others.

Back to the election. What good will it do me to argue with those who support the opponent? The fact is, when you try to tell someone what to do or think, they usually dig in. So if I spend a lot of time or energy on it, I’m only hurting myself.

(This is different than working for your candidate. That’s more about trying to get those who agree with you to get out and vote).

I Trust the System

You think I’m crazy. Hear me out.

Our constitution was designed so that without a mandate, our political system doesn’t move very quickly. That’s why we have checks and balances.

Our country is divided. So nothing happens. If you’re frustrated with government and politicians not getting anything done, it’s mostly because that’s the way it was set up.

Sure…I’d like to see my agenda move forward more quickly, but 40% of the country is not a mandate.

I Trust in God

As a Christian, I believe in God’s promise to one day restore all things to their original condition. Evil, injustice, oppression and human suffering will be wiped out. We will be made whole and live in community with humankind and with God.

That’s what we are praying for in the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

But we also believe that whenever love and grace win out over injustice, whenever we live in true community, whenever we truly live out what God intends, we see a glimpse of that fulfillment of all things. And others can see it, too.

So, if the election doesn’t go my way, I won’t be apoplectic. I may be disturbed for a bit. But God is in charge and that’s bigger than any candidate winning an election in a tiny blip in human history.

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Leaders Eat Last (and serve others first)

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV

In 1978, I went to work at a GM plant in the Midwest as a co-op student. It was my first real exposure to the industrial world and I learned a lot. When the Iranian oil crisis hit in 1979, auto sales plummeted and our plant went from three shifts to one. Because of union rules, the layoffs were determined by seniority. To avoid being laid off, one had to have 16 years seniority with GM. If you had 15 years or less with GM, you were out of a job.

That’s the way of the world.

There’s an order to things. A hierarchy that helps us to determine what is fair and what is not. We like things that way.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard messes with our sense of fairness.

The idea that a person can work one hour, yet be paid the same as one who worked 12 hours isn’t right. It doesn’t make economic sense.

But God’s economy is different. God’s kingdom is upside down. The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

Scholars believe that Matthew included this parable to reach those in his church who were resentful of newcomers. We’re uncertain if it was a Jews (old) and Gentiles (new) thing or just long-timers and newcomers.

In any event, the long-timers had worked long and faithfully in the church, yet the newcomers were getting all the attention. We can hear them saying, “What about us? We’ve served this church for years, yet all you care about are the new people?”

And God’s response?

“I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (MT 20:14b-15)

A Christian leader gets this. God is generous and God wants to reach all people.  Even the least among us.

If convicted mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer can have a jailhouse conversion and go to heaven, then God is certainly a generous God.

If we understand Jesus and the upside-down Kingdom of God, we know this is the radical nature of God.

But how do we help others to understand? What if we have church people like Matthew’s who are feeling resentful of all our efforts to reach new people?

We model it.

Jesus modeled servant leadership and we can do the same.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Mark 9:33-35 NRSV

Jesus makes a similar statement, but this time he is responding to his own disciples’ desire to be great. They are reflecting the way of the world, but their silence reveals they know better. Jesus spent three years on earth showing how to give one’s self away. He ultimately gave his life. But in so doing, he gave the gift of new life.

Here’s the thing. Jesus’ way works.

Simon Sinek, in his book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Other Don’t, documents how.

Sinek had noticed that some work teams trusted each other and were effective and most weren’t. He started compiling examples, one of which was the Marine Corps. It was there that he discovered the basic concept.

Officers eat last. They take care of their enlisted folks first because that’s what great leaders do. As Sinek writes in the book:

“The true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.” (as cited in Goodreads)

Jesus teaches us the same lesson. Even after he had told the disciples that the last will be first, James and John still didn’t get it. They asked to have a special place in the Kingdom of God, one at Jesus’ right and the other at his left (MK 10:37).

42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

We hear the term servant leadership often. How many of us are willing to live it? How many of us will model it for the congregations we serve?

As a friend once told me, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

If we want to see change, if we want the longtimers to welcome the newcomers (I mean really welcome the newcomers), then we start by serving. By caring for the needs of all whom we serve, including (maybe especially) the longtimers.

Then we can lead.

Questions for Reflection:

How is a servant leader different than one who “lords it over” others?

When has your own self-interest interfered with your effectiveness as a leader?

How can you better serve those whom you lead?

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