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

Courtesy Imgur

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

By Gage Skidmore CC-BY-SA-3.0

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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Three Leadership Lessons from the Japanese Rail System

The Bullet Train © Ben Salter from Wales-cc-by-2-0
The Bullet Train © Ben Salter from Wales-cc-by-2-0

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:13-16 (NRSV)

I experienced something amazing in Japan. The trains run on time. I mean EXACTLY on time. I think I had heard this before, but to actually witness it was almost life-changing.

We were in Japan for 10 days and used the rail system six of those days. Most times we had at least one connection. I recall standing at one track and looking at the schedule. It had two trains scheduled to arrive TWO minutes apart. Sure enough, one trained arrived on-time. Took one minute to load, then left. The next minute, another train arrived.

I say this was almost life-changing because I kept asking myself, “How is this possible?” And if it is, “Why can’t we do this?”

So I figured there are some leadership lessons here. The Discovery Channel has a great three-minute video that explains how they do it. It’s not rocket science, but it IS instructive.

Here’s what I learned.

Experience Matters

The Japanese take this to the extreme. Train drivers spend their working life on one line. ONE line. They get to know their route so well that they can arrive on time without using a speedometer. When they are tested, they’re measured to the hundredth of a second.

I know that experience matters. The accumulation of knowledge and experience not only enables us to solve problems quickly, but it also forms the foundation upon which innovation occurs.

How does this apply to the church?

First, longer pastorates are important. How can a church get anywhere if the pastoral leader changes frequently? Certainly a seasoned pastor can bring experience into a particular church, but there is also value in having experience in that particular setting.

Second, experienced lay leadership matters. This is not the same as stuck lay leadership and does not mean that new leadership is not developed on an ongoing basis. What it does mean is there is institutional memory that avoids repeating the same mistakes and provides a basis for new initiatives.

Lifelong Learning is Essential

Japanese train drivers use simulators, just as pilots use flight simulators. Trains are not nearly as complicated as aircraft. Yet, drivers train on simulators periodically to prepare for emergencies and unforeseen circumstances.

There is no church simulator. But the idea is this: none of us ever “arrives” as a leader. We can always get better. There is always something to learn. Experience matters. But experience without ongoing learning is how we get stuck.

One of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, puts it this way: none of us is fully baked.

Pay Attention to Detail

Preventive maintenance is essential to maintaining a rail system. Watch the video to see the attention to detail. Tracks are kept level using a robot-like machine that can level 200 meters of track in 30 minutes.

Every four years, the train truck, or bogie (essentially the chassis), is cleaned, completely disassembled and inspected. Parts are replaced, if necessary, and the bogie is reassembled.

Attention to detail is the difference between average or mediocre and excellent.

We were recently complimented on a Pecometh event. “You all always do things with such excellence.”

I like to think we do things that way, but the reality is that’s not always the case. I honestly feel like most of the time we are flying by the seats of our pants. That’s partly due to trying to do too much.

But we do strive for excellence. So I responded, “We are doing it for God. We ought to be excellent.”

The response: “It’s not always that way in the church.”

It’s a sad truth.

It seems that sometimes people think that because we are Christians or that we have good intentions that it doesn’t matter if we’re mediocre.

We know the opposite is true. If we believe in the goodness of God, then we ought to do the very best work possible in everything we do because it’s a reflection of God.

Whether it’s worship, outreach, small groups, stewardship or any other aspect of the church, attention to detail matters.

The point is that everything we do is supposed to reflect the glory of God. The church does not exist for its own benefit. If it does, it’s no longer salt. If it doesn’t strive for excellence, it’s no longer light.

My experience with the Japanese rail system was almost life-changing because it has inspired me to do better. To be salt and light. We’ll see how life-changing it really is.

Questions for reflection:

What experience do you have as a Christian leader that could add value in your ministry setting?

What experience or learning do you lack that could add increased value?

Where could attention to detail move your ministry from mediocre to good or even from good to great?

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What I Learned in Hiroshima-A Personal Pilgrimage

My family with the A-Bomb Dome in the background
My family with the A-Bomb Dome in the background

I am proud of my Japanese-American heritage.

My grandfather, Ichimatsu Kihara, emigrated to Seattle in the early 20th century. He and his brothers formed Main Fish Company, a seafood wholesaler. They had the first non-Anglo owned business on the Seattle waterfront. My mother was born in Seattle, but was sent with her mother and siblings to live in Hiroshima in 1933 as my grandfather guided Main Fish through the depression. My mother lived there until 1947.

My mother recently took my brother, sister and I, along with our spouses, on a pilgrimage of sorts to Japan. I had never been. It is a beautiful country with extremely gracious people. The most significant experience was visiting the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum. I knew about the A-bomb, but the visit sparked feelings I didn’t know I had.

Here are my reflections.

The consequences of our decisions are often unforeseen.

In August 1945, the city of Hiroshima was creating fire breaks to prepare for bombing attacks. Most city buildings were made of wood, so fires created by an air raid could create massive damage. Fire breaks could limit the damage.

Most men were in the military. Women, and even older teenagers, worked in the

People saying a prayer at the memorial for children killed by the Hiroshima bomb
People saying a prayer at the memorial for children killed by the Hiroshima bomb

factories to support the war effort. Creating the fire breaks included work by school children, mostly 12 and 13 year-olds. Their job was to assist with clearing demolition debris. On August 6, 1945 there was a large demolition project scheduled requiring 8500 school children.

The project was less than 1000 meters from ground zero.

The fact that 2200 of those children survived seems miraculous. The force of the blast leveled everything within a mile and the ground temperature exceeded 3600 degrees farenheit for as long as three seconds.

Civilian casualties are a part of war. When President Harry Truman approved the use of the A-bomb, he knew that civilians would die. But he couldn’t possibly know that on the day the Enola Gay dropped the bomb, thousands more students than normal would be in harm’s way.

War is hell. Truman agonized over the decision to drop the bomb. When it comes down to it, he had to focus on military and political objectives. Even so, thousands of children died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The A-Bomb was a game-changer

It seems obvious to say, but we don’t realize how unthinkable such a weapon was at the time. Changes like this don’t happen often. But think 9/11. Prior to that day, one could not imagine a hijacker using a plane as a weapon of mass-destruction.

How did Japan respond to this paradigm shift? By developing Three Non-Nuclear Principles: to never possess, manufacture or allow the introduction of nuclear weapons into the nation.

Think about how counter-intuitive this was. Instead of trying to fight fire with fire, Japan responded with non-proliferation. This made (and makes) them extremely dependent on the US and extremely vulnerable to threats from North Korea and China. Yet, their prime minister declared as recently as last month that they would maintain these principles.

Jesus said when we are struck, to turn the other cheek. He also said to pray for our enemies. There is something redemptive about responding to violence with peace and prayer. The result is not death, but new life.

Nuclear weapons are a fact of life today. Most people hardly notice when North Korea conducts a nuclear test, which they’ve done twice in 2016 (once within the last month). Yet, Japan maintains its stance.

Events that create a paradigm shift require leaders to navigate uncharted territory. Nobody asks for this. But it’s true, nonetheless. And the path is often the one that seems least likely.

Forgiveness and Hope are powerful forces

My grandmother went back to the US in 1936. My mother and her siblings wanted to stay in Japan. When my grandparents heard about the bomb, they thought that all but my mom’s youngest sister were killed. It was the other way around.

By circumstance, perhaps providence, my mom was not in Hiroshima the day of the blast. The day before, she had gone to a friend’s in another town to get rice for her family. It was wartime and food was scarce, so when her friend told her there was rice, she went right away. She came back the next day, walking through the devastated city with a bag of rice on her shoulder.

My Mom at ground zero
My Mom at ground zero

Her youngest sister, Nobu, was 15. Normally she would take the train to work in the factory. That would have taken her out of the blast area. But she missed the train and had to take a streetcar which took her right through town. They never found her.

My mom recounts all of these events with sadness and occasional anger. But she always comes back to the fact that the bomb ended the war. She does not say that the end justifies the means. In typical Japanese fashion, she accepts what is for what is.

When you visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial you get this sense. There is no bitterness. Only the resolve to build a new and better future.

I call this forgiveness and hope.

Some of our messes we create ourselves, but much of what we face we can’t control. Regardless, this idea that the past can’t be changed and we can only work toward a better future creates room for God to work.

When Jesus was crucified, the disciples were a mess. It was his appearance to them that gave them hope. And they went and changed the world.

I’ve heard my mother’s stories for most of my life. I’m grateful that we could visit Japan together with my siblings. It has brought my Japanese heritage and my Christian faith together.

Questions for reflection:

How do you respond when there are unforeseen consequences to a decision you’ve made?

What do you do when there is a paradigm shift?

How are you a messenger of forgiveness and hope?

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Why People Bug You (and Why They Shouldn’t)

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 (NRSV)

I’ve often said if the church didn’t have people it would be perfect. People mess things up all the time. So what does a Christian leader do about it?

Cut them some slack.

It’s helpful to understand the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).

We make the Fundamental Attribution Error when we attribute other people’s actions to their character or personality. Conversely, we explain our own actions in terms of situational factors.

When someone cuts you off in traffic, they’re a jerk.

When you cut someone off in traffic, you couldn’t help it. You were running late and you looked before you changed lanes. You just didn’t see the other car.

How about a church example? When someone misses a church meeting because they forgot, you decide they just don’t care about God’s work in the church. Or that they’re unorganized. Or that they have their priorities out of line. Or all three.

When you miss a meeting because you forgot, it’s because you had way too much going on. There was that project to finish, your aging mother called and talked for 30 minutes and then you got distracted by an article in the paper about how hover boards catch on fire. But you’re a good person and you care about God’s work.

What the FAE points out is that human behavior is largely influenced by situational factors.

We understand that for ourselves. But we don’t give others a break.

As Dan & Chip Heath state in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, “What looks like a person problem is (often) a situation problem.”

They cite a 2002 study by Brian Wansink from Cornell University. Moviegoers were randomly given medium or large containers of free popcorn that was either fresh or stale. The result: container size was a direct influence on popcorn consumption. Moviegoers ate 45.3% more fresh popcorn when given larger containers. Even more surprising was that they ate 33.6% more stale popcorn (14 days old) when given larger containers.

Or, as the Heath brothers comment, those with larger buckets were transformed into “popcorn-gorging gluttons” as a result of their situation.

What if we took seriously the idea that we will be judged in the same way that we judge others, as Jesus says in Matthew 7:2?

Perhaps we would look at the situation of others to try to explain their behavior instead of being critical of their character or personality. Perhaps we would cut them some slack.

As I’ve mentored pastors over the years, my family systems training has taught me to ask one question when someone starts to act up in the church. “What’s going on in their personal life?” More often than not, when a Christian leader has come to me with a problem in the church it’s a situation problem, not a person a problem.

More importantly, when we start to look at how people behave in terms of the situation, we have a much greater opportunity to find ways to lead change.

What would you rather do, try to change people or try to change the situation?

For example, let’s say that you have families in church that come some of the time, but often miss church for several weeks at a time. Or the parents drop off their kids to Sunday School, but rarely come to church. The FAE would cause us to think that these parents are not committed to their own spiritual growth and/or to modeling a commitment to God for their children.

Understanding the FAE would cause us to dig deeper. To ask, “What are the situational factors that contribute to this lack of commitment?”

What we may find is that Sundays are one of the few days when they get a break. They’re tired and it’s a challenge to get kids ready for church, bring them to Sunday School, then stay for an hour of church. They may also have activities such as sports or the arts that they have to get to on Sunday afternoons. The bottom line: they’d like to be more committed but it’s a really hard.

Understanding this, some churches have decided to offer a worship service that runs concurrently with the Sunday School hour. All of a sudden, parents can come to church and worship without having to supervise their kids AND their kids are getting a Christian education. If the service is early enough, say no later than 10am, they can be on their way to Sunday afternoon activities without missing a beat. 

What we thought was a person problem was really a situation problem.

Understanding the Fundamental Attribution Error can help us to see things in ways that make us more effective leaders.

Reflection Questions:

How do you explain your behaviors in terms of situational factors?

How do you explain others’ behaviors in terms of character or personality?

What would it look like in the church if we looked at others’ behaviors as we do our own?

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Small Actions Can Lead to Big Change

Give generously, for your gifts will return to you later. 2 Divide your gifts among many, for you do not know what risks might lie ahead. 3 When the clouds are heavy, the rains come down. When a tree falls, whether south or north, there it lies. 4 If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done. 5 God’s ways are as hard to discern as the pathways of the wind, and as mysterious as a tiny baby being formed in a mother’s womb. 6 Be sure to stay busy and plant a variety of crops, for you never know which will grow — perhaps they all will.
(Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 NLT)

I try to avoid sports or military metaphors. It’s not that I don’t like them. Not everybody can relate. As far as I know, Jesus never used any (though Paul did). My post about adaptive leadership used a metaphor that I much prefer: wine.

Side note: Here was the conversation after my wife, Jodi, read that post:

“You didn’t tell them what to do.”

“Yes, I did. I told them to make lots off wine.”


So here’s the follow up. Jim Collins and Morten Hansen came up with a pretty good military metaphor in their book, Great by Choice.

Fire bullets, before cannonballs.

Bullets are low risk, low cost, low distraction efforts that help test the validity of a new initiative. It’s trying something out, without investing a lot of time, energy, resources or risk. You fire a bullet and see what happens. Then you adjust your aim.

Cannonballs are higher risk, business defining ventures. Uncalibrated cannonballs are high risk gambles. Calibrated cannonballs are calculated risks taken after rigorous testing (firing lots of bullets).

Collins and Hansen aren’t saying that you shouldn’t fire cannonballs. In fact, they say that organizational greatness depends on these types of large scale initiatives. But the great organizations go about it a certain way.

If you fire a bullet first, you use less “gunpowder” and you can test your aim. Gunpowder is time (or distraction) and money. For the church I would note that gunpowder also includes political capital. And we only have so much gunpowder.

So you fire a bullet, see what happens. Adjust your aim, fire another. Adjust again. At some point you have enough information to really go for it (fire a cannonball) or to look for another target. Notice this is not machine gun fire. That’s neither rigorous nor calibrated and uses nearly as much gunpowder as a cannonball.

So, ready, fire, aim works much better with bullets than cannonballs.

In Ecclesiastes the metaphor is agricultural, not military.

If you stand around observing the weather, waiting for the right time to plant, you’ll never do anything (vv3-4). You can spend a lot of time planning, but if you never act, nothing will happen. When you plant a crop, there are a lot of variables that determine the harvest: soil, weather, seed quality, weeds, etc. One thing is certain. If you don’t sow any seed, you won’t have any harvest.

So The Teacher tells us to diversify. Plant a variety of crops. Some may grow. Perhaps they will all grow. We don’t know. Using the bullet metaphor, conserving our gunpowder allows us to try more things…to diversify.

In the late 1990’s I was a pastor in Chesapeake City, MD. I had several people, including my daughter, approach me to say that we needed to start a youth center. It wasn’t my vision, but I’m no dummy. I could tell God was working on these folks.

We did three things that were low risk, low distraction and low cost:

• We formed a team to pray about it.
• We decided to go to the ecumenical association so that we could work with other local churches.
• We tried “something.”

That “something” was a Friday night coffee house in the Episcopal church fellowship hall. We did it once and it seemed well-received. So we did it again. And again. Each time we learned something.

We ultimately opened the Generation Station Youth Center, a ministry of the Chesapeake City Ecumenical Association, in the fall of 1999. The “Station’s” primary function is an after school program for at-risk kids. It has served hundreds of students over its 17 years.

All because we did “something.” God can use that. God rarely uses inaction.

Making a difference means we have to be willing to act. But doing it wisely is the difference between mediocre (or worse) and really making an impact. Try something. Test it out. Make an adjustment. Try it again. Make an adjustment or shut it down. You do this enough and you will see God do amazing things.

How is planning like standing around watching the weather?

What is the balance between planning and acting?

What little initiatives can you try, that could lead to something big?

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