The Symmetry of Life

The drool spot on my right shoulder got me thinking.

It’s there most days.

Some days it’s from my five month old grandson, Thomas. He’s our first. Before he was born, people kept saying, “Oh, being a grandparent is the best! There’s nothing like it!”

Because of the build-up, when people would ask me if I was excited to be a grandpa. I would always say yes. In my mind, I was thinking, “This better be good!”

And, of course, it is.

I get to see Thomas several days a week and I try to hold him as much as possible. When I do, he ends up drooling on my right shoulder. I’ve gotten used to checking to make sure if I need to clean off my shoulder, but sometimes I’ll get to the end of the day and there it is. It makes me smile.

Other days the drool spot comes from my father-in-law. He had a debilitating stroke three years ago that left his right side paralyzed, his speech unintelligible and left him with a condition called dysphagia, which is difficulty swallowing. We take part in his care and, because of the dysphagia, whenever I transfer him in and out of his wheelchair I usually get a drool spot on my right shoulder.

My father-in-law goes by Tom, and Thomas, his first great-grandchild, is his name’s sake.


The drool spot got me thinking about how precious life is and how we shouldn’t take anything for granted. I’m sure this is not new to you. It’s not new to me. But thinking about Tom and Thomas has deepened my appreciation. Maybe I’m just getting old.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Accept the things you can’t change.

Tom’s stroke came two months after his 78th birthday. He was in great shape. Just before his birthday, he and 11 buddies made a golf trip to Ireland. He played seven courses in seven days and walked every one of them. Tom coached high-school and college football in Delaware and it seems that he knows everyone in the state. The outpouring of love that came after his stroke was overwhelming, especially from his former players. He had made an impact on their lives.

The sentiment at the time was that it was tragic that this stroke had damaged his body so severely in his golden years.

I guess that’s still true, but three years with him has given me a different perspective. I believe everybody has their time to go be with God and it wasn’t Tom’s time. That doesn’t make it easy. And ours isn’t the only family that has to deal with challenging circumstances. In fact, I think most families have challenges that make life hard.

But as a camp staff member said this summer, just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s not good. Tom is still with us and I am grateful. It’s hard, but it is still good to have him.

The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr puts it best:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Being is more important than doing.

I’m not a Type A personality, but I am a doer. I like to keep things busy and to get things done. Once Jodi and I were on the planning team for a national camp & retreat event. We arrived at the venue two days before to get ready, helped run the four-day event, then spent a whole day afterward debriefing. It was non-stop activity for a week. We had decided to spend the weekend after the event to relax at a nearby hotel with a nice water view before traveling home.

The first day there I spent about six hours straight just sitting in an Adirondack chair on the deck, looking at the water. I didn’t read. I didn’t get my laptop out. I just sat. I was so whipped from the previous week that I just needed to do nothing. Jodi kept asking me if I was OK. She wasn’t used to seeing me do nothing and was worried. Like I said, I’m not Type A, but it made me laugh that she was concerned about my lack of activity.

When I see Thomas I just want to hold him. I don’t even talk to him that much. I probably should, to help develop his verbal skills. But I just like to hold him.

One day I was holding him and I realized how different this was than when I was parenting our four kids. I love them and loved holding them. But, I recognized the difference. As a parent, when I was holding my child, all I could think about were all the things that I had to get done. Work, household chores, etc. The classic conundrum was when a child went to sleep, should I take a nap because I was dead tired or should I get something done because I could. It was usually the latter.

Holding Thomas is different. When I’m holding him, I don’t think about what else I need to do. I enjoy the time we have. Perhaps this is age, wisdom, life experience or some combination of the three. But, I hadn’t learned this lesson until now. Being is more important than doing. We are human beings, not human doings.

There is something in me that says I could not have learned these lessons before now. Perhaps that’s true. And maybe the reason I share is so I can remind myself to be grateful for what Tom and Thomas have taught me. Thanks be to God.

Sidezoomers, Lineuppers and Surrounding Togetherness Pressures

I was listening to a recent Freakonomics podcast where they discussed the issue of what to do when a highway merges from two lanes to one. As Cynthia Gorney writes in her New York Times article, The Urge to Merge, this situation presents an ethical dilemma.

Do you line up in the remaining lane well before the merge or do you drive in the disappearing lane until you are required to merge?

Gorney coined the term lineuppers for the former and sidezoomers for the latter. She is a lineupper.

According to Freakonomics economist, Steven Levitt, the lineuppers are actually slowing things down for everyone. The most efficient use of the highway is for drivers to use both lanes completely and alternate merging into the remaining lane. This is called the zipper merge. This actually gets everyone to their destination sooner than politely lining up for the remaining lane.

Levitt contends that to change driver behavior, we need to change the instructions. And, in fact, I occasionally see the sign “Alternate Merge” where two lanes permanently go to one.

But until then, what will YOU do?

Will you politely line up as sidezoomers fly by you? Or will you make the most of the available asphalt real estate? If you do the former, will you seethe at the injustice and nearly kiss the bumper of the car in front of you to prevent a lowly sidezoomer from squeezing in? If you do the latter, will you zoom by without feeling guilty, knowing that you are actually doing a service for those who come after you or will you refuse to make eye-contact with a lineupper for fear that you may lose your resolve?

For most, the presence of this situation creates surrounding togetherness pressure. I certainly feel this. Even though I know that sidezooming is legal and is more efficient, I am often a lineupper because I don’t want to appear to be a jerk to people I don’t’ know. That’s surrounding togetherness pressure.

What does this have to do with being a non-anxious leader?

A non-anxious leader is comfortable with the decisions she makes and is not worried about what other people think or do.

Here are two scenarios. Feel free to choose either one.

Choose to be a lineupper. Own it. But, don’t get resentful when sidezoomers go by you. It’s their right. And when the merge comes, let a car in, knowing that they zoomed passed you because they could. You can even say to them silently, “Have a nice day.”

Or, choose to be a sidezoomer. Own it. Don’t feel guilty. But, don’t get angry if there are lineuppers who don’t want to let you in. They’ve got their own issues.

It’s your choice. And that’s the point. A non-anxious leader is able to own her position while giving others the freedom to disagree.

Finally, we can all agree that “fake-exit” guy is wrong. You know, the one who bypasses gridlocked traffic by running up the exit lane, then merges back into traffic at the last minute. That’s just wrong. Of course, if you’re that guy, feel free to disagree.

Which Do You Feed, Anxiety or Hope?

Photo by Rufus46 CC BY-SA 3.0

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside of me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Cherokee Legend, from First People

I was holding my grandson last night. He’s not even three months old. But when he’s older I will tell him this story.

The legend doesn’t mention anxiety. But I’m the anxiety guy. For me, everything comes back to whether or not something feeds anxiety or reduces it. You can’t always choose your circumstances, but you can choose which wolf you feed. One will breed anxiety. The other will breed hope.

The wolves are hungry to influence how you function in your family, work, church and the world around you. Here are some thoughts about how to feed the good wolf.

Listen without reacting.

The worst thing you can do in an anxiety-producing situation is speak. You are likely to introduce more anxiety, which creates a downward spiral. Keep your thoughts to yourself and just listen. Saying, “Thanks for sharing,” followed by phrases like, “Tell me more” or “What makes you feel this way?” is simple, shows respect and enables you to self-regulate. They feed the good wolf. Getting defensive and trying to convince the other that he or she is wrong will feed the evil wolf.

Say what you believe while giving others the freedom to disagree.

Listening doesn’t mean you have to stuff your emotions. But you need to self-regulate. The key to being a non-anxious presence is being able to say what you believe while staying emotionally connected. This is hard to do. You WILL feel anxious inside. But if you can do this calmly, even humorously, you can bring down the tension in the situation.

Here is a phrase you can practice. “Hey, I respect your opinion. I’m just saying what I believe. You don’t have to agree with me. I just feel I need to be honest because I value our relationship.”

You’ll need to practice it a lot. The higher the emotional stakes, the harder it will be to do. So if you’ve never taken an emotional stand with a parent (or fill in the blank, i.e. sibling, spouse, pastor, congregant, boss, co-worker, etc.), it will take a lot to be able to do this. And, the likely result is things will get worse before they get better. But, if you can maintain a non-anxious presence, you will feed the good wolf. For both of you.

An exception is social media.

When it comes to social media, don’t do anything. It is not a place where people can have a reasonable discussion. So, just keep your thoughts to yourself and let go of it. If you get into a “discussion (more like argument)” on social media, nobody wins. You feed the evil wolf. If you let go of what bothers you, you feed the good wolf. It might be hard at first, but it will get easier with practice.

Finally, attend to the things that matter.

Invest in your spiritual life. Here’s my post on that. Connect with your family, however it is configured. Work through the issues in your family of origin. Learn to take non-anxious, emotional stands with those who are most important to you. If you do these things, your good wolf will grow strong. You will live a life filled with hope. And the evil wolf will starve.

Intensity Is the Mother of Dissension

Photo courtesy Active Garage blog

ost of what I’ve learned in family systems is counter-intuitive. Dealing with anxiety is no exception. A big takeaway is that the anxiety I feel about a situation has more to do with me and how I function in my family of origin than it does about the content of the situation.

This is true of seriousness, as well. Seriousness presents a paradox. You have to be serious about things, but if you get too intense, it will consume you. That’s when anxiety can become uncontrollable.

It’s this sort of intensity that makes a small problem a big problem and a big problem an overwhelming one. Its main characteristic is persistence. You would think persistence is a good thing. But not when it comes in the form of trying harder and harder through serious, intense efforts. This results in greater anxiety, a lack of flexibility and, paradoxically, the greater chance that the problem will become chronic.

So what do you do?

Lighten up. Stop thinking about the problem. Stop trying to fix it. Get some perspective.

(You’re now thinking, “That’s easy for you to say, it’s not your problem!”)

Here are some things you can do.


Of course, you can pray. But don’t pray about the problem. That will make you anxious. Pray for others. Pray for world peace. Pray for your church (unless that’s what is making you anxious). The idea of this kind of prayer is to get outside of yourself and your problems and connect with God. It will make God bigger and make the problem look smaller.


OK…this is sounding like another blog post I wrote on spiritual practices. But, the reason meditation works is it has physical affects that will help. It lowers stress levels and increases your ability to focus. This will make you feel better, but it will also help you to be intentional about thinking about things other than your problem.

Exercise (especially outside)

You don’t have to get intense about this. Especially if you don’t exercise regularly. Just increasing your activity level will help. It will be even more effective if you are able to spend some time in the beauty of Creation. There is nothing like the proverbial walk in the park.

Do Something You Enjoy

This is the thing you’re least likely to do in the face of chronic anxiety. What makes anxiety chronic is you can’t stop thinking about the problem and ways to fix it. Having fun interrupts this kind of intensity. It will help reduce anxiety and create perspective. It doesn’t matter what you do. It’s whatever gives you joy. It could be reading, playing or listening to music, playing or watching sports, cooking, ad infinitum. It’s process, not content. The process here is to get your mind off the problem, to reduce the intensity.

So, whatever your problem, get some perspective. Work to keep it from consuming you. It might not fix it, but you might just put it in its place.

Trouble Managing Anxiety? Talk to Your Family

The Lord passed before Moses, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7 (NRSV)

This passage is part of the second giving of the Ten Commandments. In the first, God provided two tablets and wrote on them. But, while Moses was with God on the mountain, the people got anxious when Moses was delayed. They begged Aaron to fashion a god that would be with them. Aaron collected their gold jewelry and made a golden calf, which they worshipped. The Bible describes the people as running wild. When Moses came down from the mountain he was so angry, he threw the tablets down and broke them at the foot of the mountain

The second time God tells Moses to bring his own tablets and God will write on him. It’s like when I was in school they would give me a composition book, but if I lost it, I had to buy a replacement.

What is significant about this passage is the explicit nature of God’s grace. God’s character is revealed as forgiveness, mercy, grace and steadfast love. Despite the transgression of an entire people, God will forgive and continue to love to the thousandth generation.

But there is a consequence for iniquity.

God says that the iniquity of the parents will be visited upon offspring to the third and fourth generation. I don’t believe God is promising to punish future generations. I believe God is stating a fact that the dysfunction of our families gets passed on from generation to generation.

We know this was true for the Israelites. Even when they made it to the promised land, they couldn’t stop worshiping false idols. It led to their eventual downfall as a nation. What started in the wilderness continued well beyond the third and fourth generation.

This is a bedrock principle in family systems theory.

We know that all kinds of issues get passed from generation to generation. There are very visible and destructive ones like physical, sexual, emotional and substance abuse. But just about everything about who we are comes from our family of origin. This is true about how we deal with anger and conflict, raise children, handle money, celebrate holidays and a host of other behaviors, good, bad or indifferent.

Some things that are passed on are known and celebrated. We call these traditions. Others are unspoken.

This is especially true of anxiety.

In her article, How Trauma Is Carried Across Generations: Holding the Secret History of our Ancestors, Molly S. Castelloe references the work of M. Gerald Fromm. She writes,

The transmission of trauma may be particular to a given family suffering a loss, such as the death of an infant, or it can be a shared response to societal trauma.

Maurice De Witt, a sidewalk Santa on Fifth Avenue noticed a marked change in behavior the holiday season following 9/11 when parents would not “let the hands of their children go. The kids sense that. It’s like water seeping down, and the kids can feel it… There is an anxiety, but the kids can’t make the connections.”

“This astute man was noticing a powerful double message in the parent’s action,” Fromm says. “Consciously and verbally, the message was ‘Here’s Santa. Love him.’ Unconsciously and physically, it was ‘Here’s Santa. Fear him.’ The unnamed trauma of 9/11 was communicated to the next generation by the squeeze of a hand.”

Psychic legacies are often passed on through unconscious cues or affective messages that flow between child and adult. Sometimes anxiety falls from one generation to the next through stories told.”

How do you deal with life when it makes you anxious?

My mother was born in Seattle in 1923. Her father and his brothers owned a fish-wholesaling business. They were the first non-Anglo business on the Seattle waterfront. But my grandfather sent the family back to Japan in 1933 to help the business survive the depression. Her mother came back to Seattle a few years later to be with her husband. My mom and her four siblings stayed with their Aunt in Hiroshima until 1947.

I grew up hearing my mother’s stories of life in Japan. Most of them centered around what life was like being separated from her parents while her own country, the US, and her country of origin and residence, Japan, were at war. Some of them were about the A-bomb. Her family was fortunate. Of the five children, only the youngest, Nobu, was killed in the blast. She was 15. She is front and center in the photo above. My mother is back, left.

I don’t know if the stories transmitted anxiety or not. I do know that I’m glad they were told.

If you have anxiety about a situation at work, the church or at home, the best thing you can do is talk to your family of origin.

It doesn’t have to be about your anxiety. Just ask about their life. What was hard? What was good? What do they remember? Hear their stories.

Do this with anyone who has a memory of your family’s history. Your parents. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Anyone who has a story to tell.

The anxiety that is transmitted from generation to generation is not inevitable. You can stop the transmission of anxiety. That starts with hearing the untold stories.

Six years ago my Aunt called me on my birthday. She doesn’t usually call. When she did, she said, “Happy Birthday! Same birthday as Nobu.”

I wanted to say, “What?! I have the same birthday as my aunt who was killed in the A-bomb and nobody told me?!”

I thanked my aunt for telling me and told her that I had never known this, using the best non-anxious response I could muster.

Then I called my mom and asked her about it. “What? Hmmm. Oh yeah, I guess you did have the same birthday. I guess I forgot about it.”

I wonder what anxiety was transmitted by not telling me. I wonder what anxiety was released when I found out. I can’t really answer it, but I feel like it’s a good thing.

It’s not really a big deal. But it is nice to know this. It binds me in a special way to my family heritage that I can’t even explain.

I wrote in a blog post a year ago about my experience going to Hiroshima with my mom, my siblings and our spouses. Again, I can’t pin down exactly how it helped me or our family, but I know it did.

So, talk to your family. Whether that’s the people who came before or those who came after. Listen to the stories. You will learn things that will communicate the truth about who you are and where you come from.

And the truth will set you free.

Vision without Emotional Connection is Narcissism

I learned a long time ago that the leader of an organization needs to spend about 80% of her time in the future. The day-to-day is important, but somebody needs to know where the organization should go to fulfill its mission, whether that’s saving souls, saving the world or making a profit. If you don’t have vision, the organization (or whatever part of it you lead) will flounder. Without a vision, people will focus on doing things the way it’s always been done and that’s recipe for a slow, agonizing death.

Worse yet, when you, as the leader, don’t have vision, people get anxious. That’s because people want to be led. They want to know where things are headed. It doesn’t mean they’ll always follow. It DOES mean they will be less anxious than if there were no vision.

But, vision by itself is not enough. You need to stay emotionally connected to your followers for the vision to make a difference. This is especially true if there are resisters. This is hard. When you are trying to lead, the last thing you want to do is to stay connected with those who don’t agree with you or, even worse, with those who are trying to stop you in your tracks. But, not staying connected is narcissism.

A key element of narcissism is the lack of empathy. A narcissist disregards the feelings of others.

An effective leader is able to share her vision while giving others the freedom to disagree.

When you give others the freedom to disagree you are staying emotionally connected. You are showing that you understand how they feel and that it’s OK to disagree. That is leadership through self-differentiation. Here’s a reminder of Edwin Friedman’s definition from his book, Generation to Generation:

“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.”  (Generation to Generation, p. 229)

When you articulate your vision, you are taking responsibility for your own goals and self. But if you are doing it without emotional connection, especially with those who resist, you are asking for trouble. The resistors will get more anxious, will find ways to obstruct what you are trying to accomplish and will make leading difficult, if not impossible.

People often misinterpret Friedman to think that leadership through self-differentiation is all about defining self and moving full-steam ahead. In his article, “Misreading Family Systems Theory,” Leander Harding describes what is known as the Yeager Theory in family systems. He writes:

“Friedman uses the metaphor of General Chuck Yeager and the sound barrier. When the sound barrier was being approached the aircraft would experience more and more turbulence as the plane closed in on the critical speed. Pilots would drive their aircraft to what they thought was the limit and then, afraid that the airplane would shake apart, back off without breaking the barrier. Yeager believed a physicist friend that it would be smooth on the other side of the barrier and put on speed just when most pilots were backing off and became the first to break the sound barrier.”

Yeager was correct. He had the courage to increase his speed at the point when the other pilots backed off. Once he pushed through the sound barrier, he experienced smooth sailing.

Friedman uses the sound barrier metaphor to describe what one experiences when leading change. There WILL be resistance. If one can maintain a non-anxious presence the resistance will likely dissipate. “Presence” is the key. It means staying emotionally connected.

Harding maintains that there is a tendency to misinterpret this metaphor by leaders who lack an understanding of family systems theory and, more importantly, do not make the difficult journey of doing their own work. He coined the term, the “Yeager Heresy” to describe leaders who are unable, or unwilling, to discern the difference between taking a principled stand and becoming rigidly inflexible. Those who fall for this heresy see the family systems approach as a “technique” for achieving their goals.

Leaders who are taught that sabotage and crisis are inevitable when they begin to lead through self-differentiation are also taught that they need to avoid getting wrapped up in content and need to understand the emotional processes involved. What he cautions against is taking a stand in a way that leaves others no room to do the same thing. When you are a non-anxious presence, you create emotional space where others are also able to self-differentiate.

You give others the freedom to disagree.

When we see leading through self-differentiation as a technique, we miss the opportunity for real conversation. We are unable to discern between those who are able to self-differentiate and those who are engaging in sabotage. Harding describes it this way:

“They have not heard the challenge that leadership involves staying emotionally connected to the members of the system, especially those with whom they are most emotionally uncomfortable. They have not heard the warning that this leadership theory is primarily about controlling one’s own emotionality and not a recipe for handling or manipulating others. The result is a generation of leaders on all sides of the current polarization who think that leadership consists of taking a bold stand and persisting in a damn the torpedoes full steam ahead mode. When resistance arises and the ship threatens to shake apart they are convinced that smooth skies are just ahead and they pour on the speed. They will not be able to perceive that they have not done the personal and relational homework necessary to really make a positive contribution until the wings come off as they now are.”

What Harding points out is that those who misunderstand leadership through self-differentiation ignore the fact that it requires emotional connection with those who resist. It’s not enough to know who what you believe. You also need to do the hard work of dealing with your own anxiety so that you can be a non-anxious presence for others.

So cast your vision. Follow God’s leading to the best of your ability. But, stay emotionally connected. Especially with those who disagree. It will be hard. But if you want to lead change, it’s the only way.

Making a Difference Is Scary

By Thisisbossi CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Seth Godin recently had a blog post entitled “Feels risky.” He writes every day and his posts are usually brief. Here is the entire post:

“The gulf between “risky” and “feels risky” is huge. And it’s getting bigger.

It turns out that value creation lives in this gap. The things that most people won’t do (because it feels risky) that are in fact not risky at all.

If your compass for forward motion involves avoiding things that feel risky, it pays to get significantly better informed about what actually is risky.”

Posted by Seth Godin on August 02, 2017

This is profound.

Think about how often you felt called to do something, but were afraid. What were you afraid of?

As I thought about this, I realized that most times that I feel afraid have nothing to do with the amount of risk involved. I may be worried about failing, but is there really any risk? Or do I worry what others think if I don’t succeed?

Just because something FEELS risky doesn’t mean it IS risky.

Seth Godin has a corollary to “feels risky.” It’s, “This might not work.” Godin contends that we are not really putting ourselves out there to make a difference unless, at some point, we say to ourselves, “This might not work.” And that feels risky.

I felt this way about this blog when I launched it last September. What if nobody reads it? What if it’s bad? That feels risky. But it wasn’t. It cost next to nothing and the downside was all about how I would feel if it failed. That’s not risky. It just felt that way.

Godin’s post was providential. It appeared in my inbox on a day when I was trying to make a big decision.

Some background is helpful. Last Thanksgiving I was inspired to write a book about how to be a non-anxious leader. As I often write in this blog, family systems theory has been the foundation of who I have become as a leader. I made a commitment to write for 30 minutes each morning and by April I had a 10 chapter manuscript. But now what?

I made some inquiries about publishers. I did a lot of research about traditional publishing and self-publishing. I even submitted a book proposal, but never heard anything back. Two weeks ago I was on the website,, that helps connect authors with publishers, as well as authors crowdfund their book. A successful campaign can get the attention of one or more of the 180+ publishers that they work with. If a book deal doesn’t result, the author has the funds to self-publish.

I noticed that they have something called an “accelerator” program. They select a cohort of 12 authors whom they take through an eight-week intensive schedule to crowdfund their book. The more copies the author pre-sells, the more likely a publisher will be interested. It’s designed to help authors get from manuscript to publishing deal. So I applied. Three days later I was offered a spot in the next accelerator cohort.

I wanted to do it, but I was also afraid. This feels risky. This might not work.

Then Seth Godin’s blog post showed up in my inbox. It was exactly what I needed. Yes…this feels risky, but it’s not really. If I fail, what’s the downside? It might be a bit embarrassing, but I won’t be any worse off. And, if it does work, the book can help a lot of people learn what I have learned about how to be a non-anxious leader. Making a difference is scary.

So I said yes. Next week I’ll be launching a campaign for my book, Anxious Church, Anxious People: How to Lead Change in an Age of Anxiety. I have no idea how it will turn out. It feels risky. It might not work. But I can live with that.

Four Ways Humor Can Make You a Better Leader

Nobody takes the class clown seriously. But that doesn’t mean you need to be serious all the time to be an effective leader. In fact, that will make you less effective. Left unchecked, seriousness creates anxiety and makes it harder for you, and the people you lead, to work effectively.

In family systems theory, Edwin Friedman emphasizes the importance of using humor to keep things loose as an antidote for anxiety. In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman writes about the importance of managing anxiety, your own and that of those around you. The effect of humor is to keep things less anxious. In doing so, it helps everyone. He writes: “The principles illustrated here have to do, among other things, with injecting humor and keeping things loose. The looser your presence is, the looser everyone’s relationship will be with you and one another.” (pg. 256).

You might be thinking, “I don’t want a loose relationship with people I lead. I want them to take me seriously.” Used appropriately, humor will not diminish that. Here are four ways it can help you.

Humor builds trust.

When you laugh, you release oxytocin. And, as I wrote previously, oxytocin builds trust, which is your most important asset as a leader. What’s surprising is that humor doesn’t just build people’s trust in you as a leader, it also builds trust among team members. That’s because the humor, and therefore the oxytocin, has the effect of building trust with anyone you come in contact with during the burst of oxytocin. In one study, people who watched a funny video clip were 30% more likely to reveal personal information to a stranger than people who watched a neutral video clip.

This goes back to Friedman’s point about keeping things loose. Humor not only builds trust, but it helps teams bond in important ways.

Humor supports innovation.

In his book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Little Discoveries, author Peter Sims shows that humor is critical to innovation. According to Sims, a playful and humorous environment is most critical for innovation when ideas are in their infancy because that’s when they are most vulnerable to getting killed. Game-changing ideas are much less likely to survive in a super-serious environment because you will err on the side of caution. Humor loosens things up so you are less afraid to go with a new idea.

Humor promotes more effective learning.

When you laugh, you also release dopamine, which aids in memory and information processing. When you are trying to get a point across that you want people to remember, make sure to inject some humor. This is true in a workshop, staff meeting, sermon or even an informal setting. Humor will make what you say more memorable.

Humor improves negotiations.

Researchers Karen O’Quinn and Joel Aronoff set up a study where participants negotiated the price of a piece of art. They found that when sellers threw in the playful line, “…and I’ll throw in my pet frog,” with their final offer, participants granted 18% more in concessions than did the control group. Another study found that sending an inoffensive, funny cartoon to someone during a sales negotiation generated 15% more in profits. It’s believed that in both these examples, the use of humor helps to develop trust, which leads to better outcomes.

Two notes of caution.

By now you should be convinced of the benefits of humor for you as a leader. However, I need to say two things, which may be obvious. One, make sure the humor is appropriate. An offensive or demeaning joke will have exactly the opposite effect. It will destroy trust and make the atmosphere more anxious. Two, don’t use humor to manipulate. It’s not a technique to get what you want, but to build more trusting, more effective relationships.

So lighten up. It will improve just about everything you do as a leader. You might even have fun.

Working Long Hours Is Cheating

By courtesy StockSnap

The title of this post is a paraphrase of a quote I heard attributed to Jay Papasan, one of the co-authors of The ONE Thing. I think it’s spot on. Papasan says anyone can work long hours to achieve something. It takes focus to achieve while still balancing your life.

In fact, the evidence is that working long hours not only steals you away from other important areas of life, it’s a waste of time.

Research shows that working any more than 50 hours per week is bad for you and bad for your employer (or your business):

  • The difference in output between 50 hours per week worked and 55 hours is almost negligible. So, you can add five hours per week to the rest of your life without suffering any loss of achievement.
  • There is NO difference in output between someone working 55 hours per week and someone working 70 hours per week.

If you are spending more time working, but not getting anything more for it, you will suffer.

There are two areas of life that you cheat when you work more than 50 hours per week.


Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said that no one on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time at the office. Working too much is a recipe for regret. The time you miss with those close to you can’t be recovered. Unless you are an exceptional person, your relationship with God is also likely to suffer because you will be too tired to engage in any daily spiritual practices.


Working long hours will exhaust your willpower and make it harder to make the choices that keep you healthy. Number one on the list will be sleep. If you’re like me, when you have a long day you sleep less because you feel the need to wind down, as well as take care of personal tasks before going to bed. Less sleep and longer hours also make it less likely that you will exercise and more likely that you will binge eat on junk food. Just sayin’…

You might be able to work long hours without cheating yourself in one of the two areas above. You might be able to keep healthy, but not have time for relationships. Or vice versa. But is it worth it?

The way out is to be able to set boundaries and the way to do this is through self-differentiation.

Self-differentiation is the ability to stay focused on one’s own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures. Work pressures are definitely surrounding togetherness pressure, whether in the corporate world, non-profits or the church. And yes, there can be real demands to produce and perform. But if those demands require more than 55 hours per week of work, they are unsustainable.

And the big question is: How much of the pressure is coming from you because you’re worried about what people will think?

When you are self-differentiated, you are willing to set boundaries because you know what’s really important.

I recall as a pastor, I decided to coach my children in sports. I coached baseball, softball, football and basketball. This meant that I would often miss evening meetings at the church. Yes, I initially felt pressure because I felt like I should be at all the meetings. But, then I realized that if I needed to be at all the meetings, the church was too dependent on me. The interesting thing was that nobody complained to me. I think they respected the fact that I would choose family over church because they would do the same.

I realize this might be harder in some situations, especially at work. But you can’t do it all. And life is about choices.

I can recall a person who worked in a corporate setting where “face time” was everything. It didn’t matter whether you were actually productive. It was more about being in the office for long hours. As this Harvard Business Review article shows, this is foolish because managers in one study couldn’t tell the difference between those who actually worked for 80 hours per week and those who were faking it. Anyway, I remember this person telling me that he didn’t buy into the face time thing. He left the office every day at 5pm. Did his career suffer for it? Probably. Was he better off for it? Definitely. At least that was his opinion.

So yes, if you work long hours, you are cheating yourself, those you care about and you aren’t any more effective. You have more choice than you think to change the situation.

How to Have a Conversation with Someone Who Disagrees

Face Off by Aaron from Seattle, CCA 2.0

Few people want to have a conversation anymore. They want to rant about their own opinion, but don’t really want to hear from those who disagree. This is especially true in politics and in the church. Now, to be fair, people don’t negotiate their closely held values. Politics and religion are values-driven. But there’s a difference between being firm in your beliefs and refusing to hear those with whom you disagree.

I was at Annual Conference a few weeks ago. This is our yearly gathering of clergy and laity in our region. I happened to run into a few of my colleagues who were staffing a display booth for an association that I was pretty sure was advocating a position on an issue that was opposite mine.

I’m not going to share the issue because that is not relevant. In the family systems approach to leadership, one mantra is, “It’s process, not content.” Understanding the emotional process is the key issue. The approach is called leadership through self-differentiation, which is being able to define and articulate your own goals and values, amidst surrounding togetherness pressures, AND stay in touch emotionally. The process part of this is the ability to say what you believe, in a non-anxious way, without cutting off emotionally from the other. This is true regardless of the issue. It’s the process that matters, not the content.

The key to having a hard conversation is to be able to share what you believe while giving the other the freedom to disagree.

If people don’t negotiate their closely held values, then why would you try to convince them to change their minds?

The best way to have a hard conversation is to be straightforward. You can say, “This is what I believe, but you don’t have you to agree with me.” The fact that you will continue to respect who they are as a person, even if they don’t agree with you, is implicit in this statement. If you want, you can say it explicitly. “This is what I believe. I respect that you may not agree.”

If you are dealing with an emotionally mature person, this may be the start of a real conversation. If not, things can get anxious. When you self-differentiate, that is, say what you believe while staying in touch, a more mature person will do the same. She might say, “I see how you might think that, but I disagree. What I believe is…” You can work with that.

I had a conversation with one of the colleagues mentioned above. I consider this person to be a friend, as well as a partner in ministry. We’ve known each other a long time and we both know each other’s positions. So in this case, we didn’t start there. There was no reason for either of us to state our positions or to try to convince the other to change their opinion. But we did have a conversation. More on this later.

When you state your position, the less mature will respond by trying to define you, not themselves. “How can you say that? You are going to lead people astray with that kind of thinking. You are way off base.” These are the folks who rant on social media about how everyone who disagrees with them is ruining the world.

When you get this kind of response, it’s best to politely cut things off. If you can do it in a light-hearted way, that’s even better. “Hey, I can see we don’t agree on this, but that’s OK. I still love ya.”

But, let’s assume that you’ve gotten off to a good start. You’ve stated your position in a non-anxious, non-threatening way, and so has the other.

The best thing you can do in a hard conversation is to ask questions.

If there is common ground to be found, then the only way to get there is to stop battling and start listening. Remember, this is not about trying to convince the other person to agree with you. It’s about learning from the other. Asking questions is how you learn.

It also helps you to maintain a non-anxious presence.

Edwin Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, says, “Asking questions is a great way to remain both non-anxious and present (p. 72).”

Here’s how I started the conversation with my colleague. I tried to keep it light, so I said, “Tell me about your association. All I have heard is rumor and innuendo.”

And we talked. We listened. We actually found some common ground. I came away from this conversation thanking God.

Real conversations about difficult issues are rare these days.

Our country is polarized. It’s easier to hang with like-minded people and criticize the other. It’s scary to think of having a conversation with someone who disagrees because it can get messy. But we’re never going to get anywhere in our country or in the church if we aren’t willing to try.

Questions for Reflection:

Who do you know that disagrees with you on an important issue?

How can you have a conversation with them?

What is stopping you?