For Amanda

Today, I had a conversation with a young woman that we’ll call “Amanda.” A conversation might be stretching it. Amanda made little sense in what she said and didn’t seem to hear–or at least respond–to much of what I said. She was mostly naked and stumbling down the sidewalk in downtown San Diego. She had scratches along her arms intermixed with sporadic, blurred tattoos. Her hair looked as if it had been cut with hedge trimmers. Her shirt looked as though she, or someone else, had torn it almost completely off. She wore a pair of shorts that were an inch away from being classified as underwear. She cried. She moaned. She spoke of having been killed, of being allergic to dirt and water, of Mother Mary, of being abused by horses, of being deaf and blind, of FBI conspiracies.

I told Amanda I was sorry for how sad she was. Myself and another person tried to get her covered up and settled down. She was calmed somewhat by our kindness but remained terribly disturbed. She told me she wasn’t a human, just an animal. I told her it wasn’t true. That she was a person, created in God’s image and loved by that same God. She cried out that it wasn’t true, she wasn’t human anymore. My heart broke.

Amanda’s situation is drastic, although, working in downtown San Diego, I see a lot of this kind of thing. But there remains a broader lesson to learn from her. We live in a broken world and it is as if this broken world works at its best to dehumanize us. We are reduced to numbers and demographics, voting blocks and consumers. The wonderful work of Christian leaders, and followers of Jesus in general, is that this is just isn’t true and we get to announce that. We are more than those things. The good news of the kingdom of God encompasses within it the recognition of human dignity where it was not recognize before. That the Creator of the cosmos fashioned us in his own image, would choose to work with us in the accomplishment of his mission and save us from our error is profoundly good news. The world today, and historically, tells that we cannot escape from our error, that we are insignificant, that we serve no grand purpose. Yet the gospel stands in contrast, declaring that being human is so much more than this through the work of Jesus.

Your work is to display God’s creative will and design where others do not yet see it. Most poignantly this is done in the lives of others. Give them dignity, declare that there is another way to be human… and pray for Amanda.–JE

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Leaders of the Towel and Basin

Today is Maundy Thursday on the Christian calendar. Christians all over will gather together and wash each others feet, mimicking Jesus’ actions the night of his betrayal. Yet, there is something within this action documented in John’s Gospel that we ought to consider beyond annual ceremony. When Jesus undresses himself, kneels down and washes the feet of his disciples, he communicates a profound statement of what the Christian leader ought to be. While the other Gospels don’t relate the foot washing story, the intent of its message is still conveyed in their own telling of Jesus’ story.

On his magnificent book on Christian leadership, Spiritual Leadership, Oswald Sanders wrote, “True greatness, true leadership, is found in giving yourself in service to others, not in coaxing or inducing others to serve you.” Here, Sanders captures the heart of Jesus’ message to those that would lead the effort of taking the gospel of the kingdom around the known world. Jesus was serious about it, it wasn’t a nice platitude. Serving is how we lead.

This doesn’t mean that we are to become human doormats. Consider what it means to “serve God.” If we serve God, we go about attending to what he asks of us. We derive this in great part from Scripture. But we also have to live with “eyes wide open.” That is to say, we have to pay attention to the voice of God as he speaks to us in natural and supernatural ways; through community, the natural world, etc. In doing so, we uncover what it is that God is asking of us.

It is no different in becoming the servant to others. There are often the obvious requests or needs to be attended to. But we serve our neighbor in the ways not always obvious at first glance as well. Consider John McKnight’s work on asset-based community development. His method intends to, draw out the dignity, the capacity of the other. More than a symbolic gesture, an asset-based approach seeks to discover the worth of those around us and put it to work. Not for our agenda, but for the sake of the other.

As we wash each other’s feet today, consider how you might use this a model to shape how you lead. Do you know the need around you? Do you know how to go about serving the need in a manner that elevates others rather than yourself? Ponder these things as someone washes your feet and you wash theirs.

– JE

Let It Die

I have to confess, I’ve become a podcast junkie. One of my favorites is the Freakonomics podcast on NPR. A while back, hosts Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt produced a show on quitting. It was brilliant. Quitting is underrated.

In Christian circles, quitting has more baggage than just being afraid of a sense of failure. We often feel as though giving up on a project, program or agenda equals giving up on God or not having enough faith. But I think this is bad theology.

We Christians don’t believe in just life and death. We believe in life, death and… resurrection. In other words, while we Christians are aware that we are constrained to realities of life and death just as any other human being, we have hope. And that hope is in a God that is working beyond those constraints of life and death, that can actually defeat death. Its something we can’t do. Its something God can. That’s why we follow him.

So, for Christians giving up can be a good thing. When its time for our projects, programs, campaigns, agendas… even churches to die, we ought to let them. Because we believe that there is an agenda far greater than ours working within the world that does not depend upon our efforts but certainly welcomes them. And an opportunity to participate in the kingdom of heaven will always resurrect itself within our reach. We just need to be ready for it.

There is another side to this. In a short-attention span culture such as hours, we tend to move on from one thing to another often too quickly. My recommendation to let things die when its time isn’t an excuse to give up early or to flow with the whims of culture. Rather, I am simply trying advocate for a proper humility and hope. That God is at work in the world, that we’re invited to participate in that. Yet, the winds of the Spirit often change, and our hang-ups can often get in the way. When one of these two things happen. Quit. Let it go. And watch and listen for what God is inviting you into next.

– JE

A Time For Everything

As the wisdom of Ecclesiastes states, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” And herein lies a principle that all good leaders ought to appreciate: you can do anything… for a season. Whenever we take on a new role, a new project or a new team we have to take this into consideration. To explain, let me share a little about myself.

I am drawn towards entrepreneurial opportunities. I’ve worked for young businesses and churches. When I’ve worked for an established company or congregation it has always been on new projects, new divisions. But new starts always require lots of work with few resources and, most often, by fewer people. It can be tiring but its the kind of work I’ve found I love and thrive within. But I’ve also burnt myself out on many such endeavors. Along the way, I’ve learned to say a simple phrase that is inspired by Ecclesiastes 3: “I can do anything… for a season.”

To be an effective leader you need to be able to see the end of the “season.” When we can’t see the end we burn out, burn others out and, sometimes, we break things that are irreparable… on this side of eternity at least. If we want to be healthy people and cultivate healthy teams and worthwhile projects or products we have to be able see the end. Sometimes thats a deadline that only you can establish. Sometimes its knowing when its time to give up or quit before you self-destruct. Sometimes its knowing when to “pass-the-torch” or hand things over to someone else after having modeled how something was to be done for a period of time. This is what separates the delegators from the megalomaniacs; the loved from the the feared leaders. Which will you be?  – JE

what we can learn from occupy

There’s something to be learned from the Occupy Movement for people in leadership across organizational types and sizes. There is something about this movement that speaks to postmodern milieu of the West. But it is not limited to the west at all. Indeed, the occupy movement certainly derives some inspiration from the Arab Spring, as well as what we’ve seen online through groups such ‘anonymous.’ The way we organize is changing. What I’ve referenced to above may be drastic examples. Still, leaders ought to pay attention to them and what they say about leading organizations of the future.

To begin, people want to have a voice. Whether the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement, what we are seeing is a cry to be heard. It is also an accusation: current organizations do not allow them to be heard. To have a voice for the many does not always mean chaos. In fact, there is a lot to be said about the kind of consensus-oriented, coordinated action of these movements. Nonetheless, people, and young people especially, want to know that they have permission to speak up and their input be valued. In the vacuum of such contexts, people create their own and this what we’ve seen happen in these contexts. How can you ensure that people are heard?

Secondly, the plan is to not have a plan. The Occupy Movement, in particular, has been ridiculed for not having  a cohesive message, demand or… plan! But part of this is sparked by postmodern cynicism that says, “Nothing ever works out like you plan. You aren’t ultimately in control. So, why kid yourself?!” Can this be argued with? There is truth to this. People have heard the greatest visions, dreams and appeals and additionally seen how shallow they are. The proverbial “BS meter” of the population has increased exponentially. Does this mean we shouldn’t dream big dreams as leaders? No. Not all. Just look at the dreams of these movements listed above. Are they not grandiose? They certainly are. But they were crafted together, were realistic about their own limitations and control of the future. Yet, they still did tried! Do the visions of our organizations incorporate the voices of the whole? Or do they paint an unrealistic vision and uncontrollable outcome of the future?

You can read some more of my thoughts on the Occupy Movement here.
JE

Blame

Ever since society began, we humans have engaged in the fine art of scapegoating. We know that each of us make mistakes. But we don’t want to pay the price. So, what we do we do to avoid the consequences that come with our error? We blame someone else.

Sure, we’d like to convince ourselves that only children engage such blame-avoidance. But the truth is that we adults have mastered the craft. In most industries, it is known by the technical term: CYA.

Good leaders don’t blame others. Sure, leaders are usually easy targets and are often told, “Don’t take it personal.” But I say the opposite; good leaders take it personal. They are self-aware. They know their errors. They know when they make mistakes. They can withstand being held responsible for errors of the whole. And yet they still lead.

This does something for the person following. They see the risk the leader is willing to take, even risking herself for the sake of the cause. This kind of leader gains a respect and devotion few others will.

While one may perceive this as weakness, lacking cunning to avoid blame, the truth is that this proves strength. This kind of leader can absorb blame. It doesn’t effect this leader long term. Why? Because this kind of leader will be one of the few that has come to terms with human frailty and still thrives. This kind of leader has left the rat race of scapegoating. And as we all know, an exhausting race it is.

If you’re at fault, accept the blame. Humbly. But with your head high. This is a faster track to being a successful leader than typically gets credit.

– JE

Delegate

Leadership is more than being persuasive and charismatic. It is more than having a vision for doing better than any other has done with an idea. These days, the leaders that most inspire me are artisans of delegation. That’s right. I have come to the conclusion that delegation is an art form, a skill only learned through trial and error. And some people are craftsmen of this skill.

It sounds simple: ask someone to do a job, so you don’t have to.

But it is so much more than this.

Leaders that delegate well have found that success is not found in always getting the credit. This alone says something about the character of a leader. If you’re in it to get all the credit, get the publishing deal, get the pats on the back than you will not be this kind of leader. It requires a certain amount of confidence. Because, if done well, you won’t always be the one getting the acclaid.

What is more, true success in delegating well means you are constantly working yourself out of a job. Leaders that delegate well can bring alongside, model, train, debrief and, eventually, let go and empower the other. It is placing confidence in others, showing them the path and allowing them to find their footing. Effective delegation means that others own the dream; they desire the project to go as well as she or he who envisioned it. It assumes that you, are not only a starter, dreamer and voice but can teach, train and empower. This is what happens behind the scenes of a good team and a good outcome. – JE