Phelps, Bolt and Kohistani

Phelps and Bolt are world famous Olympians. They are incredible athletes who are the best ever at what they do. They’ve shown us some leadership qualities such as drive, commitment, and focus but I have no way of knowing if they are leaders or not. One of my required measurements of being a leader is the number of disciples the leader has released into the world. To be the best Phelps, Bolt and so many other Olympians have had to focus on themselves. This isn’t bad or wrong but it isn’t a quality of a great leader.

Tahmina Kohistani is a name I came across in Friday’s USA Today editorial as I flew home from San Diego. She is a sprinter from Afghanistan. An Olympian who has also shown some of the same qualities as Phelps and Bolt but she is far from being the best of the best in her sport. Nevertheless I suspect she is a leader.

I could be wrong about her leadership qualities but Kohistani has trained and run in the face of life threatening adversity. Apparently there have been lots of obstacles placed in her way as a woman and yet she has competed. After coming in last in her prelim race she quietly proclaimed through her tears, “I just opened a new window, a new door, for the next generation of my country.”

Kohistani wasn’t just focused on herself, she was also thinking of the other girls and women in her community that will become even greater athletes than herself. I believe that’s what great leaders do. – BB

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Too Busy

Many leaders, sooner or later, bemoan how busy they are. Stephen Covey, who died this week after a long and productive life, wrote a leadership classic long ago in 1989, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It is one of those rare books that is withstanding the test of time plus has served as the inspiration of a multitude of other self help leadership books which have a number in their titles. An invaluable thesis within Covey’s book is that leaders need to be busy doing highly important work and not fall prey to the tyranny of the urgent.

Just in case you’re too busy to read the book here is a simplified explanation of Covey’s thesis.

Leaders must take all of the tasks which they perform and place them within one of four quadrants. The quadrants sit on a High Importance/Low Importance and High Urgency/Low Urgency axis. He argues that leaders too often are focused on matters which today are Highly Urgent but for the long term health and vitality of the organization they lead prove to be of Low Importance. As leaders are able to focus on matters of High Importance the number of urgent problems that appear on their doorstep actually decline.

Today is a good day to give thanks for a leader like Covey who could articulate such a simple yet highly important discernment tool for leaders around the world. If you are too busy you really need to pick up a copy of the book and put the thesis to work for yourself. – BB

Leaders get to say NO

Leaders get to say “No”. I don’t like to use this tool very often but this week I find myself with no other alternative.

Ninety-nine percent of the time I let the disciple, the leader in training learn from their mistakes. The leadership lessons we learn from our mistakes stay with us for the rest of our lives. I justify this stance by realizing that I know a lot but I don’t know everything. So when a disciple presents an idea or a direction which makes me pause but they are passionate and believe in the concept I’m willing to let them run with the idea. I like to encourage as it builds confidence in the disciple. Mind you I’m constantly monitoring the progress and outcomes.

Even as I write this post I recognize my hesitancy to deal with the “No”. When a colleague, friend or disciple is engaging in poor judgment or manipulative behaviour to accomplish a task it is my job to say “No”. If others are being discouraged or the organization is put in harm’s way by the disciple’s misplaced exuberance it is my job to say “Stop”.

I do my utmost to a.) Check my frustration at the door because I do want to salvage the relationship with the disciple if at all possible and b.) Measure my words so that I’m not scolding the disciple but instead giving them new insight into their actions.

 Too often I procrastinate hoping and praying that the disciple will figure it out on their own…BUT in the end I still have to say “No”. It’s what leaders get to do.

People are Watching, Wash Feet

This post was inspired by JE’s post “Leaders of the Towel and Basin”

I grew up in a faith community that practised what Jesus did with his disciples in John 13. Twice a year, Good Friday and Thanksgiving, we washed each others’ feet. Since leaving home as a young adult this Anabaptist ‘sacrament’ lost much of its meaning for me. As a pastor and a Christian of the Mennonite tradition I avoided the washing feet thing at every turn.

Then I visited Burma.

In the back waters of that nation I spent a week teaching and preaching an Anabaptist understanding of the Gospel to a Bible College student body and faculty. At the end of the week I spoke at their convocation service. Over 500 people gathered on a warm February Sunday afternoon to celebrate the 14 students who were graduating with their Bachelor of Theology degrees.

With input from the President of the school I decided I would dust off the Anabaptist ‘sacrament’ which I had grown to loathe. Nancy, my wife and fellow teacher, and I proceeded to wash the feet of these students. I was unprepared for the rush of family and friends who came forward to take pictures.

One of the faculty summed up the people’s curiosity around foot washing. “We have taught the importance of John 13 to our students but no one ever dared to think that a wealthy, educated, leader from the west would ever wash the feet of one of my people. We look up to you. We are your servants. That you would wash our feet is amazing to me.” 

Read JE’s post. Then, as a leader, go out and serve those who least expect it. You too may be as surprised as I was.

People are watching; wash feet! – BB

The Importance of Emptiness

The Baby-boomer anthem by that laid-back California troubadour Jackson Browne has always said it best:

“Running on-running on empty
Running on-running blind
Running on-running into the sun
But I’m running behind”

(Running on Empty, 1977)

Leadership often seems to have that sense of no matter how hard one works, one is always behind.  Leadership in the church is frequently about managing process without closure.  There is always one more call to make, one more meeting to take, one more thing to do.  We run and run and run…and run out of gas…and we become exhausted from all the running.  We find ourselves as leaders empty.

But is that such a bad thing?  Recently two writers, Gordon Cosby and Sister Joan Chittister, have given me new insight into the importance of emptiness.  Cosby, in a 2001 interview said, “Our culture promotes a constant filling up, but our disciplines will draw us toward a greater emptiness, so that we can be better prepared for obedience and, ultimately, for finding our place in God’s plan finding true relevance.”  Sister Joan, in her book, “Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope,” (Eerdman’s, 2005), encourages Jesus followers to cultivate the spiritual discipline of detachment – of letting go – of emptying in order to gain that which is greater.

If we “run on empty” because we are obsessively trying to control our world, we will fail.  But if we run on empty as a means to unburden our souls from all that crowds us , to unclench from our tendency to hoard, then as leaders we discover true freedom, and the ability to be the non-anxious presence required of good leadership in our post-everything world.  – JPW