Why Great Leaders Have Dysfunctional Teams and Fuzzy Goals

20131202090210902A popular conception of leadership is inspiring a group of high-capacity individuals to work as a team  to accomplish clearly defined goals and objectives. In this paradigm we focus on words like vision, mission and values while we fill our pipeline from a deep bench of developing leaders. We read books, attend conferences and write blog posts around this idealized picture of leadership. It is inspiring and fun to think about.

I just wonder if its real.

In my 3+ decades of leading and being led I’ve seldom encountered environments that match this prototype. I don’t doubt the importance of vision, mission and values, and I believe in leadership pipelines and deep benches. The challenge is that very little of what I see in day-to-day leadership actually looks like the pictures in the books.

My new definition of leadership looks more like this:

Helping slightly dysfunctional people perform mundane tasks to accomplish fuzzy goals. 

Before you write me off as an old curmudgeon let me break down my definition.

Slightly dysfunctional people

Everyone I’ve ever worked with is dysfunctional is some way. (I’m dysfunctional in a multitude of ways.) The myth of leadership is that with we need to find better people to accomplish bigger tasks. I believe we need to learn to work with the dysfunctional people we have to help them accomplish more than they think possible.

Look at the great leaders in the Bible. David led a group of misfits and rejects. Moses led a mob of complainers. Jesus led a mismatched group of fishermen, tax collectors and thieves. There are no greater leaders than David, Moses and Jesus, and they each spent years helping dysfunctional people perform mundane tasks to accomplish fuzzy goals.

Complaining about the people we work with, and constantly trying to upgrade, are a waste of time. Any leader can lead a team of A-players, it takes an incredible leader to lead the rag-tag group you inherited.

Perform mundane tasks

Leadership literature is littered (I LOVE alliteration) with images of “taking the hill”, “burning the ships” and “winning the war”. These are inspiring images, but they have very little to do with what we do day-in and day-out as leaders and as team members.

Rallying the troops to charge the hill is a piece of cake compared to inspiring everyday people to faithfully complete the 100s of mundane tasks that make an organization run, grow and win. I love Jim Collins image of the 20 mile march in Great By Choice. The successful leader isn’t necessarily the one who can excite the crowd, it is the leader who can maintain the pace.

Accomplish fuzzy goals

We love sports analogies in leadership; scoring the touchdown, moving the ball, winning the game. We all want to win, we all want to hit the target. The challenge is that the “win” isn’t always clear. In fact on the twenty-mile march it is seldom clear.

I spent the first 10 years of my career in student ministry, and it was always difficult to know the right scorecard; big attendance? raised hands? bringing back as many kids as I took? We always set goals, but on a day-to-day basis it was often hard to know whether we were winning. In reality I didn’t really know if we “won” at all until 5-10 years after I left student ministry.

My point isn’t that vision, values, mission, pipelines and benches don’t matter. They do matter. They are tools that help us improve and inspire. My point is that any leader with a team of A players can get a well-defined, short-term win. Exceptional leaders inspire teams of B and C players day after day after day, even without crystal clear goals, to accomplish more than they imagine possible.

Remember when you are frustrated with your team, bored by your tasks and unclear on your goals you are in the trenches of real leadership. This is where the important stuff actually gets done.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.

Galatians 6:9 (NLT)


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The atomic bomb theory of leadership

nagasaki-bomb2I just finished reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which may be the geekiest sentence I’ve ever written. Be that as it may the book, at least the parts I understood, was fascinating. One story that jumped out was the last stage of arming the second atomic bomb ever built. The U.S. government spent over $2 billion (that’s billion) over four years to build two bombs, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the one dropped on Nagasaki. The last step before loading the Nagasaki bomb onto the plane was to wire the detonator to the power source. When the physicist assigned to this delicate task attempted to make the connection he realized that someone had installed the wires backwards; the male and female ends were reversed. To reinstall the wire would take at least another 24 hours, extending World War II and leading to the loss of hundreds, or even thousands, of additional American and allied lives. No one else was around, he had a decision to make.

Without consulting his superiors he decided to fix the wires himself. Because of the sensitivity of the bomb no heat source was allowed anywhere near; there weren’t even any electrical outlets in the room. It was late at night by this time, so the physicist was alone in the building. He scoured the lab and found an electrical extension cord and a soldering iron. At the risk of killing everyone in a 5 mile radius, he very carefully soldered the connections onto the correct ends of the wires and wired the detonator to to the power source. The next day the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki effectively ending World War II.

Setting aside the argument over the morality or immorality of using atomic weapons to kill tens of thousands of people, there are some fascinating leadership lessons in this story:

Assessing blame is seldom the best first step

I would imagine the first instinct when the physicist discovered the mistake was to find the idiot who wired the harness up backwards. This certainly wasn’t the physicist’s fault and he shouldn’t have to make up for other people’s incompetence. He knew, however, that blame at this point was meaningless. The key was to find a solution as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Angry leaders who spew threats and recriminations in the midst of crisis are ineffective and slow down everyone around them. Great leaders are more concerned with solutions than with blame. They are able to block out frustration and anger when they encounter a crucial problem, and focus on finding the best path back to success.

Highly trained, competent people can make horrendous mistakes

The people assembling atomic bombs in 1945 were the smartest men and women in the world. Brilliant scientists like Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi created systems and checks and counter checks to ensure that everything worked exactly as it was intended, but in the highly intense environment of war, staring down the barrel of the most lethal weapon ever created, men made mistakes.

Great leaders know that the very best people can make the worst mistakes. They create an environment where mistakes are not encouraged, but tolerated. Whether you are building an atomic bomb, mixing sound for a church service or writing copy for a website there will be mistakes. So the next time someone on your team screws up remind yourself at least they’re not building a nuclear weapon.

When lives are on the line always check your systems

It is likely that in the rush to get the bomb ready no one thought to include a checklist item to make sure the connectors were on the correct ends of the detonator wiring harness. It is also likely the next time they built a bomb that was a well-documented step. I imagine this is the last time anyone used a hot soldering iron on an armed atomic bomb.

Great leaders know that high expectations should be backed up by efficient systems. People can only perform to standards they are aware of in systems they understand. Every mistake is an opportunity to tweak the systems and reinforce the standards. Chewing someone out when they mess up is not a standard nor a system.

High capacity leaders sometimes take jaw-dropping risks for the good of the whole

No matter how good your systems are or how well-trained your staff there will come a time when you have to make a choice. Will you risk everything? Will you step outside of policies and procedures, put everything on the line, to take a leap of faith? We’ll never know what would have happened if the physicist would have postponed the bomb for another couple of days, or if he’d dropped the soldering iron and ignited an explosion. We know that he decided to take initiative and fix another man’s mistake. He took the risk.

Leaders who habitually bet the farm are reckless and a menace to the organization. Leaders who are too timid to step outside their comfort zone are ineffective. Great leaders look at potential disaster and decide to find a soldering iron.

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Would the Apostle Paul fly the Confederate flag?

S.C.-Confederate-flagThe first century Corinthian church has a significant problem. Some of the new believers are shocked and offended that other church members are eating idol meat. This is tantamount to idol worship, something clearly against God’s will. The meat eaters respond saying the newbies don’t have clue; the idol is just a hunk of wood so why not grill up a t-bone? Symbolism is destroying the unity of the church, so they write to the Apostle Paul to get his take on the issue.

I love Paul’s answer:

While knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes. (1 Corinthians 8:1-3 NLT)

Paul goes on to say that it really doesn’t matter what we think the meat symbolizes, what matters is the impact our actions have on others. He says that if eating meat causes harm to his fellow Christians he’s willing to become a vegan (my paraphrase).

Facebook’s current kerfuffle is over the fate of the Confederate flag flying near the South Carolina state capital. Some say the flag symbolizes racism and that it must come down. Others say that it is a symbol of heritage and pride and it should stay. I strongly believe if we could ask the Apostle Paul his question would be, “Does flying the flag causes others in the body of Christ pain? If so, regardless of its symbolism, we should take it down.” I believe he would say the same principle that he gave the church at Corinth 2000 ago still applies today; it is love that strengthens the church.

If I am a Christ follower it doesn’t matter that the flag was never the official flag of the Confederate States, it doesn’t matter why I believe the southern states seceded from the Union and it doesn’t matter if the flag makes me feel proud of my heritage. If my brothers and sisters in Christ say the flag is a painful reminder of the hatred of racism then I say take it down. To again paraphrase Paul, I’d rather be called a Yankee than cause more pain to my fellow believers.

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Please pray for Charleston

Last night was one of the darkest times in Charleston, South Carolina as a young white man took the lives of nine African Americans as they sat in a Bible study at historic Emanuel AME Church. I cannot imagine the shock, the sorrow, the outrage of those who knew these innocent people gunned down because of deranged racism. My heart breaks for them.

My heart breaks as well for Charleston, a place where a part of me will always live. Following on the heels of the senseless shooting of an unarmed black man in North Charleston, this horrible incident reinforces the stereotype of Charleston as a bigoted, segregated southern town. People who do not know Charleston, who do not love Charleston, feel justified writing off the Holy City, and much of the south, as ignorant and uncivilized.

Charleston is a beautiful, complicated, nuanced jewel. The millions of visitors who pass through every year experience the charm of one of the most unique cities in the world, but they never get a chance to know her soul. And now, for a few minutes, the nation will get a one dimensional view of Charleston that exists but doesn’t define.

The racial challenges in Charleston are different than in Baltimore, Ferguson and New York. Poverty and crime play a role, but there is much more. Many of the African Americans in Charleston area still live on the land their families were given after the Civil War. Ft Sumter, the spark that began the war, can be seen from every shore around Charleston Harbor. The last name of the pastor who was gunned down is Pinckney, a name every Charlestonian knows. Pastor Pinckney’s great, great, great grandfather was likely a slave of Charles Pinckney, a signer of the U.S. Constitution. Pastor Pinckney’s ancestors would have worked at Snee Farm, just down the road from where the original campus of Seacoast Church now stands. This horrible act of terror rekindles a fire Charleston has never been able to extinguish.

As Charleston awoke this morning to the shock of unspeakable tragedy accusations and agendas were already being formed and broadcast. Motives and circumstances disected again and again by pundits and activists with little knowledge and less context. Once again we shout across the internet at each other pointing fingers and calling names. None of this helps. None of this helps at all. This crazed act of evil does not define Charleston and opportunistic exploitation will not heal her either.

The most important thing we can do right now is pray for Charleston. She is a beautiful, complicated, precious city who desperately needs our prayers. Here are a few things we can pray for:

  • The families of those killed that they will know a peace that passes understanding
  • The pastors of the African American congregations in Charleston that they can bring healing and hope
  • Political leaders like Mayor Riley, Governor Haley and Senator Tim Scott that they can help find a way forward
  • The pastors of the predominately white congregations that they can find ways to join hands with their black counterparts and lead the city to unity

Will you pray with me for my adopted city?

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Is God the God of liars?

Sing praises to God, our strength.Reformed Liar

Sing to the God of Jacob. (Psalm 81:1)

As I reflect on the 81st Psalm I am struck by the phrase, “the God of Jacob”. At least 12 times the Bible refers to God as the God of Jacob. He is never referred to as the God of Moses, the God of David or the God of Nehemiah; instead he is the God of Jacob. The more I think about that title the more I smile.

As you read the account of Jacob’s life in Genesis you quickly pick up that he is, to put it kindly, a complicated character. He lies, cheats and steals, and that’s just how he treats his own family. Everywhere he goes intrigue follows. He has kids by several different women, and he clearly loves Some of his children more than others. One of his final acts is to purposefully bless the wrong grandchild, irritating even Jacob’s favorite son.

In modern terms Jacob was a hot mess, but God chooses to be known as the God of Jacob. He is the God of liars, and cheats and cowards. He is the God of the dysfunctional family. He is the God of the scared and the confused. He is the God of the parent who loses their child, he is the God of the child who cannot live up to the legacy of their parents. He is the God of the boy who doesn’t play sports and the girl who doesn’t dance. He is the God of the shy, the quiet and the timid.

He is the God of Jacob. He is the God of the man who regrets every day the decisions he made when he was young. He is the God of the woman who desperately wants to go back, but thinks she never can. He is the God of the father longing to be reunited with his son, the mother whose heart never quite heals from the loss of her child.

He is the God of Jacob. He is the God who weaves bad choices and tragic circumstances into a beautiful garment of hope. He is the God that turns what man meant as evil into good. He is the God who redeems the past. He is the God who sends his favorite son, his only son, to give his life for liars and cheaters and losers like Jacob.

Although I am inspired when I read about Moses parting an ocean, David killing a giant and Nehemiah rebuilding a wall, I am drawn to the God who chooses to identify himself with Jacob. I wish that I were more like Moses, or David or Nehemiah, but I know that I am really more like Jacob. And that is why I “sing praises to God our strength, sing to the God of Jacob.”

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