The Great Graduation Day Train Wreck

(This post goes along with Leadership Level 2, Team Asset.)

It was the Spring of 1988. I had just finished my first quarter of graduate school at The University of Georgia, and the  school's graduation ceremony was a few days away. My supervisor asked me to play the piano along with the concert band that was scheduled to perform onstage. He then made the casual request for me to "check on things" on the stage that coming Saturday morning. When the day came I arrived there early and all seemed fine. I set up my own equipment and felt ready to go. I then noticed that the chairs and music stands had all been dropped off, but that no one was setting them up. Given the size of the school and that an entire campus crew had moved all this equipment, it struck me as odd that nothing else was happening. Mind you, this was in the days before cell phones, so I had no way of calling anyone from the stadium field out there. Anyway, I had assumed that "check on things" meant to look around to see if all the stuff had arrived. Boy, had it arrived. There was a lot of it, and someone had better come soon to set it up. You may already know where this is going.
It wasn't long before all the band students showed up, quickly trying to get into their seats with all their instruments in their hands. It can be awkward enough to get into your seat when things are set up, since your hands are full of your instrument, sheet music, etc. But here was a group of 40 or 50 people trying to do that all at once, and the chairs and stands weren't even in the right place yet. It looked like a scene from I Love Lucy or one of those classic Jerry Lewis movies. But it wouldn't be funny for long. As I stood there watching that chaotic scene unfold, wondering what would happen next, my supervisor had now arrived and was suddenly furious. In front of that nightmarish scene, he turned to me and loudly began scolding me for the way things were going at the moment.

Suddenly it dawned on me: I wasn't really there to play the piano. I was there to set up the stage. Problem was, that part of my job didn't get communicated very clearly. I was so upset and so unprepared for how to handle it, that I relayed to one of the students that I wasn't feeling well. Then, I simply left. It would take a conversation or two the next week with that supervisor in order to straighten things out. Well, we didn't exactly straighten things out, but at least I wasn't getting yelled at now. I was starting to get the hang of this person's leadership style, and it turned out to be a very educational season for me, as you might imagine.

I actually learned 2 very important leadership lessons that day, though one was bigger than the other. The smaller lesson I learned is this: There will be times in your own leadership when the mistakes are all your fault. The point isn't whether or not you really messed up. Maybe it really was your fault, but that can get sorted out later. For the here and now, and as far as everyone is concerned, you were the one who dropped the ball. This may not be the time or place to save your name and reputation. You'll just have to pull up your own bootstraps and go on. Oh, and you probably won't have the option of going home early as I did that day. You'll likely have to hang around and endure it, at least for awhile.

But the bigger lesson I want to share is this one: It may be up to you to figure out the leadership style of the person(s) you answer to. And if you simply wait around to learn this as problems arise, then you can expect more problems to arise. I encourage you to be very proactive in doing your homework here. Ask questions. Ask for clarification if necessary. Observe and take notes. Unfortunately, the leaders above you don't come with owners' manuals, so you'll have to create your own. Is this leadership reality unfair? Probably. But don't get hung up on this part. Purpose today to make your own leadership more effective by studying the landscape above your own area. It will be worth it for you and for the people who follow your leadership.

And if the bugler doesn’t sound a clear call, how will the soldiers know they are being called to battle?
–1 Corinthians 14:8 (NLT)


Getting Past That Day

(This post goes along with Leadership Level 1, Personal Success.)

    You may not need this post right now. Just in case, maybe you should print it for later. At any rate, when you started out in your current role, you were given a title, possibly a salary, respect in the community. In every way this may have felt like God's promotion, his blessing and favor being spread abroad in your life. But now a few seasons have passed, and the dust has settled. As some might say, the honeymoon is over. For some leaders, things simply continue on and there are few bumps in the road. But for others things turn out differently. That Day goes something like this: you head in for your job, volunteer position, or whatever situation you've been in charge of leading. Your body is going through the same motions as it has for the last few weeks or months. On the outside, no one sees anything different or changed. But on the inside, you know something isn't quite right. “Is this just fatigue? Am I just tired?” you ask yourself. Maybe all this came about because something negative has happened, and it served as something of a wake-up call. Or maybe you just allowed yourself to get drained, and now you're feeling burned out. However it was you arrived here, we need to take it seriously. Because how you handle things in the next few days or weeks will have a huge, lasting impact on your leadership, your personal life, and possibly your family.
    This isn't something to take lightly. No, the enemy would love to push you out of the game at this point, and permanently. If I may, let me try to sum things up here. The early excitement of your position of leadership has possibly waned, and now you feel more and more the weight of responsibility of what you agreed to do. It's easy to blame others at this point. Was I lied to? Was this job pitched to me in a way that made it look easier than what I'm having to put up with? As I said, this is a pivotal point in your life, if this is where you find yourself. Ministry leaders around the globe reach this place every day, and some walk away, putting it all behind them. Some leave the church, their leadership positions, and their calling. Some even leave spouses and families over this. And it all starts on That Day.
    Some decide to take evasive, immediate action, and walk away before lunch time. Others simply internalize their decision, choosing to allow time and distractions to offer a convenient excuse to step down and out. In fact, I have a theory that many moral failures in ministry have less to do with that extramarital affair or illicit substance abuse, and more to do with not properly handling That Day and the hurt it can bring.
    What I'm talking about here is disillusionment. It could have to do with your leadership position, the church, the leaders above you, the people who follow you, or even with God himself. Please understand that you're not the first person to feel tired or hurt or disillusioned, and you won't be the last. While there are some wonderful aspects of serving others in ministry, there are also some very real downsides, and those who survive That Day are the ones who take the right course of action, and as soon as possible. I don’t pretend to understand everything that you might later encounter or might be going through right now. But I can offer this: Before you allow That Day to become That Regret,  I encourage you to reach out for help and compassion. You may have to go above and beyond, finding help outside the place where you serve, but it will be worth it. No leadership position or disappointment is worth giving up on the main relationships in your life. I’m one of many who are praying for your wise choices in the days ahead.

Christ gives me the strength to face anything.
–Philippians 4:13 (CEV)


The Myth of Overnight Success

(This post goes along with Leadership Level 1, Personal Success.)

Some new leaders step into a new leadership position with an unspoken plan. Often that plan might sound something like this: “I'll be here for a couple of years, whip this place into shape and then move on to my fantastically amazing career somewhere else.” In some cases, that's how things turn out in real life, and success comes quickly. But in many cases, things don't happen quite that way. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from trying. I pray that you indeed have success, because others are following your lead. But what I want to address here isn’t the level of success you ascend to, or even how quickly you get there. I want to focus on the attitude that wants a quick exit.

The projects of home decorators and similar occupations have an expected routine. They usually allow getting to visit for a short while, fixing things up and then moving on. I’m sure there’s great satisfaction that comes with that fast success. But our jobs as leaders usually have more at stake and take more time and commitment in a given place. Even if I’m able to get quick results and soon have impressive accomplishments, there are still people involved. Real relationships take time, and sincere leaders are willing to stay for the long haul, strengthening those relationships, praying for people, and often sacrificing self in order to see success–not just in projects, but in people, too. If you're really called to be in a certain place, then there's no shortcut. I challenge you today to make a quality decision. Purpose to stay put for as long as God has you there. Don’t excuse yourself prematurely. When the time comes for your actual transition, then God knows where to find you and how to get you to your next assignment. In the meantime, stand strong. And continue to be as much as possible like Jesus for those in and around your leadership.

I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.
–Philippians 1:6 (CEB)


Who's Writing Your Letter?

(This post goes along with Leadership Level 2, Team Asset.)

Having been in higher education for so many years, I always get a kick out of which ones of my students ask me for a letter of recommendation, because it never seems to be the ones I expect to hear from. In many cases, I get requests from students who I didn’t have much of a relationship with while we shared class time together. In fact, in some cases I'm shocked that certain students would want to ask me to write a letter on their behalf, since our time in class had made me think that some of those same students didn't care much for me or my leadership.

You may already know how it works to get a letter of recommendation written for you. When it's time to put your name into the hat for a job, a leadership position, or some other station in life, there's almost always a need for someone to recommend you in a letter, sent to those who are considering bringing you on board. But what if I told you that I'm not really the one who writes those letters of recommendation for my students? What if I told you that my job in all that is really to just play the role of secretary? You see, I don't create the content of that requested letter of recommendation. In reality it's the person who is requesting the letter who creates that part, one day at a time, starting with our first day together. I simply make observations and only then put them to paper if or when the request comes.

Let's put this in perspective for your own leadership. Are you simply wandering through the season you're in now, unconcerned about your conversations, attitudes and actions, hoping that when the time comes, someone will create some great fiction about you in a glowing letter recommending you? Or are you starting to realize that you're writing your own letter every day, with every interaction, opportunity and situation that comes across your path? Am I saying you have to be perfect? No! What I’m saying is that it helps to be aware of the way you're handling things with other people. This is especially true in relation to those who are in charge of you and especially during these early seasons of your leadership.

It may seem outdated to be concerned with things like showing up on time, following up on things you agreed to do, or being somewhere you’re supposed to be when you really don't feel like it. But can I share a leadership secret with you? It's this: no matter how smart, talented, charming or attractive you may be, if you can't be depended upon by those who lead you, then you really don’t want them putting their honest feelings about you on paper when it matters most. Some letters are gracious and dance around those issues, while others are brutally honest and tell the real story.

Some are thinking right now, “Tim, you're just encouraging us to be kiss-ups and play teacher's pet with the boss. I refuse to be dishonest or to play games with the people I work with.” In reality I'm not suggesting any of that. What I'm suggesting is that you become the kind of person you would want to be in charge of, especially if that person's performance somehow affected YOUR success as the supervisor. The truth is that your leadership is always bigger than you are, affecting many more people than you realize. Keeping that in mind helps us keep our focus off of ourselves and the selfish behavior that can ruin our leadership effectiveness. I encourage you to start today to give your best effort right here and right now, so that the letter you’re contributing to becomes all you need it to be when the time is right.

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.
–Romans 13:3 (NIV)


2 Graduation Ceremonies I Will Skip

(This post goes along with Leadership Level 1, Personal Success.)

As the seasons give way to Spring in a few weeks, many of us will receive graduation invitations in the mail. Some of these tend to be true invitations, asking us to be at the ceremonies listed, while some are simply hints for money and gifts. It’s also possible that someone reading this will be walking the graduation platform in person. But while these ceremonies are always exciting, I’ve decided that I will never accept the invitations for two distinct ceremonies. Further, I will never attend these two graduation proceedings, for myself or for anyone I care about. Do I have your attention yet? I hope so, and I hope you’ll follow my lead. You see, if I’m doing leadership right, I will never graduate from God, and I will never graduate from serving other people.

As a leader, I should never try to graduate from total dependency on God. No matter how many scriptures I memorize, no matter how many personal challenges I overcome, the goal is not to graduate from needing God. In fact, it doesn’t take long for a leader’s life and effectiveness to become completely sidelined once God is no longer needed. So, no matter how strong the temptation and no matter how appealing the thought, I simply cannot part ways with God and his leading of my leadership. That would be a recipe for disaster, both personally and in my leading of other people.

Another ceremony I will never attend is graduation from serving others. The goal isn't to get so good at serving that I don't have to do it anymore. In our superficial culture it’s easy to assume that success brings with it an easier lifestyle. Sometimes that happens, and once certain dues are paid and lessons are learned, I may not have to do some of the same things I started out doing in the beginning. But our role model is Jesus, and he modeled serving others right up to the very end of his earthly ministry. If he didn’t give up on helping other people, then why should we? Please don’t take any of this as judgmental or condemning. We all need reminders now and then, myself included! And today I’m reminding you and myself that in order to be effective in leadership from here until our time on earth is done, we need to keep God first, and we need to continue to serve others as he leads us.

We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.
–Hebrews 12:2 (NLT)


A Season and a Reason

(This post goes along with Leadership Level 3, Team Leadership.)

Do you know the season and reason for your current position of leadership? Sure, you may have a written or verbalized job description, and there are certainly expectations there for you to live up to. But, beyond that, do you really know why you're in this place, and at this time? Do you know what it is God is wanting to accomplish in your leadership journey, even as you're busy with all the things listed in your job description? You might be thinking, Tim, why are you making such a big deal about this?

Well, here's why: It's very possible to simply walk through this current season and get done all the things on your To Do list. You could even earn the praise and respect of those around you, and I hope you're able to do that. But what if God has plans for you in this season that go beyond those items on your To Do list or the items listed in your job description? What if God has some divine appointments, strategic connections and even visionary ideas that he wants to add to this season of your life? As great as all that sounds, it's very possible to miss most or all of those exciting opportunities by simply staying busy and missing the chance to hear from God in those areas.

God has some truly wonderful things awaiting us in his presence, but he won't force them upon us. We have to take the initiative to seek that time with our heavenly Father, so that we can get those priceless insights for this season. James 1:5 says that if anyone lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives it freely and without condemnation. God isn't keeping things from us in order to frustrate us. He wants to share those things with us and bless us in the process, especially since those blessings will likely spill into the lives of those following our leadership. But God doesn't just want to dispense information. He also wants time with us in the process. In fact, I've found that God will never give me a leadership assignment that I can fully complete on my own. I will always need his input and guidance along the way.

Let me give you a bottom line statement about all this: You are here for a season and for a reason. But if you don't take time to pray about why you're here in this time and place, then you probably won't make the most of things. The good news is that you don’t have to miss the target. Try giving God the first part of your day as a leader, and watch what can happen.


Generational Bias?

(This post goes along with Leadership Level 2, Team Asset.)

Because I'm getting older, I've noticed some subtle differences in the way interactions are going between myself and others in my generation, as well as with those in younger generations. And often I've picked up on a few attitudes from the younger crowd. I'm sure I carried some of these same feelings and attitudes about older people in my younger days too. But now I have more wisdom about things, and I have some new insights as a result. Based on all that, I have some questions for you to consider:

1. Should it make any difference what age the person leading you happens to be? Is it easier for you to take directives from someone older, younger, your same age, or does it even matter?

2. Does it matter how this person is coming across in relation to your generation? For example, would you rather be led by a person your age, with similar hairstyles, clothing, and points of view? Or would you take things more seriously if the leader was older, even if he or she wasn't so much in touch with your generation?

I think this topic is worth discussing. Because, as an older leader, I like to know when my words are being received by the younger crowd. Let's face it, if you're in the younger generation, you probably don't want us older guys to act and dress just like you, especially if we need to lead you in a given area or project. And often leaders in the older bracket don’t prefer younger people trying to act older or more mature than they need to. With all this going on in and around our leadership, it’s no wonder we might have trust issues between the generations of leaders.

If some of this seems confusing, then let me make it simple. Being relevant is always a factor when interacting with each other, but then so is respect. People naturally respond better when they feel they are being taken seriously. We may not always agree on things, and especially if we are in different generations. But as leaders, we can and should find a way to respect each other in the journey.

Love one another warmly as Christians, and be eager to show respect for one another.
–Romans 12:10 (GNT)



(This post goes along with Leadership Level 1 - Personal Success.)

Ever feel like your life revolves around the gauges in your world? Think about this. Your cell phone's battery gauge tells you how much more talk and text time you have. If you drive a car, then your gas tank gauge tells you how soon you need to fill up. Seems like I'm always checking to see if my battery has enough juice or if my car has enough gas for the day. These gauges are helpful, especially since they glow and are easy to see. But some gauges aren’t as easy to notice, and sometimes it takes more effort to see their readings, especially in our own busy lives of leading others.

Part of successful leadership is knowing how to lead yourself well. And leading yourself well means taking time to look after your own personal needs so that you don’t burn out. The great thing about my cell phone and my car is that when the gauges show “empty” everything stops. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and I agree that a dead phone and a dead car can ruin your day. But because we know the outcome of ignoring these gauges, we are usually proactive enough to avoid those bad results.

So here’s my question for you today: are you ignoring your own personal gauges and pushing yourself past “empty”? Sadly, this is so easy for all of us to do as leaders. It’s so easy to get lost in the world of servant leadership, since it can be so rewarding at times. In fact, some of us can even become addicted to the good feelings of serving others and helping meet their needs. But it’s because others need us that makes it so vital to find a way to stop every now and then to rest, reevaluate and be refreshed. Whether it’s exercise, a nap, reading an inspiring book or doing something completely unrelated to your job and calling, we all need for you to take time apart, so that you can finish your life’s race strong. There are enough sad stories and statistics out there. Neither you nor I need to be added to those tragic lists. Decide today to make the most of your life and leadership by not ignoring those crucial gauges. God put those in us because, as much as he cares about our leadership, he cares even more about us.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
–Hebrews 12:1 (ESV)

A New Resource - Navigating The Early Seasons

A new resource for new leaders: Navigating The Early Seasons, an audio workshop.

The Patio Epiphany

(This post goes along with Leadership Level 1 - Personal Success.)

What's an epiphany? It's a moment of revelation or clarity. Some call it an "Aha!" moment while others say it's a very personal and spiritual moment. However you define an epiphany, I had one, and it was on my patio. That Winter day was very cold. I had just gotten home from work and our two empty trash cans were sitting by the street. As I stepped inside the house to drop off my bag, I took off the nice coat I was wearing and left it inside, so I wouldn't risk getting it dirty. Stepping back outside with no coat on, I could now really feel the cold breeze, and it was almost painful. As I hurried from the front yard to the back, I was almost running to get those cans onto the patio. It was on the second trip that the moment happened.

You see, as I had moved the first can to the patio, I had gone around the large, freestanding hammock that was sitting there at the corner of the patio. This meant several more steps in each direction, which meant me being out in the cold wind even longer. But after putting the second can in place, I realized how ridiculous I had been acting. There had been no need to go around the hammock, because I had brought the hanging part of it indoors a few weeks earlier. All that was left was the large, empty metal frame of the hammock. I had been stepping around that thing when I could've been just stepping through it!

And that's when it hit me. How often do we as leaders continue to step around something that isn't even there anymore? How often are we still walking out patterns in our leadership that now don't fit the terrain? Are you in a new season, but you're finding yourself still stepping around something that's no longer there? It's ok to find ourselves in patterns that were more relevant in seasons past. But here's the hard part: Are you willing to part with some old paths and some old ways if it means being more effective for God in the here and now? I'm not talking about getting away from biblical wisdom or timeless truths. I'm talking about personal habits and attitudes, because those can and do change for the better. I encourage you today to allow God to show you some new things for this new season. And whatever you do, don't allow outdated obstacles to hold you back from the wonderful new thing God is doing right now in your life and in your leadership.

Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already—you can see it now! I will make a road through the wilderness and give you streams of water there.
–Isaiah 43:19 (GNT)

Lasting Leadership

A good reminder for those of us who want our leadership to last:

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
–Galatians 6:9 (ESV)

Focus on the “In Crowd”

(This post goes along with Leadership Level 3 - Team Leadership.)

     Despite all the great potential God has put inside of you, it’s not realistic to expect that everyone will accept you or your leadership. Sometimes this is due to your age or maybe the age of those around you. Or sometimes the issue could be cultural. At other times it could be that some folks are unhappy that the person you replaced left the scene and moved on in the first place. And for some, maybe you remind them of some irrelevant and negative person in their past. Is any of this stuff fair to you, the leader, and your sincere desire to lead people well? No, it’s not fair at all, but it can be reality sometimes.

     Don’t get discouraged in all this, because no matter how great the leader, there will always be those who won’t follow or get onboard. Reality dictates that there will always be a crowd that won't follow your leadership. Some will never get onboard with you, no matter hard you try with them, or no matter how much success you have, and that's ok. Not everyone is supposed to follow you. Other leaders may have to make those connections.

     But there’s good news! God always finds a way to send people who really do want to follow you. We could call this group your “in crowd” because they’re on your side! Some will get onboard with you immediately. Some will get onboard later after seeing some success in your leadership. Regardless, these people will let you lead them, and that’s a great season for a leader to be in. The key is to focus on these people because those are the ones who need and want what you have to offer. I encourage you today to spend your time and energy on those who let you lead. Don’t lose sleep over those who may never come around anyway. Allow God to help you give the right kind of leadership to those who are willing to follow, and then let the good things happen naturally.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
–1 Corinthians 11:1 (ESV)