Is Lasting Leadership Possible?

How tired are you? In the depths of winter, whether you are facing snow, rain, or merely cloudy skies, the demands of leadership sometimes feel overwhelming. Top it off with the burden of budgets, high anxiety in society, and any personal challenges you may be facing, and you may feel like you can hardly take the next step. Going forward can seem impossible.

We often begin the year resolving to take better care of ourselves. If we exercise more and eat better, we think, we’ll be able to manage the burdens of leadership better. All true. But “stress management” and “self-care,” as we usually think of them, are not enough. The best stress-management program around has to do with self-management in the way we relate to others: focusing on ourselves rather than trying to fix or change others. When we are growing emotionally and spiritually, we can better handle the challenges of leadership. And as I’ve often said before, we give others the room to do their own growing.

Every one of my Leadership Adventure newsletters includes the tagline, “Moving from the impossible, changing others, to the merely difficult, managing myself.” When I began to make that shift in my own leadership, my life took a significant turn. Before the shift, I truly believed I could change others by convincing, cajoling and willing them to be different (despite much evidence to the contrary!). And I was flirting with burnout as a result. I was exhausted, and felt like I couldn’t carry on with my leadership.

As I slowly began to realize that I needed to focus on myself, my goals and my emotional maturity, my stress level went way down. I was able to sustain myself over time, without wearing out or burning out. And to my surprise, I found that others responded better to my leadership than they had before. Now, I must confess that this is a long learning process, and I still often get caught up in my own need to pressure others to be, act or think the way I believe they should. The shift to putting our primary attention on ourselves and our own functioning is the first step toward lasting leadership.

Make a list: in how many relationships are you trying to change someone else? Then ask yourself: if I focused on managing myself instead, what would I do differently?

Why Are Things the Way They Are?

Are you looking at some situation in your ministry, and wondering, how’d they ever come up with that? Homeostatic Perpetuation is a terrific post by Israel Galindo on looking back — way back.

Do You Want to Get More Done?

My time management guru, Mark Forster, author if Do It Tomorrow, is beta-testing a new productivity system. I’m finding it very simple and tremendously useful so far. Time management is really about self-management: time is neutral! I’m finding his system a way to manage my resistance to a number of items on my list. Click here to sign up to get the instructions. Even if you don’t do that, I highly recommend the articles, blog and forum on his website,

What’s the Relationship between Vision and Reality?

How do you assess your own vision? Is it possible? Or is it a pipe dream? Many grand visions seem impossible when they are first dreamed of. Yet at the same time, some leaders go down in flames because they rigidly cling to their vision without being able to see reality.

I’ve been reflecting on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. I mentioned a while back that our book group was reading War and Peace. Actually at times finishing the book, at over 1200 pages, seemed like an impossible vision. But I did it, helped out by some bad weather which kept me cooped up more than I had planned.

I also read, during another bout of snow, Nigel Nicolson’s Napoleon 1812. It’s less than 200 pages, and I was glad to get a modern view of Napoleon’s efforts and their failure. Ironically, Hitler made the same mistake of invading Russia in 1941 and was likewise defeated. Napoleon was a brilliant general, but he had a hard time accepting the reality of his situation, that Russia was too big and too cold for his army ultimately to prevail.

There’s an incredible visual representation by Charles Joseph Minard of the decimation of Napoleon’s army . I keep looking at it. The brown line shows the army going in to Russia, and the black line shows them coming out. (Just click on the picture to get a full-size view.)


So what does this have to do with church leadership? Having a big vision is very important, but we have to pay attention to the feedback we are getting from the environment as well. Leaders who ignore input from the environment won’t last long. Both aspects of leadership are essential: clarifying the vision, and connecting with the environment (both people and other elements).

How are you getting input from your environment? What do you read, listen to, and who do you talk to?

Can You Do One Thing in 2009?

If you only completed one thing in 2009, what would it be? I asked the same question last year of myself and of you. For me, last year the most important thing was to finish a book, which I did (I’m finishing my review of the proofs now): Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry. It will be out March 1. In 2009 my “one” thing is to launch this book well. I’ve found it helps me to focus on one major new project at a time. I feel less scattered, and it’s easier to reach my goals.

What about you? What’s the most important thing you’d like to get going on this year? Let me know.

What Are You Waiting For?

As Advent turns to Christmas, what do you find yourself waiting for? Late on Christmas Eve, the year I was six, I slipped out of my room and tiptoed down the hall. I peeked into the living room. Piles of presents had appeared under the tree. I could see one present was unwrapped, but I couldn’t see what it was in the dim light.

The next morning I ran to the tree. The unwrapped present was for me, or at least for my brother and me, a Chinese checker game. My dad, always ready to play a game, helped me learn how to move the colorful marbles around the board, and I’m sure he let me win. It was worth waiting through the night.

What are you waiting for? A family problem to resolve, the economy to turn around, the church budget to balance (maybe not this year…), the ministry to take off, finally? It can seem like a long wait. But sometimes you can catch a glimpse, just the dim outline of something you’ve been hoping and praying for. You can see a faint new light on an old troubled relationship. Someone steps forward and says they want to start a new ministry. You feel a new sense of clarity in your leadership. For now, the glimpses may be all you have. But keep your eyes open.

Have a blessed Christmas!

Are You Giving Something that Doesn’t Diminish?

This Advent I’ve been using Phyllis Tickle’s The Night Offices: Prayers for the Hours from Sunset to Sunrise. I’ve been doing The Office of Dawn every morning, and the Office of Midnight before I go to bed (which is never as late as midnight). The Office of the Night Watch (between 1:30 and 4:30 a.m.) is beyond me, but Tickle includes a reading from the Church Fathers in that office, which I’ve been making a point of reading every morning.

Here’s today’s, from St. Augustine (On Christian Doctrine): “For a possession which is not diminished by being shared with others — that is, if it is possessed and not shared — is not yet possessed as it ought to be possessed. The Lord says, “Whosoever has, to him shall be given.” He will give, then, to those that have. That is to say, if they use freely and cheerfully what they have received, He will add to and perfect His gifts. The loaves in the miracle were only five and seven in number before the disciples began to divide them among other hungry people. But once they began to distribute them, though the wants of so many thousands were satisfied, they themselves still could fill baskets with the fragments.”

I’ve read this every Monday for four weeks, and I still have to read it more than once every time. It’s not your typical Internet quote to skim over. You might want to print it out to ponder over the next few days, as you think about your own giving this Christmas.

Have You Given Your Presence?

This time of year we often recognize staff and key volunteer leaders with gifts, as well as holiday gatherings. In these uncertain financial times some of these presents and activities may be curtailed. But there’s one gift which costs you nothing except your time: the gift of your presence. Those you lead need you to be present with them. When things are more difficult, when a budget crisis threatens or interpersonal conflict looms, it can be tempting to withdraw. But at those times most of all, your presence is vital. Lean into the anxiety you may feel and show up.

What does “presence” do? The position at the top, while not the only one of importance, is unlike any other. The role of leader needs to be fully occupied. People feel calmer when they know the leader is filling the role. They don’t expect you to have all the answers or to predict the future, but they need to know you are there. Dr. David Wheeler, the pastor of the church I belong to and an early mentor of mine years ago, is naturally good at this, connecting with both groups and individuals and giving them a sense of his leadership of the congregation. I learned this by watching him early on.

Here are some tips for enhancing your leadership presence:

1. Show up. Don’t hide out, even when things are difficult. Make at least a brief (not a token) appearance at key meetings, parties and events. And while you are there, be there. Don’t look at your watch or at the door.

2. Be yourself. Authentic presence means you show up as yourself. You don’t pretend, or imitate what you think the people want or what your predecessor was. Be in your own skin when you show up. (This doesn’t mean you wear whatever you want, however. Dress like a leader.)

3. Be open to them. When we are fully present, we are paying attention not only to ourselves, but to others. Listen without looking over the shoulder of the one who is talking to you. (This doesn’t mean you have to let others use all your time. Be judicious.)

4. Be curious. What can you learn about the individuals you are leading, and about the group as a whole, when you make your rounds? A curious attitude enhances the presence of the leader, because people sense we are truly interested.

These tips will be used differently in different organizations, depending on size (some groups are too large to know everyone individually) and function (some groups are focused on interpersonal relationships; others are very task-oriented). Yet whatever your situation, find ways to show up, be yourself, be open and be curious.