The Truth on Leadership

I have spent the better part of twenty years in the field of leadership development. I have researched, studied, facilitated, coached, mentored, designed, and written on the topic. And I can tell you leadership development is big business. According to Chief Learning Officer magazine, leadership development spending is estimated to be as high as $50 billion annually. There are literally millions of articles, books, seminars, videos, assessments, and consultants available to help us become better leaders.

A search on “leadership books” at returns 70,000 results. One leadership book in particular is a best-seller. In fact, it sells the most number of copies per year…EVERY YEAR. Yes, the most successful literary creation of all time is a leadership book. Each year, over 100,000,000 copies are sold or given away. This book has become so popular that it is excluded from weekly best seller lists. That book is the Bible.

It strikes me how hard we look to find the seemingly elusive answer to the question, “What does it mean to be a good leader?” It is also notable how we have come to realize in this knowledge generation that the most admired leadership skills are traits such as humility, vision, vulnerability, listening, compassion, accountability, communication (ability to coach), authenticity, and purpose. For my money, no better example exists than Jesus. Why do we neglect learning the principles from God’s Word?

“For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Looking to enhance your leadership skills? Consider diving in and reading the Bible. The most effective leaders I have encountered have a relationship with God. I am not suggesting you abandoned other revered leadership experts and their works. I greatly appreciate contemporary leadership experts for their ability to bring biblical principles to the masses in a way that is relevant and acceptable in secular environments. So while we live in a world where we are not bringing the Bible to the conference room table – we can look to His counsel when we retreat to our own home, office, or car.

His lessons are not a fad or the latest trend that will be replaced in a few years by a new model. His lessons endure. If you don’t currently read the Bible, it can seem overwhelming and intimidating. Seek out a mentor who has a solid relationship with God so you can see how he or she makes His teachings relevant day-to-day. Start with reading the daily scripture verses. From there, think about how you see the lessons present in your daily life and how you can apply those lessons to your work. Lastly, pray for the courage and wisdom to spot your moments and take advantage of them.

What’s In A Name?

I think a lot about what defines me. My work…my actions…my legacy; I have a deep longing to be someone. But what does that really mean? I know that I want to be more than someone doing something. It has been a lifelong journey of discovery to chisel away at the qualities and characteristics that do not define me in order to reveal the beauty of my true self hidden within.

I remember clearly as a child wondering what my name told me about who I was. Frankly, I never asked my parents why they selected my name (shame on me) but I am confident when they did they wanted nothing short of the best for me. Like any parent, I am sure when they declared my name they wished for a life of happiness, good will, and contribution. During my youth I would research my birth name, Daniel, in the context of my Christian upbringing and learn about the popular story of Daniel in the lions’ den. I would read of Daniel’s heroism and try to extrapolate what that meant for me. Surely, I thought, there must be meaning there. I also learned that Daniel, in Hebrew, meant “God is my Judge.” Again, I liked the connection to my Faith but I wasn’t convinced it answered any of my questions about the unknown purpose I was supposed to fulfill in life.

As a child, I was called “Danny.” It was a term of endearment and used most regularly by my family members. “Dan” rose to prominence at some point in my teens (I cannot recall exactly when) surely as a way to signify my independence. And “Daniel” was reserved for formal documents or for my mother to yell at me (with middle name included). I do remember some people mispronouncing my birth name as “Danielle” and that embarrassed me. I also remember one of my college professors calling me “Danny” at a time when I preferred “Dan.” Needless to say, I made it clear what my preference was; a moment I still regret 25 years later. As a father of two teenagers, I now hear my name from my children. My first instinct is to correct them and suggest anything other than “Dad” is disrespectful. They assure me it is out of reverence, and a sure way to get my attention when I am “not listening to them.” We’ll agree to disagree. Whether “Daniel,” “Danny,” or “Dan,” I am not sure that I ever landed on a clear and definitive direction the meaning of my name gives to who I am or who I am supposed to be.

What I have come to learn as I have matured is that my name doesn’t inform what or who I am, rather it tells me whose I am. Every time I hear my name I am reminded that I am His. “I’ve called you by name; you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1) God calls each of us by name, and each time I hear mine I am reminded of my longing to be the best person I can be as created in His image. I recall my lifelong mission to uncover purpose and meaning in my life. When I hear my name I instinctively think of the values and beliefs that I hold so dear. By way of my name I take great pride in doing my best…being my best…giving my best. And my best is invariably tied to God and His dream for me placed in my heart when I was conceived. Through my name I clarify His will for my life and muster the strength to accept His will. My name and His calling for my life are unique to me. No one else, even someone else named Dan, has the same dream in their heart as God placed in mine. We are all children of God and can only live out God’s dream for our lives in a way that is uniquely gifted for us and within our own contexts.

My wife, Denise (whose name is often mispronounced “Dennis”), rarely calls me by name. Most often I am responding to “honey” or “sweetheart.” “Dan” is reserved when she really needs to grab my attention, usually in public. However, I know she uses my name when she talks about me to others. “Dan” is the person others know – her friends, family, and co-workers. I think about what I want “Dan” to mean to them when they hear it. Does “Dan” represent a good husband and father? Do people experience Jesus through “Dan?” Not only am I His, but I am hers. I take the responsibility of husband and the covenant of marriage seriously. Using your name as a reminder that you are called by God can be an effective way for you to frame up your purpose and commitment to being the person you aspire to be, in all walks of your life.

At the same time as I was a youngster researching the meaning of my name I would think about how cool it would be to have a nickname. Sure, there were the common ones like “Danno” and “Dan the Man,” but nothing that ever stuck or was unique to me. Perhaps that was indicative of the purpose my name was meant to have in my life so many years later. So as to always get my attention when “being called by name,” for I am His and He is my judge. 

The Greatest

The phrase “greatest of all time” and its acronym G.O.A.T. have enjoyed a lot of publicity in recent years. This is especially true with social media where athletes get labeled with the title based on their prowess on the field or court. All I would have to do is tweet a picture of Michael Jordan along with a goat emoji and you would know exactly what I was suggesting. It leads to spirited debate and certainly brings out our passions and biases. It does, though, beg the question of whether such suggestions and debates are healthy.

Let’s start with what I know without question or debate, Jesus is the greatest teacher of all time. He transformed people who lived during His time on earth with His radical teachings, and over two-thousand years later believers around the world still follow his lessons. On nearly thirty occasions in the bible Jesus was referred to as “Teacher.” Even Jesus’ enemies called him “Teacher” (Mark 12:14). He used the techniques of sermons, conversations, and parables to translate really complicated ideas into easy-to-understand lessons. He used common everyday situations to teach spiritual truths.  His style was warm, compassionate, vulnerable, and humble. And He never put Himself before His message.

Something else I know is that the greatest teacher of all time gave us the greatest lesson of all time – which is to love. Love God and love others. There couldn’t be a simpler lesson to understand than go forth and love others. Yet simple isn’t easy. And I catch myself many times a day not loving others. It might look like judging, envy, or neglect, but it certainly isn’t love. Perhaps that is why God put the idea of Chief Experience Officer (CXO) 1 in my heart? For me, it is a simple construct to help me be the person I aspire to be – the person God wants me to be.

It is interesting to compare the concept of G.O.A.T. to the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Imagine we are all brought before the Lord and He separates us “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” We would be grouped with the sheep because of the good works we did. We would be grouped with the goats because, well, of the opposite. And imagine the sheep are blessed by God the Father, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” In other words the sheep demonstrated the greatest lesson of all time, they loved others. And the goats would ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?” And Jesus instructs them saying, “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.”

It is interesting that in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats it is the sheep who are the greatest, which is to say they treated others with kindness, respect, and serving them as though they were Christ Himself. So while fun to think about whom the greatest athlete of all time is, or rock star, or actor, being the G.O.A.T. should also be a reminder to us all that the most important thing we are called to be great at is loving God and others.

1I Am CXO, Now What? A Job Description For Living A Life Of Purpose And Meaning, WestBow Press, 2017

Do You Connect with Back to School?

It has been a number of months since my last blog. In full disclosure, I have been preoccupied searching for and ultimately starting a new job. Now that I have settled in, somewhat, I hope to get back on a more regular cadence of posting. Now, on to the good stuff! Thank you for reading.

It’s that time of year again: back to school. What, in May or June, seemed like a long and boundless summer ahead of us has quickly faded to cooler nights and yellowing leaves. At my house, back to school means my daughter will begin her sophomore year of high school; my son embarks on his freshman year of college; and my wife returns for her twenty-third year as a special education teacher.

Learner Connectivity Model

For me, back to school makes me think about renewal; fresh opportunities and new beginnings. It also makes me think about relationships and making connections. And, naturally, there are the nerves that can accompany the fresh start. For educators, it is a pivotal time to build rapport and inspire learning. And I am reminded of a framework for effectiveness in the educator role that I developed called the Learner Connectivity Model. Inclusive of all types of education – whether you are a teacher, instructor, trainer, facilitator, professor, coach, religious education leader, paid or volunteer – this model will help you make connections and increase effectiveness. It is composed of three parts: 1) Building connections between learners; 2) Building connections between learners and the learning content; and 3) Building connections between the teacher and the learner.

Building Connections Between Your Learners

LearnersMost learning – good learning – doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Whether your group size is 2 or 200, leveraging the connection between learners can catapult enthusiasm for learning. When learners feel a part of a group and empathy is established between learners who have differing perspectives, trust increases. As trust increases performance goes up. Additionally, you can maximize the effect of social learning. Experts argue that as much as 70% of learning can come from our peer groups. Social, or peer-to-peer, learning is happening whether the teacher is intentional about it or not, so why not jump out in front of it? If you don’t believe social learning exists, watch this classic Candid Camera video. Or, consider this scene from the blockbuster movie “A Few Good Men.” Tom Cruise’s character (Lt. Daniel Kaffee) asks Noah Wyle’s character (Cpl. Jeffrey Barnes) how he could possibly know where the mess hall is if it is not listed in the Marine’s training/operational manual. Cpl. Barnes responded by saying, “I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time.”

So how do you facilitate connections between your learners (or students)? Examples include: using icebreakers or get-to-know-you games, implementing classroom leadership roles, establishing learning buddies or accountability partners, maximizing diversity, using partner sharing, and assigning small group projects. Avoid becoming the center of attention. Aim instead to create an environment where students can keep growing on their own or with their peers. Whenever possible, step away and create moments of independence. How about you? What else have you done or could you do to promote peer-to-peer connections?

Building connections between learners and the learning

LearningLearning can be like a string of lights where when one bulb goes out, the whole strand doesn’t work. Learners are more successful when they can make connections between what they are learning and something they already know; it keeps the lights on. For example, when I began taking guitar lessons a couple of years ago I was able to draw on the knowledge of how to read notes from the piano lessons I took when I was in middle school. Whatever the learning goal or outcome is, and please share it explicitly with your students, if the learners can make an emotional connection to it the likelihood of being able to demonstrate proficiency skyrockets. Students want clear answers to the following three questions: What is it I am learning? Why am I learning it? What do I do with it? The more you can assist your students in finding compelling answers to those questions the better.

To help establish connections between your learners and what they are learning, try the following: frame up the learning by providing context and expectations, clearly state the learning objectives, establish relevancy, make connections to prior learning, empower students to make choices about about what is learned and when, allow time for reflection, use storytelling, and insert random knowledge checks. Great teachers don’t stand up in front and deliver motivational speeches (once and a while it is a magical happenstance). They stand alongside their students and deliver relevant information in small, meaningful chunks that encourage the learner to think critically.

Building connections between you and the learners

TeacherI know what you are thinking: it is not your job to be a friend to your students. And I won’t argue with you there. Yet it is clear and undeniable that if a student doesn’t like his or her teacher it will get in the way of their learning. Students will most likely remember you for how you made them feel, rather than how you instructed. Effective teaching – like most human interaction – is based on trust, which is established within the first few minutes of interaction. Before you can instruct, you have to show that you care.

To have inspirited learners, they need to see your passion and credibility. If something fires the student’s instinctive part of their brain to fight or flight, emotion runs high and their ability to exercise sound reason and judgement decreases. Allow me to share an example. My daughter arrived home from her first day of freshman year high school with a dislike for one of her teachers. That attitude didn’t change all year. What happened? The teacher’s first words to his students on the first day were, “This is the most difficult class you will take and most of you will fail.” Instinct…emotions…reason…“I don’t like this guy.” On the other hand, when a student believes their teacher cares about them and is an advocate for them then he or she will work harder in that class. Demonstrate your aptitude for compassion, forgiveness, and kindness; it matters how you treat your students.

How do you build connections between yourself and your learners? Examples include: connecting on an emotional level, smiling, listening, creating a safe environment for learning and sharing, celebrating achievements (even small ones), storytelling, and implementing “test and tells” to assess prior knowledge.

What works for you? What best practices can you adopt? Reach out to colleagues or friends who are teachers and learn from their successes and failures in establishing connections with their students. Make this the best back to school ever, and know that students and teachers are better together.

Judge For Yourself

I grew up playing sports where the winner was determined by which team scored the most points. That was all that mattered – scoring one more point than your opponent. And although I watched sports on TV that were “judged,” such as figure skating or gymnastics, it wasn’t until recently I began feeling uneasy about that scoring model.

My daughter, a dancer since she was four years old, has been participating in competitive dance for the last four years. Now in high school, more than ever, she has been feeling the burden of trying to be perfect on the dance floor. As a father and Christian, it is hard for me to see her battle with a quest for perfection when I know only He is perfect, and my daughter was uniquely and perfectly made as she is – warts and all.

I have become increasingly uncomfortable with individuals participating in contests that are judged-especially youth. I do not believe judgement is healthy or rooted in Christian morality. In basketball, for example, you can have an “ugly win.” Though not your best performance and certainly not perfect, you can still win the game. And while human error or bias can have some impact on the outing of a football game (e.g. referees), the final winner is almost always determined by points scored and not a judge’s interpretation. Now, I am fully aware that in sports like dance athletes are earning points, and points determine the winner. However, the points are awarded by people-who are only human after all-and we are naïve to think that judges do not have preferences of dance styles, artistry, or coaches. Just the other day during a Winter Olympics’ snowboard competition, where points are awarded for the tricks the athletes perform, analysts shared dismay at some of the decisions of the judges. Snowboarders are not flying fifteen feet into the air to put a ball into a net; they do so with the hope and expectation the trick will earn them points from a judge.

What about outside of sports? Dare I say judgement is rampant in society today. During a recent dinner table conversation, my two high school children told me in no uncertain terms, “To survive in high school you need to judge and be judged. That’s just how it works.” The extent to which they are willing to tolerate the judging determines which extracurricular activities they join, who their friends are, and what values & beliefs they share publicly. The same is true for adults. Though we may not always share our judgements aloud, aren’t we constantly judging what other people say, do, wear, and believe? And often we judge others for things they have zero control over such as the color of their skin or physical disability. Why is that? Does it make us feel better about ourselves? Are we intolerant and unaccepting? Do we believe we are better than everyone else? Are we just lazy, and stereotypes help us to be more efficient at categorizing information? Or have we simply lost sight of fundamental human decency? We, as a culture, cannot even seem to ask basic questions of one another without judging. “Why did you dye your hair that color?” “Why did you do the assignment that way?” “What were you thinking?” We are so accustomed to being judged we hear the tone of criticism in most questions asked of us.

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)

In large part, I believe, the problem rests in comparison. Not only is “comparison the thief of joy,” as Theodore Roosevelt once said, comparison robs us of our God-given gifts of faith, hope, and love. When I was a teenager, my grandmother compared me and my accomplishments to her sister’s grandson. I was always hearing about him and what he had done. I felt like I was at most a disappointment and at least needed to brag on myself more (not a strong suit of mine). Today, we have social media. In an instant, we can see what family and friends are up to and how their lives appear so much more exciting and rewarding than ours. And when we see others who look, act, or talk different from us by comparison, we judge them. We say things like, “I would never let my daughter wear that.” Or, “How can they afford such a nice vacation? They must have a lot of credit card debt.”

And so, I challenge myself and ask you to join me. Can we compare less and be more tolerant? Can we talk with a tone of empathy and acceptance rather than criticism? Can we love our authentic selves and not fall prisoner to the judgement of others? Can we be merciful and assume the best in others? And can we agree that differences are a source of strength, excellence, and prosperity when working towards a common good? And if we can, wouldn’t we be earning the highest scores? You be the judge.