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 Amazon.com 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. 

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.

A Dad, a Decade, and a Dedication to Development

It is hard for me to believe, but this month marks the tenth anniversary since the death of my father. He would have turned 70 years old this month. His death was unexpected and I wasn’t prepared for it mentally. I got all too acquainted with the feelings of loss, regret, and frustration. And now, a decade later, my new normal puts up a stiff fight against the way things used to be as foremost on my mind.

The 2007 year-end review edition of “Wisconsin Grocer” magazine, the official magazine of the Wisconsin Grocers Association (WGA), contained both an article written by my dad and his obituary. Semi-retired from 35 years in the grocery business, he was working part-time for the WGA as its Member Services Representative. He had submitted the article titled “Coaching for Improved Work” prior to his death, leading to what in essence became advice from the grave. At the time when I first saw the magazine ten years ago, it seemed oddly normal to see both the article and the obituary; he did regularly write articles for the magazine, and he was most certainly dead after all. With death comes cold hard truths and I had no other means to process it. However, when I pulled out the magazine recently as I have been reflecting on my dad’s passing, it now struck me as being peculiar and unsettling to see both entries. It caused old feelings of anger and sadness to resurface in me.

I re-read the article (to be honest, I am not sure if I ever read the article when it was originally published). And doing so reminded me of many of the great qualities my dad had. His guidance in the article was indicative of the sage advice he often gave to family, friends, and colleagues. My dad understood the universal truth that organizations and the leaders who are trusted to run them must put time and effort into developing their employees.

There are many commonalities between the roles my father and I have held in the field of workplace training and development. He somewhat stumbled into the industry after working for many years in the grocery stores and then getting promoted to a corporate leadership position. I remember him telling me a story about the first time he facilitated a large workshop for managers and how nervous he was beforehand. He shared his concerns with his boss at the time who essentially told him to “suck it up.” He became very proficient in front of large groups as time went on, but he was more comfortable and impactful in an intimate setting. I, on the other hand, received a degree in education and have spent the majority of my career committed to helping employees perform at their best. I get awkward in one-on-one and small group settings, yet thrive when facilitating large groups. Similar yet different. Either way, we both appreciate the value of putting work in to the people side of business.

In his book “The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality” (Doubleday Books. 1999), author Ronald Rolheiser writes about staying in contact with our loved ones after their death. For Christians, Rolheiser writes, “we find our loved ones after death separates us by giving concrete expressions in our lives to those virtues and qualities which they best incarnated.” He goes on, “Just as Mary Magdala did not find Jesus in his tomb, we too will not find our loved ones there (though good to visit graves). We will meet the ones we can no longer touch when we put ourselves in situations where their souls once flourished. Simply put, we find our loved ones by entering into life, in terms of love and faith, in the way that was most distinctive to them.” In other words, if you want to feel more in touch with a deceased loved one who was characteristically compassionate – be more compassionate yourself.

When I visit my dad’s grave, it is a good experience and allows time for me to reflect and pray in silence. But, I do not meet my dad there; I don’t feel connected to him there. To achieve that connection, I need to go to the places that are most distinctive of my dad. And that means going deeper than just doing the same things that he did. It took me a number of years to learn that. For example, my dad had a love of cars…Corvettes specifically. I have owned a couple of Corvettes myself, and while they conjured up thoughts and memories of my dad, they didn’t bring us in contact. I needed to go more to the core of his character to those traits he incarnated – for which he was the living embodiment of.

My dad had a way of making people feel at ease around him. And he was especially adept at finding the one who was most isolated, alienated, or uneasy, and reaching out to them. I experienced it a number of times myself at large gatherings I would arrive at (such as a wedding) where I didn’t know many people and my introversion would take over. Then I would see my dad and he would come over and talk with me and make me feel special. Immediately I felt more comfortable. I have come to learn that when I am warm and gracious, and when I reach out to the lonely, lost, or excluded, I meet my dad.

And so, to that end, I want to share an excerpt from my dad’s article on coaching so as to help me, and perhaps you, stay connected to my dad by being involved in an activity that was distinctively him-coaching.

“Most employees want better direction from management. They perform their jobs in the best way they know how, maybe not the way you would perceive them doing the job.

Coaching is one of the most powerful one-on-one management techniques for increasing work performance. Coaching becomes a great motivational tool. It provides an opportunity to communicate a detailed plan for working together to improve operational goals, objectives, and enhance customer satisfaction.

One of the most important investments is to invest time and effort into one of the most important assets: employees. Employees are the key to customer satisfaction and profitability. Train new employees and coach key employees to accept responsibility for executing outlined process improvements.

Just a thought, if the work assignments that are to be accomplished on any given day represent 100%, what percentage would you estimate will be accomplished that day with you not present and all of your employees on the job? If you rely on coaching and developing your staff, the chances are a greater percentage of work will be completed in a manner which equals your expectations.

Focus on making positive change happen. If you continue to always do what you always did, you will always get what you got before.”

Good advice ten years ago…good advice now…and good advice ten years from now. My dad was not a prolific writer, he didn’t have an organizational development pedigree, nor did he have a college degree. But he understood people. Regardless of any technological advancement, automation, process excellence, or any other development, people and managing relationships are still at the heart of all successful businesses, communities, and families. So why aren’t leaders more effective at coaching people?

In my experience, leaders accomplish the things which they are held accountable for. Often those things are sales, production, and customer satisfaction. Leaders are not held accountable – I mean really held accountable – for coaching and developing their people. I challenge you to make 2018 the year of the employee, and invest time and effort in them. Hold yourself and others accountable for coaching employees and perhaps you will see their distinctive virtues and qualities come to life.

The Nature of Friendships

When my children were young, I marveled at parents of teenagers. Or maybe I pitied them? Their children had lost their innocence, grown more independent, and faced the temptation of drugs, alcohol, and sex. Parenting a teen seemed like a daunting experience where success required the perfect balance of masterful skill and blind luck. I was very aware that my kids would face unique challenges I couldn’t even imagine when I was a teen – life is different now. On more than one occasion I was told by other parents of teens the most important decision my kids would make when they reached teen-hood would be choosing who their friends are. A “make or break” proposition that I wasn’t convinced a teen is capable of comprehending. Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Corinthians 15:33)

Fast forward a dozen or so years and the fact is I have enjoyed parenting teens very much. It has not been as scary as I feared. It has been gratifying to watch them mature and develop socially and emotionally. I enjoy having conversations with them, and seeing them self-reflect and problem solve. I am very proud and thankful for the choices my kids have made regarding their friends, and I credit the parents of my kid’s friends for raising fine young men and women. You know who you are.

That isn’t to say my kids haven’t had some issues to work through with their friendships. Comparison, judgment, pressure, and the desire to belong have all come into play. I have had many a long conversation with each of my kids about friendships. I am sure I will have plenty more. I am certainly not an expert and can only share what I have learned from my experience. And one way or another, conversations about friendship always seem to end up with me reflecting on my own friendships and how they had evolved over the years.

Friendships are important to me. I derive a great deal of pleasure and strength from being around my close friends. I am comfortable with being vulnerable with my closest friends and accept the risk that comes with it. I like it when others return the same to me. I prefer having a smaller number of close friends rather than numerous casual acquaintances. Friendships can be hard for me to initiate because of my quiet and reserved nature. I often wonder if I am being a good friend and worry about whether my friendships will stand the test of time.

In elementary school, my friends were those boys who lived in my neighborhood. I was fortunate enough to live near several boys about my age and we all loved to do the same thing – spend countless hours playing outside. When you are young and foolish, you assume you’ll be friends forever. Although we were all similar in age, none of the neighbor boys were in the same grade as me and consequently we grew apart. I haven’t been in contact with any of them in nearly 30 years.

In middle school my friends became the boys in my class who I played sports with. Competing alongside each other created bonds that I thought would endure. I was mistaken. And in high school I only had a few close friends who remained. My closest friends in high school weren’t neighbors or teammates, but rather kids who I felt I had a deeper connection to. We shared something in common; values, beliefs, or habits that were meaningful to me. Unfortunately, I don’t see or talk to any of them anymore for no good reason other than we just stopped putting in the effort. You do not reap what you do not sow.

I went to college not knowing a sole. My freshman year was uncomfortable and lonely; I traveled home many weekends. My sophomore year I forged some strong friendships with three other boys who lived on my floor in the dormitory. We became roommates and remained friends throughout college. We shared, learned, and laughed together experiencing some very formative milestones. After college, we went our separate ways. I haven’t seen or talked to two of them in over 20 years, and one I have only talked to on a handful of occasions.

So, to review, I haven’t maintained any friendships from my youth! My closest friends today are people who I didn’t know more than ten years ago.

There has been a certain transiency and relevancy to my friendships. Why is that? Are we too busy for friends? Is it simply laziness? Are we too judgmental and intolerant? Or does it have a little something to do with being a male? Perhaps men are not good at friendships? We are good friends when it comes to fantasy football, beer pong, and moving couches; but not so much when it comes to listening, vulnerability, or compassion. And maybe that is okay? Or maybe, just like God desires, our friends deserve a chunk of our time each day where we talk to them, pray for them, do things for them, or just be with them. After all, if you don’t put any work into the relationship you cannot expect the relationship to work for you.

My friends today have sprouted from my own kid’s friendships, church, current neighbors, and volunteer work I am involved in. I often wonder if I will still be close to my current friends ten years from now, or will I have a different friend group? I do know that I am older, wiser, and more mature. I love myself more now than I did 20 or 30 years ago, and subsequently can love others more. I cherish the joy of friendship and put much more work into my friendships now than I did in the past. The point is this: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (2 Corinthians 9:6)

I cannot predict how long my kid’s friendships will last or who their friends will be when they are older. All I can do is trust that they will make prudent decisions based on the values they were raised with, and share with them the universal truth that if you want friends you need to be one. That’s how it works.