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. 

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

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.