Tag Archive for leaders

Either it’s true or it’s not

A couple of weeks ago, my family came together during a difficult time, when my father had a stroke.  As we gathered together in the hospital, with much uncertainty over the eventual outcome, often our conversations would turn to our memories of the words of wisdom he had shared over the years.  Some of it was quite funny, but all of it was wise.  Although, at the time I am writing this, we still do not know what will happen next, I thought it would be appropriate over the next few weeks to share some of the wisdom I have learned from him over the years.  Some will be a repeat of previous posts (because I had already been sharing his wisdom), and some will be topics I haven’t shared before.  This week, I am starting with one that I shared about a year and a half ago.

“Either it’s true or it’s not.” That was one of the phrases that I heard frequently from my father when I was younger, and, while it seems to be a simple statement, I have learned that it contains great truth. It makes me think of a recent television commercial for an insurance company in which a woman tells her friend that she is going on a date with a French model that she met online. When the “French model” shows up, he is obviously not what he claimed to be, but in her response, she claims that it must be true because she read it on the Internet. Or think about the typical statement made by a politician, the typical news story, or frequent social media claims (including the wealthy widow from Nigeria who needs your help to get her millions out of the country). Often, what is said comes from a personal bias, from a desire to win approval (or re-election), from incomplete information, or is simply a flat-out lie. And many (most?) people are quick to accept what they hear as truth, without question. The reality is, just because someone or something claims to be true does not mean that it is.

This is not a problem that is new to the current digital age. On October 30, 1938, a dramatic broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds caused a reaction due to its realistic portrayal of an alien invasion from Mars. In actuality, few people believed it to be true, but it still sparked a media outrage from the printed news on the believability of broadcast news. And history is full of rumors and legends that caused reactions and responses because a story was believed to be true.

This leads me to the importance of having an “either it’s true or it’s not” mindset. You will inevitably hear claims, statements, and rumors from every direction, whether from an employee, a supervisor, a constituent, or an external source. When you do, sometimes the tendency is to jump, and then to react immediately with a response because of what you have heard. But that’s dangerous, because it may be that what you have heard is not true, or contains misinformation, or is misleading or incomplete. And if that is so, your response could potentially make matters worse and reflect poorly on you.

When you understand that everything you hear may or may not be true, you will learn to respond to information by first confirming its truth. What a difference that makes in your response! On a surface level, this is as simple as checking facts and data to make sure that they are accurate. When it involves people, it requires asking questions to determine the full story and get all of the available information. And on a deeper level, it requires identifying nuances and implications to see if what is being stated is a valid application, because, as the study of statistics teaches us, “correlation does not imply causation” (which means that, just because two phenomena happen together, one did not necessarily cause the other even if it appears that way).

So what should you do? A wise leader, upon hearing information, will remind himself that “either it’s true or it’s not,” and be diligent to determine the truth. Ask questions, look up facts, differentiate between causation and correlation, and get the full story. Then, whether it’s true or not, you will be more equipped to respond appropriately and will therefore make better decisions.

Week of May 2, 2016

The Value of a Merry Heart

It was when I was in graduate school doing research that I think I finally fully realized what it means to say, “All truth is God’s truth.” It clicked when I was reading a particular book that was drawing lessons on leadership from principles of Chaos Theory. As I worked through the book, I began to see – underlying its principles – a clear representation of God’s sovereignty. Then I began to recognize, in many of the books I was reading, that the truths that most resonated with me were truths that I could see were expressions of biblical truths. And as my advisor and my instructors kept pushing me to identify “the theory behind the practice” for much of my research, I realized that the reason why there was truth in these theories, evident in how it worked in practice, was because of the “theory behind the theory”: original truth, found in God’s Word.


This became apparent to me again recently when I was reading a book called The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor.   This particular book is in the realm of positive psychology, and is based on research; in it, Achor describes seven principles related to the way that your attitude, choices, and behavior can benefit your personal growth.   More pointedly, the first principle in the book (‘the happiness advantage’ principle), discusses how a positive outlook improves fulfillment and success. Within this principle, he explains:


  • How happiness gives your brain – and your organization – the competitive edge
  • That when we are happy, we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful; happiness precedes success, not vice versa
  • That happiness (a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future):
    • Primes and enhances creativity and innovation
    • Is an antidote to physical stress and anxiety
    • With intentional effort, can raise your daily baseline level of happiness
  • That our brains are hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative, or even neutral, but when they are positive.
  • That happiness and optimism fuel performance and achievement


The reality is, this is true. A positive attitude helps you do better, an optimistic outlook helps you respond to defeat and difficulty better, and a joyful approach helps to prevent discouragement. You probably don’t need to see research to believe that this is true, because you’ve seen it lived out in practice. And that’s what takes me back to my point. You believe that this is true because you have seen it in practice, but a book like The Happiness Advantage provides “the theory behind the practice,” the research that explains why it is true in practice. But there is theory behind that theory, found in the Bible long before any studies in positive psychology were ever conducted.


Specifically, Proverbs 15:13-15 says this:


13 A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken. 14 The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge,
but the mouth of fools feeds on foolishness.
15 All the days of the afflicted are evil, but he who is of a merry heart has a continual feast. Proverbs 15:13-15


Verses 13 and 15, in particular, point out two very important truths. Verse 13 points out that your internal emotions and attitude directly impact your external response and reaction: positive on the inside leads to positive expression on the outside, and negative on the inside leads to brokenness on the outside. Then verse 15 points out that your outlook on and experience of life are a direct reflection of how you perceive your life circumstances: a “woe is me” or “I am a victim” mindset sees every day as bad, but a positive outlook finds value in all circumstances.   So it is true that choosing to have a positive mood has great benefit for your life, but the reason why it is true is because it is God’s truth.


Now, the practical application is that you can improve your performance (and as a byproduct, your results) by intentionally cultivating a positive outlook and response to life and its circumstances. But I also want you to understand that the real theory behind it, the theory that backs it up, is truth that originates from God’s Word – a merry heart (positive attitude) makes a cheerful countenance (external expressions of happiness) and has a continual feast (positive view of and response to life).

Then, I would encourage you to take two more steps in this line of thought. First, begin to look for other places where you can see that there is biblical truth behind other leadership principles that also appear to be true when put into practice. Second, reverse the process by looking for biblical principles that can be translated into leadership principles, with the confidence that if it is a biblical principle, it will be true, and therefore will have legitimate and credible application to leadership. My hope is that, at the bottom of your own study and research, you too will see that all truth is God’s truth, and will learn to identify principles that work, because they are principles that reflect His truth.

If Everything Is a Priority, Nothing Is

For years, my wife and I had envisioned having some sort of “mini-farm” in our backyard, and had dreamed about what that might look like. We did lots of research into various plants and animals, talked about which ones we thought we would want, and even sketched out plans and ideas. But just as often, this led to feeling overwhelmed with what it would take to get started, and how much we didn’t know about how to do it well (and how to keep everything alive!). But then, several months ago, we did three things: committed ourselves to action, changed our approach from “all at once” to “one step at a time,” and accepted the fact that it would take time to see the fruits of our labor. And so we entered into the world known as “urban farming.”

Rather than trying to start all of our ideas in one season, we decided to do only one thing first – plant a couple of potted dwarf fruit trees. We believed this would be a simple and low-maintenance way to start, so we purchased and planted two pear trees and an apple tree, and placed them on our patio. When that was done, we planted two different herbs in pots, and only after they were growing did we move on to the next step, which was to assemble a small chicken coop and purchase two laying hens, so that we could have our own fresh eggs. Now that we are comfortable with caring for the chickens, we are finally moving on to constructing our first raised bed garden space, but (like everything else) a little bit at a time (in this instance, one 3’ x 6’ box at a time). Finally, piece-by-piece, in a manageable process, we are becoming urban farmers.

There are two valuable leadership principles that I believe we can draw from this experience. The first principle is referred to by Shawn Achor, in The Happiness Advantage, as “The Zorro Circle.” This is the idea of starting with small victories and accomplishments, and gradually working your way outward to larger ones. That’s what we did when we started with a couple of plants and gradually expanded what we were doing, but not until we had experienced victory with each step along the way. We didn’t plant herbs until the trees were successfully growing, we didn’t start the chicken coop until the herbs were growing, and so on. The successive victories boosted our confidence and kept the grand vision from becoming overwhelming.

The second principle is found in Verne Harnish’s Scaling Up, when he talks about prioritizing priorities. In other words, if everything is a priority, nothing is, so even if there are many needs, in order to be successful you need to select only a small number of those needs to make as your top priority, and only when those are in order should you move on to the next one. If every need is receiving priority attention, you will be spread too thin to manage each one well, so address them sequentially, one after the other and not all at the same time. This also means you have to choose which ones to address first, and work to keep the other needs from distracting you until the first priorities have been addressed. In our tiny “urban farm,” we didn’t give our attention to fruit trees, herbs, chickens, root vegetables, and other vegetables all at once, but chose the order that would work for us and tackled one priority at a time.

I’m sure you can see how these two principles compliment each other: choose the most important need and make that the priority, work at it until you see progress, momentum, and success, achieving smaller victories, and then expand your efforts by moving to and/or incorporating the next priority. One victory at a time, you will grow and accomplish goals, and eventually you will look back and be pleasantly surprised at the progress that has been made, and you will find that you are maintaining much more than you could have if you had tried to start out by doing everything at once.

In the first year at my new job, this intentionally became how I approached my leadership. I first took time to listen, observe, assess, and learn, and saw the variety of needs and issues in front of me (as well as the plethora of good), and I knew that I couldn’t give my attention to all them at once. So, I prioritized those needs, and began addressing them one or two at time. I shared with people the needs I saw so that they would know that I was listening to them, but I also shared – out loud – that if everything was a priority, nothing would be, so I would be tackling needs one at a time, and then I shared the order in which I was starting. This helped me to keep the other needs from distracting me, helped people to be patient, and built trust that I would eventually address all of the needs as they saw me accomplishing the first priorities. Prioritizing the priorities, and then achieving the initial victories, paved the way for a succession of victories and a pattern of growth and accomplishment.

You have heard the old adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” The same is true with the tasks and needs in front of you. Sort your priorities, and begin to address them one at a time. Achieve small victories. Move to, or add, the next priority. Continue the cycle. Your confidence will grow, your successes will grow, and your leadership will grow.






See the Big Picture

Earlier this month, I shared a post on the importance of using a dashboard to help you keep your eye on the big picture.  That post reminded me of the equal importance of simply being able to see the big picture, which was the subject of a post that I shared about a year and a half ago.  It seemed appropriate to revisit that topic, to help us connect the value of a dashboard with the value of seeing the big picture.

I enjoy puzzles. I enjoy all kinds of puzzles – word puzzles, number puzzles, brain games, etc. – but in this instance I am specifically referring to jigsaw puzzles, the ones that are pictures cut into hundreds of little pieces that need to be assembled. And I have a preferred method of assembly: first turn all of the pieces face-up, setting aside those that have a straight edge (the outside frame); then assemble the outside frame; finally, begin to assemble the rest of the pieces, looking first for pieces that more obviously fit in the same section together. In the process of putting the puzzle together, however, one of the most important components is not the puzzle itself, but rather, the picture on the box.

It is the picture on the box that provides the perspective and the vision of what is being assembled. It provides a visual landscape that helps in determining the general context or place where an individual piece belongs. It’s a map that lets you see where you want to go. I once used the picture on the puzzle box to illustrate a lesson in a class I was teaching, by giving a puzzle to each of several small groups of people. Some of the groups had the puzzle box, so they could see their picture, but some of the groups did not (and some had all the correct pieces, but some had the wrong pieces or were missing pieces; that served to make a different point). Part of the purpose of the lesson was to illustrate the importance of “the big picture,” or the master plan, for managing a process, a task, or life itself.

Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, demonstrated the same concept when he and the company of dwarves were traveling through the Mirkwood Forest. As they traveled, the troupe lost sight of the path they needed to follow and became lost, and began to be disoriented. Eventually, Bilbo was sent to climb a tree in order to get above the canopy, and when he did, two things happened: his head cleared, and he could see where they were in relation to where they needed to go (in the movie, he could see the edge of the forest; in the book, he could only see more trees).

Heifetz & Laurie address that idea in a Harvard Business Review article, “The Work of Leadership.”   In the article, they discuss the importance and challenge of adapting behaviors and changes in order to thrive in a new or different environment, and specifically identify six principles for leading adaptive work. The first principle is labeled “Get on the Balcony,” which is explained as follows: “Get on the balcony. Don’t get swept up in the field of play. Instead, move back and forth between the ‘action’ and the ‘balcony.’ You’ll spot emerging patterns, such as power struggles or work avoidance. This high-level perspective helps you mobilize people to do adaptive work” (2011, p. 60). They go on to say that “business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action” (p. 60). The emphasis in on the importance of a leader being able to move between the balcony and the field of action, and the necessity of the balcony for providing perspective.

Collins & Hansen also address the idea in Great by Choice (2011), in a chapter that discusses identifying and responding to dangers and changes in the environment. Using the terms “zoom out” and “zoom in,” they point out that effective leaders, “when they sense danger, immediately zoom out to consider how quickly a threat is approaching and whether it calls for a change in plans. Then they zoom in, refocusing their energies into executing objectives” (p. 122). The authors then describe the discipline required to “zoom out for fast yet rigorous decision making and zoom in for fast yet superb execution” (p. 122). The discussion emphasizes the need for effective leaders to be able to step back and zoom out to the big picture in order to recognize and understand the changes and issues in the environment, which then makes them better able to zoom back in and focus on plans, objectives, and details.

The implication is simply this: a good leader needs to be able to see the big picture. Like puzzle pieces, each piece of the context, the environment, the organization, or the situation fits into a larger context, and the leader can best see how it fits when viewing the whole picture. In order to see the whole picture, that leader must be able to get on the balcony, zoom out, and get above the forest to be able to see clearly. Being able to do this will keep him from getting lost among the trees, and will provide the perspective necessary to implement changes and adjustments. Learn to see the big picture.

Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice:  Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Be an Example to the Flock

Early in my marriage, my wife and my mother were having a conversation about me (always a scary thought), when my wife commented about how annoying it was that I would wiggle my feet while I went to sleep, which of course made it difficult for her to fall asleep. My mother replied, “His dad does the same thing!” What was most interesting to me about this was that I was not even aware (consciously, at least) that this was one of my dad’s habits.

Years later, when we lived in another state, my parents came to visit, and while there, my dad came to see me at work. It didn’t take long for my extraverted father to disappear in search of other conversations, and after a while, one of my coworkers stepped into my office and asked if my father happened to be visiting. When I asked what made him say that – knowing that he had not met my father – he said, “Because I just saw someone who walks exactly like you . . . and like your son.” These two events illustrated for me the realization of how much I had followed my father’s example (whether I was aware of it or not), and how much my son, in turn, was following mine.

This is true for all of us – we are examples, whether we consciously realize it or not. People watch us, especially people that are close to us or are following us. And when they watch us, they learn from our example, and emulate what we do, in some form or another. That’s why it doesn’t actually work for us to tell our children to “do as I say and not as I do,” because the truth is, they are going to do what we do regardless of what we say.

Knowing the power of our example, the Apostle Peter gives it some attention in the book of I Peter. In fact, he specifically talks about our example in the context of leadership, but before we get there, lets get a broader view of the whole book. In the first four chapters, Peter seems to spend a lot of time talking about the importance of serving others in humility. Most of this instruction is applied to specific relationships and circumstances (such as the relationship between citizen and government, husband and wife, employer and employee, Christian brothers and sisters, and so on), but is also connected back in some way to our call to glorify God and reflect Christ in everything we do. He also clearly says that having this kind of conduct and character will not always be received well, and in fact may bring persecution and suffering, but to do it anyway . . . because our motive is always outside of ourselves: again, so that God can be glorified and Christ can be modeled

In this context of serving, humility, and representing Jesus, Peter says in chapter 5, verses 1-3:

1To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”

Peter says that those who are leaders have a responsibility to watch over and care for the people they lead. When I read how he describes that, it sounds to me like it is an obligation that should not be done out of obligation! He says we are to do this not because we have to, but because we want to; not for what we can get out of it, but for what we can give; and not to climb the ladder or exert power, but to serve as an example of what we are trying to grow. He says that we need to lead with a positive, selfless, and giving attitude, while living an authentic example in front of them.

You see, as a leader you ought to be caring for the people you lead, but you shouldn’t do it for what you can get out of it, rather, you should do it because it is the right thing to do. In doing so, you provide an example that will shape and influence them far more than you realize, because they are watching you and they will imitate you. In the end, your recognition and reward is beyond the material and temporal gains, but will instead be the lifetime reward of developing people, and the eternal reward of glorifying God. Therefore, as a leader: be an example to the flock.