TAKING CHARGE: 3 Keys to Leadership Success

TAKING CHARGE:  3 Keys to Leadership Success

Former Air Force officer Perry Smith Received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and served as Commandant of the National War College in Washington D. C. The War College is the professional school for our nations’ military and civilian leaders. Dr. Smith developed its leadership program and wrote an excellent book: Taking Charge. His chapter on stepping into the CEO role lists 15 steps to do it well. He encourages his readers to make the transition from ‘new boss to leader fully in charge’ in three months.

Nehemiah, one of the most effective leaders of his or any era, did it in three days. Here, as recorded in Nehemiah 2:9-20, are three of his secrets for taking charge in a crisis.

1ST EFFECTIVE LEADERS START FRESH

Start fresh physically

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” said Vince Lombardi, and he was right. Everything looks bigger, every problem magnified, every opportunity minimized, and creative energy is low when we are fatigued. It pulverizes courage and elevates anxiety.

Nehemiah had been on the road from Susa to Jerusalem for approximately eight months, camping out at night, moving out at dawn, making maybe ten miles per day. He was exhausted upon arrival. He had the good sense to rest for three days. Then he went to work.

No one is inspired by an exhausted leader. Whatever we’re trying to do in life – raise a family, teach a class, lead a business or a church – we need to take our humanity seriously and give our bodies, minds, and spirits the right kind of rest.

Start fresh organizationally

Effective change agents seek all the information they can get but they don’t take reports at face value. They go and see for themselves. Nehemiah did it after hours, when few were watching.

He was also selective when sharing his plans. Proverbs teaches, “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” And “… A babbling fool will be thrown down.”[1] Babbling fools don’t inspire confidence. Sometimes God gives us visions of change. But there’s such a thing as forcing the vision. We need to learn to wait for God’s timing to share it.

2nd EFFECTIVE LEADERS DON’T PRESUME, THEY PREPARE

Nehemiah took care with preparations in three problem areas: Strategic, Technical, and Morale. It’s refreshing to see faith like this coupled with hard-headed realism. Almost every problem we face as leaders will have the same three elements: Technical, Morale, and Strategic.

The Technical Problem

Jerusalem was built on two parallel hills with a valley in between. The hills were very steep on the west side and originally had terraces built in. When the walls were knocked down the terraces were destroyed, and the big blocks tumbled all over. Nehemiah had to figure out how to get them back in place.

One of the reasons Nehemiah didn’t ‘force the vision’ was that he needed to solve this puzzle. He believed he could solve it. But he needed time. And just as important, the people he was going to lead needed to know that he had analyzed it. He prepared himself to preclude this argument: “Are you crazy? Have you seen the size of those blocks?”

“Yes, I have, and here’s how we’re going to get them back up the hill…”  Solving technical problems before tearing into a project inspires confidence. If we’re going to be effective leaders, we need to know what we’re talking about.

The Morale Problem

These were deeply discouraged people. Thirteen years had passed since the last attempt to rebuild the walls had been squashed by the opposition. What if they cause trouble again? The Hebrews were suffering from psychological inertia.

What is the morale of the people you want to lead? What will help boost it? First, we must find the source of discouragement. Part of it is the engineering problem. But Nehemiah has a plan for that. What’s left was the political opposition.

Nehemiah, with the king’s authority, took them on: “This is God’s business, he has called us to it, and we break ground tomorrow. You have no past claim on this place, no present right to it and no future in it. So, scram!” Can’t you hear Jerusalem cheering in the background? Nowadays we would say “They got served!”

“If you want to turn morale around, get the authority, go to the source of the discouragement, and speak with authority when you get there. The people will love you for it.”

The Strategic Problem

The Apostle Peter wrote: “Be of sober {spirit,} be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”[2]

No matter how often scripture says things like that, and it does so repeatedly, we forget. Opposition to good works in the world – God’s works in the world –is a given. Outmaneuvering the opposition is not. It’s strategic, a matter of gathering intelligence, resources, and allies and controlling the flow of information and timing your moves without giving your game away before the first whistle.

Jerusalem in 445 BC was not a safe place for a man like Nehemiah. Plots and intrigues abounded. His enemies had spies. One of the secrets of his success was that he prepared well and in secrecy. He started so fast and moved so quickly that the wall was half-way done before the opposition could catch up.

We think that God does not operate this way. It all seems too organized, too calculating, too business like. But God isn’t opposed to planning and strategy. He opposes people who put all their hopes in their own plans and strength. But he blesses leaders who plan well and commit their ways to him.[3]

3rd EFFECTIVE LEADERS SPEAK THE VISION

Nehemiah knew what all good leaders eventually learn. The most powerful motivations come from within. And they can only be tapped by a direct challenge.

The Jews weren’t only worrying about the financial risks or the political instability that came from having no walls. It was the spiritual disgrace of God’s city. Nehemiah said, “We are in great trouble and disgrace. Let’s fix it! This is a spiritual matter, a matter of the honor of our God.”

A speech like that leaves no doubt about the issue. There is no straddling the fence. It’s a challenge wrapped in a vision and anchored in hope. That’s what Nehemiah did. That’s what all leaders do when they want to build confidence. They make a direct call to the faith and hope of every man and woman. They speak the vision crystal clear and call for commitment. It is a beautiful thing.

Arnold Toynbee, the great English historian, said, “Apathy can only be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first, an ideal which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.”[4]

Effective leaders, leaders that build confidence, start fresh, survey the need, and speak the vision.

[1] (Pro. 15:2 & 10:8 NIV)

[2] (1 Pet 5:8 NAS)

[3] Proverbs 16:3; Proverbs 21:5; John 7:1-6.

[4] James M. Boice, An Expositional Commentary on Nehemiah, pg. 35

DEALING WITH ANTAGONISTS

One day a farmer, who was a Quaker, was having trouble with his mule. He was trying to plow his field, and the mule was being unusually stubborn. He wouldn’t move. So, the Quaker decided to talk to him ‘reasonably’. “Thou knowest that I am a Quaker. Thou knowest that I canst not curse thee. Thou knowest that I canst not whip thee. What thou dost not know is that I can sell thee to my neighbor down the road. He is no Quaker, and he can beat the living daylights out of thee.”[1]

All of us can identify with that Quaker. We face opposition. There are things we would like to say or do. Then there are things that we can do and still call ourselves Christians.

Nehemiah chapters four thru six are a study in how to deal with opposition. The first six verses of chapter four teach us three things about handling that antagonism.

Antagonism often manifests as ridicule. All of us are vulnerable to it because all of us have glaring weaknesses. Shine the light on them and we get discouraged. Nehemiah’s enemies pointed to five: their competence, their faith, their hope, their resources, and their potential.

All of us feel incompetent at some time or other. Never more than when we’re about to try something new. And we fear the name “fanatic” because it isolates us from our peers. Every task feels bigger when our hope is undermined. We’re easily intimidated when our resources are thin. And our confidence is shaky when we the risks of failure are high.

What to do when we face that kind of antagonism?

Let me give you an encouraging thought here. When someone is ridiculing your work it probably means that they are afraid you might succeed. The best thing that you can do then is…succeed!

Notice Nehemiah’s threefold reaction.

He Does Not Respond in Kind

We can waste a lot of energy trying to right every wrong that is spoken of us. Or we can take the same energy and invest it in doing good work and let the work speak for itself. Keep reminding yourself that people ridicule you because they are afraid of your success.

He Prays

And what a prayer! “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives.”[2] But what a problem for Christians! Aren’t we supposed to pray for our enemies, offer blessings instead of curses? Yes. But we live with two realities that Nehemiah did not have: The death of Christ and the life to come.[3] We know that we too are sinners, capable of injustice and slander. And we know for certain, because Jesus promise was validated by his resurrection, that all injustices will be made right by God in the end. So it is not wrong to pray for justice as long as we leave its execution to God.

The final thing Nehemiah did is the most powerful thing anyone can do in the face of ridicule.

He Got on With It

On September 18,1939 the British radio public began hearing a steady stream of ridicule from Lord Haw Haw. He was actually William Joyce, an American born Irishman who as a senior member of the British Union of Fascists, had escaped to Germany before he could be jailed. Every evening Joyce, broadcasting from Hamburg with the voice of an upper-class Englishman, ridiculed Great Britain’s losses to Germany, her lack of preparation, her hopeless situation before Germany’s superior military might. Many British subjects fell under his spell. But most did not. Most believed and followed Churchill.

Lord Haw Haw kept right on broadcasting until April 30, 1945, when British soldiers overran Hamburg.

The British did what Nehemiah and the Israelites did. They ignored the ridicule, went to work, and finished the job.

You know what happened to the Nazis. And William Joyce? They hanged him for treason on January 3, 1946.[4]

What to do in the face of ridicule?

  1. Do not return evil for evil
  2. Pray, allowing God to sort through your emotions and guide your convictions.
  3. Ignore their words and do your work – perseverance pays dividends in the end.

[1] Boice, James Montgomery; Commentary on Nehemiah, pg. 50

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ne 4:4). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[3] Brown, Raymond; The Message of Nehemiah; The Bible Speaks Today Commentary pg. 74.

[4] Wikipedia.org

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him … Luke 24:30-31

Are you happy? If not, do you know why?

Several things can make us sad and stress us out. Illness, family problems, financial set-backs have their place in our day-to-day contentment quotient. But all things being equal are you a generally happy person, satisfied with the life you live?

Many of us would have to answer “no.”

Peter Moskovitz, in his article America’s Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy, reports that we have a multibillion dollar happiness industry bent on helping us find contentment, yet over forty million of us have diagnosed anxiety disorders.

We are obsessed with happiness, yet not finding it. Perhaps we aren’t finding it because we are pursuing it the wrong way.

Read Mercer Schuchardt suggests as much in a recent CT Mag article, The Future of the Church is Analog Not Digital, when he wrote, “The most important and biblical pieces of technology in a church today may not be the projector and the amplifier, but the crockpot and warming plate.”

Schuchardt’s peice struck a chord in a song the Spirit has been singing in my soul for some time. I hear it in Sunday School as Jamie Laine leads us through Ray Vanderlaan’s excellent video series, Becoming a Kingdom of Priests in a Prodigal World. I see it in the faces and hear it in the stories of friends attending our Alpha Course this fall. I read about it in books like Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered and articles like Peter Moskovitz’s interview with Ruth Whippman, author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.[1]

If the song had a title it would be something like: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, (but somebody already took that one). The chorus would be:

Sit at table with new friends,

Make room in your life for them,

You never know what God may grow,

By simply inviting them in.

Corny, I know, but it gathers up the power of God at work community. Let me explain.

Whippman notes that, “If there was one thing that’s consistent in happiness research it’s that the main source of our happiness is our relationships with other people in our communities (emphasis added). It kind of cuts across class, race, gender, age, and everything. But the focus in America is very much on happiness as kind of a personal, individual journey; looking deep inside yourself, about mindfulness, about your own thinking. All of that being inside your own head, and remaking your own thoughts from the inside.”

Here’s the thing, as long as we pursue happiness as strictly personal, as a goal only to be achieved as individuals, we will remain isolated, empty, and anxious. Happiness is found in community, in common purpose, in shared successes and sorrows, the great and the small threads we weave with others to create the fabric of a meaningful life.

I know the objections, “Other people rub me the wrong way!”  Indeed they do, but the point is, we need them to. Their idiosyncrasies reveal the cracks in our characters that Christ has yet to fill and force us all to pursue him higher up and farther into life in the Spirit.

More to the point, the life, the Shalom, that flows from the Spirit of God cannot be found, or lived, or shared in isolation. Technology can deliver a sermon to your “personal device” (see the irony?) but cannot include you or others in the body of Christ. Only you can do that as you commit to be there, both body and spirit, and to welcome others to the table.

[1] Whippman is the author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, and the interview can be found at:  https://flipboard.com/@flipboard/flip.it%2FBDcPRo-americas-search-for-happiness-is-drivin/f-869a36fce5%2Fvice.com

FIND YOUR MARGIN: How to Put Back In What Life Takes Out

A young friend, and when I say young I mean thirty years younger than I am, recently confessed that he had said yes to so many things that he finally had to say no to a regularly scheduled workday.

“I’ve found that when you have construction skills you also have lots of friends with projects that need your help,” he said. “I became so wrung out that I had to shut down for a day. I wasn’t sick, but I was going to be if I didn’t rest.”

Richard Swenson, M.D., author of the book MARGIN wrote: Something is wrong. People are tired and frazzled. People are anxious and depressed. People don’t have the time to heal anymore. There is a psychic instability in our day that prevents peace from implanting itself very firmly in the human spirit.

Swenson calls the problem marginless living. “Margin,” he says, “is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed.”

Jesus understood better than most the need for margin. He called it Sabbath. To Jesus the Sabbath was not created for its own sake; it was a gift of God to man. Its purpose was not to put man in a kind of straight jacket. It was for his good–to provide rest from labor and opportunity for worship. (Mark 2:27).

We work in a world cursed by sin. That makes work difficult and draining. It taxes us spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Sabbath compensates us for the energy we spend dealing with the challenges of living with frail bodies in a fallen world.

Fatigue, I have learned, is incremental. It is also cumulative, building up unrecognized in our souls until we become ill or have a nervous breakdown. We know we are tired, but we don’t know we are impaired, skating along the edge of physical and psychic burnout.

We need Sabbath time. It restores us.

Pastoral work doesn’t require much in the way of physical labor. But it does demand a lot of psychological energy and careful concentration on multiple strands of information, multiple relationships. It is stress inducing. Motorcycling on roads like the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) and Cherohala Skyway is one of the things that restore me. The physical exertion of wrestling a six-hundred pound bike through the mountains at speed, the concentration required to keep it on the road, and the sheer joy of experiencing grass, tree, granite and sky in beautiful combination puts something back in that work takes out. It drains me physically but restores me spiritually. It helps me think about things that the normal flow of life prohibits.

God wants us to be strengthened by the gift of Sabbath, but like so many gifts we have to learn to use it. Often all that is needed is the setting aside of a day, like Sunday, for worship and celebration and rest. But sometimes we need more than that. I find Sabbath on two wheels on the BRP. Where do you find it?

Sabbath is one of the best things you can do for your soul and your body. For, when a man or woman is not resting, he is not reflecting, she is not thinking about the things that are most important in life, he’s not thinking about what he’s investing his precious, limited time and energy in. More importantly he or she is not putting back in what life takes out.

BAGPIPE BLESSINGS

Fog deep and cool shrouded the road and the massive, borrowed 1975 Lincoln Continental that we drove down the mountain. It was the morning of our marriage, a day or two into our honeymoon near Banner Elk, North Carolina. I could barely see past the hood ornament, doing my best to follow the yellow lines a few feet at a time, wondering if I should turn around.

That’s when we heard the music; bagpipes? Yes, unmistakably, bagpipes, the sound rising from the mists, enchanted. We could not see the player until we were almost on top of her, the fog and the switchbacks conspiring to keep the young lass from view until suddenly; there she stood on a small rise, in front of an old stone church barely visible, surrounded by tombstones, blowing a blessing on us. The road curved again and just as suddenly she was gone, the notes of Amazing Grace trailing after our tail lights.

We looked at each other and smiled in awe and wonder at the sweetness, that God would give us such a gift on such a day.

Many days have passed with many mountains sweet and valleys bitter, between that one and this and I see that drive as a metaphor. Life unwinds before us, a mountain road in the morning mists. We get glimpses here and there of the highlands and of cool meadows near rushing streams, feel the blessing of those things, and are drawn by them to take the journey. But mostly, like the lass on the hill, they show up unexpected; bagpipe blessings blowing in the breeze. We cannot see beyond the hood ornament, we do not know what waits around the next bend.

Live long enough and we will meet with bitter disappointments, hurts too deep to bear. If we had known they were coming, we would have turned around, never taken that road. Having retreated, however, we would have missed the bagpipe blessings, the sweet things hiding in the morning mists.

The lessons? Never fear the fog, to live the life God has called you to, to take the journey into the unknown even when you cannot see past the hood ornament. Never linger in the bitter curves, the painful unexpected turns of life. Keep moving, keep trusting, and keep listening, for you do not know what blessings lay hidden in the mists.

We found that little stone church again last week on our vacation. Thirty-two years, many mountains and valleys later, we remain blessed by God, enchanted by grace, and following his road. May he give us thirty-two more.

Rx for Anxiety

ANXIETY, I am not immune to it. I doubt you are either. Yet something Jesus said just before his crucifixion reminds me that we have a choice about our anxieties.

The Apostle John describes the scene for us in chapters thirteen and fourteen of his gospel. Jesus, already in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, is in the upper room with his closest followers, his twelve, hand-picked men. There is a price on his head. He washes their feet, shares the bread and the cup, and most notably, predicts his betrayal. All are aghast. All are frightened. They are well aware of the threat they are under, the risks they are running by being in Jerusalem. It is a time of great anxiety.

Into this fractious moment Jesus speaks some his most familiar words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). I’ve read those words hundreds of times, often at funerals. But this week the first three words stood out from the rest in a way they haven’t before because I realized Jesus repeated them near the end of his talk, just before they left the upper room, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).

The first three words of each line tell us something about ourselves that can be hard to believe: We have a choice about our anxieties. Jesus’ two “Do not let(s)…” make an emphatic statement about our ability to select worry and its gut-wrenching results, or trust and the peace that accompanies it.

The fact, the physiological fact, is that we can worry ourselves sick. Psychiatrists have reliable evidence that the more we worry, the more we fixate on some fearful thing over which we have no control, the more likely we are to push our brain chemistry out of balance. Once the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and others get off-kilter it can be very difficult to return them to an even keel. In some cases medications are necessary to help restore the balance. But for most of us medication is a temporary fix. If we don’t address the underlying habit of fear in the first place the imbalance is likely to reoccur.

Jesus has a prescription for preventing such brain disorders in the first place. “Do not let” it happen. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God (instead). Trust me (instead).” Do not choose worry and it cannot enslave your mind. Choose to trust God and he will set it free.

Easier said than done? Yes, certainly. But it can be done. Let me offer a couple of practical steps to help. Call it Rx for Anxiety.
First, it may be necessary to confess that we’ve allowed the source of our worry, in our minds at least, to become more powerful than God, more important to our wellbeing than Christ. That’s actually idolatry and it requires confession and repentance. “Father, thing A or thing B is occupying front and center in my life. That’s your place. I now repent of that and confess that you are God and nothing else. I confess that I am not in control.”

Second, remembering that physical expressions of worship often help us deal with difficult emotions, take a step of faith. Take that thing over which you have no control (which includes most of life, does it not?), write it down on a piece of paper, and in an act of worship offer it up to God. Then set it on fire.

Some things are more difficult to offer up like this than others. Some may require a daily offering for a while. But make it a habit with all of your worries and peace will become your companion.

We have a choice about our anxieties. As you think about all that Christ accomplished for us during his Passion this week, choose trust.

SUCCESS UNDER STRESS 3: Courage

Moral courage is often harder than physical courage. We will invest ourselves deeply in worry about the 92% of things over which we have no control in order to avoid the pain of dealing with the 8% that we can control.

Alan Loy McGinnis was a psychologist and author who wrote a few good books. In one he tells about a business man who was stressed to the max, worried about all kinds of things, until the day he analyzed his anxieties and realized that:
 40% were things that would likely never happen.
 30% were past decisions that were unchangeable.
 12% were unimportant criticism from others.
 10% were health related, but his health was generally OK.
 8% were legitimate worries that he could actually do something about.

I imagine most of us can identify with that. The problem is that lingering 8% usually requires some kind of moral courage.

For many of us, moral courage is harder than physical courage. We will invest ourselves deeply in worry about the 92% of things over which we have no control in order to avoid the pain of dealing with the 8% that we can control. Like the business woman who will waste hours and hours trying to fix a computer problem she knows nothing about when she really needs to pay somebody to fix the computer and fire the secretary that is alienating her clients. She’d rather cuss the computer than confront the secretary. It takes less courage.

The Apostle Paul’s protégé, Timothy, was in a situation like that. The church he led had serious problems. Heresy was brewing in the pews, some of the elders were caught in sin, there was disharmony and competition in the membership, and disruption in the worship service.

The Apostle’s instruction for dealing with these problems was no doubt difficult for Timothy to hear: “Tim, you are the pastor. You have the authority to deal with these difficulties. Use it.”

The Apostle wrote: “Command certain men not to teach strange doctrines … Command and teach these things … Command the rich not to be arrogant.” (1 Tim. 1:3; 4:11; 6:17-18 emphasis added).

Tim the timid needed to become Tim the courageous. Pastor Timid needed to be Pastor Fearless.

But it isn’t just Pastor Tim, is it? Moral courage is a prerequisite for anyone in leadership, especially anyone who decides to be a Christ-follower in this world.

Courage is the strength to take a risk, to persevere, to face danger, fear or difficulty. Moral courage is one of the keys to success in high stress. It’s what Timothy needed to ‘take command’ of a difficult situation. And it’s what we need to take command of ours.