7 Warnings for Aspiring Leaders

These I've learned the hard way

Almost on a weekly basis I hear from young pastors who want to grow as a leader. They feel the pressure placed upon them and knows others are looking to him to steer the church on a healthy course. Most of these leaders are humble, knowing ultimately Christ is the head of the church.

They also usually know three things:

1. There are expectations of their position by the people of the church. People are looking to them for leadership.

2. Decisions have to be made which are not clearly defined in Scripture. And, there are usually varied opinions already formed around the decision.

3. Seminary didn’t train them for all the decisions they need to make.

That’s often why they contact someone like me.

Sometimes it seems I’ve given the same advice many times – either reminding myself or to another pastor. The more times I share the same concept, the more it becomes a short, paradigm shaping idea, which summarizes the basic issue the leader is facing.

What isn’t always clear is how I’ve learned these concepts mostly by living these concepts. I’ve made more mistakes in leadership than I’ve had success.

And, that’s what this post is about. These are some warnings I’ve observed first hand in leadership positions I’ve held. I’m trying not to continue to live them and I’d love to help other leaders avoid them.

Here are 7 warnings for aspiring leaders:

What you “settle for” eventually becomes the culture. And, then it is much more difficult to change. In fact, you’re probably settling because you’re fighting against culture now. Leadership involves challenging people beyond their current confort level.

Mediocrity isn’t created. It’s accepted. Oh, how I’ve learned this one the hard way. People will be average if you allow them to be. It’s easier. In most jobs, they get paid the same. That’s not even to say it’s what they prefer. Most people prefer excellence, but it often takes leadership – or coaching – to pull out the best in people.

Your actions determine other people’s reactions. During stressful times the leader’s response dictates the level of stress on the team. When it’s time to celebrate, the team will seldom celebrate more than the leader. The leader sets the bar of expectations in how the team reacts to life as a team.

Don’t assume they agree because they haven’t said anything. I actually wrote about a whole chapter about this one in my book The Mythical Leader. But, silence doesn’t equate to agreement.

You’ll never get there just “thinking about it”. And, we do more of that as a team sometimes – it seems – than we do getting work done. Every good idea isn’t even something the team should do. But, if it is, there needs to be a plan. Who’s in charge? When are we doing it? And, how will we know when we are successful?

If you’re the leader, they are likely waiting on you to lead or release the right to lead. People seldom take initiative unless you lead – or unless you create the culture which gives them permission, freedom and encouragement to do so.

What the team values becomes apparent by your actions, more than your words. And, it doesn’t matter how well spoken you might be. People follow what the leader does.

What warnings would you share to aspiring leaders?

5 Things I Control as a Senior Leader

Having planted two churches anc two revitalization churches I am frequently asked about what things do I try to control and which did I release to others.

And, I love that question. I think its one all leaders need to ask themselves – frequently.

The leadership lid you will always create is in whatever area you choose to control.

I believe this strongly and it’s why I often discipline myself not to have an answer. I purposively choose to give things away to others on our team – things they can’t do better than me and things I simply shouldn’t be doing.

As much as I love delegation, however, there are some things I feel the need to control – maybe even continue to control.

Here are 5 things I control as a senior leader:

Vision – I believe senior leadership should make sure the vision of the organization is always in the minds of people, therefore I must continually reinforce it in what I say and do.

Staff culture – Senior leadership – always, but especially in the early days – plays a primary role in setting the culture. Things such as staff morale, approach to structure and the working atmosphere are greatly embedded and formed by the senior leader.

The organization’s pursuit of excellence – People will never push for more excellence than the level expected, led, and lived by senior leadership.

The moral value of the organization – The character and integrity of the organization will reflect senior leadership’s character and integrity. Period.

The velocity of change – Senior leadership sets the speed in which change and innovation is welcome in the organization.

As a leader, I realize the less I control, the more I can allow others to lead. The result is a healthier, happier organization that is more prone for growth. There are things, such as the above, which by default and for their importance, senior leadership should control. If control seems to harsh a word then choose another, but these should not be delegated too far beyond the ability to guide them.

Is It an Opportunity or a Possibility?

Great leaders discern the difference

In making decisions whether or not to take on a new project, adopt a new stance, or move forward in a new direction I like to discern whether it is an opportunity or a possibility.

There is a huge difference in the two. And, they can sometimes change throughout the process.

I remember once our church was approached with what we thought was a great opportunity to plant another church campus. An existing church building was going to be available for little or no money and 10 or 20 people were ready to launch with us. With no start-up costs it was reasonable to think we could successfully move quickly towards a decision. We had always been thinking and sensing of God that multi-site campuses were in our future, so this seemed to make sense – even something for which we had been praying.

We even felt God was opening a door of opportunity.

Shortly into the discussions the owner of the building decided he did not want to continue to discount the building for another church plant. He was considering other options with the building. If we rented it our cost would be several thousand dollars per month.

At that point – this was no longer an opportunity. It was now only a possibility.

It didn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but it would now require further study, more prayer and more time for discernment. We realized in time this was not where God was leading us at the time.

You may still be wondering the difference in an opportunity and a possibility. The lines are certainly fuzzy, but I still think it’s worth discussing. I’ll share some of the ways I discern the two.

Characteristics of an Opportunity

  • Defined as “an appropriate or favorable time or occasion” (Dictionary.com)
  • Come with some defined realities
  • Almost like being “in the right place at the right time”
  • Hard to pass up, because they almost always come with some pre-arranged wins
  • Make decision-making easier, because everything “makes sense”
  • A clear “open door” for a fairly probable success
  • Almost seems to be where God has been leading
  • Quickly has almost unanimous support…a “no brainer”

Characteristics of a Possibility

  • Defined as “the state or fact of being possible” (Dictionary.com)
  • Filled with lots of hopes and dreams
  • Have fewer assurances
  • Could be great, but could equally fail
  • Come with unique risks and require more preparation to insure success
  • Need more thought, prayer and discernment
  • Sometimes originates as one person’s “good idea” that came out of no where
  • Has selected supported

Both opportunities and possibilities can be good. Plus, God could equally be in either one. I love risks and big wins are often scored with them, but leaders (and individuals) need to learn to recognize the difference between the two. Confusing a possibility for an opportunity often gets churches, organizations and people in trouble quickly.

I have heard too many people say, “This is such a great opportunity”, when mistakenly what they have is an attractive possibility. Confusing the two they may feel no prayer is needed, because the answer is clear, when really the opposite is truer.

Granted, God often leads us to the seemingly impossible. We are to walk by faith. Understanding the difference in these two, however, will give you a clearer picture of what is a stake, improve your ability to discern and pray, and help you make wiser decisions.

Next time you have a situation you’re considering ask yourself, Is this an opportunity or simply a possibility?” It may make all the difference in how you approach it and greatly determine your ability to be successful.

As Preparation Increases – Stress Decreases

I’ve noticed this principle so many times in my own leadership and in working with other leaders. The more prepared I am to face a situation the less stress I have in the situation.

Take a Sunday sermon, for example. On the weeks I’m able to spend my whole Wednesday and Thursday preparing I’m far less stress when I enter my weekend about the message I’ll be delivering. And, because of that, I discipline myself as much as possible to set these days aside for study.

Of course, that’s not possible every week. There are natural interruptions in life which I can’t and shouldn’t avoid. It’s understanding the principle which is important. Because when I realize the principle I am more likely to work towards seeing it become a reality.

I schedule most of my meetings on Monday and Tuesday. I delegate as much as I can on Wednesday and Thursday. And, perhaps most important, I place on my calendar when I will be studying.

And, this is just one example. It’s also why I use checklists to plan my week and my days. It’s why I am not afraid to say no or wait to non-emergency situations. It’s why I teach the Jethro and Acts 6 principles of leadership to our church. (Look them up for reference if you need a refresher.)

I’m intentional with my schedule and my life mostly because I’ve learned – the hard way – about this important principle.

Preparation decreases stress.

And, makes me a better leader.

Where do you need to increase your preparation so you can decrease your stress?

7 Popular Myths about Leadership

This post – posted several years ago – prompted a book. A publishing friend, who had been encouraging me to write a book for years, read this post and thought there was enough here to expand into a book. That book – The Mythical Leader – released last week. I’d love for you to check it out HERE. Equally as valuable as reading it would be writing a review (positive even better) on Amazon about the book. (Thanks to my readers – I give you a shoutout in the acknowledgements!)

One thing I learned in obtaining a master’s in leadership is defining leadership is difficult.

John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence.”

I love a simple definition. Simple works. Its effective and communicates.

Still, I have observed leadership is often not easy to define as a few simple words. In fact, there are many myths when it comes to even what leadership means — certainly how its practiced. I encounter people who don’t have a clue what real leadership is and what it isn’t.

Let me share a few myths I’ve observed.

Here are some 7 of my favorite myths about leadership:

A position makes one a leader

Really? I don’t think so. Some believe simply have a big or fancy title makes them a leader. Not true. I’ve known many people with huge positions whom no one was truly following. They may give out orders and command a certain obedience, but no one is willingly following their lead. They may be a boss, but I wouldn’t call them a leader.

If I’m not hearing anyone complain, everyone must be happy

Yea, right? Have you ever heard of passive aggression? The fact is sometimes the leader is the last to know about a problem. Some people are intimidated by leadership. Other times, they don’t know how to approach the leader, so they complain to others, but not the leader. And, sometimes, the way I’m leading dictates who tells me what I really need to know.

I can lead everyone the same way

I have learned this one is so not true. It simply doesn’t work. Actually, people are different and require different leadership styles. I’m not saying it’s easy, but if you want to be effective you will learn your people and alter your style to fit their personalities.

Leadership and management are the same thing

Great organizations need both, but they are not equal and they require different skills. Simply put — Leadership is more about empowerment and guiding people to a common vision — often into the unknown. Management is more about maintaining efficiency within a predetermined destination.

Being the leader makes you popular

Well, if only this myth were true — my file of criticism would be so much smaller — when in reality, in some seasons, it’s larger than my encouragement file. The truth is leaders can be very lonely people. (It’s why leaders must surround themselves with encouragers and comtinually seek renewal.) The only way to avoid criticism and be “liked” as a leader is to make no decisions, do nothing different, never challenge status quo — in other words — don’t lead.

Leaders must be extroverted charismatics

So not true. Thankfully. Some of the best leaders I know are very introverted and subdued. And, honestly, they are leading some of the biggest churches and organizations. Leadership IS about influence. If someone is trustworthy, dependable, has integrity and is going somewhere of value — others will follow.

Leaders accomplish by controlling others

Absolutely not. This is not leadership. It is dictatorship. Effective leaders encourage others to lead. They challenge people to be creative and take ownership and responsibility for accomplishing the vision. They learn to delegate through empowerment.

Thanks again for being a reader of this blog. And, for checking out my new book. God bless you!

5 Things I Learned In Sending A Son Away To College

We are well into our years as empty-nesters. Both of our boys have finished college, one is in grad school, but both are supporting themselves and on their own.

I loved the time with our boys at home. We had great relationships. They were (and are) two of my best friends.

The first son attended a local college and lived at home most of the time. It was a different season, but we still got to spend a lot of time together. The youngest went to school 8 hours from home.

I’ll never forget the feelings of driving away from him freshmen year. Wow! It was painful. I mourned. I cried. It was a deeply sad occasion. If you’re going through that now — I’m praying for you as I type this post.

In the process of him leaving I learned a few things:

It was much harder than I thought letting go. My counseling background tells me I began a mini-depression about a month before he left and it was a few months afterwards, probably shortly after the first semester ended and the Christmas break ended, before I felt “normal” again.

I prepared my boy, but not my emotions. I am not an extremely emotional person. This changed the day I said “goodbye”, got in the car and drove back home. I was an emotional wreck.

It is never the same, but it can be better — at least in some ways. I missed seeing Nate terribly, but our talks became even more open and honest than when he was at home. As he grew to be a man, our relationship became deeper, more personal.

I couldn’t wait for his calls/texts/emails. There was a charge in my spirit when I looked down at my phone and saw it was Nate. I longed for communication. When our boys were at home we had disciplines — such as a nightly meal — where we could discuss the events of the day. We couldn’t expect those every day from college. And, most days they didn’t happen — but when they did it was golden.

It began a new phase of life for Cheryl and me. Our parenting is not over, but our role has changed. We began to make new dreams — just for the two of us. We enjoy our time with our boys when we are with them, but we love our life together. It’s a good season.

Shortly after Nate went to college I wrote him an email and posted it here. You can read the post HERE.

For some things I have learned in parenting, see this CATEGORY.

One Very Sobering Leadership Principle

There is a sobering leadership principle every leader needs to know. Often we learn it the hard way, so I think it might be helpful if I prepare you for it – in case you don’t know.

The fact is:

Who you are in your private life impacts who you are in your professional life.

The the two parts of your life are inseparable.

How many pastors, leaders, or public officials have seen their whole professional world come crashing down around them, because of something which was hidden in their private life? Chances are you know a few names.

You can try to manage two identities – pretending in public everything is okay in private. And, it might work for a time. It never works long-term.

Who you really are will ultimately be discovered. Your personal junk will impact your public world.

Eventually.

“For there is nothing hidden which will not be disclosed” – Jesus (Mark 4:22)

The only real, sustainable solution to this principle is to protect your public life by continually working to protect and improve your private life.

Here’s a sobering question (for you and me) to accompany a sobering leadership principle.

What in your private life has the potential to derail your public life? And, what are you going to do about it?

Cyber Threats to Churches: What Would Your Church Do?

This is a guest post by my friend Lincoln Kaffenberger.
Lincoln was a member of our church plant, served as a military officer, and now works as an information technology professional in the financial sector. He has over a decade of experience helping organizations understand the threats they face and make informed, risk based decisions.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. -1 Peter 4:12

Cyber-attacks are already a common part of daily life for businesses. Unfortunately, they are becoming a common part of life for churches too. Many churches are unprepared for common cyber-attacks that businesses regularly experience. Too often church leaders simply consider cybersecurity an IT issue without considering the organization-wide impacts a successful cyber-attack could have on their church’s ability to function, its reputation, and its congregation. Times have changed. Cybersecurity is now an organizational issue that pastors and other church leaders must care about.

There have been several examples in the past few years of churches that have been victims of cyber-attacks. Churches have lost the money in their bank accounts, had their congregants’ and staffs’ identities stolen, have had their websites defaced and brought down, have had sensitive information put at risk of being exposed, and have been victims of an increasingly common type of cyber-attack – ransomware. Any one of these events can hurt the trust a church has with its people and community and hinder its ministry to those outside the church.

One way churches can improve their security in a meaningful, cost-effective way is to do tabletop exercises working through plausible cyber-attack scenarios. Churches should consider both the most likely and the most dangerous cyber threat scenarios to understand what the impacts of each could be. By working through these scenarios in a low stress environment before a cyber-attack happens, church leadership can rehearse their response plans, identify gaps in their plans, and ultimately improve their security. Additionally, table top exercises serve as educational events for those in a church who are not as familiar with cybersecurity.

Some questions church leaders should ask when they think of different cyber-attack scenarios are:

  • Could this scenario happen to us? What conditions would have to exist for this scenario to be feasible?
  • If this scenario happened, what would the impact be to our reputation and credibility? How would we rebuild our reputation and trust with our congregation and community?
  • How would we respond? Who would we turn to for help? Who could we call?
  • How could this attack have been prevented? Could we detect this attack at its early stages?

There are five possible cyber threat scenarios that have affected churches recently:
1. Cybercriminals empty the church’s bank account;
2. Hackers deface the church’s website with politically charged images;
3. The Church is a victim of a ransomware attack that denies the church access to their files;
4. Pastor’s accounts get hacked and the hackers publicly release sensitive information;
5. Church Staff and Congregants Identities Stolen After Church Database Breached.

These scenarios each represent a kind of attack or a kind of harm that a cyber-attack could bring to a church. If church leadership walk through these five scenarios and answer the questions as an organization, they will discover their level of exposure to cyber risk, better understand what the holes are in their cybersecurity, be better positioned to respond to a cybersecurity incident, and importantly be ready to adopt and create a culture of security within the church that allows it to do the Lord’s work securely.

Resources and Recommendations

In addition to conducting tabletop exercises with these threat scenarios, the following are other resources that can help improve your church’s cybersecurity. First, every leader should start by securing themselves by following the “Cybersecurity Basics for Individuals.” Next, leaders should ensure their churches are following “Cybersecurity Recommendations for Organizations.” These will not provide perfect security, but they are a good start to a more cyber secure online ministry.

Cybersecurity Basics for Individuals:

“UPDATE Protocol” from Marc Goodman’s “Future Crimes”:
a. Update frequently all operating systems, firmware, apps – everything
b. Passwords should be unique, long, strong, stored securely (e.g. password manager), and use multi-factor authentication
c. Download programs and files only from trusted sites; be wary of “free software”; enable “white-listing” settings on Windows or Mac so only approved programs run; pay attention to app ‘permissions’
d. Admin login has the highest permissions and shouldn’t be used to do normal activities like surfing the internet; have a separate ‘user’ account for checking email and surfing the web
e. Turn-off your devices (or at least their internet connection) when not in use, which reduces the opportunity for criminal attacks by 1/3rd
f. Encrypt your data while on your devices using Bitlocker and Filevault programs to encrypt hard disk on your Windows and Mac respectively. Encrypt your data while in transit using a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Cybersecurity Recommendations for Organizations:

● Identify and protect your most important digital assets – your cyber crown jewels

● Establish policies and procedures for your church’s information security – here is an example

● Have a cyber incident response plan – Create an incident response plan if one does not already exist: NIST’s 800-61 is a good resource to begin with – https://www.nist.gov/publications/computer-security-incident-handling-guide

● Follow cybersecurity best practices by implementing the Center for Internet Security’s Top 20 Critical Security Controls. Many times, doing the basics of security such as properly configuring devices, requiring everyone to follow secure practices, and reducing exposure will require very little money but pay huge dividends. Other security measures such as malware protection may be discounted for churches. In some cases, churches can receive donated or discounted security technology – http://www.techsoup.org/bitdefender

5 Don’ts of Healthy Communication

In my career, I work with a lot of people in a lot of settings. You might say my job involves a lot of relationships. In the process, I have learned the key to healthy relationships is communication.

Communication is an art of sorts. Some are better at it than others.

I have seen relationships destroyed because of poor communication. I know marriages which could improve if we improved the communication in the marriage. I’ve seen people avoid other people, because they know how the communication will go when they encounter them. I’ve known people who are short on quality relationships, and, honestly, many times it is because they never learned or don’t practice healthy communication techniques. Careers are made and destroyed by a person’s ability to communicate effectively – or not.

So, sincerely, this post is intended to help. I want to share some things not to do in attempting healthy communication. We are all guilty or some of these at times – this blogger/pastor included.

Here are 5 Don’ts of Healthy Communication:

Don’t always have a bigger story.

This is the one I’ve been guilty of the most of these five. Someone is telling you their story and their experience reminds you of your experience. So, naturally, you interrupt their story, or don’t appear to be listening closely, because you want to share your story. But, remember, right now they are sharing “their” experience. It is important enough to them to share it with you. Don’t try to trump their story. It is rude and it shuts them down. Discipline yourself to wait for the right opportunity – and be okay if it doesn’t come – sometimes your only role is to listen.

Don’t talk more than you listen.

This will address the person you’re thinking of in the first point that is always sharing their story. They never listen. They don’t give you a chance to share yours. If this is you stop talking and listen. Ask questions. Show genuine concern. Be interested in what others have to say too. You’ll find people more interested in what you have to share when it’s your turn.

Don’t always be negative.

All of us are negative at times. Life is hard and it impacts us. That’s partly what friendships are for – to share our burdens with one another. But every conversation and every comment we make shouldn’t be negative. It makes it difficult to build a sustainable, healthy relationship, because sometimes the other person needs you to be positive on the day they are especially negative.

Don’t consistently have the last word.

Sure you’ve got one more word to share. We get it. Most likely you’ve already proven that point. But, sometime let the other person say the final word. It’s humbling for you – and good – for you and them. And, the conversation. And, the relationship.

Don’t speak before you think.

This is so important. Maybe the most important one. It includes the saying, “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything – or nothing at all.” (If you want to be like Thumper.) If we could catch our words before they exit our mouths, filter them through the power of love and grace, then release them, we could keep from injuring those with whom we are trying to communicate. And, relationships could thrive apart from the injury of inappropriate or awkward – often even mean-spirited words.

Okay, be honest, upon which of these do you need to improve?

Remember, I shared mine. Now your turn.

7 Quick Tips for Handling Stress

Stress is all around us. Every day I encountered burned out and stressed out pastors. Regardless of your career, it appears life is more stressful than ever.

I would say learning to handle stress may be one of the more important things you can do to lead effectively and long-term.

I hope this post can help a few stressed-out leaders.

Here are 7 ways I handle stress:

Prayer – God really does answer this request. When I’m really stressed out, I get alone with God. Prayer doesn’t always change my situation, but it always changes me to remember who is ultimately in control.

Time management – Most times a well planned schedule will greatly diminish stress. I try to plan my activities at the beginning of the week in a way which allows for unexpected interruptions, yet still also allows me to complete the tasks required of me.

Exercise – This may be my best secret for battling stress. The more stressed I am the more I need to run. I’ve been known to disappear on a busy day to get some exercise.

Disciplined life – There are activities and habits which simply add to stress. If you stay up way too late and never get enough rest, your stress-factor will increase. When I’m especially stressed, I try to build in down time and time just for me.

Balance – I have learned to say “No” to some things and balance my time between all the things that pull for my attention. I find when I try to be all things to all people I am not much good to anyone.

Addressing known problems quickly – If a relationship is causing stress, the sooner I deal with it the less likely I am to stress about it. If I need to make the hard decisions – I make the now. The sooner I deal with those things I know I need to the less long-term stress it brings.

Asking for help – When I am really at my limit with stress, I am not too proud to tell someone. I have learned to delegate well and allow people the freedom to speak into my life as needed.

What tips do you have for people to lower their stress? How do you handle stress?