In this blog and upcoming book Don’t Quit Before The Miracle: 10 Traits That Make Effective Leaders I’ll share what I’ve learned leading a congregation through an economic downturn, three strategic plans, competition from a megachurch, and creating a message and mission that resonates in a digital world where 1.7 people leave the traditional church for every one person that joins. Below are some of my initial ideas and insights.
1. People Are Down On What They Are Not Up On
“They said they hated [the Aeron chair],” writes Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. “But what they really meant was that the chair was so new and unusual that they weren’t used to it… but two or three years later… everyone started copying the Aeron.”
Leadership is recognizing people are always down on what they are not up on. It could be a new chair or an initiative in our organization. Expecting this pushback is essential to proactively doing everything we can to prepare people for the upcoming change, explain it over and over again, until people feel they are “up” and not “down” on what we are trying to accomplish.
2. Paint Over the Cracks
“As for the [Sistine] chapel’s ceiling,” writes Matthew Kneale in his book on Rome, “it might never have been touched if the building had been better constructed. In 1504 a huge crack appeared in the roof above the altar. It was made safe by placing large metal rods beneath the floor and the roof. Pope Julius II was not prepared to leave his uncle’s Sixtus’ chapel in such a state of disrepair and so, for a huge fee, he hired a 33-year-old artist named Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint over the mess.”
Leadership is knowing we will always make mistakes and cracks will form in our ideas, projects and initiatives, but our job as leaders is to discern the best people to help us paint over those cracks and sometimes, if we’re fortunate, our “cover up” will become its own work of art and what people will want to see and celebrate.
3. Find Your Expansion Joint
“Generally, solids expand less than liquids as they’re heated up,” writes Helen Czerski In her book Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life. “The expansion is only a tiny fraction of the overall volume, but it’s enough to make a difference. Next time you cross a road bridge on foot, keep an eye out for a metal strip at either end of the bridge, running across the road. It’s likely to be made out of two interlocking comb-shaped plates. This is an expansion joint, and once you know what to look for, they’re pretty common. The idea is that as the temperature rises and falls, the plates enable the bridge materials to expand and contract without buckling or cracking. If the bridge sections expand, the fingers of the comb are pushed farther into each other, and if the bridge contracts, the fingers pull back but without generating a serious gap in the road.”
As leaders things will at times get heated. Stakeholders, staff, people in our community, might disagree with our ideas and programs and emotions can quickly run “hot.” It’s important to create expansion joints in our life to give ourselves the opportunity to absorb these changes in temperature so we can remain cool and not crack apart.
4. Adapt or Die
“It is simply the process by which things either adapt and improve or die. To me this evolutionary process,” writes Ray Dario in his book, Principles. As leaders we must understand what Darwin identified in nature often applies to organizations.
We want to look like this:
And not that:
5. 32 hrs of Flow To Finish
“The final miles of a nearly two-month race across Antarctica — a lonely effort marked by long days, short nights and stunning endurance — ended… with a sprint to the finish,” wrote Adam Skolnick in The New York Times. “In what could go down as one of the great feats in polar history, the American Colin O’Brady, 33, covered the final 77.54 miles of the 921-mile journey across Antarctica in one final sleepless, 32-hour burst, becoming the first person ever to traverse Antarctica from coast to coast solo, unsupported and unaided by wind. O’Brady’s transcontinental feat, which took him an actual total of 932 miles with some zigzags along the course, was remarkable enough; but to complete the final 77.54 miles in one shot — essentially tacking an ultramarathon onto the 53rd day of an already unprecedented journey — set an even higher bar for anyone who tries to surpass it.
‘I don’t know, something overcame me,’ O’Brady said. ’I just felt locked in for the last 32 hours, like a deep flow state. I didn’t listen to any music — just locked in, like I’m going until I’m done. It was profound, it was beautiful, and it was an amazing way to finish up the project.”
As leaders at times we will feel at the end of an enormous project an urgency to complete the task before the opportunity slips away. This will be our 32hr moment. When that situation arises remember Colin O’Brady and find your “deep flow state.”
6. Are You a Babylonian or Greek?
Richard Feynman is considered one of the greatest physicists of the last 50 years. Leonard Mlodinow wrote a book about his relationship with him called Feynman’s Rainbow. Mlodinow writes, “The Babylonians made western civilization’s first great strides in understanding numbers and equations, and in geometry. Yet it was the later Greeks—in particular, Thales, Pythagoras, and Euclid—whom we credit with inventing mathematics. This is because Babylonians cared only whether or not a method of calculation worked—that is, adequately described a real physical situation—and not whether it was exact, or fit into any greater logical system. Thales and his Greek followers, on the other hand, invented the idea of theorem and proof—and required that for a statement to be considered true, it had to be an exact logical consequence of a system of explicitly stated axioms or assumptions. To put it simply, the Babylonians focused on the phenomena, the Greeks on the underlying order.
The Babylonian approach allows a certain freedom of imagination, and allows you to follow your instinct or intuition, your ‘gut feeling’ about nature, without worrying about rigor and justification… physicists employing this kind of thinking sometimes violate the formal rules of mathematics, or even invent strange new (and unproved) math of their own based on their understanding of experimental data… Feynman considered himself a Babylonian.”
As leaders we often lean towards being a Babylonian or a Greek. We either use our intuition to discern patterns and then postulize an idea or initiative or… we seek to gather facts and then argue for the most prudent and reliable conclusion and a path forward. Both approaches can be successful, but being aware of our style of decision making is essential so we can recognize and then communicate from where we lead, Babylonia or Greece.
7. Lay Cermaic Eggs
Rachael, a friend of mind, tells a story of how she was asked to care for a friend’s chickens. She and her young daughter fed and tended to them and took home a few eggs, which was part of the agreement. But when they went to crack the eggs there were two that were so hard my friend thought they were rotten: they wouldn’t break. When the owner returned Rachael explained how a few of her eggs had spoiled and the women replied, “O no, those are ceramic eggs. We place them in the coop so the chickens know where to lay their eggs.” As leaders our responsibility is to place ceramic eggs throughout the organization so people know where to present their new ideas and endeavors. Without ceramic eggs the coop, or our organizations, can come to feel disorganized and lack a creative center.
8. Idle As An Ant
James Gorman writes in The New York Times, “Research at Georgia Tech suggests although ant colonies are very efficient, that may be because 70 percent of them are doing very little — at least when it comes to tunnel digging. Daniel I. Goldman, a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology… found that the secret to efficient tunnel digging by fire ants was that 30 percent of the ants did 70 percent of the work… The reason, it seems, is that the ants were working in narrow tunnels where traffic jams could easily clog up the entire effort to build nests. So it helped if some of them took a pileup in the tunnel as a signal to suggest that they take a break.” As leaders our responsibility is to finesse for our team the rhythm between work and being idle. Becoming efficient may not mean everyone works 24/7, but rather some may need to take a break in order to work together, better.
9. Are You a Fermion or Boson?
“All quantum particles can be classified as either ‘fermions’ or ‘bosons,’ writes Steven Strogatz in his wonderful book Sync.
What’s the difference?
”Fermions are territorial hermits: No two can ever occupy the same quantum state simultaneously. This rule, known as the Pauli exclusion principle, accounts for the orderly way that electrons fill the orbital shells around atoms, waiting their turn, one at a time, like polite people taking their seats in the same row of a theater. Fermions’ tendency to avoid one another ultimately yields the basic laws of chemistry, most notably the structure of the periodic table, the rules for chemical bonding between atoms, and the behavior of magnets.
Bosons have the opposite kind of personality. They’re gregarious. There’s no limit to how many can occupy the same quantum state simultaneously. In fact, they prefer crowds: The more populated a state is, the more attractive it becomes to others. Specifically, the probability of a boson adopting a particular state is proportional to the number already in it, plus one. This means, for example, that a quantum state containing 99 bosons is 100 times more appealing than an empty one. In that sense, bosons are inveterate joiners, conformists. They love to sing along.”
Understanding that differences in how we relate to each other can be tabulated to the smallest participles of the universe can inspire us to validate the differences in personalities on our team. As leaders we are called to understand if we ourselves are a fermion or a boson and then demonstrate that self-awareness to create a positive working environment for both “hermits” and “joiners.”
10. “Yes,” You Say.
Dr. John Gottman has studied relationships for nearly three decades. I once read an interview him where there was this exchange. The interviewer said to Dr. Gottman, “You’re [supposed] to be able to predict, in a very short amount of time and with a high degree of accuracy, whether couples will stay together for the long term. How do you manage that?”
He answered, “It sounds simple, but you could capture all of my research findings with the metaphor of a saltshaker. Instead of filling it with salt, [in your marriage, relationship, etc.] fill it with all the ways you can say yes, and that’s what a good relationship is. ‘Yes,’ you say, ‘that is a good idea’ ‘Yes, that’s a great point, I never thought of that.’ ‘Yes, let’s do that if you think it’s important.’ You sprinkle yeses throughout your interactions… In contrast, in a partnership that’s troubled, the saltshaker is filled with all the ways you can say no. In violent relationships, for example, we see men responding to their wives’ requests by saying, ‘No way,’ ‘It’s just not going to happen,’ ‘You’re not going to control me,’ or simply ‘Shut up.’ When a man is not willing to share power with his wife, our research shows, there is an 81% chance that the marriage will self-destruct.’”
Employees and volunteers approach us with ideas and the temptation is often to say “no” because it might be a bad idea or not worth the effort to implement. But what would happen if you decided to say “yes” for the next day, week, or month to every request or idea? What might change in your organization if you became the person who said “yes.” Would one idea led to another idea and perhaps even a better one in time. Would employees and volunteers enjoy working with you more?
11. With A Single Word
Ori and Rom Brafman published a book called Sway that examines factors which determine how we relate to the world around us. They discovered, for example, a single word can dramatically change how we perceive and relate to another person. The Brafmans write: “To see this in action, let’s head to MIT, where the students of Economics 70 thought they had reason to relax. They had just been seated when a college representative walked in and told them…their professor was out of town that day. But before they had time to pack up their books, they were told a substitute instructor would be filling in, an instructor they had never met. The representative from the college explained… that ‘since we of Economics 70 are interested in the general problem of how various classes react to different instructors, we’re going to have an instructor today you’ve never had before.’ At the end of the period, they would be asked to fill out some forms about the sub. But first, to give them a sense of who this mysterious guy was, the students received a brief bio describing him. What they didn’t know was that there were actually two different bios being handed out. Half the students received this version:
Mr. _______ is a graduate student in the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Ec 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a very warm person, industrious, critical, practical, and determined.
The second half received a nearly identical bio. Only two words had been changed:
Mr. _______ is a graduate student in the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Ec 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical, and determined.
The difference, of course, is that half the bios describe the professor as ‘very warm’ while the second half described him as ‘rather cold.’
Remember that the students were under the impression that they had all read the same description. Now enter the substitute, who spent the rest of the period leading a discussion about material the class had recently covered. [Then] at the end of the period, each student received an identical questionnaire about the sub. Upon seeing the results, you’d think the students were responding to two completely different instructors. Most students in the group that had received the bio describing the substitute as ‘warm’ loved him. They described the instructor as ‘good natured, considerate of others, informal, sociable, popular, humorous, and humane.’
Although the second group sat in the exact same class and participated in the exact same discussion, a majority of them didn’t really take to the instructor. They saw him as ‘self-centered, formal, unsociable, unpopular, irritable, humorless, and ruthless.’ This one word, ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ – albeit irrelevant in the larger scheme of things – made students assign a high or low value to the professor.”
What word might you say or write today that could change someone’s perception in a positive way? As a leader what word might you say to yourself to change your own perception of yourself?
12. Two Kinds of People?
Robert Benchley, the father of Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws and other books was a noted columnist for The New Yorker and once quipped that there are two kinds of people, those people who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t. There are people who separate people, into say, acceptable, and not acceptable, cool and not cool, pretty, and not pretty, rich, and not so rich, religious, and not religious. And there are those who don’t separate at all. They are accepting. Overlook faults. See the face of God in every person. Open their arms. Open their hearts. Which kind of person are you?
13. Get Out of the Wrong Lane
Mary Pipher is one of my favorite writers. She’s a therapist and author of best-selling books like Reviving Ophelia. In Seeking Peace she writes how there is a saying that goes, “If everything is coming your way, you are in the wrong lane.” Does it feel like everything is coming your way? Are you in fact, as a leader, in the wrong lane?
14. Bring Soul to the Recipe
I once received a cookbook by Thomas Keller, head chef of French Laundry, a small restaurant in Northern California considered by many to be one of the finest in the world. This was no easy meals in 30 minutes cookbook. This was four star cooking.
Keller instructed you, for example, if seeking to use veal stock to make it yourself by blanching the bones, washing them, skimming off any impurities, then reducing it. You can imagine the attention to detail in the rest of the recipe. But in his book Keller also makes this fascinating point. He writes: “There is an inherent contradiction between a cookbook, which is a collection of documents, and a chef. A recipe has no soul,” cautions Keller. “You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”
As a leader do you bring soul to your work or are you merely following the recipe?
15. Kaleidoscopic Leadership
One of my favorite artists is William de Konning, considered by many as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. A biography describes how the young de Kooning had to overcome an unstable, impoverished, and often violent family life to enter the Art Academie in Rotterdam. Then he was a stowaway from Holland in a steamer in 1926, and underwent a long struggle to become an artist.
William de Kooning had a creative breakthrough after embracing themes that were in his own life, the tension between chaos and beauty, creation and starting over. His art evolved in an extraordinary way after he developed a creative process where he would focus on a painting he had started and find a part he liked. Then he would trace that image onto a piece of paper and transport that image onto another canvas. This new painting, in other words, slowly become a kaleidoscopic puzzle, taking the best part of this, the best part of that, in order to create a “greatest hits” work of art.
At times we will be unsure what to do next in our organizations. How to move past this apparent paralysis is to create a kaleidoscope of the previous “best” ideas and moments and make a collage of the “greatest hits.” Often we forget what worked well in the past and need to bring these skills and ideas out in order to see them in relation to each other in the present to imagine something new in the future.
16. The Adjacent Possible
Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, spotlights an interesting phrase by scientist Stuart Kauffman who suggests life becomes interesting when we pay attention to what he calls the “adjacent possible.”
What is the adjacent possible? As Johnson puts it, “It’s the… future hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself… the strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries… Think of [the adjacent possible] as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear…. You keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”
Is there a new door you need to open in your life as a leader?
A door that will lead to the adjacent possible?
17. Fit Yourself to the Paint
Annie Dillard is one of my favorite writers and about twenty five years ago wrote The Writer’s Life, a wonderful book about the creative process. Dillard points her readers to an insight the painter Paul Klee once offered where he learned you have to “adapt yourself to the contents of the paint box.”
What does that mean? Dillard explains, “The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paint box and its inherited contents. Klee called this insight, ‘an altogether revolutionary new discovery.’”
Energy, creatively, loyalty, determination, whimsy? What is in your leadership paint box? Do you know? And how do the contents of that box define your work?
18. Because You Pick Up Towels
A few years ago I read a small book on leadership called Leadership Jazz written by Herman Miller’s former president Max De Pree. In the book he told a story that has stuck with me throughout the years. He writes, “I arrived at the local tennis club just after a group of high school students had vacated the locker room. Like chickens, they had not bothered to pick up after themselves. Without thinking too much about it, I gathered up all their towels and put them in a hamper. A friend of mine quietly watched me do this and then asked me a question that I’ve pondered many times over the years. ‘Do you pick up towels because you’re the president of a company, or are you the president because you pick up towels?’”
Are you the kind of leader who picks up the towels?
19. The 64% Difference
Adi Gaskell writes in Forbes how, “A Stanford study… found that even the mere perception of working collectively on a task can supercharge our performance. Participants in the research who were primed to act collaboratively stuck at their task 64% longer than their solitary peers, whilst also reporting higher engagement levels, lower fatigue levels and a higher success rate. What’s more, this impact persisted for several weeks. ‘The results showed that simply feeling like you’re part of a team of people working on a task makes people more motivated as they take on challenges,’ the researchers say.”
How do you foster collaboration as a leader?