Thursday, October 8, 2015

Considering the Impact of a Leader

Leaders like Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth and Harriet
Beecher Stowe were instrumental in bringing slavery to an end
and raising the status of African-Americans in society.

As the jockeying for position in the 2016 Presidential races continues to intensify, with some would-be candidates already bowing out, a lot of important questions are being asked. Everyone is claiming to possess the qualities needed for the top leadership role in the country, but would it be wise for us to consider the impact of a leader, either for good or bad?

Years ago I read Jim Collins’s excellent book, Good To Great, in which he discusses results of a comprehensive study about what made some companies great, compared to others that were merely good. Initially, Collins said he resolved to disregard the impact of top leadership, reasoning it’s too easy to assign praise to the CEO when an enterprise excels. However, he and his research team discovered that wasn’t possible. Leadership was a central factor in corporate greatness. Here’s what Collins wrote:

“We were surprised, shocked really, to discover the type of leadership required for turning a good company into a great one. Compared to high-profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities, the good-to-great leaders seem to have come from Mars. Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy – these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

History shows leaders like Benjamin Franklin
and Mark Twain, depicted at Walt Disney
World's EPCOT, have had great influence
in their respective fields of endeavor.
There were important factors other than what Collins termed “Level 5 Leadership,” but over the course of his work it became undeniable that the quality and character of top leaders became a major factor in a company’s success or failure. This is particularly interesting because in the Bible’s Old Testament, recounting events from thousand of years ago, this was also true. It’s not a new development.

Examples are too numerous to mention but a few, but Joseph stands out as a man of integrity whom God used in ways far beyond anything he could have imagined. Moses certainly was an unlikely choice for leader of the Israelites. In fact, he kept asking, “Uh, Lord, are you sure you’ve picked the right guy for this job?” But his effectiveness was unquestioned.

In the books of 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles we see a procession of kings whose character greatly influenced the people of Israel and Judah that they led. When good kings ruled, the people enjoyed peace and prosperity. When bad kings arose, the people descended into patterns of evil practice.

King Josiah seems particularly notable. His story is told in both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, opening with the statement, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2, 2 Chronicles 34:2).

Even in his earliest years as king, Josiah took decisive measures to purge the land of the false gods and idols the people of Judah had been worshiping. When he discovered how far they had drifted from following Jehovah God, the king tore his robes in a symbolic act of despair and remorse. He declared, “Great is the Lord’s anger that is poured out on us because our fathers have not kept the word of the Lord; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written in this book” (2 Chronicles 34:21).

As a result, the Israelites followed Josiah’s example and re-established their sacred observances and thrived during his reign with God’s blessing. Following Josiah’s death, however, another evil king succeeded him and the people lapsed into their prior ungodly practices.

I’ve come to the conclusion that like a football coach who receives too much praise when his team wins and too much blame when it loses, sometimes the President of the United States is given too much credit for positive developments in the nation and the world, and too much criticism when things aren’t going well. There are too many variables at work, especially given the global nature of commerce, finance, and communications, for one person to exert sweeping control over the course of human events.

However, one thing all President can clearly do, given the extremely public and prominent nature of the office, is to affirm and emulate the values, principles and standards they believe that men, women and young people of the land should embrace.

So as we’re evaluating candidates and – hopefully – seeking to come to a well-reasoned, thorough appraisal of the candidates vying for our votes, it’s critical for us to recognize the impact of whomever we will elect. As well as the character of the candidates we consider.

And thinking about Collins’s discovery about what constituted the best, most effective corporate leaders, it might be well to consider this biblical admonition: “All of you, clothes yourselves with humility toward one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Not Undeserved, But Ill-Deserved

Among the singular distinctions that set apart the Christian faith from any other belief system is the concept of grace. In all other religious philosophies, in one way or another, it’s a matter of earning or proving worthy of something, whether it’s blessing, eternal life, or well-being in some other form. It might be viewed as an outworking of karma, good works or legalism, but basically it’s a matter of getting what you deserve – and trying how to figure out how to be good enough.

Biblical grace, however, is in many ways the antithesis. It’s unmerited; actually receiving what we don’t deserve. As Ephesians 2:8-9 states, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” But recently I heard a statement that provided one of those “aha” moments we occasionally experience, helping me to grasp the concept of grace in an even more wondrous way.

I’ve always understood grace as “undeserved favor from God,” but a speaker at a breakfast I attended observed that God’s grace is not so much undeserved as it is “ill-deserved.”

Look at it this way: Imagine walking along a city street one night, headed to a favorite restaurant for dinner when a panhandler approaches you, asking for a handout. This individual has done nothing to deserve your charity, but even though it’s not your standard practice, you decide to give him two one-dollar bills that you retrieve from the front of your wallet. He hasn’t done anything to merit your generosity – it’s undeserved, offered by you out of compassion and kindness.

However, suppose this beggar, rather than politely asking for some money, came toward you cursing and screaming, spitting in your face, and throwing mud on the nice clothes you’ve just purchased for the special evening out with your spouse or date. This person has given you nothing but insults and abuse, and yet you pull out your wallet and graciously offer the two dollars despite such uncalled-for, unacceptable behavior. That gift would not be undeserved. It would be ill-deserved, because if anything his actions merited a stern reaction or a quick call for a law enforcement officer.

In reality, regardless of whether we’re now ardent followers of Jesus Christ, nominal believers, or outspoken, vehement atheists, we’ve all essentially done that to Him in varying degrees and with different levels of “enthusiasm.”

It’s not a case of attempting to become “worthy,” or of “cleaning up our act.” The Bible makes that abundantly clear: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). And just in case we suspect something might have gotten lost or misinterpreted in the translation, another verse makes a similar declaration: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

While we might be tempted to apply those indictments to others, people whose behavior runs contrary to our values, God is essentially saying to each of us, “Hey, don’t look around. That includes you!” I’ve read through the Bible a number of times, and have yet to identify even a single exception to this rule.

We can read about Judas Iscariot horrifically betraying Jesus, or how the apostle Peter boldly denied Him three times on the eve of His crucifixion. But if we’re honest, we’ve each done so much more in our own unique ways. None of us is a stranger to such denial and betrayal.

And yet, the Lord stands before us with the incomprehensible offer of grace – not just undeserved, but completely ill-deserved. We’re like the brazen, 100-pound weakling kicking sand in the face of the hefty bodybuilder on the beach. We don’t deserve favor of any kind; in fact, what we’re rightly entitled to is wrath and harsh judgment.

As Romans 6:23 tells us, “For the wages of sin (what we deserve) is death, but the gift of God (what is ill-deserved) is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (parentheses mine). Maybe this is why the words and simple, yet profound message of “Amazing Grace” resonate so deeply for many of us. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

What's Not to Like About Being Liked?

It might not be universal, but a deep-seated desire most of us share is to be liked. If we can’t be loved by everyone, wouldn’t it be great at least to have everyone like us?

Did you envy the person voted “Most Popular” in your high school yearbook? Or maybe that individual was you. If it was, how did that feel? I can’t imagine, but it must have been nice.

In 1984, actress Sally Field discovered
her peers really, really liked her.
Sally Field summed it up for many of us in 1984, upon winning a best actress Academy Award for her role in the film, “Places in the Heart.” Her iconic acceptance speech featured the memorable declaration, “…and I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!”

Don’t we all wish we could say that? We certainly try hard enough.

We worry about whether people will like what we wear – at work, at school, to ballgames, even to church. We fret over how people will respond to the free food we serve them at a dinner party or picnic. We agonize over whether we’re sending our kids to the right school and what people will say. We wonder what people will think if they see us doing certain things or going to certain places. We want people to think well of us – to like us, just like Sally Field.

But being liked by one and all isn’t easy these days. In fact, it’s downright impossible. As politically correct as our society has become, we’re inclined to hesitate even before stating something as simple as "the sky is blue," for fear someone might take offense. There’s no way to have everyone agree with us, much less like us without reservation.

That’s not to say we should go out of our way to make people dislike us; some of them will do it without our help. If we take a stand on anything, whether it’s about politics, sports, morality, TV shows, matters of faith, even the brand of detergent we use, we’re sure to find folks that will vehemently disagree.

On the other hand, what’s there to like about someone that insists on being noncommittal about everything? As someone has said, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

There’s actually a positive to not being liked by every single person we meet. During His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus cited four “woes” or warnings about when things seem to be going too well. Definitely no stranger to opposition, Jesus told His followers, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

He was offering the caution that if our primary aim is likeability, we’ll find ourselves hopelessly entrenched in compromise, striving to be people-pleasers rather than God-pleasers. It can’t work both ways.

Proverbs 27:21 presents an interesting observation: “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives.” Just as silver and gold are refined by extreme heat, the quality of our character is revealed by how we respond to what others say and think of us. There’s danger if the motivation behind what we do and say is to receive the approval and acceptance of others.

The esteemed religious leaders of Jesus’ day were subjects of this scathing commentary: “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in Him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God” (John 12:42-43).

Yes, it’s agreeable to feel liked by people around us. Sure beats being disliked or hated. But there’s value in approaching everyday life as if “playing to an audience of One.” Then we can anticipate one day hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21-23).

Monday, September 28, 2015

No Discounting the Value of Accountability

Years ago when I was a magazine editor, we did a cover story on “accountability.” Personal accountability was a hot topic. Everyone was talking about accountability groups or having accountability partners. We don’t hear the term as much these days, but it’s no less important.

Whether dancing, as this Asheville,
N.C. statue depicts, or struggling
through life, it's usually better
to partner with others.
I recall key principles we presented in that edition of the magazine. One was that the goal of an accountability partner is not to catch the other person doing something wrong, but rather helping that individual to “win” by attaining goals and objectives he or she had agreed upon to pursue. The person being held accountable sets the goals; the accountability partner serves only to provide reminders and encouragement to keep him or her on track.

For that reason, an accountability partner should be someone without a vested interest in the other individual’s performance. Being accountable to a person you report to in a workplace setting, for example, wouldn’t be good, since that individual has a keen investment in what you do – and how you do it. We should be accountable to someone whose apple cart won’t topple if we’re unsuccessful in meeting our goals.

The third important principle I learned is we can’t be held accountable if we're not truly willing to be held accountable. Sounds simple, but that’s foundational. For instance, a person might be struggling with a major issue in his life – perhaps a recurring sin – but if he doesn’t want to submit to being held accountable in that area, any efforts to help will be futile.

Back in 1969, Frank Sinatra’s hit tune “My Way” became an enduring classic, reflecting on our predisposition to “do it my way.” Sinatra, of course, didn’t invent this perspective, but he did give it an enchanting melody. The tune lilts through my mind as I write.

The problem is, as many of us have sadly discovered, “my way” isn’t always the best way. Living life on impulse and in isolation, guided by self-absorbed tunnel vision, can keep us from seeing potential potholes and pitfalls as we advance in our journey through life and work. Becoming accountable to another person – or a small group of people – isn’t a guarantee that we won’t fail, but can help us in avoiding a lot of mistakes while helping us to achieve a lot of positive goals.

A couple of Bible passages address this specifically. Proverbs 27:17 declares, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man (or woman) sharpens another.” Do you have someone “sharpening” you, helping you in your desire to accomplish some things you’d struggle to achieve on your own?

Then there’s Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, which talks about the power in numbers: “Two are better than one…a cord of three strands is hard to break.” Sounds like a small accountability group to me, a handful of men or women that agree to meet on a regular basis with their sole intent being to help one another to win, to work toward meaningful goals and overcome besetting struggles through mutual support, admonition, and a willingness to ask – and be asked – tough questions.

One of my favorite verses in the Scriptures is 1 Corinthians 10:13, which states temptation is common to us all, but God promises to provide a “way of escape” for us. But the preceding verse is a cautionary one: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12). A strong, caring accountability partner or two could become that "way of escape," helping us to spot looming danger before we have to suffer the consequences.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Discipline’s Not a Dirty Word

College football has returned and I’m among the millions ecstatic about it. There’s nothing like watching college-age men – who are also expected (at least in theory) to attend classes, pass exams and stay out of trouble – compete in the unpredictable game of irresistible force vs. immovable object.

Of course, with ubiquitous cameras focused on everything both on field and off, down to the last moustache and eyelash, we’ll be seeing enough controversial scenes to keep the talking heads yammering for hours on end. It happened again a couple of weeks ago after the head coach of a major college program berated a young player on the sidelines.

The player, after scoring a go-ahead touchdown, made the symbolic “throat slash” gesture to the opposing crowd, for which the game officials rewarded him with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. As the athlete returned to the sideline, his coach huddled the team around the young fellow and for about 30 seconds, with extreme zeal, informed him such behavior was totally unacceptable. I’m not sure what words the frustrated coach used, but suspect “golly” and “darn” weren’t among them.

Predictably, by the next Monday radio and TV sports commentators were revisiting the incident, debating whether the coach’s public tirade had been over the top. Equally predictably, many commentators opined that embarrassing the player in such a manner had been unnecessary.

Discipline these days, it seems, is widely regarded as a dirty word. It toys with fragile psyches, some believe. It restricts self-expression, others say. It borders on abuse of authority, is the position of many.

Well, to borrow a term from the local deli, “Baloney!” I suspect one reason our society at times borders on anarchy is because too few are willing to exercise discipline. Just as a spoonful of sugar can make the medicine go down, an appropriate measure of discipline can save young, impressionable minds from the dire consequences of future misdeeds.

Let’s be clear: Discipline and punishment are not synonymous. Punishment typically is action intended to get even, avenge or repay someone for a wrong deed. The purpose of discipline, however, is correction. That doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes unpleasant to receive, but the intent is to guide in the right direction, not inflict pain out of anger.

For example, tomatoes require the “discipline” of a stake to grow upward and strong, rather than languishing on the ground. Trellises are often used to help rosebushes grow tall and healthy, and those plants are pruned (disciplined) at appropriate times so they become more productive.

Proverbs 22:6 states, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” In other words, discipline children to follow their rightful and proper bent. If a parent wants a son or daughter to grow into a respectable, respectful, reliable individual, they must discipline them to discern right from wrong, and realize they are responsible for actions good or bad.

The Bible underscores the importance of understanding discipline is for our benefit. “He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains understanding” (Proverbs 15:32).

In fact, we’re told if we find ourselves in a position of authority – whether as a parent, coach, teacher, or employer – exacting discipline when needed is evidence of our concern for the person. God gives us the ultimate example: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:5-6).

I can’t speak for the head coach whose verbal explosion was captured on camera and replayed countless times online and on TV. I don’t know if his outburst was out of “fatherly” love or sheer exasperation. But the player and teammates were left with no doubt that “throat slashing” and other unsportsmanlike behavior would not be tolerated.

Hopefully the episode will be chalked up as a difficult but necessary lesson learned.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Missing Out on a Great Deal

What if that "too good to be true" offer really was true?

Have you ever gotten one of those phone calls announcing, “Hello, you’ve won an all-expenses paid trip to…”? Maybe it was a cruise to the Caribbean, Alaska or Europe, or an extended vacation at some posh hotel or resort. What has been your reaction?

We get calls like that at least once a week. I either hang up immediately or, if it’s a real, breathing person calling and not some computerized recording, politely state I’m not interested or don’t have time to talk…then hang up. Maybe you do the same.

But what if the offer proved to be legitimate – you really did win some incredible, no-cost-to-you excursion? You’d want to accept it, right? If the offer were for you to go anywhere you wanted, no money out of your pocket whatsoever, where would it be? Ponder that for a moment.

Now: What if you received a call like that, but dismissed it as a marketing scheme, only to learn later – too late – that it was genuine? Maybe your next-door neighbor, or a good friend, received that same call and was now packing for the trip of a lifetime, while you were resigned to staying home, all because you said, “No thanks. We’re not interested.” How would you feel?

I don’t suggest allowing yourself to get suckered in the next time a telemarketer dials your number. There are too many scams and con artists out there, ready to pounce on the next gullible individual they find. But there are real contests out there, and real people do win them. At least that’s what I’ve heard. It would be a shame to miss out, wouldn’t it?

Sadly, every day thousands of people ignore or turn down an opportunity that seems too good to be true, forfeiting the offer of a lifetime – actually, an eternal lifetime. This offer, you’ve probably surmised by now, is eternal life. It truly is free, no strings attached, available to anyone willing to receive it.

One of the first Bible verses I ever learned was Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There it is in just 20 words. We can’t earn it or deserve it – what we’ve earned or deserve is death, everlasting separation from God. But in its place we’re offered a gift – eternal life and an everlasting relationship with God based on what Jesus has already done for us.

Because as Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Putting it in everyday terms, He erased a debt He did not owe to pay a price we could not pay. One caveat: like any gift, it must be accepted. “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

As with the phone call we get promising something that sounds too good to be true, countless people every day are rejecting this great deal – this incomprehensible offer. Reasons are many. Some conclude, “It’s just too good to be true – it can’t be that simple.” A good friend said those words to me years ago. Thankfully, in time he discovered it is true – and it is that simple.

Most people refuse the gift out of pride, in one manner or another. Some think they can prove themselves deserving, that they’re good, moral people, so how could God reject that? Others are defiant; they want to live their lives their way without any interference from God or anyone else. There’s the old “faith is a crutch” rationale. And some blame the Lord for the pain in their lives, or problems we see around the world – therefore they opt for disbelief or choose to reject God, as if He needs our stamp of approval.

I compare that to the phone call with the fantastic promise. Most offers do sound too good to be true, because they are. But I can attest, along with thousands of people I’ve met over the years, that God’s offer of eternal life, hope, joy and peace – far beyond anything the world can offer – is good. And it’s true. Just not “too good to be true.”

Jesus said, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Unfortunately, even among those that profess to be His followers, we sometimes leave Jesus outside the door, knocking and asking to be welcomed in while we busily go about our business.

Perhaps someone reading this needs to answer the door and for the first time, invite Jesus to enter. Others may know Him, at least on a casual basis, but if they’re honest, He’s not yet their Lord. If you’re one of them, maybe it’s time to let the door swing open and for once, allow Him to show that He truly is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Quiet Amidst the Chaos

Did you catch the phenomenon that occurred a couple of weeks ago?

The winds of politics shift so swiftly it might be old news by the time this post appears, but Dr. Ben Carson, a noted neurosurgeon who has never held public office, had drawn even with Donald Trump in a poll of voters in Iowa, one of the early Presidential election testing grounds.

No, I’m not about to launch into some political diatribe. It’s just that after all the attention Trump has received from the media for his loud and expansive harangues, it’s interesting that Carson – in many ways kind of an “anti-Trump” – has quietly surged in voter appeal.

A writer on one Internet news and commentary site exposited, “Trump is a bombastic narcissist, Carson is quiet and self-effacing.” The columnist also described Carson, in contrast to the controversial Trump, as “polite and well-mannered” and “a gentleman.”

I admire many of Dr. Carson’s views, and his life story – rising from an impoverished childhood to achieve international acclaim in the world of medicine – is inspiring. But after watching some of his videos, which show his calm, soft-spoken, deliberate demeanor, I felt certain his style was too reserved to garner the attention needed for a serious Presidential effort. Maybe I was wrong.

The rule of the day in garnering headlines seems to be “loud and proud, bold and boisterous,” and the louder and more outlandish the presentation is, the better. So it seems curious that the quiet, controlled voice of an eminent physician could even be heard amidst the chaos.

Maybe it’s the “E.F. Hutton effect.” If you’re old enough you'll remember the TV commercials of the late 1970s for the stock brokerage in which groups of busy people would suddenly pause because, as the ads declared, “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” I’ve known people like that, refraining from saying much in meetings, but when they did speak up, you knew it would be something worth listening to.

Sometimes the din of shouting gets so loud it’s almost impossible to hear what’s being said. At such times, the soft, calculating voice of wisdom has a way of cutting through the clamor.

The Bible teaches as much. One of my favorite verses from Proverbs – which I’ve attempted many times to put into practice – states, “When words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).

Several other passages speak directly to the virtues and benefits of judicious and measured speech. For instance, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Another verse, Proverbs 17:27, states, “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered.”

Then there’s the stern warning from Proverbs 18:21, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

Have you ever thought about careful, well-considered words as being a treasure? Proverbs 20:15 declares, “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel.” Diamonds from the tongue, maybe?

Dozens of other verses in Proverbs address both effective and careless communication, but one that might be worth considering as we watch the Presidential races ramp up in the coming months offers this advice: “He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend” (Proverbs 22:11).

Fourteen months from now, when all the screaming and shouting, posturing and preening has mercifully come to a conclusion, will the man or woman preparing to assume the Presidency be one whose speech was quiet, yet convincing? It will definitely be interesting to see.