Good Leaders Communicate

I am amazed at how often leaders fail to communicate with their constituents, whether those constituents be volunteers or employees or customers. This is particularly astounding because communication in today’s world is so easy. And good communication definitely distinguishes good leaders from poor leaders.

Here, I’m speaking of flow of information … keeping everybody on the same page. Depending on the type of information and the type of organization, a variety of options exist, including social media, e-mail, regular mail, and even the old fashioned telephone call.

I’m reminded of the story of the couple celebrating their golden anniversary. After the party, the wife confessed a disappointment to her husband: “You don’t tell me you love me anymore.” Without missing a beat, the husband replied very dryly, “At our wedding, I told you I love you. When things change, I’ll let you know.”

Some leaders mistakenly follow that husband’s model. But beware: The old adage, “No news is good news,” is not usually the case in today’s world. People – clients, employees, volunteers, team members, etc. – want to know what is going on. And when they find themselves “outside the loop,” damage occurs. Sometimes trust is broken. Sometimes feelings are hurt. Every time, confidence is eroded.

I once was asked by a non-profit organization to  teach a portion of a leadership training program that was scheduled to occur semi-annually, but not on specific (i.e., predetermined) dates. I taught the first time, received good reviews, and waited for the calendar to advance. Time passed, and when the second session of the year came around, I was not informed of the start date of the program nor of the date of my portion of the training. When I happened to hear about the training program being in-progress,  I wondered why I had not been informed of the program’s start date, nor the timing of my portion.

Since he had recruited me to teach in the program, I asked the senior leader of the organization if I was teaching in the current program offering. He said he would have to check with the person directly in charge of the program (i.e., the junior leader) to find out. When the senior leader got back with me, he said that certain changes to the curriculum had been made and the portion I had taught had been eliminated from the program.

I understand that curriculum can be reevaluated and edited from time to time, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the person teaching the deleted material did a bad job. Change doesn’t always mean criticism or failure. But lack of communication in such situations certainly communicates criticism. Worse, it breaks trust. What do you think it did to my trust and confidence in these particular leaders when they failed to communicate to me that I was no longer teaching and why my participation changed? What do you think this failure to communicate did to my motivation to volunteer (time, energy, recruiting, and finances) with this organization?

On the for profit side of the coin, have you ever seen a successful company like Apple roll out a new product without letting their potential buyers know about it. Can you imagine the next iPhone rolling out without a media blitz? Can you imagine the next iPhone rolling out without the chairman of the iPhone division knowing about it? “Not possible,” you say?

I’ve heard from employees of other companies whose bosses told customers about a new product that the department leader didn’t know anything about. In fact the department leader found out about the new product when customers began to inquire with him about the product. His answer to the customer, “I don’t know anything about that,” not only gave a bad impression to the potential customer, it humiliated the employee and eroded his trust and confidence in his leader(s). That’s. Not. Good.

Leaders, please do yourself a favor: Keep your people informed. Alternatively, pull the rug out from under yourself as a leader.




Good Leaders Celebrate

Leaders who are interested in building a T.E.A.M. spirit, a true “we’re all in this together” spirit, celebrate victories and milestones. And here, I don’t mean their own victories and milestones; I mean the victories and milestones of their team members.

I’ve seen too many situations in which only the leader’s accomplishments are acknowledged and celebrated. That’s a poisonous atmosphere in terms of creating T.E.A.M. Often he/she will offer the humble, “I’m surprised that people noticed,” or “How did you know it’s my birthday?” type of response over the cake and congratulatory cards. But, over time it becomes apparent that only his/her birthday is recognized and celebrated in the office. Only the boss’s life milestones (e.g., birth of child/grandchild, new certification, article published, graduation or marriage of child/grandchild, new house, etc.) are publicized from the main office.

Team builders realize that the executives aren’t the only ones that have work and life milestones or accomplishments. Good leaders acknowledge the victories that are related to the job. Great leaders – T.E.A.M. builders – celebrate the non-work related milestones of their team members.

In this regard, being a great leader requires at least two things:

First, the ability to look beyond oneself. Perhaps that seems self-evident. However, not all people in leadership earned the title LEADER by building a coalescent team. In other words, they haven’t attracted people who happily follow. They are leaders by contract: “I’m the boss and you will follow my lead.” This is a toxic environment. Great leaders, look beyond themselves, see the team as larger than themselves, and recognize the members of the team.

Second, a great leader knows his/her charges well enough to know when they have life events, and acknowledge and celebrate those events. A card, a personal email, a company e-blast are easy, inexpensive ways a leader can celebrate with his/her team members. For larger milestones, a cake or small gathering of co-workers is appropriate.

I already hear the objections:

“Our company is too big. I can’t know all that kind of stuff about all the people who work here!” Okay, start by celebrating the victories of those directly under your charge, and expect them to do the same … until every last person on the flow chart is included and recognized. Make this part of the company or ministry or club DNA.

“I don’t have budget or time for this kind of stuff.” How much money or time does it take to send an email or dial an office extension and say, “Happy Birthday!”? A word of warning is particularly relevant here: Don’t simply go through the motions by doing something impersonal. You know, the faux-personal note. People know, or will soon know when the note isn’t genuine. Auto-pilot is a mistake.

I’ve seen instances where the leader had a stack of computer generated post cards and simply scribbled his/her name below a message of “encouragement” (probably prepared by someone else). The first time the person received that type of note, he/she was encouraged. The second time, thoughts of “wait a minute, this looks automated” started to creep in. The third time, the person was convinced the cards were robot-generated and all the previous good will was lost. After that, the cards went directly from the mailbox to the recycle bin.

I want to encourage leaders – in any context – to begin celebrating their team members’ accomplishments and milestones and see how much morale and T.E.A.M. spirit and unity improve. This will result in increased productivity.

Leadership and Competency

Good leaders enhance T.E.A.M. spirit by surrounding themselves with competent people. This is not to say that every member of the team is a “number one draft pick.” Rather, it is to say that leaders recruit people who have skills and a proven track record.

Competent people are encouraged and energized in the presence of other competent people. And this energy is transferred into the work environment and typically enhances output. An additional bonus is that competent people are more easily encouraged to volunteer for or hire into an organization that emphasizes competence and excellence. Notice that this principle is true for both non-profit and for-profit situations.

People who are competent in their field lose confidence in a leader, and thus the team spirit diminishes when incompetent people are regularly hired or recruited. And this is  particularly true when incompetent people are brought in (or promoted) as a favor to friends or cronies. In other words, nepotism will destroy team morale.

A clarifying word is in order here. I am not suggesting that no one should be given a chance to learn, therefore, beginners need not apply! However, the chance to learn starts not at the top, or even mid-level. It starts at the bottom, and for reasons of prospect not favoritism. As the prospect increases in knowledge, skill, and expertise, he/she should rise in responsibility and seniority.

When beginners are brought in this way and work their way up, veterans respect them and the leadership. This results in increased T.E.A.M. spirit.

Everybody’s Watching You

Leaders, everybody is watching you. Here, I don’t mean the “Life in a Fishbowl” that many leaders dislike. Rather, I mean those you lead are getting their cues from you.

If I, as a professor, am not excited about the material I teach, why in the world should my students be excited? If a leader begins to “mail it in,” guess what his/her staff will begin to do? Even those who started out quite motivated, will over time, likely lose their enthusiasm (or commitment) when they see their leader show signs of losing interest in the organization. Leaders, beware lest you lead your organization down because you’ve lost heart for the battle.

And, because your organization is prospering, doesn’t mean you can’t lose interest or begin mailing it in. Although this issue is more prevalent and obvious when an organization is in crisis, a leader can lose interest even when an organization is enjoying prosperity. Because leaders are people, they, like everyone else, are subject to changes in life circumstances that may cause their interest in, or level of commitment to an organization to wane.

With this in mind, one of the things leaders regularly need to do is to evaluate their commitment to the organization and how they demonstrate such. Remember, people are watching.


The Elephant in the Room

I am often asked questions about leadership and leading others. These questions come from students, colleagues, and leaders who are seeking to evaluate their organizations. As an outsider it’s often easier to evaluate a person’s leadership in a given situation because there is no need to clear away the fog that comes with being entrenched in a situation or the inner workings of an organization. Certainly, the details of a situation are rarely understood from afar, which makes it challenging to evaluate specific decisions a leader has made. However, when evaluating leadership, the specific decisions are often less critical than how a leader leads his/her troops through a situation, whether that situation be good or bad.

This series will focus on some of the mechanics of leadership.

The Elephant in the Room

An example of a poor leadership practice that I see more regularly in both small and large organizations is a failure to address the “elephant in the room.” Usually, this is not a simple oversight. Rather, it is an effort to control a negative situation, which usually makes the problem worse. Why leaders don’t recognize the negative effects of ignoring the elephant in the room is beyond me.

With the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, examples of this poor strategy are abundant and obvious for everyone to see. Except, perhaps, the executive who is attempting damage control. The results of not addressing a problem that virtually everyone is aware of are often many and usually negative.

Perhaps the most negative outcome is a loss of trust by those who are charged (by contract or choice) to follow the executive’s leadership. Once trust in leadership is lost, the downward spiral begins. A lack of trust in the leader usually results in a decreased commitment by those being led poorly. That is followed by decreasing job performance, regardless of whether the people are employees or volunteers. Poor job performance is followed by poor production/output, which will eventually lead to the stagnation or even death of the organization. This is true in sports. In business. In church life.

When everyone is aware of a major problem, address it … even if all you can say is “we are aware of the problem and this is what we are doing to address it.” The problem can be anything that raises serious concerns among a company’s or organization’s constituents. When an automobile has recurring problems that are causing customer deaths, the worst thing the CEO can do is ignore the problem as if it doesn’t exist. Are you listening, Toyota? When storms hit an area and leave people homeless, citizens want to know that the governor/mayor has his eye on the problem. Even if he/she doesn’t have an immediate solution to the problem. Remember Katrina and Sandy? When production or development plans fail, a CEO should first acknowledge the problem to the stakeholders and then keep them abreast of efforts to solve the problem. Remember Enron?

I found myself in such a situation while leading an organization. One member of the organization was publicly humiliating the organization through social media. Many, perhaps all members of the group were aware of this person’s actions and were waiting to see how I would respond. Clearly an executive doesn’t want to come out with guns blazing unnecessarily, so I had to properly evaluate the situation. Were the reports true? Was this individual hurting the morale of the membership and thus the organization? The answer was clearly yes. Furthermore, his actions were undermining my leadership … the longer I allowed them to go unaddressed the more my ability as a leader came into question among the membership.

Once this became clear, I had to act … and act, I did. I first addressed the situation with the individual, dismissing him from the organization. The next thing I did was speak directly and publicly to the members of the organization about the problem, clarifying why it was a problem for our organization and how I intended to remedy the problem. Finally, I laid out a plan for moving forward that shored up confidence in our organization and me as the leader of that organization. The camaraderie of the members grew and as an organization we were able to accomplish more than we had to date.

In that illustration, the problem was the behavior of an individual, which was pretty easily solved. Unfortunately, not all leadership challenges are so easily managed. Sometimes, the best plans do not succeed. On occasions, an executive is dependent on a series of things falling into place to solve a major problem, … and they don’t fall into place. That doesn’t have to be the end of the world … unless you leave people with their hands in the air, asking what’s going on because you refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room. People realize that things don’t always go as planned. So when they don’t, recognize it, explain it, and give confidence that you are working on it. If you do that, your leadership reputation and skills will be enhanced. If you don’t … your leadership will be rightly questioned.

You asked: Should we support retired missionaries?

A number of pastors have asked me if their church should continue supporting missionaries once they retire. Recognizing the natural discomfort created by such a question, they usually try quickly to justify their inquiry: “After all, our mission budget is supposed to be spent on those doing mission work on the foreign field, not those living out their golden years in America. Right?”

My answer – yes, no, or maybe – is dependent on some important facts. Getting to these facts requires some effort, which is likely more work than we really want to do. But, if we are going to make good decisions regarding continued support, we must do the work, which, requires 4 important considerations: 1) What does God’s word say about honor?, 2) What was the historical/cultural context under which those missionaries went to the field?, 3) Was the missionary’s service credible?, and 4) What is the retiring missionary’s true financial situation?

Before I explain these considerations, I want to say that I realize church budgets are tight, and often growing tighter, there remains a vast number of people who have yet to hear the gospel, and there is a real dilemma whether to send mission money to missionaries in the field or to those retired in America. If these tensions didn’t exist, this discussion would be unnecessary.

1. What does God’s word say about honor?

Below are 10 verses (in no particular order) that address in some way the concept of honoring those who have given their life to missionary service. Some may argue that honoring the elderly should not be understood only in terms of money. I agree that honor applies more broadly than money, but regarding those in need, it certainly must include monetary consideration.

I Tim 5:17 – Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

Romans 13:7 – Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Romans 12:10 – Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Leviticus 19:32 – You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

Proverbs 3:27 – Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.

I Timothy 5:18 – For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.

I Timothy 5:3 – Honor widows who are truly widows.

Acts 20:35 – In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

I Thessalonians 5:12-13 – We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

Romans 12:13 – Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

2. What was the historical/cultural context under which those missionaries went to the field?

In all of the cases of which I’m aware, none of the missionaries had a contract with a church regarding the longevity of their support. Neither was anything specifically mentioned between the missionary and supporting church regarding the missionary’s retirement. However, discussion of retirement seemed to them unnecessary because of at least two cultural realities of the 1960s and 1970s: 1) An overwhelming urgency to reach the lost whether because of a belief in the soon return of the Lord, the rapture, or simply out of compassion, and 2) the principle of company loyalty that existed in that generation.

I recently had a septuagenarian ask me, “How come I don’t hear people talking about Jesus coming back like I did in the ’60s and ’70s?” My first response was, “People are still talking about it.” He countered, “Some might be talking about Jesus coming back, but not like they did 40 or 50 years ago.” After some consideration, I think, apart from the upswing related to the Left Behind phenomenon (c. 1995-2007), he is probably right. The Lord’s return (or rapture, depending on your view) doesn’t seem to be so prominent these days, which might suggest a topic for another blog series.

Anyway, based on what I know of the generation of missionaries under consideration here, I think many of them were in a hurry to get to the field and went underfunded. Whether that decision was solely because of pure compassion for the lost, or was heightened by a belief in the imminent rapture of the church, or something else, the result is a number of senior citizens who gave their lives to mission work have found themselves in financial difficulty.

Some of them have told me that they were so convinced that Jesus was coming back any day, “we didn’t worry about debt. Many of us just said, ‘we’ll leave the debt to the Devil. He can worry about it!'” We can discuss whether that was foolish thinking or not, even among those of us who still sense an urgency of His return. However, where the rubber meets the road, we are talking about a generation who was consumed with getting to the field to evangelize the lost before Jesus returns or raptures the saints. And at this point in their lives, there isn’t time to correct what might have been foolish decisions made decades ago.

A second major influence on this generation’s decision not to prepare “properly” for retirement is the principle of company loyalty that this particular generation of missionaries knew and believed in when they went to the field. One of the “values” that generational studies often point out in reference to Builders and Boomers is company loyalty. This loyalty was bi-directional; employees commonly spent their entire working life at a single company and that company, in return, offered loyalty to their employees in the form of a retirement package during their post-employment years. In a generations seminar I recently attended, the presenter, who has done extensive generational research, said that company loyalty is definitely not a cultural value of Generations X, Y, Z, and Alpha. In fact, the further from the Builders one goes, the less each succeeding generation relates to the concept of company loyalty. Generations X, Y, Z, and Alpha are or will be mobile generations that move from employer to employer.

3. Was the missionary’s service credible?

For me, this is an easy question. While credible can be a very subjective term (e.g., “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”), I will give you a good rule of thumb via a single question: Did your church continue supporting this missionary throughout their working career? If so, the church has by default already said the missionary’s work was credible.

4. What is the retiring missionary’s true financial situation?

The missionary’s true financial situation might be the most uncomfortable issue to address, but it must be done. Someone – a pastor, finance committee member, or someone else – must ask the missionary seeking continued support to explain and provide documentation of their current financial situation. While asking these kinds of questions may be uncomfortable, making an informed decision requires the effort.

A retiring missionary who has made bad financial decisions – whether chasing bad investments, opting out of Social Security and not investing the money, not planning for retirement, or something else – may be embarrassed by the process, so it should be done gently and with no sense of superiority. Think of them as your grandparents. With that in mind, I will also say that a retiring missionary who has made bad financial decisions should be mature enough to own up to his/her mistakes, especially if he/she is asking for continued financial support – support that could be directed to new missionaries going to the field.

A word of caution should be offered here: The supporter should not expect the missionary to live an unreasonably low lifestyle. Neither should the missionary expect to live an unreasonably high lifestyle. In summary, you don’t want to read in the newspaper that your missionaries are digging through dumpsters to find food. Neither do you want to find out that the missionary’s children/grandchildren inherited a small fortune when the missionary eventually dies.


As a matter of kindness and honor, my default position is yes, continue supporting retiring missionaries who went to the field in the 1960s and 1970s IF they need the support. However, I don’t suggest that be the default position for future generations.

Moving Forward

Clear communication, informing new missionaries of the ground rules up front will alleviate much of the stress and uncertainty of these types of situations.

My recommendation is for churches to do the following:
1. Tell new missionaries up front that (x amount of time) after their retirement, financial support will end. “X amount of time” may range from 1 month to 1 year.
2. Provide financial counseling to new missionaries at no cost to the missionaries.
3. Consider automatically depositing 10% of the new missionary’s support into his/her retirement account. Example: If the missionary receives $100 support, send him/her $90 and deposit $10 in their retirement account.
4. Consider matching the automatic retirement deposit. Example: If the missionary receives $100 support, send him/her $90 and deposit $10 in their retirement account, then add another $10 to the retirement deposit. In this case, the missionary is actually receiving $110 support.
5. Consider providing a $100,000-$200,000 life insurance policy for the new missionary.



You asked: Can I learn another language?

I’ve started my Arabic language studies again. Unfortunately, it is a self-paced, self-study, which gets interrupted far too often. I’m still plugging away, though. Thankfully, there are a number of Arabic speakers in my area, so I get the chance to use what I’m learning.

You, too, CAN learn another language, but . . . it will take effort and commitment. People often ask me whether this or that language program is any good. My standard answer: “More important than the quality of the program is your commitment to learning. Even the best program will not help you if you don’t put effort and time into it. Working a poor program is better than not working a great program.”

Below is an info-graphic that illustrates/explains approximately what it takes for native English speakers to learn another language.

HT: David Joannes


Connecting dots . . . wrongly

In my Acts of the Apostles course, one of the projects the students are required to complete is the Personal Application Paper, which requires the student to catalog twenty principles they have discovered in their study of the book of Acts. They are then required to formulate a plan to apply each of the principles to their lives.

An example of how this project works follows:

PRINCIPLE: Everything isn’t as it immediately seems, therefore, don’t draw definite conclusions hastily.

TEXT: Acts 28:3–6

BACKGROUND: En route to Rome according to his appeal to Caesar, Paul survived a treacherous voyage at sea and landed at Malta, battered but alive. Paul was among 276 survivors who were welcomed by the local residents. However, he was a prisoner, which apparently communicated certain things about him to his hosts; namely, that he was somehow shortchanging justice by surviving the shipwreck. This conclusion regarding their assumptions is based on what his hosts said in response to Paul being bitten on the hand by a viper,

“No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” – Acts 28:4 ESV

In the minds of those who were watching Paul, certain things were obvious: a) He was a prisoner who was guilty, likely of murder; b) he deserved punishment, though somehow he had apparently dodged it by surviving the shipwreck; and c) Justice (or fate) had finally caught up to him by way of the viper.

The dots were connecting very nicely . . . until Paul simply shook free of the viper and suffered no ill effects (28:5). However, being certain that “a” leads to “b” leads to “c”, their confidence was only slightly halted by the delay in any obvious effects of the snake bite. Because these dots were so easy to connect, they could wait expectantly for Paul “to swell up or suddenly fall down dead” (28:6). But, after waiting a long time and having none of their expectations realized, they had to reconsider their conclusions regarding Paul.

This time, though, things were more clear: a) a man who survives a stormy sea and shipwreck, b) which is immediately followed by a deadly snakebite that has no ill effect, c) is clearly “a god” (28:6). Paul must be a god. Yes, that has to be it; those dots connect very nicely! Or, . . . perhaps, there is still a better – more correct – explanation.

POINT: Sometimes, things aren’t what they seem . . . even when they seem so obvious or clear. For those of us who believe we can read people well, this is a difficult thing to accept. Better yet, it’s difficult to practice patience. And this lack of patience can be particularly harmful (to us and others) when we begin to assign motive for their actions. Here’s the truth: sometimes people do things for reasons that appear very obvious, but in reality, are for very different reasons or for no real reason at all. Sometimes we do dumb things or do things badly, just because we are people.

“Why did you throw a rock through Mrs. Jones’ barn window?” the teenager’s mother angrily enquired. “It’s because she told us she saw you smoking at the back of her property; it’s payback, isn’t it?” his dad accusingly interrupted, conveniently wrapping up the mystery. “No! I didn’t even think about whose window it was. I don’t know why I did it; Joe and I were walking behind her barn and we saw some rocks and a dusty old window, and without really thinking we thought, ‘let’s see who can hit the window.’ He threw first and missed. Unfortunately, I won; I hit it on my first try,” the teen explained.

In the fictional conversation above, the dots connected very easily for the teen’s parents: a) They knew their son, b) Mrs. Jones had reported his smoking, and c) that report obviously led to retaliation. Or did it? In reality – as much as a fictional story can portray reality – their son broke the window because: a) he is a teenage boy in the company of another teenage boy, b) with access to rocks and an old window, and c) it seemed like fun to see who could break the glass. Pretty simple. Pretty reasonable, … if you know teenage boys who have access to rocks and old windows.

But, if the glass is still broken, what difference does it make if it was broken for revenge or the result of a poor decision? It makes all the difference in the world in terms of how the matter should be handled. In this case, revenge is a matter of the heart; a poor decision is a matter of maturity. Furthermore, the revenge angle wrongly assigns evil intent to the teen, which unfairly harms his reputation and the relationship between him and his parents.

APPLICATION: I will endeavor to be slower and more considered (i.e., investigative) in connecting dots, particularly when the dots lead to negative conclusions about others based on their actions. Proverbs 18:17 offers wisdom to this end:

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”


Would I Be A Bad Professor If . . .

Would I be a bad professor if the following exchange took place via text message:

Student: “What’s the lowest I can make on my final exam and pass your class?”

Me: “I don’t help students do the least they can. You can look on the student portal to see your average and figure it out yourself. Better yet, prepare for the exam and do well!”

To all my students (present and future): Aim for something higher than the least you can do. Don’t just get by. Forever repudiate the mantra, “D’s get degrees.”