Freedom Passes – The New Math of Leadership

Student studying math on the blackboard full of formulas

When I was in school I had a love-hate relationship with math.

I loved doing math – working to find an answer to a problem. In fact, I was pretty good at it. I even served on the math team for a while.

But I hated having to solve the problem with the teacher’s methods.

On tests I would do poorly if the teacher made us show our work. I could get the right answers, but I wanted to use my own methods. The years I was on the math team and did best were when I had teachers who allowed me the freedom to find answers my way.

I realize the teacher needed to make sure I wasn’t cheating and I knew how to think through a specified process, but I wanted to invent my own process.

I think there is a leadership principle here. I have seen it so many times. 

If you want to empower people – give them a freedom pass.

In fact, if your team is currently stalled – maybe you need to hand out some freedom passes.

What’s a freedom pass? It is giving your people the freedom to complete their assignments in the way which works best for them. 

Successful leaders understand organizational success involves letting people figure out their own way. If you want team members to be energized towards progress they must be empowered to develop their own strategies for attaining the goals and objectives.

You still hold team members accountable for progress, but you allow them freedom to choose the process of completion. In practical terms this could be the hours they choose to work, where they do their work, and often who they include on their individual team. 

When you allow people to script the “how” they are more motivated to complete the “what”. People need space to create. They need to have input into the process of completing the vision of the team or organization.

Give people a Freedom Pass. It’s the new math of leadership. 

The Way a Leader is Expected to Respond – Determines the Response They Receive

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The way others expect you to respond often determines the way they respond to you.

Have you learned this valuable principle about your leadership?

For example:

If they expect you to respond in anger – they’ll dance around issues – never confronting them with you or bringing them to your attention.

You will seldom know the true health of your team or what others are thinking.

If they expect you to respond defensively or with a closed-mind to every new idea which doesn’t come from you – they’ll only respond to your ideas – refusing to take risks of their own.

You’ll be limited to how creative you are, but you’ll leave some of the best new ideas untapped and off the table.

If they expect you to respond with condemnation – they’ll be tempted to make excuses when things go wrong – and maybe try to hide them altogether.

You will be considered unsafe and treated as unapproachable.

If they expect you to respond with belittling or sarcasm – they’ll never be serious with you – you’ll never know their true feelings – afraid you’ll crush them if they do.

You will never really know people. They will only know you. And, they will be very surface-level with you relationally.

If they expect you to respond with the final say to every decision – they’ll soon stop having new ideas. They’ll wait before moving forward on anything new.

You’ll get to run every meeting and feel very much in control, but your team isn’t really a team they are employees. And, most likely very unfulfilled and under-utilized.

Insert your own examples. The way a leader is expected to respond, built over time by experience, determines the way people respond to the leader. Every time.

However, the contrast is true:

If they expect you to respond supportively – they’ll be more likely to offer their opinions.

You’ll hear the best they have to offer. You’ll encourage creativity and dreaming.

If they expect you to respond with care and understanding – they’ll be more likely to share their heart, their pain, their life with you.

You’ll truly know people and you will be able to lead more relationally than strictly because of your position.

If they expect you to respond with empowerment – they’ll be more likely to take risks and try something new.

You’ll get the best from people. They will feel more a part of a team. And, great things have a better potential to happen.

If they expect you to respond with grace – they’ll be more likely to share the good, the bad and the ugly.

You’ll know when they failed and they’ll come to you for help to improve.

If they expect you to respond with a listening ear – they’ll come to you when they need to bounce ideas – before they have all the answers.

You’ll become part of their development, helping them improve individually as they attempt to help improve the team.

Leaders, how do others expect you to respond?

There are so many other scenarios I could have offered. You have some of your own no doubt.

Think about it – do you not tend to alter your response based on how you expect others to respond? Is this not true in family and friend relationships also? It certainly is in leadership.

Fair or not – as a leader, the response others expect from you may help determine the way others respond to you. Their response will be how we have conditioned them to respond to us, based on past experience of how we have responded to them.

More importantly, however, is ultimately our response to people in a great way determine the health of the team or organization.

5 Mature Ways for a Leader to Respond Under Stress

Money Worries

Every organization and team has times where everyone is stretched, stress abounds, and even times where it seems things are going backwards for a while. It could be a crisis or an exceptionally busy season. It could be internal or external issues causing the stressful times. During these seasons good leadership is more critical than ever.

Mature leaders know the way they respond in stress will directly impact the organization and everyone attempting to follow them.

Here are 5 mature ways for a leader to respond during stressful times:

A level head

A leader must display a calmness in the midst of crisis. If the leader panics everyone panics. Trying times test a team and the leader doesn’t needs to add a calmness to the situation, helping assure people everything will be okay. This does not mean giving a false hope. People should understand reality, but it does mean helping people find their sense of balance in the midst of what may seem hopeless in their minds.

Steadfastness

There will always be temptations to give up under stress. A leader walks by faith and keeps the team moving forward. You can read the hard lesson I learned about this issue in my post of advice to the leader when things are going wrong. Through good times and the bad times the leader must stand firm.

Integrity

Character is tested during stressful times. A leader must remain unquestioned in his or her integrity for the health of the team and organization. People will watch to see how a leader responds. What a leader says or does will be taken seriously and subject to people’s own interpretations. This is why we must strive to be above reproach.

Strategic-thinking

Decisions are harder to make but more important during stressful times. The leader must think strategically for the organization – helping to steer towards clarity and progress. (Read a post about thinking strategically in the moment HERE)

Personal well-being

Leaders must remain healthy personally in order to continue to lead the organization. There will be a tendency to never leave the office, but during times of stress, the leader must continue to exercise, eat well, and be disciplined in rest. The leader must guard his or hear heart spiritually, knowing temptation is especially powerful under duress. The health of the leader directly impacts the health of the team.

Leader, have you ever had to lead during especially stressful times? Are you there now?

What would you add to my list?

12 Tweetable Leadership Principles

follow leader

Here are 12 random leadership axioms in less than 140 characters each.

  • Some people will only support change after it’s proven to be a success. They are the same people who will say I told you so if it doesn’t work.
  • Sometimes the strongest thing to do is to turn the other cheek. Sometimes it is to stand your ground.
  • Solicited applause is seldom given genuinely.
  • The best opportunities seldom come wrapped neatly in a package with a bow on top. They usually come with work. Get your hands dirty work.
  • The best leaders are often the ones smart enough to get out of the way of smarter people.
  • Part of leadership is the willingness to make hard decisions no one else on the team wants to make.
  • Change always invokes an emotion. The best change agents recognize and respond accordingly.
  • The leader has a responsibility to do the right thing for the organization, regardless of whether it brings instant popularity.
  • The more you say “I” the less your team will feel a part of “we”.
  • Some of a leader’s best work is not what the leader does but what he or she inspires others to do.
  • Without the right systems in place, the best visions will eventually suffer. Systematize what you want and need repeated.
  • One of the most important disciplines of a leader is the discipline of rest.

Feel free to tweet a few.

10 Common Complaints about Leaders

Complaint Concept on Red Puzzle.

As a result of this blog, I receive emails regularly from staff members of other churches or non-profit organizations. There is usually a question they have about leadership, but along with the question often comes a complaint about their leader. And there are many.

I’ve been in a leadership position for near 30 years so I know complaints are common in leadership. If you’re in leadership you will receive complaints – about the organization you lead, the people in it, and about you. Period.

And, let’s be fair – some of them are valid. Some of them are not, but some are, because leaders aren’t perfect. None of them. Definitely including this one. There is validity in many of the complaints we receive.

I once decided I would compile a list of some of the most common complaints I hear. After grouping them together for brevity, I  went with the top 10 most repeated.

Why is this important? It’s not to lump more hot coal on a burdened leader. I love leaders. Investing in them is part of my calling. But, I also have a conviction. I believe I am less likely to improve where I don’t know I need to improve. Compiling this list became an awareness exercise for me as much as anything.

Here are 10 common complaints about leaders:

Controlling – All the decisions are decided and announced. No one gets to provide input. The final decision must come from the leader.

Defensive – The leader challenges every challenge. You can’t talk to him or her about a problem. They refuse to be wrong or admit anything is wrong. (As if we can refuse to be wrong, right?)

Stuck – Some leaders love routines and structure so much they never attempt to move things forward until they are forced into change. They are always playing defense – never offense.

Fearful – Whether because of people pleasing or lack of faith, the leader suffers from risk aversion to the point of crippling the team.

Lazy – It’s not do as I do – it’s do as I say – because I’m not going to do anything.

Unpredictable – There’s never a dull moment, but not in a fun kind of way. The leader is inconsistent and causes people to always be on edge.

Never satisfied – It doesn’t matter how large the win, instead of lingering in celebration, this leader is always asking “What’s next?”

Unclear – When they give direction or cast a vision it’s never understood by the one supposed to implement. Confusion leads to frustration.

Prideful – They take all the glory. Enough said.

Indecisive – These leaders can’t make a decision. And everyone waits. And waits. And everything stalls.

Distracted – Sometimes leaders appear so busy those trying to follow don’t believe they ever have their full attention.

Phony – This leader’s personal life, and the one seen by those closest to the leader, doesn’t match the public persona the leader displays.

There is the list. I think it could be good for all leaders to read through them – and ask some tough questions of yourself. Which of these would be most said about you?

You may be wondering, if you were to hear from someone on our team – which of these would be complaints about my leadership? Probably many of them at different times. If I had to guess, however, they would probably point to three intially.

Never satisfied, unclear and distracted.

Often, though I have no problem making decisions, I can easily get locked into minutia if presented with too many options and appear indecisive.

I am aware of these areas and continually attempt to address them in my leadership, but it is an ongoing process.

Now, on behalf of leaders, as a word to those trying to follow, let me say many times the leader is totally unaware they are perceived in these negative ways. And, most, if they knew, would make some attempts to improve in that area of their leadership.

Leaders, the word for us is we must continually work to become more aware of what is being preceived which often isn’t being spoken. It might not even be reality, but perceived reality is often just as damaging. (Some of the complaints I listed about me would fall into the perception category – not the reality. But, perception is someone else’s reality.)

If you are uncertain, the best thing to do is ask. Hand this list to some on your team and ask them to identify one or two they think you could work to improve. You’re not asking them to complain – just to give you honest, helpful feedback.

So, leader, be honest, which of these would most likely be the complaints said about you?

Sometimes It’s Not a Systems Problem – Identifying the Real Issue

Full body isolated portrait of young business man

In one of my first vocational leadership roles, I managed a large retail division of a major department store. The division had several departments within it and each department had a separate department manager. Most of the departments were efficient, profitable, and easy to manage. One department, however, continued to fall behind the others. It was frustrating, because I couldn’t seem to get them to improve.

I was young and inexperienced, so I innocently thought the problem was me. If I could implement the right strategy in working with this department – find the right system – I could improve performance. I tested numerous systems to try to increase their productivity, but nothing seemed to work.

I was wrong in my assessment and the experience taught me a valuable lesson. 

You can have the best systems – the best strategies – the best programs – and still struggle with the performance of a team.

Sometimes it’s not a systems problem.

Sometimes it’s strictly a people problem.

I realized the problem was the leader in this department. This person always said what I wanted to hear. She was nice to me personally. She talked a good game, but she was grossly under-performing and bringing her department down with her. Through due process, and after months of trying to coach and encourage this leader to improve, I eventually had to replace her leadership and the department dramatically improved, almost instantly.

Since then I’ve always tried to remember to never try to handle a people problem with a systems approach.

Handle people problems, with people.

This doesn’t mean you’ll always need to replace the people, but you seldom improve people problems with better systems. You improve people problems by improving people.

Many times, in my experience, we try to create systems when the problem isn’t a systems problem, it’s a people problem.

Churches are notorious for this, by the way. We try to solve problems in people’s lives, for example, by creating rules, systems, programs, etc, designed to help make them better people. The problem is it’s not a systems problem. It’s not a program or committee problem. It’s a people problem. If their heart doesn’t change, the problems in their life will continue.

Knowing the difference between a systems problem and a people problem, and being mature enough to handle it, will make you a better leader.

Have you seen organizations and leaders create systems, instead of handling the real problem? 

10 Traits to Identify Potential New Servant Leaders

Team in the office. Asian businesswoman standing in the foreground smiling, her team of co-workers in the background

One of the most important tasks of a leader is to identify potential new leaders. If a church or organization is to grow, finding new leaders is critical. 

Equally vital is the quality of leaders being discovered. Good leaders learn to look for qualities in people which are conducive to good leadership. If you want to have a culture which reproduces leaders, read THIS POST first.

But, where do you find these people who can be future servant leaders?

I find it helps to look for certain qualities, which all good leaders need or qualities which, consistently over time, seem to make good leaders. Of course, in context of the church, the Bible gives us clear guidance in selecting senior leaders (who will hopefully also be servants). But, my church is always in need of new servant leaders – from the parking lot to the hallways every Sunday. Where do we find a continual pool of new leaders?

The following are traits I look for in leaders I hope to develop or with whom I want to work.

Here are 10 valuable traits when looking for new servant leaders:

Concern/Love for others – You can’t lead people effectively if you don’t genuinely love people. I’ve seen people in positions who have great power, but they don’t appear to love others. These leaders often produce followers – if only seeking a paycheck – but they never reproduce leaders.

Not a complainer – Candidly speaking, leadership encounters complainers regardless of what we do. I certainly don’t want to add complainers to my team of leaders. A positive attitude will get my attention every time.

Teachable and open to suggestions – A person who thinks they have all the answers will repel other leaders. People with no desire to keep learning rarely find their place on my team of leaders.

Excellence in following – This is a biggie for me. I try to follow people I lead, because there are times they know more than I do. Many times. Someone who isn’t willing to follow is seldom ready to lead. I look for a servant attitude – willing to do what needs to be done for the benefit of others. 

Reliability – Leadership is about trust, and trust is developed over time and consistency by doing what you said you would do. I look for people with this quality.

Interest – The people with a burning passion for the church or organization often make great leaders. You can train someone to lead others, but you can’t easily train them to have interest.

Good character – Character counts. Not perfection. Not flawless. But, good character is necessary to be trusted on a team. Integrity. Honesty. A humble desire to always be improving as a person – this kind of character.

Potential – God always saw potential in others they themselves couldn’t see. I try to have eyes to see potential in others.

Confidence – Leaders have to move forward when others are ready to retreat. This takes confidence. Not being prideful, but a genuine willingness to lead through the hard times – to do what others aren’t willing to do.

People skills – This goes without saying, but you can’t lead people if you can’t communicate with people. You don’t have to be the life of the party (I’m a strong Introvert), but you do have to be able to engage people and make them feel a part of things.

Well, those are some traits I look for in potential leaders.

Do you have other traits you look for in recruiting leaders?

10 Ways to Have a Reproducing Culture

growing team

You can’t recruit leaders – at least not effectively – if you never develop a culture to do so.

Reproducing cultures reproduce leaders.

Finding new leaders is critical to the successful growth of any church or organization. Kingdom growth is greatly impacted by the numbers of leaders we can recruit.

Therefore, we must strive to recruit more leaders and we do so by having a culture of reproduction.

How do we develop that type of culture?

Here are 10 ways to have a reproducing culture:

Catch the vision of multiplication

It’s hard to convince people to buy into something you don’t believe in personally. As a leader, you must believe reproducing leaders is a valuable enough process to make it a priority.

Be intentional

Every leader in the organization must be willing to consciously replace themselves.  Multiplication must be a part of the overall strategy. There must be a continual process of leadership recruitment.

Start early 

Reproducing cultures replace leaders before they actually need them.

Invest in personal growth 

You can’t take new leaders where the current leaders haven’t been or aren’t going.

Humble leaders

Leaders must not be afraid new leaders could lead better than them. When leaders allow people to shine under their leadership it advances their ability to lead. The good news is today’s generation likes honesty. They will follow a leader more if they trust their integrity.

Share responsibilities early 

The easiest way to learn something is to do it and the more ownership given to people the more they will be motivated to participate.

Identify potential

I shared some ways I do this in a previous post. It’s important in a recruitment culture to always be looking for people who may someday be leadership superstars. Look for the good in people. What do they have which attracts people to them?

Create an environment conducive to leaders

Leaders don’t develop well under a dictatorship. If people are afraid to have an answer under the current leadership for fear of being wrong, they are less likely to try to have an answer. The real leaders will disappear quickly in a controlling environment – or where one or a few people get to actually introduce new ideas and make decisions.

Recruit

The “sign up” method seldom works well. The best quality people are almost always personally recruited. Jesus found people – with a personal ask – even at risk they would betray Him. The best recruitment in most organizations will be likewise.

Lead for life change

Some people will experience their greatest life change only when they are leading others or have some sort of responsibility of leadership. Nurture potential leaders knowing part of their spiritual maturity will be developed leading others.

Are you in a leadership reproducing culture? What makes it so?

5 Ways to Hear from People Different from You

Mature man cupping hand behind ear

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen leaders make is forgetting everyone doesn’t think like the leader.

I have personally made this mistake many times. We assume what we are thinking is what everyone else is thinking.

Wrong.

Wow! Time has proven this repeatedly.

The fact is people are different. They think differently. They have different desires. Thankfully – many times – they have different ideas. The way they process and share those ideas are different from the leader.

This can be frustrating, but it can also be extremely helpful! If the organization is limited to my abilities it is going to be very limited. (Duh!)

So, if you recognize the need and want to lead people who are different from you – and you should – you’ll often have to lead differently from how you wish to be led.

I’m just being candid here – frankly, I’d be comfortable leading by email, but how healthy would such an environment be?

When you fail to remember this principle of leadership – people are different – you frustrate those you are trying to lead. You get poor performance from the best leaders on your team and, worst of all, your team fails to live up to its potential.

Here are some thoughts to warrant against this:

(Please understand, I am using the word “I” a lot here. I don’t really like the term much, because I think better leadership is a we – but I want you to see how I being intentional in this area and provide a few practical examples.)

Intentionally surrounding yourself with diverse personalities.

One intentional thing I do is try to have good friends who stretch me as a person – even outside or my work. I have some extremely extroverted friends, for example. They remind me everyone isn’t introverted like me. On any church staff I lead, I know I want some different personalities to compliment mine. Building my comfort with this in my personal life helps me welcome it even more in my professional life. We will all share a common vision, but we should have some unique approaches to implementing it. Ask yourself, “Have I surrounded myself with people who think just like me?”

Asking questions.

Lots of them. Personally, I ask lots of questions. I give plenty of opportunity for input into major decisions before a decision is final. We do assessments as a team. I have quarterly meetings with direct reports. We have frequent all staff meetings. I periodically set up focus groups of people for input on various issues. I want to hear from as wide a range of people as possible. I try to consistently surround myself with different voices, so I receive diversity of thought. I place a personal value on hearing from people who I know respect me, but are not afraid to be honest with me.

Never assume agreement by silence.

This is huge. I want to know, as best as I can – not only what people are saying, but what people are really thinking. To accomplish this I periodically allow and welcome anonymous feedback. I realize, just because of position, and partly because of personalities, some are not going to be totally transparent with me. I try to provide multiple ways for feedback. Even during meetings I welcome texting or emailing me (depending on the size and structure of the meeting) during the meeting. I’ve found this approach works better for some who may not provide their voice otherwise.

Welcoming input.

This probably should have come first, but this is – honestly – more of a personal attitude. I have to actually want to hear from people on my team – even the kind of information which hurts to hear initially. I personally want any team I lead to feel comfortable walking into my office, at any time, and challenging my decisions. (I keep soft drinks in my office knowing it attracts them for frequent returns. I used to keep candy, but then health insurance became tricky.) Granted, I want to receive respect, but I expect to equally give respect. Knowing what my team really thinks empowers me to lead them better.

Structuring for expression of thought.

Here I am referring to the DNA – the culture – for the entire team. And, it is very important. There has to be an environment with all leaders which encourages people to think for themselves. This kind of culture doesn’t happen without intentionality. As a leader, I try to surround myself with people sharper than me, but I want all of us to have the same attitude towards this principle of hearing from others. I believe in the power of “WE”. If we want to take advantage of the experience and talents in our church, we have to get out of the way, listen, and follow others lead when appropriate.

It’s not easy being a leader, but it is more manageable when you discipline yourself to allow others to help you lead.

How do you structure yourself to hear from people different from you? What are some ways you have seen this done by other leaders?

3 Inexpensive Ways to Develop as a Leader

power meeting from above

I was meeting with a young pastor who wants to grow as a leader. He lives in small town. He is young, but his staff is even younger. There are not a lot of seasoned leaders in his church – or at least he not discovered any. (I usually think there are leaders who simply haven’t been tapped, but I understood his dilemma.)

The church looks to him to lead and, wisely, he knows he needs to develop his leadership skills.

His question was simple.

Who invests in me?

He recognizes the need to grow as a leader, but he’s not sure where to find it. His church is in a recovery mode financially, so he doesn’t feel he can afford (or doesn’t think it can) to send him to conferences or hire a coach.

(Side note – when I reached my new church we were in a very difficult financial condition. Budgets had been cut, but in my opinion – we had cut some things we shouldn’t have cut – such as marketing and staff development. But, I understand this is a natural reaction in difficult times – especially in the church. Churches notoriously will keep people on payroll who shouldn’t be and cut funding for items which would actually fuel growth. But, that’s another blog post.)

So, what could my pastor friend do? How can he develop as a leader inexpensively – maybe even free?

Here are 3 suggestions I gave him:

Form a peer leadership group

There are people in the community who own small businesses. They meet a payroll. They have guided an organization to success. Even in the smallest communities, someone owns (or manages) the local grocery store or serves as the bank brach manager. For a group like this, I like to keep it relatively small, no more than 12, and 6 might even be a better number.

The group would share stories, talk about experiences, and learn from each other. You’ll have to spend time getting to know each other and developing trust, but it will be mutually beneficial. I have had such groups numerous times in my career. These groups are usually comprised of believers – although not professional ministers. In these meetings I’m trying to learn leadership and management practices – not theology.

Start a book club

Recruit leaders in the community to read a leadership book together. These can be mid-level managers or senior executives. The learning is from the book being studied and the reflection of the group based on personal experiences. In this type group, the size can be as any size between 2 and 25 people. The larger groups often provide the broader range of perspective.

The only cost is the book. Everyone buys their own. You can assign one person to lead each session. They guide discussion on what they learned from the book in that chapter or section and open the group for discussion. With a good enough book – people will discuss, and the learning experience is rich. For this group, you might use a Christian leadership book (such as a John Maxwell book), but I wouldn’t limit the group to believers only – or even dictate a Christian book. It’s a great way to interact with the community in a non-threatening way, while gaining valuable leadership and management insights.

Ask a community leader to mentor you

There are leaders in every community (usually multiple leaders) who are further along than you are in the process of leadership. There will always be leaders in the community from whom you can learn. Always. While some may disagree with me, this usually is a believer for me, but doesn’t have to be. I want them to be honest, moral and have a good reputation, but knowing in advance their specific walk with Christ is not a prerequisite for this type mentor. (I have multiples in my life, depending on the need.) Again, I’m seeking development in the areas of leadership and management – and, I think my presence with them actually influences them for good. I have other spiritual mentors.

You don’t have to live in a large town or spend a lot of money to develop as a leader. You simply have to possess a desire to grow and be intentional.

What you’re looking for is people skills – how to handle conflict – how to delegate and how to motivate and cast a vision. You can learn those things hearing from other leaders’ experiences. Leadership development doesn’t have to be expensive. The key is to be intentional.

Do my suggestions trigger others you have?