Are you a Grateful Leader? 3 Key Indicators

Jesus once performed an amazing mass healing when he healed 10 lepers all at once (Luke 17.11-19). However, what amazed Jesus most was that only one leper came back to thank him. The responses these lepers gave so astounded Jesus that Luke records three questions He asked out loud after the healing. “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (vss 17-18) The big deal Jesus made about gratefulness in the one leper (and the lack thereof in the nine), points to the high value He places on a grateful heart. I believe leaders among all should evidence a grateful heart. Evaluate your level of gratefulness against these three gratefulness indicators.

Indicators that you are a grateful leader.

  1. I avoid rush-i-ness
    • Rush-i-ness (a word I made up) pictures the leader who rushes from one task or meeting to the next. In his rush-i-ness, his hurry causes him to miss what he should be thankful for. Nine of the healed lepers were in such a hurry to show their healed bodies to the priests (the Jewish law requirement for re-entry into society) that they forgot to thank Jesus. Rush-i-ness stifles gratitude because in our hurry, we often miss what we should be grateful for. John Ortberg wisely noted that hurry points not only to a disorganized schedule, but to a disorder heart.
  2. I intentionally look for things about which to be grateful. 
    • We all deal with a brain phenomenon called inattentional blindness, missing what is right before our eyes because we are focusing on something else. In a famous research experiment a researcher filmed a half dozen students tossing a basketball back and forth to each other. Half-way through the 90 second video someone in a gorilla outfit appears in it as he walks in front of the students, pauses, and then walks off. In studies of people who watch the video and are told ahead of time to focus on counting the number of times the ball is tossed, an average of 50% miss seeing the gorilla.
    • In my masters program in the neuroscience of leadership, I watched the video with the same instructions (count the ball tosses) and I didn’t see the gorilla until my prof showed us the video a second time.  I was too focused on counting the ball tosses that I missed the obvious. We leaders are often guilty in the same way of missing what we should be aware of and, thus, thankful for. The leper didn’t let the need to appear before the priest keep him from gratefulness.
  3. I verbalize my appreciation to others for what I’m grateful for. 
    • Jesus was omniscient. He could have read the minds of all the lepers and noticed that they were grateful and been satisfied with that. He didn’t do that, however. He made a big deal about only one returning to thank him and the other nine not doing so. I believe we complete true gratitude when we verbally express it to God for his specific blessings or tangibly show gratitude to those around us.

Ask yourself these questions how you as a leader value and practice gratefulness.

  1. Who on my team did I tangibly appreciate last week?
  2. Have I built into my annual goals and plans tangible ways to thank staff and volunteers?
  3. How would others describe my practice of gratefulness: like the one leper who returned (tangible gratefulness) or like the nine who didn’t (very little if any gratefulness)?

I’d love to hear how you build gratefulness into your ministry or organizational culture. What have you found to be effective gratefulness practices?

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How to Keep a Leader’s Brain Healthy

Leader’s need healthy brains. Whether you are a pastor, a leader in a non-profit, or work in a business, without a healthy brain, you won’t lead at your best. My friend Brian Cygan is one of the most knowledgeable guys around when it comes to the impact of exercise on brain health. He is the Co-founder and CEO of The Exercise Coach, a tech-enabled personal training franchise with scores of locations nationwide. With a bachelor’s degree in Fitness Leadership from Northern Illinois University he leverages his 16 years in the fitness industry to apply brain-based insights to life and business leadership.  He’s my guest blogger this week. You’ll enjoy his fitness based brain insights.

According to John Ratey MD, “Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.”

Ratey knows a thing or two about the brain. He is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Spark, The New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  It’s generally accepted that exercise is good for your body, but recent findings reveal that its every bit as crucial for the health of your brain.

The question is, “What kind of exercise?”  While the study of exercise and the brain is relatively nascent some interesting findings are starting to emerge.  Maybe the most interesting is that a number of brain-beneficial exercise effects are intensity-dependent.  In other words, these findings suggest that to build your best brain you have to make your muscles burn.  When you push your muscles, with resistance training and interval training, your body produces health and repair promoting protein combinations that aren’t nearly as responsive to leisurely activity.  Here are just a few:

  • Human Growth Hormone (HGH):  This rejuvenating (and fat-burning) hormone is elevated after muscle-burning effort and in addition to its muscle building properties it is believed to increase brain volume, balance neurotransmitters and amplify the effects of other “growth-factors.”
  • Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF):  Known as miracle grow for the brain this substance is promotes the growth and strength of neuronal connections and well as protects neurons (brain cells) against the natural process of cell death.  Research also indicates that BDNF levels in humans are significantly elevated in response to exercise and the magnitude of increase is exercise intensity dependent.
  • Atrial natriuretic peptie (ANP):  This recently discovered hormone is produced by muscle tissue in the heart and is known to have an anxiolytic (Anti-anxiety) effect.  The harder your work the higher your ANP goes.  ANP not only keeps your heart rate in check but also calms the stress response regions of your brain.  When you stop exercising your ANP stays elevated for some time leaving you feeling more relaxed.  Over time this helps to make your more resilient to stressful situations.
  • Vascular endothelial growth factor (VegF):  During high-effort exercise our body’s ability to oxygenate cells throughout our body is temporarily disrupted.  This triggers VegF production.  VegF is a hormone that builds new capillaries in the body and brain.  VegF is also believed to enhance the uptake of other hormones and factors during exercise by changing the permeability of the blood brain barrier.

When you push your body you push your brain.  If you want to protect your memory, blood-flow to your brain, and sharpness as you age, you have to “go for the burn.”  Fortunately, at higher-effort levels time requirements are dramatically reduced.  In fact, in just 5-20 minutes you can perform muscular work that makes a difference.  Start by adding “effort intervals” to your regimen.  An effort interval is simply a timed burst of exertion.  Your intervals should be no more than 10-15 seconds and you should start with just one or two of these spaced by 45 seconds or more.  Believe it or not, according to research, these 30 seconds might be worth as much as 30-minutes of taking it easy.  That’s a lot of brain-bang for your buck.

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5 Leadership Insights I Wish I Knew 25 Years Ago

I’ve been in vocational ministry over 38 and my leadership roles have included my role as singles pastor, discipleship pastor, associate pastor, teaching pastor, church planter, and lead pastor. Although I’ve earned two seminary degrees and I appreciate what I learned in seminary, I’ve learned many key lessons that seminary never taught me. I wish I had known these 5 key lessons when I began  ministry.

  1. Silence from your team does not mean they agree with you.
    • Early on when I’d lead either staff, board, or volunteer meetings I tried very hard to sell ideas I was excited about. I would often present the idea in such a way that hindered honest input from the team. I’d enthusiastically share the idea, ask if there were any questions, and when none came I assumed everybody agreed. I learned the hard way that silence often did not mean they agreed with my idea. Rather, the team was simply reluctant to share their concerns. Only later would I find out that the idea was not a good one and lacked support. My overbearing “sell job” actually stifled feedback I needed to hear.
  2. Collaboration will get you further down the road.
    • This insight stands as a close cousin to number 1. I once thought that to prove my leadership mettle, I had to originate all major ministry initiatives and ideas. If someone suggested an idea, although I may have appeared to listen to them, mentally I would often dismiss their idea if it didn’t jibe with mine. Why? Because it didn’t originate with me. I’ve since learned that if I use a collaborative process to determine vision and major objectives, I got more buy-in and in the long run make greater progress.
  3. You probably can’t over-communicate.
    • Most people in our churches don’t spend the hours we do in thinking about church ministry. Because we spend so much more time thinking on these issues, I often fell into a subconscious trap assuming that if I felt I was over communicating about something, others must feel the same way. I’ve learned since that it’s almost impossible to over-communicate issues like vision, values, and core strategies. Although we created banners, book marks, and cool graphics to communicate our church’s current theme (Unified yet Unique), when I asked our church this past Sunday to quote that simple phrase, few could repeat it. That experience reminded me that although I thought I had communicated it effectively, I still needed to communicate it even more.
  4. Others mirror a leader’s emotional temperature.
    • The term for mirroring another’s response is called emotional contagion. Teams actually ‘catch’ the emotional state of their leaders. Early in ministry I felt that I had the leadership right to get angry, pout, or emotionally cut myself off from others if things didn’t go well. It was being authentic, or so I thought. While not discounting the importance of authenticity, I’ve learned that I must bring a positive and hopeful tone into the office each day. When I experience something painful and it’s appropriate to share it, say in a staff meeting, that sharing builds trust. But if I regularly bring negative emotions into the office, I set up a tone that others often catch and mirror, even though that emotion may have nothing to do with their circumstances. Such negative emotions can hinder a team’s effectiveness.
  5. Less is more.
    • I’ll never forget my first elder’s meeting almost 30 years ago. I had started a church in the Atlanta, GA area and we had just elected our first slate of elders. I planned the agenda for the first meeting. It was three pages long. I am not kidding. I actually still have memory traces of me racing through the agenda at a breakneck speed so we could check off all the items. The meeting was a flop. I’ve learned that less is more applies not only to meeting agendas but also to sermon prep as well. People in general absorb a few key ideas (or idea) much better than when we use the proverbial firehose approach.

What key lessons in your ministry do you wish you had known when you started?

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6 Ways to Build Community in your Leadership Team

God created us to live and work in community. The more community we experience, the stronger our teams. Highly productive teams often exude strong personal bonds and work in an atmosphere that fosters community. Good leaders understand the importance of community and actively seek to build it among their teams. Consider these 6 ways to build community in the teams you lead.

  1. Provide regular relationship building experiences for your teams to deepen their chemistry and their friendships.
    • Foster the sense that nobody is in an ‘out group.’ If some team members are perceived to be in an ‘out group’ it can set up a subtle prejudice that can affect team dynamics. Teach your team that because we naturally default to seeing others as being in an ‘out’ group, your team must be vigilant to avoid it. Monitor for cliques. Be vigilant especially when you bring new team members on board.
  2. Create physical gathering places in the workplace that encourage socialization. 
    • Something as simple as water cooler conversations can help build community.
  3. Regularly remind your team to see other team members’ perspectives.
    • Teach your team to learn to walk in other team member’s shoes. It’s called mentalizing. Mentalizing helps us see situations from the perspective of others. Studies show that the more we do this, the more we are likely to feel empathy toward and relate more positively to those whose perspective we are taking.
  4. Help team members share their goals.
    • When team members share goals, their connection to each other and their commitment to the team’s goals will intensify.
  5. Build an attitude of gratitude among your team.
    • Model gratitude so that your team can see it in you. Regularly explain how gratitude not only is Biblical but that it actually helps build team cohesiveness.
  6. Build trust.

What have you done to build community in your team?

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Smart Leaders stay close to their Critics

MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS. Little did those accepted for this job out of the thousands who applied realize how true those words would eventually become.

Ernest Shackleton, a well-known explorer in the early 1900s, placed this ad in 1915 to recruit a team for his third attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. In August of that year, he set sail with his recruits in the ship Endurance, named after his family motto: “By endurance, we conquer.” Three months later they arrived at South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic to begin their thousand-mile trek to the Antarctic Peninsula, a trip expected to take 120 days.

More than a year earlier, Vilhjalmur Stefansson had led a different expedition to explore the Arctic in their ship, the Karluk. Both ships endured similar fates in their respective voyages. Dennis Perkins recorded these words about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition:

The masts toppled and the sides were stove in, as shards of ice ripped the strong timbers to shreds. Frank Wild made a last tour of the dying vessel and found two crewmembers in the forecastle, fast asleep after their exhausting labor at the bilge pumps. He said, “She’s going, boys, I think it’s time to get off.” ( N. T. Perkins, Leading on the Edge, New York: AMACOM, 2000, p. 6.)

Both expeditions, a year apart, had been gripped in an icy vice that crushed their respective ships, forcing each party onto the ice and into horrific conditions. Yet similar circumstances, only poles apart, yielded dramatically different results. In the months following the Karluk’s destruction, the crew disintegrated into a conflict-­laden, self-centered group, which resulted in the death of eleven of its crew.

In contrast, Shackleton’s crew, although they too confronted harsh circumstances and conflict, emerged on dry land 634 days after the expedition began. Not a single man perished. Although they faced the same hellish conditions as Stefansson’s men did, they experienced a different fate. What made the difference? Shackleton’s calm leadership presence before his critics and naysayers. 

The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured this important leadership characteristic Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival.

“Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; never lost his optimism, and prepared for winter.” (J. Marcuson, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, New York: Seabury Books, 2009, Kindle ebook, loc. 1117, emphasis mine)

Shackleton exemplified a key quality needed for every leader: engage your critics. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

When our environment breeds anxiety and our critics try to stir up trouble, we can defuse this anxiety by calmly staying connected to them. Neuroscience actually verifies the biblical principle from Proverbs 15.1 that says, “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” It’s called emotional contagion. Others will catch our calmness which actually helps quiet the emotional centers in their brains responsible for anxiety and fear.

Men in Shackleton’s expedition noticed his calm, steady demeanor. When they were stuck on the ship, even one of his most pessimistic crewmen wrote these words in his journal.

“He is always able to keep his troubles under and show a bold front. His unfailing cheeriness means a lot to a band of disappointed explorers like ourselves. . . . He is one of the greatest optimists living.” (ibid, Kindle loc. 1182).

Shackleton keenly understood the importance of setting an example for his men on how to handle conflict and stress in a crisis. As you might imagine, living under such harsh conditions could easily cause arguments and disagreements. Yet those disagreements rarely disrupted unity because he developed an atmosphere that also encouraged dissent to be brought into the open.

Shackleton constantly faced four choices when confronted with dissident people, the same choices spiritual leaders face today:

  1. Pander and give in to critics to restore tranquility. Often because the critics are big givers or wield relational influence in our churches, we pander to them.
  2. Isolate or ignore critics, troublemakers and those with whom our personalities rub, thinking that if we don’t hear those voices, they will go away.
  3. Get defensive and power up to quiet the critic.
  4. Show courage and stay calmly connected to the critic.

Shackleton wisely chose the fourth option. Smart leaders do the same.

How have you managed the critics in your life?

(Taken and adapted from People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone. Copyright (c) 2014 by Charles Stone. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.)

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