What Walmart Greeters Taught me about Leadership

Looming over six feet tall with a scraggly beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a 12 inch ponytail tied with a rubber band, and a vest dotted with military patches, George would be at home riding a Harley with a motorcycle gang. Instead, he holds a clear plastic jug plastered with yellow smiley-face stickers and filled with dollar bills. And he enthusiastically says, “Welcome to Walmart. Have fun! Want a sticker?” George is my favorite Walmart greeter. I’ve learned a lot about leadership from George.

george walmart greeter

My second favorite greeter is Jimmy. Unlike George who stands, Jimmy sits…in his motorized wheel-chair. His physical disability keeps him from standing or even holding one of those charity jugs. Yet, with the same exuberance, he makes you feel good with his, “Welcome to Walmart. Thanks for coming.”

I don’t know how well the following statement would hold up under a scientific study, but I believe it to be true. Shoppers who meet George and Jimmy as they arrive buy more stuff at Walmart than those who meet other greeters who, for the sake of not being too harsh, come across with much less enthusiasm.

Both George and Jimmy use their leadership mirror well.

What is a leadership mirror? It’s a concept rooted in science and in the bible.

In 1995 an Italian neuroscientist  discovered what are called ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain. Essentially, a part of our brain lights up when we sense intention behind another’s action. When that part of our brain turns on, we feel a connection to that person. Their actions activate our mirror neurons. For example, when someone smiles at us, it drives the same motor response on my face. We smile. That experience then sends signals to our emotional center so that we share a positive emotion with the person. The strongest emotions we portray ripple out to others, whether those emotions are good or bad.

Before scientists discovered these mirror neurons, the bible already had. Remember what the writer of Proverbs wrote?

Prov. 15.1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

That explains that if when I go to Walmart and either George or Jimmy is on duty that day, I have a better experience shopping. They have used their leadership mirror well, even though they probably don’t even know it. Their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice have become a mirror to me that I subconsciously reflect back to them which in turn affects my behavior and emotions.

This concept profoundly impacts our ability to lead as well. When we use our leadership mirror effectively, team attitudes and performance improves. When we don’t, the opposite occurs. Just think about how you feel the next time you go to Walmart and encounter a dumpy, negative, sleepy-faced greeter versus a George or a Jimmy greeter.

Consider these questions and ask yourself if you need to polish your leadership mirror.

  • Am I keenly aware of how I come across to those I lead with my body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice?
  • Do I consistently portray a positive upbeat tone to others?
  • What is my default facial expression… a scowl or a smile?
  • Do I consistently show up the same way each day at the office or do I leave people asking, “I wonder which boss is showing up today, the mad, sad, or happy one?”
  • Do I attempt to truly be present with others in the moment or do yesterday’s events, today’s task list, and tomorrow’s problems distract me from fully engaged interactions?

If we as leaders pay a bit more attention to our leadership mirror and use it well, we not only can increase team performance, but can actually bless those on our team as we help them activate their mirror neurons for the good.

Lately, how have you used your leadership mirror?

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When People Compare Pastors

Many pastors secretly struggle with measuring up to very successful pastors and churches. It’s tough, but it comes with ministry. People compare pastors. In this post I suggest a few ways to deal with this “measure up mentality.” I begin with one pastor’s experience. He received this e-mail from someone in his church. The names are changed to protect the innocent (uh, I mean the guilty).

comparison

Hi Pastor Jim:

Sharon S. here. How are you? I have been meaning to send you a note for quite some time and tell you about a pastor in California that I thought you might be interested in. Yeah, I know. If I were you I’d be rolling my eyes about now. But I must say, this guy is awesome and has challenged me personally in my life over the last year.

He has pastored [God’s Favorite] Church just outside [Utopia] for about three years and has grown it from 150 people to over 3,500. I have never seen a young guy with such a passion and a heart for God, willing to go against the “appropriate” evangelical grain and just teach the scriptures.

He just started a new series a week and a half ago. I am going to attach the first message because I would love for you to listen to him.  I can’t tell you how many people I know listen now. His name is [Gabriel, the archangel]. He has some of the best teaching I have ever heard on leadership in the church, justification, and some other tough subjects. He is a lot like [another famous pastor], who is his friend and a Facebook “fan” of his. Anyway, I have felt led to connect you with [Gabriel] for a long time. I’m not really sure why. Take it for whatever it is worth. 

Sharon

Pastor Jim emailed this response back.

Dear Sharon,

Thanks for reminding me that my preaching is subpar. It’s great to know that people in my church are making sure they get podcasts from somebody who will never know their name or answer their encouraging emails.

You’ve really made my day. I was studying for this week’s message when I got your note (I’ve already spent twenty hours on my sermon). I immediately stopped to download his magnificent sermon. It’s also wonderful to know that his church has exploded in growth; as you know, our attendance declined by 3% last year because people like you stayed home to watch guys like him on TV!

Gotta go finish my shallow sermon.

God’s blessings on you,

Pastor Jim

Pastor Jim didn’t really send this e-mail. He only wished he had.

I admit that at times this ‘measure up mentality’ has sucked my joy out of ministry, especially when I served in the U.S. I serve in Canada now and find this less of an issue here.

I’ve applied some simple ideas below that have helped me keep my joy even when I felt that I didn’t measure up in the eyes of others. Perhaps they will encourage you as well.

  • God made me who I am. I may not be a world-class leader, a ‘blow you a way’ preacher, or as creative as most, but I must appreciate, embrace, and faithfully use the gifts and competencies He has given me.
  • He has placed me where He wants me to be. I must accept that and do my best with the opportunity He’s provided.
  • I must not dismiss or cutoff those with whom I don’t measure up. We will never please everyone and such people will probably stay in our churches.
  • It’s ok to take care of my valid needs. I can’t change what other people think about me, make them like me, or force them to approve of me. I can, however, take care of the body, soul, and spirit God has entrusted to me. In doing so, I then become the best pastor and leader He has created me to be.

This old King James Version verse has encouraged me as I’ve faced the ‘measure up mentality.’

Psa. 62.5 My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from Thee. 

In my third book, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, I deal extensively with how to manage this ‘measure up mentality’ as it relates to the temptation to people please.

How have you handled this ‘measure up mentality?’

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5 Signs You’re a Leader who Talks too Much

Nobody likes to talk to others who monopolize conversations and drone on about themselves. Healthy conversations should be two-way streets but science tells us that we tend to spend 60% of our conversations talking about ourselves. And unfortunately, leaders can talk too much, not necessarily by monopolizing conversations, but by giving too many answers. So, how do you know if you are a leader who talks too much and what can we do to stop? Consider these indicators.

Scruffy unpleasant looking man with a silly facial expression and unruly hair puts his fingers in his ears so that he can not hear.

5 signs you’re a leader who talks too much:

  1. You do more than half the talking in staff meetings.
    • If you do, your staff may feel the meeting is all about you rather than about the team.
  2. Staff and volunteers come to you for answers more often than to offer solutions.
    • This can indicate an unhealthy dependence on you to solve their problems.
  3. You tend to rush conversations with others.
    • If you’re a quick thinker and get frustrated with time wasters, you’ll struggle with this one.
  4. Silence in a conversation really, really bothers you.
    • Action biased leaders often view silence as another time waster.
  5. While another person is talking, you’re framing your response.
    • It’s easy to slip into this one. When we do, we miss half of what the others person is saying.

I suggest these three solutions to help you stop talking too much.

  1. Practice the art of the W.A.I.T.
    • WAIT is an acronym for this question, “Why Am I Talking?” In meetings and conversations with others when you sense you may be dominating, mentally ask yourself this question. I’ve found it helps me listen much more carefully and talk much less.
  2. Use the AWE question.
    • In Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit (which is a phenomenal book every leader should read) he calls the AWE question the best coaching question in the world. It stands for, “And what else?” When you think a conversation has come to the end, he suggests asking this question 3-5 times to get everything from the other person.
  3. Ask “What do you think?”
    • This handy question helps when you sense someone wants you to solve his problem. You may immediately know the answer, but by answering it you may foster an unhealthy dependency on you. Often when I use this question with a staff person, her or she comes up with their own solution. The result? They buy in better to their solution and they learn to think better for themselves.

The Scriptures often remind us to listen more and talk less. These are my two favorites on this topic.

James 1.19    Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. (NLT)

Prov. 18.13    Answering before listening is both stupid and rude. (The Message)

What has helped you become a better listener?

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6 Keys to Mastering Change in the Church

Leading change is difficult in churches. I’m always looking for fresh insight on how to effect change. I’ve found great insight from this author. Kevin Cashman wrote the book Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life which I highly recommend. In one chapter he writes about mastering change in an organization. His insight applies to churches as well. I’ve adapted his suggestions below. As you read each contrast, ask yourself which one you tend to default to.

Hand writing Make a Change with red marker on transparent wipe board.

The 6 Keys to Mastering Change:

  1. Focus on Opportunities vs. Problems
  2. Focus on Long Term vs. Short Term (don’t lost sight of your long-term vision in the midst of change)
  3. Focus on Purpose vs. Circumstance (keep focused on your church’s purpose and values, and your own as well, to avoid getting mired in difficult circumstances)
  4. Focus on Adaptability vs. Control (control will only yield a certain degree of results; good leaders must remain agile, flexible, and innovative to sustain results over the long haul)
  5. Focus on Service vs. Self (serve your leaders during the stress of change)
  6. Focus on Listening vs. Expertise (effective leaders stay open and practice authentic listening to stay connected to others and to remain open to other innovative solutions)

What has helped you navigate change well?

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5 Dumb Leadership Assumptions You Never Learned in Seminary

After two seminary degrees and 35 years in ministry, I’ve gleaned a few insights I wish I’d learned long ago. Although my seminary profs never directly taught me to question the dumb leadership assumptions I’ve listed below, even if they had I wonder if in my youthful enthusiasm I would have listened. Unfortunately it often takes the hard knocks in ministry to teach us what we must know.

Don't assume text concept write on notebook with pen

As you read each assumption below, ask yourself if you agree. I’ll comment on each of them after the list.

  1. What worked before should work again.
  2. Church people will always respect a pastor’s position.
  3. When leaders stay silent, they are agreeing with you.
  4. Reason always prevails.
  5. Everybody perceives the same reality.

It’s taken a few years for me to realize it, but each of these has proved grossly false.

What worked before should work again.

It just doesn’t. Culture changes. Technology changes. Expectations from church people changes. If we as leaders and churches don’t consider how we can do ministry better, this proverbial definition of insanity proves true: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Church people will always respect a pastor’s position.

I recall one preacher who quoted Psalm 105.15 (KJV) Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm. He used it in the context of elevating the pastor’s role to an esteemed position. It may be nice if people do that, but some people won’t respect just because you are a pastor. Sometimes the contrary proves true. Your role actually may elicit disrespect from some.

When leaders stay silent, they are agreeing with you.

I’ve tripped on this one a lot. Too often when I’m jazzed about an idea and share it with key leaders or staff, I’ve gotten blank stares or simple nods when I first shared it. I’ve interpreted those nods and stares as resounding support from them. After all, if they objected, they should have said so right then. In retrospect, however, often they were simply being polite. Although I had spent sufficient time to process my idea, they hadn’t. By not asking questions or providing them more soak time before implementing the idea, I’ve often found later that they never really liked it. The result? At best reluctant acquiescence and at worst, active resistance. But, when I’ve provided sufficient soak time, the idea often evolved into an even better one that the leaders really embraced.

Reason always prevails.

Unfortunately, emotion often trumps reason, even among mature leaders. I’m learning more about how neuroscience affects church leadership, especially when hormones hijack clear thinking. Check out this post to find out if your emotional brain has hijacked your leadership.

Everybody perceives the same reality.

In court, lawyers often use conflicting testimony to their advantage. The same holds true in churches. People simply perceive reality differently. Some may see the church as going great. Others may see the opposite. It can become frustrating at times for every leader. When those conflicts arise, seek wise counsel from someone outside of the conflict who can provide objectivity.

What assumptions have you found to be false in your ministry?

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