4 Legal Drugs Every Leader Should Know about and Use

Drugs. At first blush the word implies something illegal, immoral, and bad for your body and brain. However, there are 4 key drugs or chemicals that every leader should know about, use, and wisely leverage in the ministry and the workplace.

God wired our bodies and brains to use these four chemicals so that we function most effectively. And leaders who understand their function can help their teams become most productive. So, what are they and how can leaders use them?

First, a  bird’s eye explanation. There are two basic kinds of these drugs or chemicals. Neurotransmitters traffic in our brain’s neurons (brain cells) and hormones flow through our blood. There there are over 100 neurotransmitters and over 50 hormones. Some act as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter.

But these four are significant body-brain chemicals that a leader’s actions can influence in the bodies and brains of those we lead.

  • Dopamine: a neurotransmitter involved in attention and reward. When you learn something new or check something off your to-do list, dopamine gives you a nice pleasurable feeling.
  • Serotonin: the neurotransmitter the brain releases when we feel pride in our work. When someone compliments you on a task you did or a talk you gave, that ‘feel good’ sense comes from serotonin.
  • Oxytocin: the neurotransmitter/hormone called the trust hormone. When you feel safe and secure around another and feel that you belong, this chemical releases and also makes us feel good.
  • Cortisol: called the stress hormone. We need this hormone to respond to the stresses in life. But when under prolonged stress, too much cortisol can damage our cardiovascular system, suppress our immune system, and diminish cognitive function like memory.

As a leader, you can leverage these chemicals in your teams in these positive ways.

  • Dopamine (attention/reward)
    1. Help your team members set and reach realistic goals. When they do, they will get a nice dopamine burst which will motivate them to set and reach new goals.
    2. When you teach, model techniques that can help your team maintain attention and learn more effectively. Some of these techniques that can help the brain release dopamine (and increase attention) include novelty, using object lessons, adding pictures alongside words in power points, and helping the listener apply what they hear.
  • Serotonin (affirmation)
    1. Look for and acknowledge good performance from team members.
    2. Know your team members well enough to know what communicates to them “job well done” (i.e. verbal, in writing, before the group).
  • Oxytocin (trust)
    1. Provide ways for your team members to build community with each other.
    2. Spend relational time with your team simply to get to know them.
  • Cortisol (stress management)
    • While encouraging hard work, reinforce the Sabbath-keeping principle by making sure your team members take a day off to rest.
    • Regularly monitor how well your team members manage their stress. If they are under long term stress, help them develop ways to decrease it.

What specific ways could you leverage these chemicals in your unique team environment?

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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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7 Benefits of an Often Overlooked Planning Tool: the Pre-mortem

Jesus recognized the role good planning plays in life and ministry. He said, Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? (Luke 14.28) Unfortunately, lack of planning often torpedoes otherwise good ministry ideas. Scientist Gary Klein, author of The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work, offers a great idea he calls a pre-mortem. In this post I unpack 7 benefits a pre-mortem offers in planning.

planning tools

Dr. Klein says that a pre-mortem can increase the chances that our plan will succeed. In contrast to a post-mortem that we often perform after a plan fails, a pre-mortem is an exercise that teams do before they implement a plan.

By imagining that an event is over and that it failed, a pre-mortem can often surface potential problems that you can address and prepare for before you invest time and resources in an event or a plan.

In my next post I’ll give crucial questions to ask to make a pre-mortem successful.

But first, I’ve listed several benefits of a pre-mortem.

  1. A pre-mortem helps you fail on paper rather than in practice. A pre-mortem considers what might go wrong so you can plan to avoid those mistakes
  2. You can surface potential pitfalls in a safe environment. Before others get overinvested in the plan, considering the pitfalls beforehand makes it less threatening for a team member to voice a concern.
  3. A pre-mortem helps you value your team members by soliciting their ideas and thoughts. We all like others to feel that our voice matters. A pre-mortem reinforces that experience.
  4. You can help team members become more sensitive to potential problems as you roll out the plan. By discussing potential issues beforehand, your team is more likey to see potential issues when you do roll it out.
  5. You can increase the chances that you will avoid a painful post-mortem autopsy prompted by a failure. We’d all rather avoid autopsies.
  6. You can surface potential problems you might have otherwise missed. Pretended your plan has failed makes you think outside the box.
  7. ___________ (what would add as a seventh benefit?)

So, the next time you plan a big initiative, try a pre-mortem.


“I just learned 5 good reasons to conduct a ministry plan pre-mortem to avoid failure.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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24 Words that Define a Leader’s Job

In this short post I suggest 24 words that define a leader’s job.

Vision casting

Problem solving

Giving feedback

Rewarding staff

Influencing others

Recruiting leaders

Developing people

Developing systems

Communicating well

Delegating workload

Relationship building

Establishing priorities

What would you add to this list?

What’s your strongest area?

What needs more attention?

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A Fresh Perspective of the Christmas Story: through the Lens of Adoption

This is an older post that you might find helpful as you prepare for this Christmas. It is an abbreviated text of my 2009 Christmas message I gave during our annual Christmas program.

Note: our entire Christmas program was written by our church’s worship leader. It follows the story of a girl named Emma who was given up for adoption at birth and her search for her birth dad. It takes place on the set of a community acting troupe performing a version of the play ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Also, this text has not been proofed for perfect grammar.

Pastors always feel a bit anxious when Christmas comes around for this reason. We wonder how can we bring a fresh take on the Christmas story. The program you are experiencing tonight gives us fresh lens through which we can see the Christmas story—through the lens of adoption.

Adoption is big in our culture. Sandra Bullock starred in the movie, The Blind Side that has as its theme adoption. A new ABC reality show called Find my Family, reunites families separated by adoption.

The bible often speaks about adoption. Of the three examples in the OT, the most tender one that pictures the love and grace of God when He adopts someone into His family is seen when King David adopted a crippled boy as his son. The NT mentions adoptions several times as well.

In the ancient Roman world where the Christian faith began, adoption was common and primarily for the parents sake unlike today when the purpose is for the benefit of the child. Then adoption occurred primarily to carry on the family’s names, pass on the inheritance, and have someone to take care of parents in old age. The common person understood the concept. The Apostle Paul writes about it here.

Rom. 8.15 So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”

A Roman slave owner could adopt a slave. The result was that the slave was freed from the bondage of slavery and the fear of his master. Now, no longer a fearful slave, but a son. The Scripture I just read says that this new relationship was so intimate the term Abba was used, an endearing term for father, papa. You don’t call someone you are afraid of, papa.

This practice in Romans days parallels what happens when God adopts us. Because of sin we are alienated/separated from God (slavery to sin). When God adopts us he makes us his son or daughter, frees us from this bondage to sin and fear and addictions and we now have this new warm relationship with him so close we can approach Him as PaPa without fear. We then experience his love just like adopted children experience the love of their new parents.

Also, if I lived in that day and had no son I could adopt the son of in another family if they had two sons (and they gave permission). In doing so, I would release from that son any future debt he would be responsible for from that family. The adoption would wipe away any debt.

This practice illustrates spiritual adoption, God’s adoption of us. The bible says that sin puts us in debt to God and this debt carries with it eternal consequences—eternity apart from Him. Yet, when God adopts someone, the debt of sin and penalty of that sin is wiped clean, done away with. When God adopts us, he removes this debt of sin.

So just as a Roman through could free someone from the bondage of slavery and remove their debt through adoption, from a spiritual perspective, when God adopts us, he frees us from this slavery to our sin, fears, and addictions, removes the debt of sin that eternally separates us from Him, and gives us a new intimate relationship with Him, our PaPa.

So, how does God adopt someone? That’s where Christmas comes in.

I did some research on adoption and learned this. Those of you who have adopted already know this: it is expensive and time consuming—background checks, home visits by adoption agency, applications that must filled out and on and on.

Adoption is also one way. 100% the work, effort, and cost is born by the parents who want to adopt that child. The orphan does not earn adoption nor perform to get it or pay for the privilege of it. The power and the reason for adoption is all bound up in the heart of the parents to be.

Parents will go to literally the ends of the earth to adopt a child, pay tens of thousands of dollars, invest thousands of hours of effort so that they can adopt a child… for one reason: love. A parent wants to give away the love in their heart to a child.

That same reason has motivated God to make a way for us to be His child, only God’s love is so deep that it’s difficult to fathom what He did to make our adoption possible. The bible puts in this way.

Gal. 4.4 But when the right time came, (Roman world was like U.S., advanced civilization, but in moral crisis) God sent his Son, (Christmas-Jesus birth, God becoming a man) born of a woman (fully human, He knows what it’s like living with  pain and hurt and sorrow, he’s not aloof from it) subject to the law.  5 God sent him to buy freedom for us (remember that parents pay the full price, not the orphan) who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.

One of the privileges of adoption is that the adopted child will eventually share in the inheritance as if he were related by blood. But for an inheritance to be put into effect, usually death has to occur.

A death, a payment had to happen in order for God to make spiritual adoption possible.

God took the initiative to graciously and lovingly seek out unworthy humanity (you and me) to offer to us the greatest gift possible—to become God’s child, to be adopted into His family, to be freed from the slavery, penalty, and debt of sin, to be free from our fears and our addictions, not on the basis our merit (remember an orphan doesn’t earn adoption but must simply receive it), but on the basis of what God has done out of his love for us. We must receive God’s offer to become His child.

Just as a parent goes to great lengths to adopt a child, God went to the unfathomable length of sending his son Jesus to earth (Christmas) to go die on a cross to pay for our sins (good Friday) and then to be raised from the dead to give us life eternal (Easter).

God did that so that we might be his child, have our sins forgiven, and share in this wonder spiritual inheritance-a bounty of blessings in this life and the next.

God made us to want this relationship with Him. Pascal, one of the most brilliant scientists who ever lived and a follower of Jesus said that there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of all of us.

Emma’s search for her father reflects the desire in all of us to belong, have a family that accepts us, a father who loves us, a place of safety, security … a place our hearts can call home.

Jesus makes this possible.

At Christmas, at least for a moment, the word tunes to the spiritual. For many people at Christmas hearts and souls warm up to God a bit.

I hope that your heart will open up tonight and that you will consider becoming a child of God, being adopted into His family because of what Jesus did.