5 Questions that Reveal your Leadership Strengths

Kevin Cashman wrote a great book every leader should read, Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life. In it he challenges leaders to lead from character, the inside. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it. In one chapter he lists several questions that can help reveal where our leadership strengths lie. I’ve adapted his questions into five below. I suggest reading these questions slowly and reflectively every day for the next 5 days.

Business concept image of a hand holding marker and write Leadership word isolated on white

5 Questions that Reveal a Leader’s Strengths

  1. What would your dearest friend say in a moment of deep admiration of you?
  2. When you feel energized and fully alive, what strengths and traits do you exercise?
  3. What circumstances bring out your strongest character traits?
  4. What experiences in your life have caused you to feel most completely yourself?
  5. If you witnessed your funeral, what do you hope people would say about your life?

When we discover, develop, and deploy our strengths and gifts, we maximize our Kingdom impact and experience the greatest joy.

One of my life verses reminds me to focus on building character as a leader.

But the noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands. (Is. 32.8, NIV)

What questions would you add to this list?

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4 Brain Hacks that can Make You a Better Leader

I love leadership and I love learning about the brain. I just finished an executive masters in the Neuroscience of Leadership. And a few months ago my fourth book was published, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. As I’ve immersed myself in learning how our brain affects life and leadership, I’ve learned a few short cuts, or hacks that have helped me lead better. Consider these 4 brain hacks that just might make you a better leader.

Information concept: Blue Head Whis Padlock on digital background, 3d render

Brain Hacks that can Make You a Better Leader

  1. Minimize multi-tasking.
    • Research has shown that multi-tasking, trying to accomplish multiple tasks at once, is a myth. We can’t truly pay attention to two things at once, even though we may think we can.

      Actually, when we think we are being efficient by multitasking (answering email while working on a project or presentation while checking a text) the opposite happens. Every time we switch from one task to the next, our attention does not immediately follow. A bit of our attention remains with the previous task. It’s called attention residue. However, when we work on a single task a longer time without switching back and forth, we perform better (see number 4 below). You can read more about multi-tasking here.

  2. Complete a mini-goal.
    • God wired our brains to repeat behaviors that give us pleasure. When we eat a piece of chocolate cake, learn something new, or check something off our to-do list, they feel good because the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain’s pleasure center (the nucleus accumbuns). When we feel good we want to repeat what made us feel good which provides a boost of motivation. Sometimes we experience a lull in our daily routine. When that happens, find something to do that you can complete in a short time. It might be to clean off your desk, send that email you’ve been delaying, or make a call you need to make. When you accomplish such a task, you’ll get a nice boost of dopamine which can help get your motivation back on track for the day.
  3. Strategically use caffeine.
    • In this post I explain how caffeine works and how if used in moderation, it can help us be more effective as leaders. Although some people are addicted to it (not good), if you use it strategically, science has proven that it blocks a neurotransmitter that makes us tired (adenosine) and increases dopamine and adrenaline that can boost both motivation and attention.
  4. Strive for ‘deep work’ 4 hours a day. 
    • Cal Newport, author, professor at Georgetown University, and a really smart dude, recently wrote the bestselling book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In his book he uses science to back up his assertion that truly productive people focus about four hours of their work day on their most important tasks. The unimportant ones, like surfing Facebook and answering emails, get too much of our time. He says the brain is able to focus about four hours a day on ‘deep work,’ what he describes as meaningful work with a minimum of interruptions. So, calendar your day to reflect four hours of your ‘deep work.’

What brain hacks have helped you be a better leader?

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How Caffeine Might Make you a Better Leader

I’m a leader. I want to maximize my brain power. And I care about how I treat my body. I don’t drink coffee or tea, yet I do strategically use caffeine with diet caffeine drinks and 5-Hour Energy (Disclaimer: I am in no way related to the company who produces 5-Hour Energy). I believe my strategic use of caffeine has helped enhance my cognitive resources as a leader. In this post I look at three areas: what caffeine does to your brain, cautions about its use, and how to strategically use it.

Colorful info-graphics: caffeine production and usage.

Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in the world, consumed primarily through coffee consumption. The National Coffee Association says that nearly 2/3’s of Americans drink coffee. We also consume it through tea, weight-loss pills, chocolate, and energy drinks. It has gained the moniker as a,’waker-upper.’

How does caffeine work? It affects the brain in three ways.

  1. It blocks a neurotransmitter that makes us tired (adenosine). Neurons have tiny receptors where adenosine binds. Think of adenosine (or any other neurotransmitter) like a key and a receptor like a lock. So, when it ‘binds’ the ‘key’ goes into the ‘lock’ to create the tiredness effect by slowing down brain cell firing.
  2. It stimulates the brain to tell the adrenal glands to release adrenaline which gives us a boost of energy and increases attention.
  3. It improves mood by increasing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a brain chemical related to pleasure, attention, and motivation. It also helps dopamine hang around longer in our brain.

What cautions should you consider?

  1. You can become addicted to it. It’s addictive because dopamine feels good and when we get addicted to it, we want more and more caffeine to maintain the same pleasure level. You will know you’re addicted when your try to stop because for a few days you may experience a dull headache, lethargy, sleepiness, and even depression. Most experts say the average person can manage 400 milligrams of caffeine each day, the equivalent of four cups of coffee. A bottle of 5-Hour Energy has about 200 mg.
  2. You can develop a tolerance for it. Regular caffeine use actually creates a need for even more caffeine because it increases adenosine receptors in your brain. Thus, you need more caffeine to block the tired effects of adenosine.
  3. Too much caffeine (more than 500 mg) can really mess up your body by causing such issues as muscle tremors, sleep difficulty, upset stomach, nervousness, and dizziness.
  4. Caffeine too late in the day can disrupt your sleep patterns. Its half-life (how long it takes the body to eliminate 1/2 of it) is 3-5 hours and its effect can last 8-12 hours.

How can you strategically use caffeine?

  1. First, I never use caffeine to wake me up in the morning. I try to get sufficient sleep so that I don’t use caffeine as a fall back for lack of sleep. I live in Canada and the winters can be brutal and overcast so I’m now using light therapy in the morning which appears to give me a nice natural wake up boost. I use a portable Philips blue light to give me 20 minutes of light when I wake up.
  2. Consider a nap first. A 10-20 minute nap can clear out adenosine and give you a nice mental boost without caffeine. If you can’t take a nap at work, perhaps these other suggestions below will work for you.
  3. Consider a nap-caffeine combination. It takes caffeine about 20 minutes to get into your gastrointestinal track and bloodstream. So, a cup of coffee or tea, a diet soda, or 5-Hour Energy just before your nap can give you a one-two punch.
  4. When I’m studying to put a sermon together, I find that 1/2 bottle of 5-Hour Energy about mid-morning gives me a nice mental boost. About 2 hours later I will finish the bottle off so that I’m only getting about 200 mg per day.
  5. About 30 minutes before I speak on Sunday mornings I drink a half of a bottle. I find it helps give me a bit more mental focus during my sermon.
  6. On days when I need lots of mental focus in meetings, I will split a bottle of 5-Hour Energy between mid-morning and early afternoon. I find that I’m more focused later in the afternoon to give those in my meetings my full attention.
  7. I seldom if ever use it after 3:30. Remember, it can stay in your system many hours.

I recognize that many readers may prefer to stay away from any caffeine. I respect that as I used to avoid anything with caffeine in it. Only in the last few years have I discovered that moderate use has helped improve my attention, concentration, and ability to think more clearly.

How have you used caffeine in a strategic way?

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5 Traits of a Flourishing Leader

Some people have a green thumb and others don’t. Those that do can grow plants and flowers that seem to flourish with life, color, and vibrancy. Leaders also fall into two categories. Those who flourish and those who don’t. What are common traits of flourishing leaders? I believe what happened in the early church gives us clues to traits of a flourishing leader.

leadership ball with words

In Acts 1 Jesus had completed his mission on earth to die on the cross for our sins and then rise from the dead. 40 days after He rose he promised the Holy Spirit to his followers (Acts 1.8) and then ascended to heaven to co-rule with with His Father (Acts 1.9). Those first few verses point to traits of a flourishing leader.

What flourishing leaders do.

They take their role seriously. Jesus gave the great commission in Acts 1.8 to reach those without Christ. Flourishing leaders leverage their gifts to the max to help the church fulfill the great commission.

They lead with a sense of urgency. After Jesus ascended, two angels appeared and reminded those who watched Him ascend that He would return in the same way he came (vs 11). A flourishing leader will lead and act with a sense of urgency knowing that his or her time on earth is limited and that Jesus could return at any moment.

They seek to live in the Spirit’s power. Jesus promised the church that he would send the Holy Spirit (vs 8). And, the book of Acts chronicles the work of Christ through the Spirit in the early church. A flourishing leaders knows that he can’t lead in his own power. Rather, he will seek to submit his will daily to the work of the Spirit.

They deliberately seek to discover God’s will for their leadership. One of the first decisions the early church made was to discern God’s will about Judas’ replacement. They knew that the church needed godly leaders to lead it. A flourishing leader won’t seek to ask God’s blessing after he makes a leadership move. Rather, he will seek to discern God’s will and seek His direction before moving forward. He will use these four pillars when he seeks God’s will: Scripture, prayer/peace, common sense/circumstances, and wise counsel.

They direct their heart’s affection toward Jesus. In verse 24 Luke writes this just before they replaced Judas, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” The passion of their heart was focused on Jesus. Flourishing leaders will do the same. They will choose to set their affections not on success, a big church, or acclaim, but on pleasing Him.

Read Acts 1 today as a reminder of what God looks for in a flourishing leader.

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A Millennial’s Search for Finding His Sweet Spot

I’ve been following one of the most influential leadership bloggers who is in his 20’s, Paul Sohn. He is an award-winning writer, speaker and executive coach. His new book, “Quarter-Life Calling: How to Find Your Sweet Spot In Your Twenties” is out today and I highly recommend it. I asked Paul to share a bit about his journey which he does here as a guest blogger.

Book Cover

So, what’s next? What are you going to do after graduation? Do you have any jobs lined up? Have you thought about what you want to be when you grow up?

Those questions haunted me.

Whether it was friends, family members, professors, colleagues, every single time, I would give my impeccably rehearsed thirty-second elevator pitch. “Yes, my dream is to become the youngest Chief Human Resources Officer at a Fortune 500 company, and I’m doing everything in my power to reach my dream.”

Every day was a hustle. In college, I spent countless hours of studying, pulling all-nighters, working to reach that elusive 4.0 GPA. I excelled in extracurricular activities, creating new student clubs and leading student government. The rest of my hours revolved around perfecting my resume so I could land my dream job.

I was inching my way closer and closer to my ultimate dream.

Next came the big win. I secured an enviable internship and later landed a full-time job at the world’s largest aerospace company. I got to sit in important meetings with senior leaders and lead transformational company-wide initiatives. I was making over $75,000 a year at the age of twenty-six. I had one of the best health-care plans in the country, a matching 401(k) plan, and long-term job security.

In my new job, I was laser-focused on improving my performance. All my efforts went into developing myself professionally so that I could be a star player at work. I devoured management and leadership books, subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, and connected with reputable business leaders to learn about the latest business trends. I developed a detailed strategic plan for the next five, ten, and fifteen years of my life. I put a plaque in the wall of my bedroom with visuals inspiring me to become the youngest CHRO of a Fortune 500 company.

I had it all figured out.

Everything seemed perfect, except for one thing: I was actually miserable.

Of course, I never admitted this to anyone, even myself. How could I?

All my life, I had gone all-in with the hopes of reaching a dream, until my passion and determination started to fade. The harder I worked, the more I felt disconnected and disenchanted with my work. I felt like a mindless zombie, drowning in the currents of purposelessness. Every day felt like a daily grind. Work devolved into a monotonous set of thankless tasks. I wondered, “Where was my life leading?”

These frustrations led me to face some fundamentally inconvenient questions about my life:

  • Is this what all my hard work and planning amounted to?
  • Why am I here?
  • What’s my calling and purpose in life?
  • What is the true meaning of success?

Every day the feeling of being lost—of leaning on the wrong wall—tormented me. So I began searching for answers.

I turned to God and raised my white flag. One of my mentors recommended to me Os Guinness’s signature book on calling, The Call. The book changed my thinking and turned my life upside down, giving me a refreshing perspective on how to view life. All my life, success was measured by possessions and prestige. But The Call offered a radically different idea on life and success: meaning and purpose are gained by discovering and stewarding God’s calling in my life.

Ignited by a newly consuming passion, I started a journey to discover my calling. I spent the next few years reading dozens and dozens of books on this topic.

It wasn’t long until the direction of my life started to change. It was as if I were guided by a compass that pointed to a true north. Now, I was attempting to align every aspect of my life toward my calling. Every day, I was traveling closer and closer to the sweet spot where I was living intentionally toward my calling in life. I created a timetable and outlined all the activities in my life. I wrote down everything that occupied my time. I dissected each activity one by one and asked whether this relationship, activity, or engagement helped me grow closer to my calling or detracted me. Some of these decisions weren’t easy. I had to sever relationships that I had invested in for a long time. I had to stop habits of mine that were becoming more detrimental in pursuing my calling. I soon came up with dozens of items on a list that I had to either start or abandon to live with greater intentionality.

So after working four years at my job, I did craziest thing a twenty-eight-year-old could. I quit my Fortune 50, high-paying job with great benefits, without having another official job lined up.

Along my journey, I’ve realized something about other professionals my age. I’ve realized that I’m not alone, I’m not unusual, and I’m not even weird. Purpose and meaning is an issue that a lot of twentysomethings grapple with. As someone who has struggled with questions of purpose and meaning too, I believe my story will encourage you to live intentionally to your calling as a twentysomething who has chosen to be countercultural, to respond to God’s calling, and to live according to God’s rules instead of the world’s rules.

Paul writes at paulsohn.org and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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