5 Leadership Insights I Wish I Knew 25 Years Ago

I just finished six months as a lead pastor at West Park Church in London, Ontario and I’m thoroughly enjoying my time here at a great church. This summer also marks 34 years in ministry that has 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.

Little child play with book and glasses
  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 their 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?

INVITATION to a LEADERSHIP EVENT: Today, June 10 (2014), at 11 am PDT/2pm EDT I am privileged to join Brian Dodd and Greg Atkinson in a live broadcast on leadership. We’ll be talking about innovative leadership, avoiding people pleasing, and indispensable practices to help you grow. Here’s the link if you’d like to join us.

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4 Ways to Improve Focus while Preparing a Talk

Preparing talks and sermons is one of my highest priorities as a pastor. I’ve often said that preparing a message feels much like writing a term paper, each week. I even heard someone say that sermon preparation is like delivering a baby each week and then on Monday realizing you are expecting again. It’s hard work and takes time. Without sustained focus and attention, sermon prep can consume an inordinate amount of time. (See my post here about how long we should spend preparing a sermon). To maximize my prep time, I’ve learned to focus my attention in these ways.

business man thinking about  new projects
  1. Visual gating.
    • Visual gating simply means to block out other visual distractions. In my office at church I have two desks. One is the main one that faces the office area which allows me to see out the window. Another one is around the corner in a nook. Only a bare wall stands behind my computer monitor. I use this one. At my home office I have my desk and monitor arranged in the same way. A bare wall stands behind them. I also use the ‘focus’ mode on Microsoft Word. It blocks out all the other panes and programs that lie behind Word so that the only thing I see is my current document. If you don’t use Word, you can buy several other programs that do the same thing. One company even found that the best way they increased employee productivity was to get them large computer monitors.
  2. Auditory blocking.
    • Ambient sounds can definitely distract us from our prep. I’ve used two techniques. I turn on a small fan that blocks most unwanted noise. However, if I really want to maximize concentration, I use my sound suppressing headphones and listen to the sound of rushing water with an iPhone app called Ambiance. You can get zillions of sounds through this app if rushing water does not work for you.
  3. Dopamine enhancement.
    • The neurotransmitter dopamine helps us maintain attention and is involved with reward in the brain. We need dopamine to help us concentrate. Too little and we don’t focus. Too much and we get wired. When we check off a task from our to do list we get a tiny burst of dopamine. Chocolate can increase it (although I don’t recommend keeping a jar of M & M’s on your desk). And, caffeine can boost it as well. I don’t drink coffee or tea, the two main sources of caffeine. However, sometimes I will drink a diet coke or use 5-Hour Energy. I’ve found that this energy drink does not leave me with a crash when it wears off. I wrote a blog on energy drinks for the busy pastor here.
  4. Minimized computer distractions.
    • When I study I turn off any email or social networking automatic reminders. Studies show that when social media and email interrupt us, it takes us several minutes to get back to the task.

What has helped you concentrate while prepare a talk or sermon?

INVITATION to a LEADERSHIP EVENT: This Tuesday, June 10, at 11 am PDT/2pm EDT I am privileged to join Brian Dodd and Greg Atkinson in a live broadcast on leadership. We’ll be talking about innovative leadership, avoiding people pleasing, and indispensable practices to help you grow. Here’s the link if you’d like to join us.

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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.

brain

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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3 Qualities Necessary to Learn from our Critics

Nobody likes to be criticized, at least not at first. Sometimes criticism is warranted. Sometimes it’s not. And sometimes it hard to differentiate between the two. The writer of Proverbs implies that we should learn from and even seek out the beneficial wounds from a critic. Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy. (Pv 27.6) But when we need to heed a message from a critic, how can we position ourselves so that we can benefit from it? Below I suggest three ways we can do so.

Feedback Concept
  1. Stay teachable. We must be willing to let others tell us what we may not want to hear. We must cultivate an open, non-defensive heart. I’m trying to create such a culture among our staff through one of our key staff values… Continual growth and learning: We welcome constructive feedback. For a list of our staff values, read this blog post.
  2. Keep accountable. One way to stay open to the message from a critic is to develop a mentoring relationship with another person and/or use a coach. I meet with my personal coach each month via FaceTime. (I explain why every pastor should get a coach here.) He is free to ask me tough questions about my life and ministry. I’m also directly accountable to the chairman of the board. Without accountable relationships, we can easily miss our blind spots. I need someone in my life, including my wife, that cares enough about me to ask those tough questions and tell me what I may not want to hear.
  3. Develop a bias toward action. Tom Peters who wrote In Search of Excellence popularized this term. It simply means do something. In other words, when a critic tells us what we don’t necessarily want to hear but need to hear, a bias toward action means that we act on it. Learning from our critics means more than assuming a listening posture. It also includes a doing posture as well. 

So the next time you get criticized, ask yourself what you need to learn from it, if it came from a less-than-friendly source get the perspective from someone who cares about you, and then act upon it.

What other quality do you believe leaders need to learn best from their critics?

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My Daughter’s Emergency Brain Surgery: 3 Leadership Lessons Learned

My youngest daughter Tiffany was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 1. Now 27, she has endured seven brain surgeries, intractable epilepsy (non-responsive to drug therapy), proton beam radiation, and an experimental device implanted into her brain. The implant, just approved by the FDA and called a responsive neuro-stimulator holds great promise for epileptic patients that don’t respond to drugs. Two months ago we drove to Rush University Medical Center in Chicago to have her battery replaced. A week ago we noticed a tiny hole in her scalp at the incision line. I saw metal in that hole, a potential sign that the device was now exposed. The day we reported this to her neurosurgeon, he requested an emergency meeting with him ASAP. The next day we drove to Chicago unsure about what awaited us. Here’s what happened last week and what I learned about leadership.

Surgeons standing above of the patient before surgery

Upon arrival, we went straight to the neurology waiting room. We waited perhaps 30 minutes and they apologized for the wait, even though we had scheduled the appointment less than 48 hours prior.

The neurosurgeon’s new nurse greeted us with a smile and great concern. Within 10 minutes Dr. Richard Byrne, Tiffany’s doctor who is chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Rush Hospital saw us. After looking at her scalp, with concern and compassion he said that the device needed to come out. Its exposure probably meant that bacteria had contaminated the device and to protect Tiffany’s brain from further exposure, surgery was needed, the next day. However, he felt that even without the device her seizures may not occur since she had been seizure free since her temporal lobectomy four years prior.

We were saddened that it had to come out, but agreed.

The surgery the next day, her seventh brain surgery, went well and as of this writing, she is recovering nicely. We pray that her brain will take care of itself and that she will continue to be seizure free.

During our stay at Rush through this surprise surgery, I experienced three key leadership principles at play that I believe every pastor or leader should ask about his or her church or organization.

Leadership Principle 1: Great churches and organizations respond quickly and promptly to needs.

  •  The day we noticed the hole, the nurse on the other end spoke with us by phone twice that afternoon. And even though Dr. Byrne was out of the office in another state, she contacted him and emailed him pictures I had taken of Tiffany’s head. Tiffany’s neurologist, Dr. Marvin Rossi, who has followed Tiffany for 10 years also contacted us. Our doctors were quick and responsive to our need, exceeding my expectations.
  • Leadership question: How would those in need rank your church or organization for promptness to their needs?

Leadership Principle 2: Great churches and organizations help increase certainty in their culture by over communicating.

  • A key principle of the brain is that it likes certainty. Uncertainty, however, engages the brain’s limbic system (fight-flight area) which creates a threat response which in turn hinders clear thinking. In other words, uncertainty breeds worry. You can imagine how easy it was for our thoughts to drift toward a worst case scenario. While we waited in one waiting room, a nurse rolled around a computer on a stand and asked if we’d like an update on Tiffany. We gladly said yes. In the next five minutes she gave us detailed information that included the time she went into surgery, when the surgery was over, her blood pressure, her heart rate, her oxygen uptake, her self assessed pain level, and when we could see her in recovery. The five minutes the nurse gave us to over communicate about Tiffany’s condition greatly relieved our concerns.
  • Leadership question: Do you keep your church/organization in the dark about what’s happening or do you intentionally over communicate?

Leadership Principle 3: Great churches and organizations intentionally create a positive, hopeful, and happy atmosphere.

  • Having spent several weeks at Rush during the past 10 years, I’ve noticed a growing, infectious, positive culture. The admitting personnel, the nurses, the doctors, and even many of the cafeteria workers communicate a positive tone with their smile, their words, and even their body language. The concept of emotional contagion comes into play here. Emotional contagion is what the phrase sounds like: we catch the emotions of those around us, whether good or bad. We unconsciously mimic the emotions of others, an example of the principle in Proverbs 15.1. A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. I once noticed a supervisor exude friendliness to every employee he met and I told him that I experienced this same positive vibe from others. He said that they intentional sought to create such a culture.
  • Leadership Question: Do you intentionally seek to model for those in your church/organization a positive and hopeful attitude?

Rush is repeatedly ranked among the country’s top hospitals in US News & World Reports’s annual hospital survey. I can see why. Their culture reflects three key leadership principles that pastors and Christian leaders should seek to build into their churches and organizations.

What leadership principle would you add to this list?

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