Too Legit to Quit!

No one should ever have to endure the flu! How do I know? Because I’ve just (barely) survived it.

For nearly 5 days, I huddled under mounds of blankets sipping fluids and watching mindless television which has mostly consisted of the 2014 Winter Olympics and Jeopardy!

I do love Jeopardy and spent the week catching up on their Battle of the Decades which included all returning participants from the 80s and 90s. One category even included the slang which dominated my early years:



That’s legit!

With little else to ponder except the heights of my fever, I spent some serious time considering the idea of legitimacy in leadership. Last week I talked about those who fail in leadership. Some come back from mistakes, others lose their credibility and never return. So what is it that distinguishes legitimate leaders? And perhaps more importantly, if we want to be legitimate leaders what’s it going to take?

Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Malcolm Gladwell at the DMA’s Arts and Letters Live Event. During his talk, he referenced an idea from his newest book David and Goliath, where he talks about the reasons that people revolt. He references deterrence theory which would say that essentially people choose to revolt, or to disobey the law, when they determine that the benefits outweigh the consequences. As he references in his book, the theory hasn’t held up well to scrutiny.

Instead, Gladwell proposes that people obey the law when it is legitimate. He listed three elements that make the law legitimate:

  • Respect  – people are treated respectfully, which includes that they are heard
  • Fairness – people are treated fairly
  • Trustworthiness – people know that the rules aren’t all going to change overnight

His idea has some pretty good face validity.


Because when I listen to people who are fed up in their workplace, I often hear them talk about a lack of one of these things. I’ve heard it from a school teacher whose administrators change the daily schedule without giving the teachers any notice.  I’ve heard it from the employee who sits through meeting after meeting, but has learned to keep opinions to herself unless they agree with her boss’s. Sometimes I wonder how long it will be before these leaders have an outright mutiny on their hands.

I try to maintain similar standards in my classroom, with varying degrees of success.  Of course there are days when exhaustion or frustration get the better of me.  Still, on the whole, I want to create a classroom environment that maintains an air of legitimacy.

In a world where there are thousands of leadership books, hundreds of strategies, and dozens of complex approaches, I think leaders (and educators) are often just looking for something simple and practical.  How about consistently applying this simple three as a start?

Let people feel heard.

Treat people fairly.

Be trustworthy.


Epic Fail!

One of the ways that we learn leadership is by watching others lead. In class, we often look at leadership examples from business, politics, education, and the like to see how they handled difficult situations or unique opportunities. For instance, this semester, my students are reviewing the cases from Michael Useem’s The Leadership Moment as part of our experience together.

There is an always a bit of danger in looking to any human example, because they are…well…


oopsAnd as members of the human race, we fail. And my students are highly aware of the failures of leaders. Martha Stewart, Lance Armstrong, and Ken Lay are all household names, not because of their leadership successes, but because of their failures.

As Christians, we recognize that some failures in leadership are due to willful sinfulness. This week in class, we’ve been grappling with the difficulties of leading morally and ethically in today’s world. When leaders are faced with divided loyalties, competing values, and multiple stakeholders, leading an organization with ethics and integrity is a complex and challenging prospect.

Of course, some of our failures as leaders aren’t willful, they are quite simply mistakes. As humans we have a limited point of view, limited resources, and limited information. With all those limitations, we are bound to fail from time to time.

And maybe failure’s not all bad. In fact, some have attributed success to the willingness to risk and to fail, especially if we learn from failure.

I think there’s some truth in that idea. When we are never allowed to fail or never risk enough to fail, it’s difficult to ever learn something new. And while as leaders we have to weigh our responsibilities to the various stakeholders involved (ah, those challenges of ethical leadership again), perhaps it is sometimes irresponsible to always avoid risk that might involve failure.

At the very least, we as leaders ought to put into place some sort of practice that allows us to learn from those inevitable failures.

I’ve made it our practice on campus to ask every guest speaker at our leadership events to identify what practices they’ve put in place to help them turn those epic failures into learning opportunities rather than roadblocks. These are some of the things they’ve said:

  • I ask “What do I learn from this?” or “God, who do you want me to become from this?”
  • I keep a journal that helps me keep track of the lessons learned along the way.
  • I make reflective, prayerful evaluation a part of our ongoing process – when we have apparent success and apparent failures.

I’d love to add to our list of best practices in learning from failure. Do you have practices in place that help you turn failures into learning opportunities?


That’s humiliating!

Just a year ago, I was flabbergasted when I discovered that quite a great number of students in our introductory leadership class, Learning and Leading, couldn’t explain the difference between humility and humiliation. This presented quite a difficulty since we spend an entire week in our freshman leadership class on the role of humility in leadership.  In fact, when I asked them what they thought about the article they read which referenced the role of humility in leadership, a number of them thought the idea was a terrible one.


Photo Credit: gak via Compfight cc

In twenty-three sections of this particular class, almost every facilitator had a similar experience. Many of these students had seen leaders who chose to use intimidation or humiliation with their followers and our students couldn’t distinguish this from the concept of having humility as a leader.  Others had watched as once respected leaders had plummeted from public approval through various scandals and wanted no part of leadership accompanied by humiliation.

So, when every group in my Organizational Leadership class selected humility among the top qualities of a leader, I was thrilled. (Only 7% of Barna survey respondents selected humility.)

As I discussed in last week’s blog, a couple of the characteristics of good leaders selected by my students were unexpected. Though the first gave me plenty of food for thought, this second difference was particularly surprising in light of my past interactions with students about humility and leadership. Though I’m sure I maintained an outward posture of serious academic fervor in front of my class, inside I was throwing a party.

I think any faculty member in Christian higher education wants to celebrate when they see their students integrate faith with their learning. Whether they realized it or not, these students were drawing directly from the teachings of Scripture in considering what makes a good leader.  When we consider the character of Jesus Christ, humility is among the first qualities to come to mind. Consider the words of Philippians 2:5-7

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant…”

If we, as leaders, are leading only in the context of being followers of Christ, then it would be exceptionally difficult to find a place for self-serving leadership.
And as often seems to be the case, research supports the words of scripture. Jim Collins’ research in Good to Great indicates that the best leaders are in fact humble.  He talks about a “curious combination” of personal humility combined with a great deal of drive to see the organization succeed.

Of course, being humble doesn’t automatically make you a good leader, but in a world where so many leaders we see are arrogant, domineering, or self-serving, I’m so impressed that our students can envision a world where the most valued leaders look out for the good of others and give credit to those around them.


Know it When You See it

I like to jump directly into a discussion of faith and our subject matter during the first day of class.  While I could spend the entire time hammering home the finer points of my syllabus, I fear I might put myself to sleep.

So, to get us started in Organizational Leadership this semester, I thought we might consider what good leadership looks like. A lot of people struggle to define leadership and some would even say that though they can’t quite describe it, they know good leadership when they see it. So, I thought it would be interesting to find out how my students would define good leadership.  To do so, I asked them the same question that the Barna Research Group recently asked about the most important characteristics of a leader. Here were the options that respondents in Barna’s research could choose from:

  • Courage
  • Vision
  • Competence
  • Humility
  • Collaboration
  • Passion for God
  • Integrity
  • Authenticity
  • Purpose (which they defined as being made for or “called” to the job)
  • Discipline

I let my students select 4 characteristics that they believed were essential characteristics of a leader.  My students’ responses were similar to those in the Barna survey, but they also differed in a couple of regards:

My students selected “passion for God” most frequently as an essential quality. The article reporting on the Barna research seemed to indicate that the author was a little disappointed in how few Christians selected “passion for God” as essential.  I was frankly surprised that so many of my students chose this characteristic.

Is passion for God necessary for good leadership?

On the one hand, I do prefer working directly for someone who shares my commitment to the Christian faith. Furthermore, I have chosen to teach in a Christian university where we consider the integration of faith essential to exploring the full breadth and depth of knowledge. On the other hand, I’m not sure I would have chosen “passion for God” in my list of essentials for leadership.

As I reflect on my hesitance to put “passion for God” on my list of leadership essentials, I realize that perspective makes a lot of difference.
On a regular basis I interact with leaders in business, politics, medicine, education, social service, and the arts who are not all followers of Christ. When I consider the Barna research question, I have all of those individuals in mind. I don’t expect that I will necessarily have a Christian representative in government on the state or local level.  I don’t expect that my doctor or local law enforcement officers will all be Christians, but I certainly do want them to be leaders in their field. And I would like for my leaders to display integrity and vision regardless of their Christian (or not so Christian) beliefs. So, when I decide who will get my vote or my business, I don’t immediately put “passion for God” on the list of essentials.

If we phrase the question just a bit differently, my perspective changes.  Let’s suppose that instead I was asked, “What characteristics are essential for Christians who lead?” I believe that it is absolutely essential that any leadership that a believer would offer should grow out of our primary role as a followers – followers of Christ.

Even then, I would probably call this a prerequisite to Christian leadership.  It’s the bare-minimum standard that individuals who claim to be Christians would be faithful to living as Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, whether or not they are leading.

And I would likely choose a different term than “passion for God.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being passionate, but when I think about the characteristics of Christian leaders it goes beyond strong feelings and emotions. The Christian leaders whom I most admire and who have been most influential in my life, were also dedicated, committed, surrendered, and faithful to Christ. So though perhaps I would choose those terms instead, if that’s what the researchers and my students intended when they put “passion for God” on the list, then I suppose I can see their perspective.

Next week, I’ll tell you about the other major difference between my students and the Barna research, but until then, what 4 characteristics would make your list?


With fear and trepidation

Photo Credit: Matt Hamm via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Matt Hamm via Compfight cc

There’s a reason that I rarely post to Facebook, avoid Twitter, and have never started my own blog. It might seem strange that I now am blogging about my avoidance of the social media bandwagon, but frankly I am terrified to throw my ideas out in public for the entire world to peruse, review, and critique without the ability to have a face-to-face and preferably one-on-one conversation about them.

The thing I most loved about my graduate school experience was sitting around the conference table having passionate debate with people that I could still consider colleagues and friends at the end of the day.  My experience reading discussions online hasn’t replicated this experience. I find that (some) people tend to throw out niceties and manners when they arrive in cyberspace and rather than having sensible discussions about differences of opinion they attack, point fingers and resort to name-calling.

The fact of the matter is that, even were the entire world kind and gracious, I don’t really like drawing attention to myself.  Most people find it odd to learn that I’m an introvert as I don’t mind teaching in front of a classroom or even a stadium full of people. While being in front of people isn’t a problem, talking about myself rather than my subject tends to be difficult. So we arrive again at my hesitation to post personal reflections that the entire world can see.

So, what do I do? I submit my name for consideration as a Spring 2014 blogger for the Intersection. (Yes, I am aware that this might mean I’m crazy!)  Even as I type this first blog post on the CECS Intersection, I do so with a bit of trepidation.

And yet, I choose to post these thoughts because even more than I dislike the vulnerability of this discussion that is open to the world, I love to converse about the intersection of my discipline (leadership) and our Christian faith. I find myself having this conversation quite frequently in recent weeks…

  • With our commencement speaker as we waited in line
  • Standing on a curb in the bitter cold wind (Why didn’t we move inside?)
  • At the car lot with a (really helpful and kind) salesperson

It seems that just about everyone is interested in a conversation about leadership.  And though many people are surprised to hear that leadership is my academic discipline (or an academic discipline at all), I’m pleased that it is the kind of discipline that most people feel they can converse about. So, I’ve decided to move the conversation online. And though, I’d like to keep the conversation pleasant and lighthearted, I fear it may occasionally (next week, for instance) dip over into the controversial or difficult. Still, I’m willing to risk it so that we can all be a part of this conversation about what it looks like to lead as followers of Christ.

And maybe, just maybe we can do so without forfeiting kindness, graciousness, and civility.

 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Colossians 4:6