Leadership, Machiavelli, and Walter White: Why I wish my students would watch more TV

Don’t tell my students, but I used my snow days this week to finish watching the final season of Breaking Bad.

 I know, I should be grading papers (They will be done and grades will be turned-in in plenty of time for Mid-terms, I promise), but my wife and I have been working through all five seasons together for the past year.  We decided it was high time we found out what happened to Walter White and friends.

"Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito" via Wikimedia Commons

“Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito” via Wikimedia Commons

Coincidentally, my world lit. class read Machiavelli this week. At some point in the discussion our thoughts turned to current and popular examples of leadership that may or not exhibit Machiavellian qualities. We skipped through some of the obvious personalities—President Obama, Oprah, Bill Belichick—and I suggested Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Thinking I had hit on just the right topic of discussion, I was surprised to look out at a sea of blank faces. Only one person in the entire class had ever watched the all of the series of Breaking Bad, and a handful had ever seen any episodes.

We moved on to a couple other examples, but few pop culture characters illustrate the spirit of Machiavelli’s The Prince quite like Walter White. Is it strange to wish my students had watched more Breaking Bad? No, I don’t think so. The truth is that popular media products have the potential to put flesh on the often difficult writings of world literature. Walter White’s rise and fall can put Machiavelli’s teachings into action.

So, I am left imagining the discussion we could have had.

On Virtue and Vice:

Machiavelli says, “For if you look at matters carefully, you will see that something resembling virtue, if you follow it, may be your ruin, while something resembling vice will lead, if you follow it, to your security and well being” (1610).

What Walter White does: He chooses to leave his job as a high school chemistry teacher that does not supply his family with the money they need to become a drug lord in order to gain wealth to “provide for his family.”

On Cruelty and Clemency:

Machiavelli says, “If you have to make a choice, to be feared is much safer than to be loved . For it is a good general rule about me, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers. I conclude that since me love at their own inclination but can be made to fear at the inclination of the prince, a shrewd prince will lay his foundations on what is under his own control, not on what is controlled by others” (1612-13).

What Walter White does: He rules his empire with an iron fist, forcing his henchmen and distributors to fear even the sound of his name.

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Walter White’s story, on the small screen, gives life to words written more than 500 years ago.

But, there is something more valuable I want my students to get, something more than just putting a new face on old words.

Walter White and Machiavelli offer worldly leadership models. And, if there is anything the Breaking Bad shows us as viewers is the dead end of that leadership model, the model that places the gain and maintenance of power as its highest priority. While Machiavelli’s words may be good advice for a leader who wants to maintain power at all costs, we watch Walter White dying alone on the floor of a Meth lab.

Referring back to my post last week, I argue that the human story at times serves to illustrate the aspects of human existence that are sinful or devoid or God’s grace—the flaws of tragic heroes or Gilgamesh crying over the realization of his own mortality.

And so, Walter White and Machiavelli are perfect illustrations of the wrong kind of leadership, the kind that puts the pursuit of power above the act of service.

We may vilify Walter White for his context has a meth drug-lord, and rightly so, but the show is not just about a guy selling meth. It is primarily about something more common to all of us—the pursuit of our own sense of power. When Walter White admits in the end that he did it all for himself, not for his family as he claimed for 61 of the 62 episodes, it illustrates the fruitlessness of that pursuit. He did it not for the betterment of those under his care, but because he was good at it and it made him feel alive.

If Walter White’s story reminds us of the hollow results of Machiavelli’s teachings when we take them to their logical conclusion, it also suggest that there must be, and should be, and alternative leadership model. That model is illustrated in the words of Christ,

Jesus called them together and said, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28 NIV).

Ultimately, what I want my students to take away from studying literature like Machiavelli or consuming media like Breaking Bad is the realization that as humans we are all trying to make sense of how to live in the world around us. We ask questions. Art forms, like literature and television, can give voice to those questions.  We attempt to come up with answers. Art can also give voice to those attempts.

Yet, we, as followers of Christ-like leaders must be wise to discern the wisdom of the word from the wisdom of the world. We find our answers elsewhere.



Machiavelli, Niccolo. From The Prince. The Norton Anthology of Anthology of World Literature,  Shorter 2nd ed. Ed. Peter Simon. New York: Norton and Co., 2009. 1607-1618. Print.

Denominations in an Age of Globalization

In Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything authors Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams write, “stability is dead.  The idea that you can invent a business that will never be disrupted by technology is over.”  Tapscott and Williams welcome us into an age of globalization, an age of disruption, an age of flux and fluidity, an age driven by an accelerating growth of technology, an age that is creating global platforms, global access points and global citizens.

Photo Credit: Lars Plougmann via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lars Plougmann via Compfight cc

We live in an age of globalization.  This reality really needs no introduction.  And in the age of globalization stability is dead.

This is as true for denominations as it is for churches, ministries and corporations.

This week I will be leading a group of students from East Texas Baptist University (ETBU) to the annual gathering of the Baptist General Convention of Texas as part of an ongoing effort to instill a vision of collaborative partnership.  While teaching at ETBU I consistently challenge our students to seek to develop the skills necessary to live, listen and lead as global leaders.  If it is true that we are living in an age of globalization it is essential our educational models and denominational platforms continue to adapt accordingly.  An age of globalization demands globalized denominations.

Towards this end three broad principles are applicable.

First, in an age of globalization denominations must pursue open structures and mass collaboration. 

In the twenty-first century, to return to Tapscott and Williams, “we must collaborate or perish – across borders, cultures, disciplines, and firms, and increasingly with masses of people at one time.”  This is an age of participation.  Millions of individuals connect with each other on Facebook; post pictures on Instagram; record and upload movies on YouTube; and tweet their vote for their favorite singing contestants.  Participation is driven by individuals who anticipate that they will be able to contribute their voice, their perspective, their talents and their passion.  Individuals are not only looking to talk to the many, they are looking to connect with the many in order to foster partnerships that identify issues, solve problems and contribute towards a better society.

In his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman notes, “while the dynamic force in Globalization 1.0 was countries globalizing and the dynamic force in Globalization 2.0 was companies globalizing, the dynamic force in Globalization 3.0 – the force that gives it its unique character – is the newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally.”  The same might be said of churches.

What would it mean for a denomination to be based on an open structure?  An open structure might imply at least the following:

Ongoing Transparency and Information Exchange.  In an age when companies, churches and denominations have lost the ability to command absolute loyalty, one currency remains: trust.  The denominations that will be transformative in an age of globalization will be those that foster a sense of trust between the participants and the denomination and between the participants themselves.  This will require new levels of transparency and all the more so as denominations look to sell, lease or otherwise relocate traditional headquarters.

Very Low Barriers to Participation.  Individuals should be empowered to freely join in the conversation and freely contribute towards the fulfillment of common goals and objectives.  A low barrier of participation is different than low accountability.  A low barrier to participation allows early engagement in the design process.  As a simplistic example, perhaps denominations could use crowd sourcing models to determine break-out sessions and speakers for annual meetings.  An open structure is built around a model actively encouraging participation and interaction by as many individuals as possible.  This will inevitably cause a shift away from a model of centralized hierarchy to one that is more fluid and more genuinely shares control.  Every denomination must ask how to make their organization more of a platform for participation and innovation development?

Second, in an age of globalization denominations must lead through networks that are at all times local, regional and global.

Photo Credit: Melissa Marques via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Melissa Marques via Compfight cc

Several years ago in an edition of Foreign Affairs, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote, “In the twenty-first century, corporations, civic organizations, and government agencies will increasingly operate by collecting the best ideas from around the globe.  In such an environment, it is critical not only to stimulate domestic innovation but also to foster networks that can produce collaborative innovations across the globe.”  She continues, “In this century, global power will increasingly be defined by connections – who is connected to whom and for what purposes.”

Leadership in a globalized context requires the building and activation of networks and the reframing of needs, talents, ministry and opportunities into one that simultaneously embraces the local, regional and global.

This is all the more pressing given the increasingly urban reality of polyglots and multiculturalism.  Mass immigration is altering our communities and heightening the interconnectivity of the world.  A recent blog I wrote, for example, highlighted how a group of Eritrean refugee churches in Texas tendered a request that eventually lead to human rights documentation being submitted to multiple governments around the world and formal representation by a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship partner working on behalf of the Baptist World Alliance at the recent Universal Periodic Review of Eritrea by the United Nations in Geneva.  In an age of global networks fostering connections among and between ethnic churches must be seen as a denominational priority.

Denominations should also look to increasingly share information, resources and personnel.  This will likely result in more decentralized organizations and an increase in individual specialists who are employed and shared by several organizations.  One helpful model is the work of the North American Baptist Fellowship’s Disaster Relief Network.  Additional pan-denominational networks are needed.  Among Baptists perhaps no new network is needed as is the establishment of an international religious freedom network.

Third, in an age of globalization denominations must live prophetically. 

Denominations must view prophetic witness, especially in areas of social justice, as critical.  In this age of globalization denominations must ask again what it means to act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.


Ebola: How Should the Church Respond?

Photo Credit: NIAID via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: NIAID via Compfight cc

Ebola is ravaging West Africa killing roughly 45% of those infected.

The worst Ebola outbreak since the virus first appeared in the 1970s, according to the CDC there have been 6 countries affected, 7,494 total cases and 3,439 deaths.  Underreporting, however, has led the CDC to state that as of September 30th there were likely 21,000 cases, the number of cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone is doubling every 20 days, and that by January 20, 2015 there will be a total of 1.4 million cases.

A recent New York Times article depicted a scene of a “hospital from hell”:

A 4-year-old girl lay on the floor in urine, motionless, bleeding from her mouth, her eyes open.  A corpse lay in the corner — a young woman, legs akimbo, who had died overnight.  A small child stood on a cot watching as the team took the body away, stepping around a little boy lying immobile next to black buckets of vomit.  They sprayed the body, and the little girl on the floor, with chlorine as they left.

Perhaps no country has been more profoundly affected than Liberia, home to 4 million people.  Established in 1822 by the United States as a country for freed slaves, poverty remains an all too pressing reality where 80% live below the poverty line and 85% are unemployed.  In a recent memorandum, Richard Wilson, president of Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary, described the compounding impact of Ebola on the nation as a whole:

The demands for isolation to prevent the spread of the virus undermine the basic economics of a nation where 90 percent subsist on $1 U.S. a day.  When the markets are emptied and the streets are barely filled, the merchant has an impossible task to secure small money… Hunger is growing in Liberia.  It will continue to become the most critical issue… Hungry people become desperate.  Desperation breeds violence.  Violence leads to conflict.

Though news agencies have been covering this outbreak for several months, the reality of this horror has only now begun to settle on many in the United States with the report this week that Thomas Eric Duncan had been admitted to a Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas as the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States.

Many are scared.  This is easy to understand for Ebola is a disease without a cure or vaccine at present and horror film symptomology with high fevers and hemorrhagic bleeding.

How should the church respond?

Perhaps it is helpful to frame this question through a different lens: why did Jesus have physical contact with leprosy?  Wouldn’t the spoken word have been enough?

Matthew 8:1-3 and parallel passage Mark 1:40-45 describe a man with leprosy kneeling before Jesus and asking for cleansing.  Shockingly, “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man” (Matt. 8:3).  Against the best medical advice, in a culture mandating forced isolation as the best means for containment, fully knowing the danger of contagion, Jesus intentionally touched and healed an individual with a disease spread by contact.  Would we do the same?

Even more pointedly, are we doing the same by following Jesus’ example and engaging in a healing ministry among those with a feared infectious and isolating disease?

Jesus loved with proximity those with a contagious disease. (Tweet This) He often healed by spoken word but in this instance specifically chose touch.  Touch cannot happen from a distance or be undervalued.  In no way am I suggesting the disregard of the appropriate use of personal protective equipment or other safety measures, but as Christians we must move beyond the stigma and fear and offer healing ministry where sickness is found, right in the physical space of people’s lives.

I must be quick to admit that such a ministry would be personally challenging; frightening even.  There is however a long history of the church responding in this compassionate manner. As recorded by Rodney Stark, in the third century Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote a pastoral letter to members who were offering care in the midst of a devastating plague:

Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another.  Heedless of danger; they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.  Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

In the midst of this significant medical crisis facing the Roman Empire of the third century, Stark believes that the unnamed numbers of Christians who intentionally choose to provide medical care to those infected reduced overall mortality by as much as two-thirds.

Building upon Jesus’ example of touch to those with infectious disease and the historical example of Christians sacrificially offering health care in the midst of outbreaks, the church today could compellingly respond to the Ebola crisis in the following ways:

1. Regularly pray for individuals infected with Ebola and those seeking to help them.  

Though the exact true number of those infected with the disease is unknown, the lives impacted via relational and economic impact is likely in the hundreds of thousands.

The All Africa Baptist Fellowship, one of the six regions of the Baptist World Alliance, has specifically asked for churches to set aside Sunday, October 12 as a day of prayer related to Ebola.  This call for prayer has been further endorsed and echoed by the American Baptist Churches USA and the North American Baptist Fellowship.  Ethics Daily has compiled a helpful video of local footage from the Ebola crisis in Liberia that can be utilized as part of a day of prayer.

2. Speak calm and truth in an environment prone to hysteria and misinformation.

Within the United States, over the next few weeks there will likely be an uptick in the coverage of this subject and the amount of individuals being watched for Ebola.  While precautions are warranted, Christians must avoid responding out of alarm, fear or misinformation.  An outbreak of Ebola in the United States remains unlikely and pertinent facts are readily available.

3. Pursue support for those physically offering medical care to the infected. 

As an interconnected family, Christians in the United States should share equal concern for those already living in the terror of a devastating outbreak and seeking to respond with care and compassion at great personal risk.  These are individuals facing a harrowing experience who have chosen, like Jesus, to engage in a ministry of touch and deserve the best support that can be offered via prayer, logistical support, and an influx of medical supplies and personal protection equipment.

4. Strengthen health care systems especially those in the affected countries.

One of the reasons this particular outbreak has been so damaging has been a lack of medical supplies, adequate health care systems and trained personnel in the affected areas.  While the Ebola virus is not yet curable, it is treatable with symptom management: fever breakers for dangerously high fevers, rehydration for dehydration, and blood products for blood loss.  Immediate response is critical but a long-term solution strengthening local training and health care systems is also needed.

5. Contribute to churches, ministries and other organizations already addressing the Ebola crisis in West Africa. 

A number of agencies have responded including the Texas Baptists Disaster Recovery and the Baptist World Alliance.  Whether to these or other ministries and organizations, it is essential that our response to the Ebola virus wracking the lives of thousands of individuals includes both prayer and ministerial action.

Ebola Crisis in Liberia from EthicsDaily on Vimeo.





In my last week of teaching organizational leadership this semester, my students were asked to make presentations to their classmates surrounding some sort of ethical leadership dilemma. The students were asked to advise the class on what decision should be made by the leaders in the case from an ethical standpoint while paying attention to what made good business, financial, and legal sense. They were then to use the leadership techniques, models, theories, ideas and perspectives from the semester to present a plan of action to address the case.

They did a remarkable job.

In fact, they did such a wonderful job in pulling together all of those pieces, that the presentations gave me new perspectives on a couple of leadership decisions currently facing one of the organizations that I serve as a member of the board of directors. Of course the presentations weren’t perfect. I questioned the accounting on a couple of proposals and some of the ethical justifications were a little weak. Others lacked detail in applying the leadership models we had discussed. All of which gave me one last opportunity to help students make connections to the material as I asked one final set of questions.
And I saw it…

While I was asking those final challenging questions, I saw a couple of final light bulbs come on.

Some were students who had excelled in gathering the information, but had not yet fully put it into practice. Others I had watched struggle to knit the pieces together all semester long. Watching it all begin to click for them is remarkably rewarding. I am so proud in those moments for the students who continue to work until the light finally dawns.

And in those moments, I’m reminded of why I teach leadership. Because they can learn. (Tweet This)

Many of them come with a great deal of leadership potential. Some are naturally influential with their peers. Others are able to speak eloquently and persuasively. Still others think critically and apply ideas readily. But they still need research and theory and practice to really begin to excel in leadership.

Hopefully, my classes give them the opportunity to gain the knowledge they need and to practice in a relatively safe environment.

Though at this point in the semester, I am weary, it is these moments where they succeed in pulling all of the pieces together, that I am inspired anew to

  • Tweak a classroom exercise
  • Find an even better textbook
  • Edit and refine a lecture
  • Try out a new teaching tool or technique

Because I’m not done learning any more than my students. (Tweet This)

So, we’re off to a summer “break” where my reading list is longer than the one I had during the semester.  But maybe I’ll grab a quick nap first.


There are no ugly cats!

Not all of my teaching takes place in a formal classroom.  One of the delights of my job is to help create leadership learning experiences for students that take place outside of the classroom.  This past weekend, 60+ students came together at Scottsville Retreat Center for Ignite, our student leadership retreat.

As we plan Ignite, we try to offer learning experiences around 3 different areas: developing in our faith as leaders, practical leadership skills, and foundational assumptions about leadership. So, for instance, this year we considered questions related to living out our calling and preparing spiritually for the tough days in leadership. And this year, for the first time, we explicitly discussed our foundational assumptions about leadership.

A couple of years ago, we sat down and wrote out 10 foundational assumptions about leadership which would guide the leadership development program at ETBU.  When I teach in class, when I select a textbook, when I consider bringing in speakers, I think about these 10 foundational assumptions.

We all have foundational assumptions don’t we?  These are the things we really believe, deep down, and that shape the decisions we make daily.

This year, we asked Dr. Dub to address several of our foundational assumptions during our Campfire & S’mores time at Ignite.  And so, there gathered around the fire, we talked about 3 of those assumptions:

  • Leadership Can Be Learned
  • Leadership is Action, Not Position
  • And, “There are No Ugly Cats!”
Photo Credit: asgw via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: asgw via Compfight cc

Well, that’s not our actual assumption, but I will forever hold the story of Dr. Dub’s grandmother telling him there are no ugly cats as a reminder of one of those deep truths of leadership.  Dr. Dub told the story about a cat of questionable cuteness that wandered past his grandma’s porch one day.  When he commented on its lack of attractive qualities (that is, he called it ugly), her response was, “There are no ugly cats!”

And the truth is, in leadership, “there are no ugly cats.” (Tweet This)  Difficult ones, yes.  Opinionated ones, absolutely. Cats of different colors, stripes, spots, and attitudes, no doubt.  But there are no ugly cats. And when I take the time to sit back and really listen to the differences of opinion and different personalities of all the individuals I’ve had a chance to work with or even lead, I am amazed at the beauty of the differences that God creates in human beings. And they all have the opportunity to bring something to the table.  Each person has something to offer, so long as I don’t deny them that opportunity by believing they are too ugly (or uneducated, or goofy, or traditional, or creative, etc).

Of course, in leadership it’s easier to lead people who all think like you do, work like you do, see things like you do.  But, in the end, are you even leading these people? Or would you all have gone in the same direction anyway?

Yes, my life would be easier if everyone always saw things my way.  But, because I really do believe that there are no ugly cats, I will choose to actively include people in the decision-making process who are quite different from me.  So, thanks Dr. Dub for that reminder…and the mental image to keep it fresh in my mind.


Simon Says

I remember as a child playing Simon Says in the front driveway of my grandparent’s home.

“Simon says take one step forward.”

“Simon says put your hand on your head.”

“Turn around.”

“Ah! Simon didn’t say!”

Many of us initially think leadership looks a lot like a game of Simon Says. (Tweet This) Someone (the leader) tells us what to do and we do as we’re told.

Yesterday in class, my students were reflecting on the leadership of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who commanded the 20th Regiment of Infantry, Maine Volunteers during the Civil War.  When the 2nd Regiment was decommissioned, 120 men were reassigned to Chamberlain.  Those men refused reassignment so they were taken under armed guard to Chamberlain.  After 3 days without food, General George G. Meade of the Army of the Potomac instructed Chamberlain to “make them do duty or shoot them down the moment they refused.”

Meade believed that threats of harm should be enough to get soldiers to do as they are told.  He believed in the Simon Says model.

Chamberlain disagreed.  He fed the men and then painted a picture. Well, not a picture made with paint on canvas.  But he created a compelling vision of what they could accomplish together.  He used carefully chosen words to help them envision what the future could look like if they all worked together.

Chamberlain told them “Here you can be something.  Here’s a place to build a home.  It isn’t the land–there’s always more land.  It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me, we’re worth something more than the dirt….What we’re fighting for , in the end, is each other….” (Useem, The Leadership Moment, p. 134).

When we discuss different approaches to leadership in class, many of my students make the assumption that military leaders rely on the Simon Says method to get the job done.  While, I must confess that I know very, very little about the military, I’m not sure that the Simon says method is the only one used in the military.

I had the distinct honor of visiting the Army Fires Training School at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma just a few weeks ago.  I met some really incredible men and women.  And I heard many of them talk about the necessity of earning credibility with those they lead.  They spoke passionately about living out the values in which they believe.  Certainly, you want people who are well-trained and can respond to direct commands, especially when you’re in the midst of a crisis.  But, I heard a lot more conversations that sounded like Chamberlain than Meade.  Maybe they could give orders, but they didn’t seem to believe that’s always the most effective way to lead.

Painting a compelling vision is much more challenging than giving orders. (Tweet This)

It certainly requires more time and effort and thought.  But in the end, it’s worth it.  Don’t we all want to be a part of something bigger? Don’t we all want to contribute to something meaningful?  Don’t we all want to invest our time and lives and energy in something that we believe?

I do.

And doesn’t painting a compelling vision support what we believe about how we are to live as followers of Christ? If we truly believe that each individual is created in God’s image and should be treated with dignity and respect, shouldn’t we share the vision rather than just giving orders?  If we are to treat others as we want to be treated (and we want to work toward something meaningful), wouldn’t we help people understand the big picture they are working toward?

As a leader, I need to paint a picture that allows others to see the possibilities if we all work together.  To return to the image of childhood games, it becomes more like a game of capture the flag than a game of Simon Says.  In capture the flag we all know our roles.  The entire team knows our goal and aim.  We discuss and agree upon a strategy to reach the target.  And when we all know the goal, we can each make split-second decisions as the situation changes.  We don’t have to wait for “Simon” to tell us what we’re supposed to do.



While I normally leave the discussions of movie, tv, radio and the like to my colleague, I’m going to make an exception this week.  Over the weekend, I went to see Divergent.  I’ve read the entire trilogy, so I’ve been looking forward to its release for quite a while. (Yes, I do read young adult fiction.  I can’t read scholarly articles all the time!)

For those of you who haven’t yet read the book (or seen the movie), I’ll give you a quick overview…
In the futuristic Chicago of Veronica Roth’s Divergent, citizens are divided into five factions.  Each faction celebrates and cultivates a particular virtue in its members:


Photo Credit: prettybooks via Compfight cc

Dauntless  – Bravery
Erudite – Knowledge/Intelligence
Candor – Honesty
Amity – Peacemaking
Abnegation – Selflessness

While Divergent is not the first (and likely won’t be the last) in the recent string of dystopian young adult fiction, I’ve appreciated the leadership discussion embedded within the story.  Throughout the books, there are implicit questions about what characteristics or virtues really make a person fit to lead.

Early in the books, all of the leaders of society come from Abnegation. It’s assumed that those who are humble and selfless are best able to make decisions and allocate resources in a way that will serve all of society.

Some characters in the story believe that the Erudite are best suited for leadership because of their high intelligence, commitment to learning, and diligent study.

There are also a number of decisions by leaders in the book that allow the reader to consider ethical dilemmas of leadership.  They are the same sort of questions we consider in my classes:

  • Do the ends justify the means in leadership?
  • Is manipulation an appropriate tool for leadership?
  • Does the leader have the greater responsibility to reveal all information to followers, or to protect them from potentially harmful information?

These are the same kinds of questions that philosophers and students of politics, history, and leadership have been asking for centuries.  Forgive my over-simplification of these heavy philosophical works, but many of the most significant writings in history have assumed that only certain people should lead or that they should lead in particular ways:

  • Plato designed his ideal society in the Republic with philosophers as his rulers of choice.
  • Machiavelli’s Prince argues that “it is far safer to be feared than loved”as a leader.
  • Locke says no one should be subjected to the will of another and advocates for majority rule.
  • Carlyle believes that those who possess divinely inspired knowledge have the right to lead.

I’m not sure that we consistently ask such deep questions about our leaders today.  It would seem we are often more interested in results, final products, and track record rather than with character, virtue, and ethical perspective when it comes to our leaders. Perhaps we need to reframe the kinds of questions we ask during presidential debates, CEO interviews, and pastoral searches to reflect a deeper kind of thinking about who should lead.

I’m also thrilled that we (as human beings and as leaders) can possess more than one faction’s virtues.  I think I might really appreciate following a selfless, courageous, honest, peacemaking leader who also wants to study to gain additional knowledge and skill.  And while maybe that person is too perfect to exist outside of the pages of fiction, I’d like to believe that our leaders would value all of those virtues enough to surround themselves with co-workers, mentors, counselors, and advisers who supplement their areas of weaknesses.

What about you?  Who do you believe ought to lead?


More Questions Than Answers

We tend to think of leaders as people who have all the answers.  Maybe it’s because from childhood the people who “lead” us seem to have all the answers:

  • Our parents, who have already survived childhood
  • Our teachers, who have already conquered spelling, math, and reading
  • Our team coaches, who understand the fundamentals of the game

It can be a rude awakening when we find ourselves in a leadership position and realize that we don’t necessarily have all the answers.  But, do we really want our leaders to have all the answers?

This week in class, we were discussing the idea of the leader as coach.  I’m not talking about the kind of athletic or sport coaches that many of us are familiar with.  The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Unlike a consultant or a trainer, a coach helps you to discover answers for yourself rather than delivering answers as an expert.  Our discussion in class centered around the ways that a leader can help their employees to gain competence and confidence by coaching them to find their own answers rather than always offering immediate solutions.

We talked about the reasons that coaching an employee to come to their own solution might be helpful.  My students identified some good reasons:

  • The employee might have more buy-in
  • The employee gains confidence and expertise to work independently

Apparently, though this might sound good in theory, this was a tricky concept for my students to apply.  After some very rudimentary training, I asked them to use a basic process to coach another student in class (on any subject of their choosing).  And off they went!

Initially, I was really getting a kick out of some of the “challenges” they chose to be coached on, but somewhere along the way, I heard a lot of the coaches telling their fellow student what they should do.

“You should open the door if you really want to be a gentleman.”
“You would plant that particular item during late spring.”
“Well, when I study for Dr. Prevost’s tests, I usually…”

You get the idea.

When we debriefed, they confessed how difficult it is to ask questions rather than providing solutions to people’s questions, problems, and dilemmas.  Almost immediately, we default to offering solutions.  Especially as leaders, we are used to be asked to “fix” the problem.

But, is delivery as powerful a method of learning as discovery?

Val Hastings from Coaching for Clergy actually points out in his trainings how often people in scripture came to deep insights from being asked questions. Consider these questions asked by Jesus:

“Peter, do you love me?”

“Which one of these three was the neighbor?”

“Who do you say that I am?”

Perhaps we should learn from this great teacher who has more followers than any of us will ever hope to have.  If you want people to follow, then ask powerful questions.  As leaders, we don’t always have to have an answer.  And even when we have an answer, perhaps we lead people to deeper, more meaningful insights and opportunities when we ask the right questions rather than always giving them answers.

When has someone led you with a powerful question?


Practice Makes Perfect


Photo Credit: Rob Swatski via Compfight cc

This morning, a co-worker and I were discussing how busy our Spring Semester has felt. We talked about feeling as if we are speeding ahead toward the end of the semester, fighting just to get everything accomplished. And sometimes along the way, we struggle to connect with people in meaningful ways.

These two dimensions of our work, being concerned with getting a job done and being concerned for the people involved in the work are highlighted in the managerial grid developed nearly 50 years ago by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton. Though the grid has 81 possible combinations, most of the time we discuss five major styles (Blake and McCanse, 1991):

  • The Impoverished Manager – with low concern for production and low concern for people.
  • The Sweatshop or Authority-Compliance Manager – with high concern for the work, but low concern for people.
  • The Country Club Manager – with high concern for people, but low concern for accomplishing the work
  • The Status Quo or Middle of the Road Manager – with a moderate concern for both people and task
  • The Fully Functioning Manager or Team Management – with a high concern for both the task and the people doing the task

In recent weeks in Organizational Leadership, we’ve been working through various models, theories, and concepts related to “concern for people” including employee motivation and follower engagement.

Creating task-related assignments isn’t all that difficult for me, but I have discovered that it is tricky to create assignments to help students gain skills in working with people. I think many of my students struggle to see the value of these assignments. It seems obvious that we ought to be concerned about people and speak to them in ways that uphold their dignity, so many of us assume that we do so naturally. But communicating concern for a person while also communicating a concern for getting the job done is trickier than it sounds.

This week, I asked students to create a draft of an email they might use to delegate a task to an employee.  I asked them to use what we’ve learned about employee motivation and engagement to create this document. I got quite a few sample emails that told me about the new task that the boss wanted me to do.  A lot of them were straightforward and to the point.  Many of them clearly communicated the new task.  They weren’t rude, but very few of them effectively showed much consideration for the employee.

Last week, I asked students to role-play a situation with an employee where they intentionally integrated one of the leadership practices identified by Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge: Encouraging the Heart.  As I listened to their role-plays, I heard a lot about the task, but most of my students found it much more difficult to find words to recognize contributions and celebrate victories as a part of their conversations.

While I perceive that some of my students think that role-playing and writing out emails are unnecessary work, I tend to believe that many of us have to actually practice expressing concern for people in the midst of our work.  I know there are some people for whom this is a more natural process, but even then, I think it requires practice to communicate that concern in a way that each unique individual can hear and receive it.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc

We seem to take for granted that practice is necessary for gaining skills in playing basketball or the piano.  But I think many of us mistakenly believe that we are automatically going to be good at the skills necessary for working effectively with people.

Or perhaps we just assume that we get on-the-job experience at these skills, so we don’t need to practice them ahead of time.

That seems a lot like asking someone to attend your oboe recital when you’ve not ever actually picked up the instrument.


So, I’m going to keep looking for ways for my students (and myself) to practice effectively demonstrating concern for people without losing sight of the task at hand. Maybe you’ve got some ideas.

How do you help students “practice” new skills in your classroom?

Be Careful What You Wish For

On Sunday mornings at my church, I’m currently teaching a class called “The Story of the Church” where we look each week at what our brothers and sisters in Christ have been doing since the close of the New Testament.

We’ve seen some good days and some not so good days and we’ve definitely seen a whole host of leaders march across the stage of Christian history in the process.

Last week, we took a look at the Crusades. While I won’t go into all the (bloody) details, I will mention just a few of the disasters left in the wake of the Crusades:

  • The massacre of Jews in the Rhineland
  • The wholesale slaughter of men, women, and children as the Christians entered Jerusalem
  • Intensification of the split between the Eastern and Western church

And it all started with a sermon.

Well, perhaps that is a bit of an understatement.  The history leading up to the Crusades is nearly as messy as the Crusades themselves.  But Pope Urban II’s sermon seems to have been a tipping point.

Christianity Today reports his words as follows: “A horrible tale has gone forth. An accursed race utterly alienated from God … has invaded the lands of the Christians and depopulated them by the sword, plundering, and fire.” In his “altar call” he plead, “Tear that land from the wicked race and subject it to yourselves.”

And his listeners set out to do just that…for several hundred years.

Was that what Pope Urban II had intended? I suppose we cannot read his mind from our viewpoint and I’m not even sure that with hindsight we can see with 20/20 vision in this case.

But I think as leaders, Pope Urban II’s story leaves us with a heavy burden.  We must be careful what we ask our followers to do. It can be easy to underestimate the influence of mere words when our title, position, actions, or character have granted us the trust of followers, listeners, or employees.

We have the power to shape the culture of our organizations, businesses, and teams.  Research from Edgar Schein says that a leader has several (embedding and structural) mechanisms for shaping culture among those mechanisms:
•    Attention
•    Reaction to crises
•    Role modeling
•    Criteria for allocating rewards
•    Criteria for selection & dismissal
•    Stories, statements, and rituals

Our stories and statements help to shape the culture where we serve. And as leaders, we must carefully consider all of the implications of an action we ask our followers to take. We carry a heavy responsibility as we call people to action.

As Schein has pointed out, sometimes we don’t even need words to call people to action.  The ideas that gain our attention or our rewards, the things we measure and evaluate, the things we model for others.  All of these actions send a signal that these are the things we want people to do. We are calling people to action. Even if we never open our mouths.

And the results can be long-lasting.

So be careful what you wish for.