Friday, August 28, 2015


Several years ago the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) phenomenon was all the rage - Bible studies, t-shirts, books, wrist bands and multiple other items were marketed with the WWJD tag line.  With apologies to those who came up with the WWJD slogan, today's blog is all about What Would Lincoln Do?  Someone once asked me why I was such a Lincoln fan (the picture is from the top of the bookcase in my office) are four reasons I look to Abraham Lincoln as a guide to my leadership:

  1. He surrounded himself with people who were smarter than him...and with people who thought differently from him.  The story of building a cabinet of one's rivals still boggles my he was able to do that and bring them together for a common purpose is one of the great acts of leadership in all of history.
  2. He won others over...and he did so in a way that was winsome and caring.  His ability to invite others to visit with him (even those who were against him), his ability to ask questions and listen, and his ability to use humor in even the toughest situations all helped to bring others to join him in the fight to win the war,
  3. He understood (and was able to live with) the tension of waiting too long to make a decision and making a decision too quickly.  Having to ensure that the right general was in place at the right time was one of Lincoln's consistent issues, and waiting loo long or not long enough would haunt him day after day.  Personnel decisions are never an exact science - and are subject to the circumstances surrounding the time and place.  
  4. He did what he needed to do to win...even if it meant stretching his powers from time to time.  Many people will blame Lincoln for overextending his reach and grossly expanding the role of the office, yet he seemed to do what he thought was best for the country at that time.  He was willing to make the hard decision even if it meant being castigated by others. 
If you would like to learn more about what Lincoln would do, I suggest the following three volumes:
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Tried By War: Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James McPherson
  • Giants: The Parallel Live of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer

Friday, August 21, 2015

questions...or statements?

Following a recent Q&A session on our campus, I had a discussion with one of my colleagues about how often people use questions to mask their statements and what they believe.  He came back and wondered whether all questions are really statements.  After a bit of back and forth, he had me thinking that he might be right.  After pondering the debate more thoroughly, I have come to the conclusion that there is a range of questions, moving from pure statement to little or no statement at all.  Let me explain...

Let's assume I recently painted a room in my home blue (which would probably never happen, so this is as fictional an example as it gets).  My wife comes home and asks me questions about my choice of color.  Here is the range I am talking about:

  1. Don't you think it would look better painted tan? (pure statement)
  2. Did you consider pointing the room tan? (still pretty close to pure statement)
  3. Why didn't you paint the room tan? (moving from pure statement to seeking information)
  4. Why did you paint the room blue? (seeking more information)
  5. I wonder why I prefer tan to blue? (looking inward for more information)
  6. If we were to repaint this room, would we choose blue again or look for another color? (seeking to come to a collaborative answer)
Moving from question #1 to question #6 takes considerable effort to shape the question and requires a mechanism by which one can internalize their thinking. While there still might be a hint of statement in all six questions, there is a definite progression from 'this is what I believe to be true' to 'while I believe something to be true, I am willing to explore other alternatives.'  For me, this is what the art of asking questions is about - the ability to think out loud with others in seeking a mutual solution to an issue.

A few tips on how to get better at asking questions that are more about the question than they are about making a statement:
  • stop to think about the question you are going to ask and see what biases might be in the wording
  • consider what issue you are really trying to solve and word the question in a manner that reflects that issue
  • assume there is information you do not yet know, and that the question is a way for you to get more information
  • come at the question from a place of humility, seeking to learn more about the situation at hand
  • if the situation affords you to do so, write down the question before you ask it...and speak it to yourself internally to see how it comes across
Finally, there are times it is appropriate to make a statement prior to asking a question.  If my wife walked in the room and said that she would rather have had the room painted tan (statement) she could follow up with the question of why I painted the room blue.  For me, as the questionee, I now know what she believes and I can answer from a place of not having to guess what type of answer she is looking for.  As for the role of the questionee in clarifying questions, I will leave that for another blog.  Have fun asking questions that are not (or are, according to my colleague) statements.


Friday, August 14, 2015

partnerships - from transactional to transformational

This past week I had the opportunity to visit churches, schools, and alumni in the Houston area, all of which have some type of relationship with Concordia University Texas.  The word "partnership" was used often as we discussed what type of relationships would exist between CTX and the particular institution or individual.  It often feels as if most people see partnerships as something transactional...what will you do for me AND what will I get from you?  Perhaps that mentality comes from the salesperson in all of us, trying to convince someone to buy our product so that we all walk away better off.  For me, I often feel that when I approach someone about a partnership, everyone always feels that I am trying to recruit more students or receive more gifts for the University.

But what if we began to approach partnerships through a different lens?  What if partnerships were more about what we could do better together?  What if partnerships were about understanding the resources each party brought to the table to meet the needs of each of the organizations or individuals?  What if partnerships actually transformed organizations rather than just met their immediate needs?

 Many years ago, when I was head of school at Lutheran High North in Houston, the school partnered with LINC-Houston in what became a service project of significant proportions.  LHN needed access to places in which students could learn and practice the art of service and leadership...LINC-Houston needed manpower to get significant work done on several of their properties.  What developed was a Week of Service in the greater Houston community where over 300 students and teachers served at over 15 locations for 4 straight days.  As a result of that partnership, news stations throughout town covered the service project...students developed as leaders...15 Houston non-profits had their needs met...LINC-Houston gained a greater reputation for getting things done...and in the end, more students came to the school and we raised more monies through gifts and grants.

So how might partnerships move from transactional to transformational?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Begin the discussion by asking a lot of questions - what are the organizations' deepest need?  What strengths does each organization or individual have?  What are the similarities that exist between the parties?  What are the big picture goals both parties have?
  • State up front that you want the partnership to go beyond the transactional functions and that you are looking for something that is deeper, longer lasting, and have a benefit beyond just the two parties.
  • Accept that fact that each party is also looking for the transactional outcome and find ways to make that happen as well.
  • Take an inventory of each party's strengths - what does one organization have that the other doesn't...and how can that those strengths work together to accomplish something neither organization can do by themselves?
  • Come to the table with no specific expectations and just enjoy the dialogue that will ensue.  You never know where deep dialogue can lead.
  • Understand that a final solution may take time.  Often ideas have to cogitate and be shared with others before they can become a reality.
  • Engage others in the conversation.  As thoughts arise, bring new people and other experts to help you flesh out the ideas that are coming to fruition.  Expand the base of partners.
  • Be willing to walk away from the dialogue when no possible partnership exists.  Deep partnerships are difficult to come by and might even be few and far between...but you will never know what might be if the dialogue never begins.
Two Resources:
  • The Abundant Community by Peter Block and John McKnight (2010, Berret-Koehler)
  • The Collaboration Challenge by James Austin (2000, Jossey-Bass)

Friday, August 7, 2015

one year later...leadership lessons learned

On August 1, 2014, I moved into my role as President and CEO of Concordia University Texas...and now, one year and 7 days later, I am ready to reflect and share what I have learned about leadership (and ultimately about myself) during that time.  So here goes:

  • you don't know what you don't know - I had the privilege of being a part of Concordia University Texas for nine years prior to my move into the role of president...and I had spent the previous year or two watching and listening very closely...and there was still A LOT of things of which I had no clue.  I have come to understand that is the nature of a role like this and the nature of organizations.  My takeaway is that leaders (especially new leaders) have to be comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity AND that in certain cases longer formal transition times could be beneficial.
  • the role of the CEO is hard - there are big decisions to be made in this role (with very few clear cut answers)...multiple people want your time (the days are FULL of meetings) are responsible for everything (and everyone) must rely on other people to get things done (remembering that you used to be that person)...the larger the institution, the longer it takes to make changes (buy-in by multiple constituencies takes time)...and the list continues.  My takeaway is that the person in this role must always keep their eyes on the big picture, remembering that the difficult decisions and the time spent is leading toward something bigger and better for the institution and for the Kingdom.
  • the role of the CEO is fun - there are big decisions to be made in this role (with very few clear cut answers)...multiple people want your time (the days are FULL of meetings) are responsible for everything (and everyone) must rely on other people to get things done (remembering that you used to be that person)...the larger the institution, the longer it takes to make changes (buy-in by multiple constituencies takes time)...and the list continues. My takeaway is that all the things that make this job hard are what give the person in this role energy and excitement.  If the person in this role is not working hard AND having fun, they should step away, because it is either hurting them or the institution (and most often times both).
  • take your time to build the very best team - it was eleven months before I had my final team in place (BIG kudos to those who served in interim roles during that time).  Learning what roles are really needed...learning what the roles actually require...finding the right people to fill those roles...and launching the team in an appropriate manner - all of these take time and energy.  My takeaway is that the CEO must be willing to put up with a little uncertainty and restlessness for a short period of time until they have the right team (and best team) assembled, believing that it is better to leave a position unfilled than to fill it with someone who might not be a good fit.
  • make sure you have someone who has your back - because a new CEO does not know what they don't know, there has to be someone who will come along side to support, protect, and encourage them.  I was fortunate enough to have a person in that role who knew the organization inside and out and out and gave me both the structure and the freedom to act confidently in this role (it also helped to have a Board who did the same thing throughout the year).  My takeaway is that every leader needs their own Sancho Panza  who will navigate the waters, make things happen, and take a few arrows along the way.  Find yours early on and entrust them with things that matter.
It has been a great year and seven days...I am looking forward to the next 372 of them!

Friday, July 31, 2015

stoic leadership

Stoicism is a Greek school of philosophy which teaches that virtue comes from reason and living in harmony with the natural course of all things.  One of the texts that best outlines this philosophy is Marcus Aurelius' Meditations written in the 2nd century while he served as the emperor of Rome.  This text, which is a series of thoughts and ideas of how to live the good life, is really a text about leadership as Aurelius lays out maxims by which he plans to personally lead.  As I read through this text while in Maine, I was reminded of several things:
  1. leadership is about people - how one thinks about them, how one treats them, and how one interacts with them
  2. leadership is about understanding one's self, and being able to control the thoughts and emotions that arise from different situations
  3. patience is a virtue, and being able to wait, reflect, and then react will set great leaders apart from others
  4. leaders must, above all, be concerned for the common good of the society or organization for which they have been given charge over
Here then are a few of Marcus Aurelius' thoughts*:
  • The qualities I admired in my father included...every question that came before him in council was painstakingly and patiently examined; he was never content to dismiss it on a cursory first impression.
  • If it is not the right thing to do, never do it; if it is not the truth, never say it.  Keep your impulses in hand.
  • Are you distracted by outward care? Then allow yourself a space of quiet wherein you can add to your knowledge of the good and learn to curb your restlessness.
  • Though people may hinder you from following the paths of reason, they can never succeed in deflecting you from sound action; but make sure that they are equally unsuccessful in destroying your charitable feelings towards them.  You must defend both positions alike: your firmness in decision and action, and at the same time your gentleness toward those who try to obstruct or otherwise molest you.
  • Unbend, but be temperate.
  • At every action, no matter by whom performed, make it a practice to ask yourself, 'What is his object in doing this?' But begin with yourself; put this question to yourself first of all.
  • When a thing's credentials look most plausible, observe its triviality and strip it of the cloak of verbiage that dignifies it.  Pretentiousness is the arch deceiver, and never more delusive that when you imagine your work most meritorious.
  • Enter into the ruling principle of your neighbor's mind, and suffer him or her to enter into yours.
  • When another's fault offends you, turn to yourself and consider what similar shortcomings are found in you.  Think of this and your anger will soon be forgotten in the reflection that he is only acting under pressure; what else could he do?  Alternatively, if you are able, contrive his release from that pressure.
These writings make me look in the mirror and examine myself as a leader...and as a person who lives among others.  Though written 1900 years ago they continue to resonate today.  *taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Meditations and translated by Maxwell Staniforth, copyright 1964

Friday, July 24, 2015

what do you read?

In a recent talk I gave to Lutheran School administrators, I encouraged them to read six different books, most of them being in a variety of genres.  During our team's retreat yesterday, one of the questions asked was in what genre we most often read.  My previous post (based on my month of reading in Maine) dealt with why leaders's post will take a closer look at the different genres in which leaders should read.  While I realize we all have our favorites types of books, let me encourage you (as I did my audience earlier this week) to read in genres others than those you find familiar.

HISTORY: History is a re-telling of past events and how people dealt with issues that faced them at that time.  Leaders face all types of circumstances, many of which are not new or unique.  Reading about how others have dealt with issues provides alternatives for leaders as well as a perspective that there is nothing really new under the sun.  Consider also the sub-cateogry of MILITARY HISTORY as it will be a study of how leaders made decisions in difficult circumstances.
BIOGRAPHY: I used to think that only biographies of great leaders were worth my time, but I have discovered that biographies of all types of people provide insight into others aspects of leadership.  A recent biography of the composer Stephen Schwartz provided insight into one's creativity...biographies of sports heroes, media personalities, historical figures, and others will help you understand people and their circumstances in new and different ways.
PHILOSOPHY: I cannot stress enough how important it is for people in leadership positions to read the great works of philosophy.  My life has been so enriched by reading the works of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Mill, and so many others that I cannot recommend these types of books enough.  These are books that changed the world and have lasted hundreds/thousaonds of years.  Do not underestimate their power in shaping your thinking and actions.
DRAMA: I could go on and on about Shakespeare (and might in a future post) and his ability to create characters that not only make you think and take a close look at yourself but also give great insights into how to lead (ot how NOT to lead).  One great way to read these is to find an audio version of the plays and read along while listening.  Don't forget the great plays of the early Greeks (especially Socrates' Oedipus cycle) and of contemporary writers such as Tenessee Williams and Arthur Miller who so brilliantly depict the tragedy of human life.
POETRY: This has become a new favorite of mine as it helps me see the world through a whole new lens.  The great poets of the world give me an insight in a way I do not normally think, providing a beautiful picture of life, even  when the subject matter is difficult.   What better way to understand leadership than by reading John Donne, Walt Whitman, or T.S. Elliot.
CLASSIC TEXTS: The Iliad...The Odessy...The Aeneid...The History of the Peloponnesian War...The Twelve Ceasars..Lutarch's Lives...Meditations....Beowulf...Gilgamesh...and the list goes on and on.  Pick the one that most interests you and dig in (and find a translation that works for you).  You will be surprised what you can learn about leadership when you read these texts through that lens.
ECONOMICS: All leaders must understand the principles of economics if they are to make decisions that affect multiple people and places.  Start with a basic text, then dig deep into some of the classic writings of Smith, Marx, Friedman, Hayek, and Keynes.  My guess is that you will start using what you learn almost imnmediately.

I am sure there are more genres to mention and more texts to recommend (feel free to do so in the comment section).  Of course, please be sure to read great fiction and the best (but only the best) in leadership theory and practice.  Thanks for reading this go and read something from one of these genres.

Friday, July 10, 2015

why leaders read

This past week I returned from a month-long stay in Blue Hill, Maine where the majority of my time is spent reading.  Many people know that one of the joys Deb and I have during our stay in Maine is being able to sit and read...sometimes for up to 8 hours a day.  People have asked whether I read for pleasure or for work...and my typical response is that I read for both.  It is difficult for me to decide whether reading Robert Caro's 4-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is for pleasure or for work, since I learn so many leadership lessons throught the books AND it is a story that captivates my attention.  It is also difficult for me to distinguish between the two when I read the short stories of Raymond Carver as I am learning about other people and the day-to-day struggles they face in life.

Someone once stated to me that "all leaders are readers" (and that the converse is not necessarily true).  I truly believe that maxim, so today's blog is my personal take on why leaders should read - and how it can enhance their leadership.  Over the next few weeks I will apply leadership to specific books I read last month as well as why certain categories of books are important for leaders. For a deeper insight into this topic, I would recommend Mark Edmundson's book Why Read?

  1. To learn how NOT to lead: there are many characters in books (fiction and non-fiction) that depict the worst of leadership...they will make you cringe and swear never to act in a similar manner
  2. To learn about those you lead: reading (especially great fiction) introduces the reader to all types of people and all types of lifestyles...these are the people who work with and for you, so getting to know about them through good literature helps you better understand their personal needs, hopes, and dreams
  3. To better understand why you lead the way you do: as readers encounter different figures throughout books, they will resonate with some and not others...ask WHY you resonate with certain individuals you read about and what it is about them that made them tick (the same probably applies to you)
  4. To solidify your leadership patterns: similar to above, but with a more definite purpose as to HOW you will you observe (through reading) the actions of others, you can further develop your personal leadership skills
  5. To realize that there is nothing new under the sun: all of the different aspects of people and organizations that leaders face have happened to others (and your organization) are not unique or special and others have faced what you will face today and in the future
  6. To learn NEW ways of leading: great literature and writing will always have the reader say to themselves "I never thought of it that way before"...take these new ideas and try them out in your role as a leader
  7. To become a better person: great books have a way of affecting the heart and soul of those who are willing to engage with them on a deep level...don't be afraid of looking in the mirror as you read and consider what you might need to change about yourself
  8. To relax and enjoy the comfort of a good book: leadership is hard work and being able to escape into the act of reading is both therapeutic and relaxing (though not always easy)...renewing your energy is important for you, for those you lead, and for your organization
So and find a good book, pour yourself a cup of coffee (or other beverage of your choice), situate yourself in an environment where you will not be distracted or disturbed for several hours, and READ!