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!