weekend update: leadership edition

Since this is a leadership blog (and one of my summer projects is to rebrand it as such), today I’d like to highlight a few examples of good leadership I witnessed over the weekend.

  • Our commencement speaker at Liberty University was former President Jimmy Carter, and it was one of the best commencement addresses I’d ever heard. I love graduations with all their pomp and ceremony and familial pride, but normally I tune out during the speech. During my own college graduation, I read a book. Maybe it was because I had to hang on his every word or I would have missed what he was saying (President Carter is nearly 94 years old and speaks slowly and quietly), but I was riveted. He didn’t shy away from social issues; his whole address was about the challenges facing our world, and in that sense, it was absolutely a charge to the graduates even though he rarely referred to them directly. But unlike in many other speeches I’ve heard by politicians (including some commencement addresses), Carter didn’t propose himself or his party as the solution to these problems. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who would understand what he meant, he proposed behaving like Jesus: treating all people as if they have value, walking in humility rather than self-promotion, speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Although it’s been many years since he was president, Carter is still a leader, from heading up an international humanitarian organization to teaching Sunday school in his tiny hometown church. And even though I haven’t followed his career, I know from what I heard on Saturday that he’s a good leader, mainly because he’s a compassionate leader. There were tears streaming down my face (yes, it was raining, but I was also crying) when I heard him talk about the crisis of human trafficking in his home state of Georgia, not only because of the facts he cited but also because I could hear in his voice that he cared. I, too, want to be a leader who cares.
  • I can’t remember the exact quote, but I heard a good leadership statement last night on Talking Dead, when Garrett Dillahunt, the actor who plays the new Fear the Walking Dead character John Dorie, said that he likes characters who don’t feel the need to force themselves into leadership roles or to clamor for attention–who are, in fact, reluctant to lead but will do so if it’s necessary. This brought to my mind a lot of great leadership examples, from George Washington to Rick Grimes.
  • Also last night, I finally went to see Avengers: Infinity War. I have a lot of thoughts, but some of them are spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to comments about leadership (and also to this: Captain American looks really good with that beard and longer hair. Can I get a witness?). First of all, too many leaders spoil the soup–or something like that. There were too many characters in that movie, period, and that’s a storytelling issue, but if we can suspend our disbelief for a minute and pretend it was a documentary, the more important issue is that there were too many people trying to be leaders. This concept was used for comic potential with Thor (the pirate angel!) and Starlord, and it had more serious consequences in the disagreement between Ironman and Dr. Strange. (We’re using our made-up names, as Spiderman said.) One of the ongoing themes of the Avengers movies is that it’s hard for superheroes to act like sidekicks. But sometimes success requires taking a back seat to someone we may not even like. Second, leadership sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Again, we’ve been exploring this in the Avengers movies ever since Captain America #1, but the concept finally hit critical mass in this one–it almost seemed like this was a competition going on to see who could be the most self-sacrificial. And I’ll stop there, because of spoilers. But I guess my overall point is that if we can keep these two principles in balance–being willing to lay down our lives but also being okay with being the loyal comic relief guy who doesn’t have to, or get to, do anything so dramatic–then we will be good leaders. No capes, masks, or metal suits required.
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I ran a marathon yesterday!

Back in January, I wrote a post about meeting Connie, the septuagenarian marathoner, in the hotel exercise room, and how she inspired me to (maybe) run a marathon this year. So I thought I should check back in and let you know that I did, indeed, run the inaugural Silo District Marathon yesterday morning in Waco, Texas. Last fall, I wrote about my visit to Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia empire (a word I’m using in a descriptive, not a pejorative, sense); this race event, which also included a half-marathon and a 5K, was their brainchild, which means that it was both warmly hospitable and efficiently organized. This was my first marathon, but it was Chip’s first road race ever, so I kind of expected to be able to keep pace with Chip (who is also about 10 years older than I am), but I was wrong–he left me in the Texas dust. So did Clint Harp (Fixer Upper‘s go-to carpenter and furniture designer), who was the team captain of the half-marathon. He, along with a lot of the other half-marathoners, passed me even though their race started about half an hour later than my race, which didn’t make me feel very good about myself. The competitive, Gryffindor part of me was merciless during the part of the race when we were sharing the course with those fast half-marathoners; I couldn’t believe how slow I was, but then again I could believe it because I hadn’t trained enough, hadn’t rested or eaten properly the day before…I’ve posted a number of times (see here and here) about how hard I can be on myself, especially in physical competitions, so you get the idea. But then, around mile 10, the hard-working, long-suffering Hufflepuff part of me kicked in, and I turned my mental energy to forcing myself to keep going–even if that meant limping, as it did toward the end of the race. (I didn’t injure myself, unless you count severe chafing between my legs, to the point of bleeding–I was just really sore.)

Because that’s really what a marathon is about; forcing yourself to go on. With shorter races, things like technique matter a lot more. A marathon is about sheer endurance, which I like to think I have a lot of. (I’ve written about that too.) The race materials from this weekend kept referring to us as athletes, but I don’t think it requires that much athleticism to finish a marathon (at least not the way I finished it–barely dragging myself across the finish line); it just requires a willingness to endure pain. I’m not sure what that says about me. I think it may mean that I have a psychological problem. But I’m weirdly proud of it.

Today my quads are really hurting–it hurts for me to go down stairs (going up is okay) and to lower myself into a chair. And when I’ve been sitting for a while, I get stiff and have trouble getting back up. And I need to go home and put some antibiotic cream and bandages on that nasty chafing. Notes for next time, and notes to anyone who’s thinking about running a marathon: Seriously consider wearing pants or longer shorts, even if it’s hot. And maybe don’t run a marathon in Texas, where 75 degrees doesn’t mean a beautiful, balmy day like it does here in Virginia. 75 feels a lot hotter in Texas, where they seem not to know about clouds or shade. And also, make sure you train for an actual marathon–I meant to do that, but the longest training run I had made time for was 11 miles.

My most important piece of advice: If I can run a marathon, you probably can too. Chip Gaines would probably say the same thing about himself, though I’ll never underestimate him again! Our race t-shirts and the banner over the marathon starting line said, “You were built for this.” There’s obviously a home renovation pun in there, as well as a Purpose-Driven Life-style spiritual meaning. But when I think of people who are “built” for running marathons, I think of tall, willowy people; I don’t think of people who look like me (i.e. a hobbit). So I take inspiration from that as well–you may not think so to look at me, but I was, apparently, built to run a marathon.

my leadership role model

Today’s post is about a person who appears in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel, so to start us off I thought I’d share something fun I discovered this morning. I am reading the Bible chronologically, and this morning my reading was 1 Samuel 4-8. Did you know that the names of two famous characters from 19th-century fiction appear in these chapters? They are Ichabod (as in Ichabod Crane, from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and Ebenezer (as in Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol). I think these characters’ creators chose the names because they sound funny and quaint to modern English-speakers and may invoke a harsh brand of Protestantism, not, or not primarily, because of their Hebrew meanings: Ichabod means “inglorious” and was the name of a baby (poor little guy!) born just after the Ark of the Covenant was stolen by the Philistines, and Ebenezer means “thus far has the LORD helped us” and was the name of a memorial stone set up to commemorate a victory against the Philistines.  (I have written a post about Ebenezer Scrooge’s association with memorial stones–I’m not sure if this was deliberate or unconscious on Dickens’s part.) Anyway, there’s your fun fact for the day.

Later in 1 Samuel, we meet the young man who will become Israel’s greatest king, David. Many of the people who appear in the pages of the Old Testament are roughly sketched and hard to relate to, but David is what we would call in literature a well-developed character. Not only from the historical accounts but also from the many psalms he wrote, we learn about David’s bold frankness, his concern for those under his care (first his father’s sheep, then the rebels who fought under him during his outlaw years, then finally his subjects and his many children), and his ardent love for God. David’s emotions are always near the surface in these accounts–he has a warm heart and, often, a hot head. As an F (feeling) on the Myers-Briggs scale, I can relate to David.

David made many mistakes, some ugly and inexcusable (murder by proxy, adultery, bad parenting). But the reason he’s my leadership role model is that, throughout his life, David remained teachable and open to correction. A prophet named Nathan keeps showing up in the accounts of David’s kingship, and nearly every time we see him, he’s calling out David for some sin. The fact that David not only tolerates but welcomes Nathan’s correction is amazing considering what David’s descendants, the increasingly bad kings, will do to prophets who tell them the truth (e.g. throw them in a pit, kill them). David could say, “I’m the king; I can do whatever I want!” Instead, he responds to Nathan’s truth-telling, not with a political “Hmm, I’ll consider that,” but with repentance, confessing his sin against God and immediately doing what he can to restore fellowship with God and the people he has wronged.

One of my greatest leadership fears is becoming the person who is too imperious or even just too sensitive to be corrected–the person everyone else is reluctant to confront. I don’t enjoy confrontation, but I’m thankful that I work with people who kindly tell me about things I need to do better, and I hope I will always have people like this.

Another thing I love about David is that once he’s confessed his sin, he doesn’t wallow in it. Once fellowship has been restored with God (see Psalm 51, a painful and beautiful expression of this process), David is able to move on with joy and confidence that he’s been forgiven. Of course, his actions have consequences, and he recognizes this and grieves the harm he’s done to others. But this is another necessary leadership quality: the ability to walk forward.

I’d love to hear about your leadership role models!

A soft heart does not equal a soft head.

Today I want to acknowledge and dispel a common misconception about Hufflepuffs: You know, the one about this being the house for people who weren’t smart enough to get into the other houses. You can see where the stereotype comes from; after all, our common room is the only one that you don’t have to solve a riddle or even remember a password to get into. But when you look at some of our alumni, like Newt Scamander and Cedric Diggory, the suggestion that Hufflepuff is a house full of incompetents becomes ridiculous. Even badgers are traditionally thought of as canny. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that instead of emphasizing the individual possession of intelligence, Hufflepuff focuses on the wisdom of groups (loyalty) and the application of one’s gifts (perseverance). Other qualities commonly associated with Hufflepuff, such as kindness and justice, make me think of a specific type of intelligence: emotional intelligence, which I’ve written about extensively on my blog (see this post and many others–just click on the “emotional intelligence” tag). Emotional intelligence, or EQ, involves understanding oneself and others and making wise decisions based on that understanding. And I hasten to add that EQ is not an exclusively Hufflepuff property; Ravenclaw Luna Lovegood is a wonderful exemplar of it.

Let’s look at an EQ principle that applies particularly to leadership*: A soft heart does not equal a soft head. Making decisions based on empathy is popularly associated with vague thinking. In fact, most people would probably consider the phrases “making an emotional decision” and “making an illogical decision” to be synonyms. But Hufflepuff leaders (and the many EQ theorists of the past several decades, beginning with Daniel Goleman) know that both rationality and emotion can be vehicles of wisdom. (Actually, much earlier thinkers knew this too–I have a quote taped to my laptop that’s attributed to Blaise Pascal, though I can’t vouch for the accuracy because I got it from the tag of a Celestial Seasonings teabag: “We know truth, not only by reason, but also by heart.”) We also know that having empathy for the people we lead does not mean having low standards or not caring what they do. After all, both mercy and justice are Hufflepuff qualities. Holding them in tension–leaning to one side or the other as the occasion demands, but striving to remain upright in the middle–is hard work (which Hufflepuffs aren’t afraid of, right?) that is well worth the effort. In fact, those of us who serve the God of the Bible will recognize justice and mercy as two of his attributes that are frequently associated in Scripture; e.g. Psalm 85:10: “Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed.”

So we can lead with love and still be savvy, have high standards, and hold people (and ourselves) to them.  I would love to hear stories about how you or a leader you know has done this!

*I should have made it clear earlier that I’m not using “leadership” as the businessy jargon term it’s often used as. For our purposes, leadership encompasses much more than being a CEO; it could mean being a mentor, a parent, or–as I often conceive of the role–a teacher.

guest post: “Slytherin will help you on your way to greatness”

Today, I’m pleased to be able to feature the work of our Slytherin correspondent, Andy Ford, who will be looking at the hallmark traits of the serpent house from a Christian perspective. Let him know what you think on Twitter: @Andy_Ford

Or perhaps in Slytherin,

You’ll make your real friends,

Those cunning folk use any means,

To achieve their ends.

Pride.

Ambition.

Cunning.

Can a person be both a believer in Christ and a Slytherin? Can a person balance Pride, Ambition, and Cunning with following Christ? I’m not sure. I’d like to think so. I’d like to be both, a Slytherin and a Christian. I’d like to be one unified person, rather than have two sides of myself warring with each other.

The first problem for the Christian Slytherin, at least on the surface, is that Pride, Ambition, and Cunning are all things to which the Christian must die. Pride is often condemned, Paul warns against selfish ambition and vain conceit, and the serpent in the Garden is described as cunning. The question, then, is: can a Christian exercise Pride, Ambition, and Cunning while maintaining his or her witness? To answer this question we must first define terms. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the word “Pride” to mean the opposite of humility, I will use the word “Ambition” to mean “a strong desire to do something, typically requiring determination and hard work,” and I will use the word “Cunning” to mean “having or showing skills in achieving one’s ends by deceit or evasion.”

So first, Pride. Pride is and has long been considered sinful; ask Thomas Aquinas. But is there a difference between, for example, Lucifer’s pride in Ezekiel 28:17, and being a proud alumnus of Liberty University, or being proud of a child when he succeeds at something he cares about. Again, the Pride I am discussing is the opposite of humility. One of my Graduate School professors taught me that all sin is ultimately idolatry, and all idolatry is ultimately Pride. Which means that all sin is Pride and thus all Pride is sin. As believers, we are instructed to die to ourselves daily and that includes dying to our own Pride. However, for every command against in the Bible, there is a command to. In the case of Pride, we die to it to embrace what I would call holy confidence. We are told to approach the throne of Grace with confidence. Confidence that we will not be turned away. That confidence has nothing to do with our accomplishments but has everything to do with the character of God. Brennan Manning (who is always a Win) wrote that God’s fundamental attitude toward us is one of affection. This affection directly contradicts Pride, because it is not dependent upon our own actions. Regardless of how holy or unholy we think we are, God’s attitude does not change. There is nothing we can do to change God’s attitude toward us; we are loved. Period.

This raises the question of how a Christian can exhibit the Slytherin trait of Pride without contradicting his or her walk with God. The answer, I think, lies in the type of Pride discussed. A person can be proud to be part of Slytherin House without falling into the sin of Pride. This does not mean being ashamed of being a Slytherin, or making excuses for the Sorting Hat’s decision, but rather it means that one understands both the benefits and the weakness of the House.

Ambition raises a slightly different question, although one that still has its own complications. Ambition is frequently pointed to as the defining characteristic of dictators and tyrants, like the titular character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but the Apostle Paul writes that we should do nothing out of selfish ambition, which implies that there is another type of Ambition that is not selfish, and I think that’s the type of Ambition Slytherin House should emphasize. Salazar’s personal desire for greatness aside, being a Slytherin is not about being the greatest ever for the sake of being better than anyone else. That way leads to Voldemort’s obsession with becoming the Master of Death. Instead, I think true Slytherin Ambition is about becoming the best version of one’s self for the sake of being better than one was. Hemingway wrote, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self,” and I think the same can be said for Ambition. True, Godly ambition is the desire to improve one’s self and the desire for continuous sanctification.

I’ll be honest, Cunning put me into a quandary. On the one hand, in the New King James Version of the Bible, the serpent in the Garden is described as Cunning. (The New International Version and the New American Standard Version both use “crafty,” while the King James Version uses “subtil.”) On the other hand, Jesus tells his disciples to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. As the symbol for Slytherin House is a serpent, I find this to be an interesting connection. So, which is it? Is Cunning evil or not? The problem is: Cunning implies deceit, deceit implies dishonesty, dishonesty implies lying, and lying is a sin. By telling his disciples to be as wise as serpents, is Jesus instructing his disciples to get what they want through deception? Obviously not. I think the proper, Godly use of cunning is in a sort of “it takes one to know one” sort of a way. The context of Jesus’ words is: he’s sending his disciples out into the world to spread his message, and he’s instructing them on how best to keep themselves safe. One of my all time favorite movies is Gone Baby Gone, and the film opens with the main character, Patrick Kenzie, discussing this exact question: “When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to his children. ‘You were sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.’” I think Jesus meant: you are about to enter a fallen world, be aware of how people will try to take advantage of you and do not let them. But, and this is the “innocent as doves” part, do not do anything that would compromise your witness. Do not be taken advantage of, but in your attempt to avoid being taken advantage of, do not take advantage of someone else.

Neither Pride, nor Ambition, nor Cunning is necessarily evil in its own right. They are simply traits, like having red hair or blue eyes. The question is: how will the person who possesses those traits make use of them? And that depends, in large part, on the character of the person. This is the important part. A person’s sorting says what traits they possess and says absolutely nothing else about the type of person sorted. The Sorting Hat makes no character pronouncements. There are evil Slytherins, absolutely. But there are also good Slytherins (not naming names; I’ve been in that fight before, and it’s not worth it). The point is: Slytherin is not necessarily “the Evil House of Evil.” It does seem to have a uniquely dangerous combination of virtues, especially when compared to the Integrity and Hard Work of Hufflepuff and the Intelligence and Creativity of Ravenclaw, but having traits that are perceived as negative is not the same thing as being evil. A person can balance all three while remaining a good person. The goal, I think, of being a member of any organization is to identify both the strengths and weaknesses of that organization and embrace both, making use of its strengths and avoiding its weaknesses. As Harry tells Albus Severus in the final scene of Deathly Hallows, it does not matter into which House a person is sorted as long as the person does their best and strives to be a good person. For a Christian, as long as he or she is open to the correction and guidance of the Holy Spirit, God will mold them into the type of person God wants them to be.

Hufflepuff human resources

Last night, some friends and I had a lengthy discussion about human resources departments.  (Yes, we’re a barrel of laughs.) And then, on The Walking Dead, Negan–a character who is the opposite of a Hufflepuff leader, ruling by intimidation and derision (click here for a post on how I feel about him)–once again referred to people as resources, one of his favorite expressions. And then, this afternoon, the author of a newsletter article I was reading mentioned treating people as resources and assets as if this were a good thing. So, I thought, there’s the theme for this week’s post.

I think the newsletter article author was referring to valuing our people’s expertise and perspectives and trusting them to do good work rather than falling into the “I can do it better myself” trap. These are good things. Where the “people as resources” trope becomes dangerous is the point at which we begin to value people only for what they can contribute. I have blogged about this before, but I want to revisit the idea in a Hufflepuff leadership context (with some examples from The Walking Dead). When we start valuing people only by their contributions–an attitude I see in a lot of the rhetoric surrounding zombie apocalypse narratives, as well as (I hate to say it, but it’s true) in some of my Hogwarts compatriots from the other three houses–we ignore two crucial truths. Briefly, I want to remind us of those truths:

  1. All people have value because of who they are, not what they’ve done. As a Christian, I believe that all people have value because they are created in the image of God. If you’re not prepared to go that far, at least I hope you can accept that people have value because they’re human. That includes people who are judged as too disabled, too reticent, too selfish, too [fill in the blank] to contribute anything noticeable to the world. On The Walking Dead, as I’ve mentioned before, this means that even people who are self-admitted cowards, who freeze in the face of danger, are valuable. (Are you reading this, Gryffindors?)
  2. We all can contribute something valuable to the world, but that something might not look valuable in an obvious or accepted way. My favorite example from The Walking Dead is Father Gabriel, who isn’t a good fighter, planner, or leader; isn’t athletic, and has now become visually impaired. But he provides spiritual guidance and a calm, non-judgmental spirit that many characters have benefitted from (including Negan!). I always go back to the example, as well, of Rick Grimes, who got blasted by fans several seasons ago when he devoted some time to growing vegetables instead of killing zombies or fighting enemies. He was trying to help create a sustainable community–literally, to feed people–but because his actions weren’t the expected ones of a leader in this type of narrative, he was derided and undervalued–wrongly, as I will never stop arguing! I’ll give one more example: one of my favorite Hufflepuff predecessors, Newt Scamander. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, he is awkward around people, to the point of social paralysis, but calm and confident around animals. At the end of the movie, he applies that “gentling” ability to a human who is becoming something other, and he prevents that person from doing further damage to himself or others. So Newt, the guy who could barely carry on a conversation, ends up pulling off a fantastic feat of diplomacy.

So today’s leadership principle is this: People are much more than resources.

National Day of Unplugging (i.e. hiding in the Forbidden Forest)

This week’s Hufflepuff leadership topic is what to do when you need to get away from people–either because you need to work on stuff or because you’re an introvert and being around people (even though you love them) exhausts you.  When asked how they create alone time and space, my two contacts at Hogwarts* had similar answers.  Muggle studies teacher and Hufflepuff alumna Becky Weasley said, “Well, it helps that I’m married to the Hogwarts gamekeeper.  Charlie and I have our own cabin a little ways away from the castle.  When I have a lot of grading to do, I work on it at home instead of in my office.  But when I really need to get away, I pack a picnic and conveniently get lost in the Forbidden Forest.  Charlie will always come find me eventually.”  Her nephew, Patrick, a seventh-year student and Hufflepuff prefect, said, “I like to be available to the first- and second-years when they have questions about school or are just homesick, but sometimes I have to get my own work done, you know?  So a lot of times, I’ll go next door to the kitchens and ask the house-elves not to tell anyone I’m there.  They usually give me some of whatever they’re cooking.  And in return, I help them clean up.  Or I’ll go visit my Aunt Becky and Uncle Charlie.  They usually feed me too.”  So, common themes seem to be 1) food and 2) hiding (like a badger in a burrow?).

But Muggle/No-Maj society presents an additional challenge that our Hogwarts friends don’t have to face: technology.  You can hide if you want, but if you have a phone, people can still find you.  (Unless you’re in the Forbidden Forest, where I hear that reception is really bad.)  Much ink (which here is a metaphor for digital text) has been spilled over the effects that smartphones have had on the American and European work week.  Now, our bosses, colleagues, and employees can find us anytime.  Some people, like me, avoid using their phones for email, but there’s still texting.  One curious consequence of this constant connectivity is a comparison game over who’s the busiest.  I’ve heard people in my organization brag about how many emails they get over the weekend.  “My boss starts emailing me Sunday night around sundown, and I can’t wait until Monday morning to respond to them [implied: because I’m too important to the company].”  I’m not saying this is any one person’s fault.  What we have not only in my organization but in our society at large is a culture of busyness.  And it’s not healthy.

Some Hufflepuff leaders (okay, I just made an assumption there) at an organization called Reboot have started an annual event called National Day of Unplugging.  I participated last year, and I’ve been looking forward to the 2018 event for months.  It’s simple: From sundown this Friday to sundown this Saturday, you keep your phone and other digital devices off.  (The resemblance to Sabbath is not an accident–Reboot is a Jewish organization.)  Of course, that’s if you want to be extreme (which I do).  Maybe for you, unplugging simply means you don’t check email or Instagram for that 24-hour period.  But in any case, you’re engaging in an act of radical freedom and humility–declaring that the digital world (which is not the whole world) can survive without you for 24 hours.

What does this have to do with leadership?  First, obviously, leaders themselves need a break.  But secondly, unplugging has a trickle-down effect.  When I step away from work for a day, I’m letting my employees and students know that it’s okay for them to do the same.

Will you be participating in the National Day of Unplugging?  Do you have other suggestions on this topic?  Let me know in the comments!

*These characters are both my own creations–see last week’s post.