December 2009


You knew I’d eventually have to comment on Urban Meyer, coach of the University of Florida. As a student of competition as well as a student of leadership, I love watching sports management, draft decisions and trade discussions. Football in Florida this year offers some interesting scenarios and lessons for leadership, with Bobby Bowden’s retirement from Florida State after 34 years and Urban Meyer’s health leave.

For some time, I’ve been watching Florida State because of their succession planning arrangement. I admired their decision to try to work out a seamless transition but observed with interest how they handled some of the pitfalls:

  • How does the incumbent leader know when to step away?
  • What if he knows it’s time but is afraid of the future?
  • What happens if the successor deems himself “ready” before the incumbent leaves?
  • Who has the real power in hiring decisions?
  • Is the university still committed to going in the same direction a few years after they named the successor, especially when that successor hasn’t looked like the savior they hoped him to be?

Though Florida State fumbled the handoff a bit and ended up creating some bitterness with Bobby’s family, Jimbo Fisher has taken the reigns and has been given the flexibility to remake the coaching staff because of the way things shook out this season. Florida State football is moving in a predictable direction, and the future looks bright under its new coach. All as a result of forethought and planning.

Florida, on the other hand, was caught completely by surprise when Urban Meyer announced December 26 that he was stepping down. I’m sure Florida’s administration had some forewarning, but it was still a shock. How on earth could a coach resign out of the blue after five wildly successful years? Florida had just breathed a sigh of relief when Notre Dame hired someone else; they knew they could plan on having their coach for a lot more years if he was willing to turn down his “dream job.” They were so confident they let their emergency plan walk out the door to coach Louisville. Yet, here they were, caught without a coach or even a thought of transition planning.

Florida acted quickly and managed to talk Meyer into calling it a leave of absence rather than a resignation. Gator Nation breathed a sigh of relief — with the hope that Meyer will come back, the recruiting class is safe and the administration has a bit of time to put a plan together. However, I want to ask, from a leadership standpoint: Is Florida in a better place today — both short and long term — than they would have been if they went out and found the best coach on the market? I think Florida has some very uncomfortable days and decisions ahead. The questions I’m asking:

  • How well has Meyer’s leadership style set up his assistants to succeed? We’ll find out pretty quickly how much of the offense came from Meyer himself. With a lot of transition in the team and an interim coach without real authority, there’s a recipe for failure here in the short term. This was going to be one of Meyer’s toughest coaching years anyway. Now the interim coach inherits that challenge.
  • What if Meyer doesn’t come back in 2010? How long do they wait for him? How long will the University be strung along?
  • What if Meyer comes back too early? In the last few days, he’s shown that he’s willing to yield to pressure, at the expense of promises to family. How much pressure will there be to return by August? What happens if Meyer can’t handle the stress during the season?

Let me be clear here. Yes, I am a football fan, but many of these questions aren’t football questions. They’re leadership questions. Here are a few of my conclusions. First, no leader is ever irreplaceable, and no leader can guarantee his or her future. Boards and supervisors must always have a plan for emergency and long-term successors.

Second, there are certain priorities that override your business objectives. Health is one of those. To their credit, Florida showed that its people are their priority, not just a winning product. They clearly showed loyalty to a coach who has given them everything.

Third, sometimes making a clear but difficult decision, without looking back, is better for business than sentimentality. While I admire Florida’s loyalty to Meyer, I think they’re going to regret their attempt to hold onto past success by holding onto Meyer. I think they could have showed just as much loyalty and honor to Meyer while saying goodbye with great pomp and celebration. Then they could have moved on.

Advertisements

I woke up this morning thinking about the scene in Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell  tells his sister,

I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.

I think that’s worship. It’s recognizing that you are talented or passionate or skilled in something because God made you that way. And when we work in those strength areas, we bring glory to God and feel his pleasure in return. It’s a spiritual act of worship. That’s the essence of Romans 12:1.

So, how would you fill in the blanks? God made me _______________. And when I ________________, I feel His pleasure.

In March and April, I did a series on young leaders. Another characteristic came to surface recently that I wanted to add to the list: young leaders don’t care who gets the credit.

You’ve heard the saying, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” (Interestingly, I just looked it up and no one really knows who said that!) Well, it’s certainly true in an open source, viral  world like ours.

If you’re not interested in hierarchy and moving up the ladder, but rather in being part of a team, then ideas tend to flow more freely. If you’re not into self-promotion and defending your territory, but rather in seeing your ends successful through any means available, then you’re free to celebrate when movements ignite and move faster and farther than your reach.

Let me point out a concrete example. Wycliffe is celebrating the fact that 109 Bible translation projects were started this past year. That’s the highest number in history! Who started them? A lot of different people. In fact, the only thing I can tell you with confidence is that only a very few were started by Wycliffe. And only a handful working on the projects even know that they’re working on a Wycliffe project. They’re working for organizations like SIL, Translation Association of the Philippines and Ghana Institute for Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. The fact is that Wycliffe doesn’t really translate Bibles. Someone came to me yesterday and pointed out that a recent CBN video claimed that Wycliffe translators were working on Luke 2 — the Christmas story — for nine languages in Tanzania, pointing out that it just wasn’t true.

I say, “Who cares?” As Paul said to the Philippians when he heard some preachers were preaching Christ from selfish motives,

So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!

The important thing is that 109 translation projects were started! Let’s continue to work in a way that gives the statisticians headaches trying to figure out how to assign the credit. For instance, African nationals doing translation, trained by SIL, funded by the Orthodox Church, their finished product paid for by the Bible League and cheered on and supported by Wycliffe?

The fact is that issues of control and credit have crippled many initiatives before they ever got off the ground. God will hold many people and many organizations accountable one day for that incredible waste of resources.

Here’s my question: How can we make this happen faster? What about open source translation? What are your ideas?

16 Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people.

This was one of the verses that made me think the entire chapter was written to leaders. The issue isn’t how much or whether you enjoy the company of ordinary people. It’s that you even think there are classes of people.

Now, let’s be careful here. We have to acknowledge that leaders are different. The sacrifices, stress, risks, crises, blame and weight of decisions are enough to make Dan Allender conclude that if you’re not called to lead, why on earth would you ever do it? Leaders are different. But as leaders, what is our attitude toward those differences?

Pride sneaks into a leader’s life in subtle ways. Leadership positions feed it because of the uniqueness of the profession. Isolation can feed it. Holding onto secrets can feed it. Safety concerns can feed it. Decision-making power can certainly feed it. Let me share a subtle example.

I recall a story I read in Freakonomics. Some researchers came up with a pretty simple way to measure employee honesty: they talked to a bagel company that provided bagels to the break rooms of businesses in a major U.S. city. This company used an honor system, a little jar beside the bagels to gather payment. Over time, the empirical data showed some trends. Which group of employees as a general rule cheated the most? Right. The entitled ones on the top floor!

It hurts to read that! So, let’s have some discussion. What has worked to help you overcome the pride that sneaks up behind isolation, secrecy and security? How do you continue to think of yourself as an “ordinary person”? What keeps you grounded?

Of course, Jesus would have a problem with the idea that leaders are ordinary. Remember that the night before he was arrested, he gave a powerful lesson to his disciples. John 13:3 recounts that because “Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God,” he got down on his knees and did the lowest possible job in that culture: he washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus stated counterculturally that leaders should be last. Not ordinary, but last. The pyramid is inverted, and leaders are at the bottom.

So, let’s not try to be lofty leaders, or even ordinary people. Let’s be men and women who exist to support and encourage and serve those whom God has entrusted to us.

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller. It’s the story of his journey to make a better story of his life. If that’s confusing, you’ll have to read the book.

Anyway, what struck me were his points about ambition as they relate to your story. He starts with the supposition that, “a story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” In other words, a character has to have ambition to have an interesting story. Miller then stacks up his life in comparison, at one point gazing through the lens of his bank statements:

The stuff I spent money on was, in many ways, the sum of my ambitions. And those ambitions weren’t the stuff of good stories….

The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want.

The problem with most Americans is that we want stuff. Ambition for stuff makes a boring story, or even a stupid story. For instance, Miller admits he bought a Roomba vaccuum cleaner, falling for the marketing industry’s manipulations of the elements of story: your life is miserable, and you’d be happy if you had a Roomba. The American Dream is a bad story! It’s a trap and a sellout.

Building on this premise, Miller quotes a filmmaker named Steve, who explained to him what separates an “epic” from most movies:

A story goes to the next level with two key elements, and both of them have to do with the ambition of the character. First, he said, is the thing a character wants must be very difficult to attain. The more difficult, the better the story. The reason the story is better when the ambition is difficult, Steve said, is because there is more risk, and more risk makes the story question more interesting to an audience….

The second element that makes a story epic, he said, was the ambition had to be sacrificial. The protagonist has to be going through pain, risking his very life, for the sake of somebody else.

So, are you living an epic? What do you want? Is your ambition difficult and sacrificial, or shallow and selfish? That’s the difference between healthy ambition and the kind the Bible warns against. See my previous posts on the subject.

What’s your Roomba? My prayer is that my ambition is for God’s fame and His kingdom. I don’t want to live a stupid story.