August 2011


I was recently telling a colleague in Canada about a friend of mine I’ve worked with for some time who has a lot of leadership ability. This individual has a lot of influence, is engaging, has strong networks and is very competent. But something’s lacking. While relating to people well and even reading audiences intuitively as a speaker, this young leader is missing a key part of emotional intelligence. I finally think I’ve identified it: a dearth of curiosity. When I told my colleague about my friend, she challenged me: “Then how can this person be a leader?”

A dearth of curiosity is a career derailer. Curiosity is critical to leadership. It’scritical for lifelong learning. It’s critical for teamwork. And it’s critical for diversity.

On my flight to Toronto, I read an article by David Marcum and Stephen Smith, called “The Ultimate Team.” The authors point out that we all assume that good teams need diversity. However, diversity of viewpoints, age, ethnicity and experience doesn’t guarantee anything.

Diversity, without curiosity, isn’t worth much. Great teams know how to tap into the collective experience  and POV of everyone of them. But that “tapping” isn’t frequent enough on most teams to move them from “good enough,” to great.

One of the problems with a lack of curiosity is that it’s a form of arrogance. It signifies a person has concluded they know everything they need to know. They therefore hold back on colleagues and team members. They make judgments quickly, and are often unfortunately final in their decisions.

So if a dearth of curiosity is death to a leader and to a team member, is there no hope for my friend? There has to be a way to grow in curiosity. How do you increase your capacity for curiosity? Give me your best ideas. There are a lot of people who need your help.

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I need to confess that I’m a hypocrite. I don’t try to be, but I am. I recently became convicted of two practices that expose a conflict between my actions and my stated beliefs about teamwork. I’ve always rated myself highly in terms of building and working with teams. Yet these two practices don’t back up my talk. These are a bit random, but it’s a Friday.

1. My favorite TV shows are anti-teamwork. I’m a fan of House, the show about Dr. Gregory House and his band of disciples. While the circumstances provide opportunity for his understudies to work and live together, in a sense forming a stilted community forged by common hardship (their boss), Dr. House demonstrates no ability or desire to draw them into his confidence or to invest in them. His entire driver is ego, and he keeps them around to feed his reputation as the answer man. When he’s not present, their efforts at medical problem solving are futile. He has to be the hero.

Then there’s The Closer. While she’s a lot more likable than Dr. House, Brenda is just like him in that her staff are helpless without her to swoop in and draw out a confession. Why doesn’t she equip them to be able to do the same thing? In her case, ego is less obvious; she needs to be needed.

2. I have not participated in a team sport in more than a decade. I love pickup volleyball and soccer games. Neither sport is an individual effort, so on its face, these games are opportunities to practice teamwork. Right? Not quite. Yes, you are thrown into a group who have to pull together to win, but nothing rides on the score, and most players participate for either enjoyment, exercise or personal glory. The more competitive (like me) have to get a good spike or a goal or even a great assist to walk away at the end of the game with personal satisfaction. There is no commitment to a group of other individuals, no pain of practice, no community of common experience. Call it a working group, but don’t call it a team.

So if teamwork is my passion, then how can I practice what I believe even in my viewing habits and my leisure activities? For starters, I guess I’ve got to join a league. That’s going to be difficult, given the travel realities for my new job.

My viewing habits may be surprisingly difficult to adjust. To tell you the truth, I can’t think of a single U.S. TV show that promotes teamwork. America is built on individualism, and our stories support the myth of personal glory and effort. Every group has to have a hero. Can you think of a TV show that glorifies teamwork? Thinking back, perhaps the A-Team? Movies are a bit more common. The Dirty Dozen? Apollo 13 was a good one.

What are your favorite team movies? What about TV? Someone out there needs to redeem that medium for me.

When I’m asked by young people about whether they should move into management roles, the first question I ask them is whether they have the ability to live vicariously: to find joy and satisfaction in the success of others. It’s a critical competency for leadership, but I’ve found it useful throughout life. Underneath this issue are fundamental questions of identity, pride and acceptance.

For starters, I work in a Bible translation organization, but I am not a Bible translator. If I didn’t have the ability to take joy in the achievements of others, I’d struggle with my role. As it’s my goal to work in my gifting so that others can work in their gifting, I can therefore celebrate as part of the team whenever a translation is completed. I have a personal goal this year to get to a dedication ceremony for a New Testament completed by a Canadian translator.

As a graphic designer, I had to be okay working with images from great locations I was likely to never see. As I look back at Word Alive magazines I designed, I feel a connection to language surveyors in central Asia, leaders in Singapore and translators in Cameroon even though my personal experience was limited to the images on my Mac.

In leadership development, I had to confront the question of whether  I was okay with advancing someone else’s career beyond my own. Once I had resolved my own issues of pride and competitiveness, I was then able to celebrate the appointment of a 32-year-old female vice president and a 41-year-old board member who benefited from my work.

Now I have the opportunity to take joy in the work of 590 staff working in or sent out from Canada. I will rejoice with the success and mourn with the struggles of IT staff, linguists, literacy workers and finance personnel. As my job description says, the performance of the organization is synonymous with the performance of the president. We’re all connected. We’re a body. And we’re all part of the Bible translation team.

That’s vicarious living!

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In regards to time, the least-inhabited place is the present.

A week ago, while attending a small church in Cary, NC, I had an unexpected privilege of hearing a sermon on Ecclesiastes 2 from a guest preacher, Jason Miller, an English professor at N.C. State. He continued a theme from our road trip, making some excellent points about living in the present. I want to share a few of his thoughts and add my own, drawing from my inner futurist.

Miller’s point was that we spend so much time consumed by our past or planning for the future. We forget to enjoy the moment we’re in. Instead, he urged us, consume the present.

I think that’s why I don’t like photography. Funny for a graphic designer to say, so let me clarify. Don’t get me wrong. I love looking at great photographs. I’m in awe of photographers and photojournalists past and present, from Ansel Adams, Robert Capa and Cornell Capa to Dave Crough, Jon Shuler and Mo Sadjapour today. I love looking at the incredible moments in time captured by a master. I just don’t want to be the guy behind the lens. Why? I simply would rather live in the moment and capture my own mental pictures of the present than lose out on an experience because I was trying to capture it for the future.

Let me give you an example. A colleague gave me a great piece of advice the week before my wedding: remember that moment when you’re standing at the front and first see your bride appear through the doors in the back of the church. That mental snapshot is seared in my memory today. It took my breath away.

Benjamin Franklin's bifocalsAs I was listening to Professor Miller, the metaphor of bifocals formed in my mind. The beauty of Benjamin Franklin’s invention is that you can keep an eye in two directions. One lens focuses ahead while the other focuses on the foreground. That’s how I want to live: with one eye on the future while maintaining one a gaze on the present. I have to know where I’m going, but I also want to consume the present.

I ran into this principle the week before in Norfolk, where we spent some time with a Commander in the U.S. Navy. He has authority over all the aircraft in the Navy, responding to crises like Libya by pulling the resources needed from their normal assignments, wherever those might be. He told me he’s currently working on two-year planning. “How can you plan two years ahead when there’s always a crisis that derails your plans?”, I asked. His response was pure military; he quoted Eisenhower:

Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Planning is like a good pair of bifocals. If you can’t toss the plan when the present interrupts, you’ve missed the point.

On our road trip, Becky and I listened to a Michael Connelly murder mystery. One of the lines the FBI uses in training new agents is “Manage the moment.” It’s more than a law enforcement principle; it’s a leadership principle. While not undermining the importance of planning and preparation, it acknowledges that the situation is never as ideal as our planning. You have to manage what you’re given.