First chair leaders can only be successful if they have competent, trustworthy leaders behind and around them. I’ve been studying some of the excellent examples in Scripture. Over the next year, I’ll be posting about some of them. In many of these role models, there’s the added layer of a righteous leader influencing a pagan culture for good. That’s a message that’s relevant to our twenty-first century culture where Christians are learning to live in exile.

I’ve always been drawn to the Old Testament character Joseph. There’s something that captures my imagination about the way he uses his one chance to get out of prison, to not only interpret Pharaoh’s dream, but to audaciously suggest a solution. Pharaoh is so impressed that he promotes him to prime minister over all Egypt. I’m impressed at his groundedness to recognize God’s hand in his successes and his being sent before the family to preserve them. Joseph never led from the first chair but never seemed to aspire for more. He was therefore even more trustworthy, never threatening the leader he supported.

I’m going to break the story of Joseph into four acts: the raw material, the development years, the fulfillment of promise and then returning to roots. But first, let me share some thoughts as an overview, many of them influenced by a blog series by Rev. Bernard Bouissieres. Joseph was always #2:

  • At age 17, he serves as a shepherd under his father. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown (JFB) Bible Commentary suggests that leadership is implied in the text. If so, Joseph has a leadership role over his brothers, reporting to his father. We’ll explore that a bit further in my next post.
  • He becomes an administrator stewarding the estate of an Egyptian official.
  • He manages the royal prison as a prisoner himself.
  • He ascends to the role of prime minister and loyally serves Pharaoh.

But let’s dig deeper. Two incidents show Joseph’s “I am second” attitude. First, the act of interpreting dreams. As Rev. Bernard says, “The ministry of interpretation places one in a second role position; it is exercised for the benefit of another. You are always in second position.” Drawing from his own experience as a language interpreter, he says, “People were not interested in me. They were interested in the main speaker. I was just a voice.”

He draws some conclusions about Joseph that have broader application:

The dream is not yours, it belongs to someone else. God has called others to something special and you help them sort it out. Counselors are second position type ministries. They function for others, not themselves. It is a very tiring, demanding type of ministry. But God and people need good interpreters, counsellors. Preachers, teachers should always function in a second role spirit; as ministers, they are preaching God’s Word not their ideas. (http://revbernardministries.com/joseph_bible_study_4)

That description certainly fits Joseph, who goes out of his way to give God the glory. (Gen 41:15-16)

When Joseph’s father re-enters the picture, Joseph submits to him again. He takes the mantle of leadership of the family, but always under his father. This is never more apparent than in the final days of his father’s life when Joseph gives his two sons to Jacob and then receives the second best blessing (behind Judah).

Rev. Bernard adds some great thoughts about first and second chair leadership, using Peter and Andrew as examples. How do I know if I am an “Andrew” in his right place in a second position role? How do I know if I should take a step back and be an “Andrew” rather than a “Peter”? I encourage you to use the excellent self test for second chair leadership he offers at the end of his post.

As we’ll see, being #2 is a critical role. It’s not second best, as the realm of leadership shouldn’t be about competition. Instead, it’s about skill fit and experience, about attitude and character, about using influence for good. The lessons are entirely relevant, whether you’re a first chair leader, a longtime second chair leader or someone who feels God stirring you to lead.


Joseph series:

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Last week I voted. At least I thought I did. I voted by fax, and apparently the bottoms of all the faxes got cut off because either my fax machine or the voting office’s fax machine can’t handle paper as long as the Florida ballot (8.5×17). So yesterday I mailed it in from Canada, which means my ballot will count but won’t get there for over a week after the election. I have few illusions that it will swing the vote or that they will still be counting votes ten days after, but crazier things have been known to happen in Florida elections.

I’ll admit I wasted my vote. After all, a vote for any but the two main candidates is a wasted vote, right? Perhaps living in Canada has given me the strange idea that other parties are legitimate votes, and that if you don’t like the two main candidates, you simply vote for someone else. A true wasted vote would have been for my favorite candidate, Evan McMullin. Apparently Florida got tired of counting votes for Mickie Mouse (who will likely have another strong year), and now doesn’t count any write-ins that are not officially registered. McMullin missed the cut, so I decided I couldn’t in good faith cast my vote straight into the circular file.

But I did vote, and I didn’t have to close my eyes and hold my nose as I did it. If enough of my countrymen did the same thing, today could get very interesting.

So why did I vote for someone who has no chance of winning? It comes down to leadership, so I thought I’d explain myself on the Back Row Leader. A few quick factors I considered, and then my primary concern:

  • You cannot be a leader without curiosity. Leaders are readers, and safety is found in an abundance of counsellors (Prov 11:14). Trump has an appalling lack of curiosity.
  • Both candidates are strategic and calculating, and they have a long record of getting ahead in either the political arena or the business arena by negotiating, compromising and telling parties what they need to hear. We don’t often see the real Clinton behind her carefully-scripted responses, and Trump has strung along a lot of dissimilar supporters by the use of innuendo and vague platitudes that they can freely conclude that he is one of them. This includes evangelicals.
  • Thanks to wikileaks and the many investigations, we know more of Clinton than we want to. But the lack of knowledge about Trump scares me. Why won’t he release his taxes? Why won’t he say anything negative about Putin? He hasn’t established any reason for me to give him the benefit of the doubt.

To be honest, all of these are minor factors. My primary concern is character.

In every leadership development program I’ve run, I’ve started with the premise that if you develop someone with bad character, you enable their abuse of power. How much bigger a concern when you’re talking about the most powerful office on the planet!

We know both have failing marks in morality, but there’s one distinction for me. Character is particularly important if there is no track record or experience to tell us how someone is going to lead or make decisions.

And character is critical when one candidate so clearly relies on instincts. That kind of leader can be erratic, wear out followers who jump at his whims and build dependence on him as the sole problem solver. With no clear ties to either party, Trump will chart his own course, whether it was what he said in his campaign promises or not.

That’s why character is my number one factor. A president with bad character who goes with gut instinct is a scary proposition.

Let me close with a word to my fellow evangelicals. It’s one thing to recognize the flaws of both candidates but pragmatically decide you need to cast your vote for one or the other in spite of the character issues. It’s another to change your beliefs because of the candidates. If you spoke out against Bill Clinton’s morality, then you need to do the same with Trump. To decide that character is no longer important because this time the candidate is in your party is disingenuous hypocrisy. I was sickened to see an article in Christianity Today online that says evangelical Christians have been doing just that. Evangelicals are now the single group least likely to vote based on morality! As Ed Stetzer points out, that’s the textbook definition to selling your soul.

I’m praying for our country today, but I’m also praying for fellow believers who are facing an agonizing decision.

The video footage everyone is talking about since Friday has been a tipping point in more than one way. Setting the political mess aside, it has been encouraging to see many Christian leaders wake from their slumber and silence. I pray that this will be a turning point in the life of the Church – the death of Christendom and a move to embracing our status as a church in exile. It’s a rude awakening to have no candidates that represent our position. Canada experienced it last year; now it’s America’s turn. The good news is that the Church thrives in situations like this.

The first step in awakening is repentance. I recently rediscovered Job 31, near the end of a frustrating discourse where Job’s friends were convinced that he had brought his immense suffering upon himself; surely it was because he had sinned in some area. So in chapter 31, Job searches his heart with an inventory of sins he had perhaps committed. His list provides a plum line for today’s culture and for us:

  • Did I walk with falsehood and deceit?
  • Did I covet or stray into sin?
  • Did I conceal my sin and guilt as a hypocrite?
  • Did I look lustfully at women?
  • Did I commit adultery in thought or deed?
  • Did I deny justice to employees?
  • Did I defraud or mistreat my laborers?
  • Did I take resources or land without payment?
  • Did I ignore the needs of or fail to share with the poor, homeless, widow or orphan?
  • Did I use influence to take advantage of the unfortunate?
  • Did I put trust in money or boast about great wealth?
  • Did I worship anything but God?
  • Did I rejoice at my enemy’s misfortune or curse a rival?
  • Did I fail to provide hospitality for strangers far from home?

In applying this list to today’s context, it’s clear that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both have much to repent of. No doubt Gary Johnson and Jill Stein do as well. Likewise for Justin Trudeau, Tom Mulcair and Rona Ambrose in Canada. No politician measures up.

For that matter, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have much to repent of. No party platform is “Christian;” none align with this plum line. Both embrace what the Bible calls sin.

But God doesn’t call nations and leaders to repent as much as he calls believers to repent. The U.S. and Canadian Church have much to repent of. One of our sins is ranking sins and assigning weights to certain ones as if all don’t fall short of the standard (Rom 3:23). This list is obviously not exhaustive, but it is pretty thorough, and it is a scathing rebuke of America’s view of culturally-acceptable sins.

Another North American sin is to put our trust in anything but the Lord our God (Ps 20:7). No political party or leader is our hope. God alone is our saviour, anchor and confidence.

Yet another is to fail to stand in the breach for our nation. In Ezekiel 22:30, God finds fault with the believers of the day when none advocate for mercy for their nation. God is therefore not dissuaded from destroying them. Job was a righteous man who offered sacrifices every day for his kids, in case they had “sinned and cursed God in their hearts” (Job 1:5). Likewise, in the first chapter of Nehemiah, this cupbearer and soon-to-be-governor confessed the sins of his people and then owned his own part in the nation’s sin (Neh 1:5-7).

As Martin Luther put it in the first of his 95 theses,

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

Christians, we need to repent, plead for our nations and stand in the breach for them.

As you pray, I encourage you to use the Scriptures listed above, or any of the following:
2 Chronicles 7:14
1 John 1:8-9
Exodus 32:32, Psalm 106:23


Part 1: A void of leadership

Part 2: A time for repentance
Part 3: An opportunity for Millennials

In April we passed the point where the largest generation alive in the United States is no longer the Boomers. For some time, Millennials have been the most influential generation for marketing, television and shopping. Now you Millennials are the largest generation, and you have a power you haven’t really embraced.

I understand that there are at least 75 million of you. I understand that 51% of you voted in 2008. This year, for the first time, all of you are of voting age.

ballot-2It takes about 60 million votes to get a majority in a presidential election. That means that, if enough of you engage, whoever the Millennials vote for will likely win this election. You have clout you haven’t taken advantage of in presidential politics.

I understand from the surveys that you’re not crazy about our two candidates, either of which would be one of our two oldest presidents. You’re repulsed more than average by the corruption and scandals on both sides. You’re savvy enough to question campaign promises, hidden agendas and the power of the parties.

You are also the social media generation. It’s your first language. I’ve watched social media campaigns rally huge support behind a meme or hashtag or initiative. What if you were to direct that energy to Presidential politics?

You have an opportunity. There are only two candidates on the ballot that have a real chance of winning, but the record disapproval rates of those candidates likely mean a record number of write-in votes. But without coordination, those votes will be distributed.

Bottom line: with a little social media coordination, you Millennials could pick the next president and get him or her into the White House. Who’s willing to step up and get your generation behind a new candidate? You’ll have my vote, and I suspect a lot of my fellow GenX voters will follow suit.

There’s not much time, as almost 500,000 votes have already been cast.

Part 1: A void of leadership
Part 2: A time for repentance
Part 3: An opportunity for Millennials

This has been quite the year for leadership. Near the end of July, in the middle of violence between black men and police, Stephen Collinson nailed my thoughts in this CNN headline:

Who can make it stop? Is there a leader who can stop the chaos and heal America?

For a student of leadership like me, it was a summer chock full of case studies from all of Canada’s neighbours. I realize I’m a little late to the game, but I want to weigh in with the back row leader’s perspective in a three-part series.

Full disclosure: I’m a dual citizen, and a former Republican who is planning to vote absentee in the U.S. election, not because I like the choices I’ve been dealt but because I don’t want to abdicate on my responsibilities as a naturalized American. I’m also a child of Europe, in possession of an uncompleted Irish passport application and with similar eligibility in Britain. I really don’t see a need for four passports, but I can’t hide the fact that I do feel loyalty to all four. That said, I’m an observer of much of what I’m commenting on, so I recognize I may have missed some nuances. Anyway, let’s jump in.

1. Populism is a form of leadership.
We’ve seen populist revolutions in the U.K. with Brexit, the U.S. with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and in Colombia last week with the people’s rejection of a peace deal referendum. Populist movements have multiple influencers and an inertia of their own. It’s hard to pinpoint the leader of a movement, which has its weaknesses but also offers some protection from political pressures. In The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom use the metaphor of a starfish to discuss movements, pointing out that scientists still don’t know how starfish move in concert when they’re essentially an organism by committee. Without a head, the starfish is less vulnerable to damage and still manages to move and feed itself, but I suspect it sometimes surprises itself with where it ends up.

But isn’t Trump the leader of his movement? Attempting to read the trends and making adjustments to stay in front of the mob makes a good surfer but a poor leader. Trump has had a remarkable ability to see a wave building and to harness it without being knocked off his board; consider the strange bedfellows who resonate with “Make America Great Again,” and his flirtations with David Duke’s endorsement.

2. The most challenging part of leadership is to figure out how to get “there.”
It’s easy to be a critic, and even to lead a group away from “here.” But the wilderness beyond is full of regrets, uncertainty, and leadership pitfalls – where followers turn on a leader when their expectations aren’t met. Just ask Moses. Or Nigel Farage, who decided he “did his bit” in leading Britain out of Europe and wasn’t ready to take the mantle any further. As Bill Hybels is fond of stating, leaders move people from “here” to “there.” Leaving isn’t enough; it’s only the beginning of the need for good leadership.

It takes real courage to take on the wilderness ahead of Britain. You could argue that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson had a lot of wisdom in backing away, but they lacked the courage — or perhaps the specifics — to back up their vision. Theresa May remained in the game even though she hadn’t supported the Brexit decision. It’s now up to her to help define the vision for what “there” is going to look like.

3. There’s a hunger for thought leadership.
Back on this side of the pond, there’s a failure of imagination. Dialogue is non-existing and creativity fails to get a hearing when well-defined camps hold long-established lines. Civility is lost, and the President skirts legislative approval while Republicans even resort to suing the President to prevent action. Too many Americans have believed the lie that the other candidate or party is wrong on 100% of the issues. And so there is no nuanced thought or open-minded discussion about tackling healthcare, immigration, gun violence, racism and terrorism.

When someone decides ahead of time that one party has the right position, it undermines their ability to think honestly. Even worse, it neutralizes their voice to speak into the issues.

4. The Church has lost its voice.
The issues America is facing have spiritual roots and spiritual implications. Only the Church can speak to heart issues like hatred; the State’s hands are tied. So the Christian must be able to work between the parties to challenge the extreme edges of gun freedom, to address roots of poverty, to seek equality and remove profiling in the application of law, while also seeking religious freedom for believers to operate in their sphere to address heart issues. No political party has a corner on solutions for these issues.

When the Church marries itself to a political party, as the black Church has largely done with the Democratic Party and the evangelical Church with the Republican party, they are taken for granted and their voice is silenced. When Donald Trump thinks he has evangelicalism firmly in his camp by offering them greater influence, power and friendly Supreme Court justices. Many no longer criticize his character or other policies, because they’ve heard what they need to hear.

5. Any void will be filled.
This is not an election as much as a referendum on the direction of the country. If the Republican party can’t fight off its hijacking, a void will certainly beckon for a new party to represent the conservative, immigrant-loving spectrum in a merger with the disenfranchised #nevertrump social and economic conservatives. If ever the United States could tolerate three parties, this seems the time.

However, I submit that the leadership void will not be filled by a politician. The Christian community must rise up to defy hatred, challenge racism, love the unloveable and defend the vulnerable. Spiritual leadership is needed, and it must come from voices that are not power-hungry and bowing the knee to any political party. To some, such meekness and humility will look like weakness. Some might call them losers. But the last will be first, and the first last. The meek will inherit the earth. The one who loses the world will gain his soul. That, more than anything else, is what America needs to find again.

On July 7, when Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed police officers in Dallas in the middle of a public firestorm focused on police brutality toward black men, it was not a politician who stepped up to lead with fresh vision. The world noticed when Dallas’s black police chief found a platform to address the craziness. David Brown had just the right combination of empathy with black minorities, identity with the uniform and Christian compassion, and his leadership drew praise from all parties.

That’s the kind of leadership we need.

Part 1: A void of leadership
Part 2: A time for repentance
Part 3: An opportunity for Millennials

The leader whose thinking is constrained within well-worn ruts, who is completely governed by his established passions and prejudices, who is incapable of thinking either gray or free, and who can’t even appropriate the creative imagination and fresh ideas of those around him, is as anachronistic and ineffective as the dinosaur. He may by dint of circumstances remain in power, but his followers would almost certainly be better off without him. (Dr. Stephen Sample, Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership)

In my last blog post that spelled out what I call leading as an art director, I promoted the idea of gaining buy-in and then letting an idea go. Letting go doesn’t mean the leader can’t continue to feed the idea. He or she needs to do this by challenging lazy thinking and by destroying natural constraints to thinking. Here are four ways to do that:

1. The threshing floor. I love the concept of the threshing floor, where ideas can be tossed in the air to see what solid nuggets of wheat fall to the ground while the chaff blows away. I am a proponent of “thinking out loud.” Until an idea is stated and turned over a few times, you don’t know its value. I believe everyone has something to contribute, so when a meeting ends and someone never spoke up, I wonder what held back. I’m convinced introverts could solve most of the world’s problems, but they’re happy to take their solutions to the grave!

2. Design thinking. I can’t articulate the concept of design thinking as taught at Stanford’s d.school, but I learned the concepts the hard way, through five years of undergrad training and nine years of practice. One basic tenet is that the ideal is not ready-aim-fire as much as ready-fire-aim-fire again. In other words, don’t analyze something to death before you ever move. Trial and error is the best way to develop an idea.

Another tenet drummed into me at Georgia State is that your first ideas are likely worthless. However, if you don’t get them out on paper and then intentionally throw them away, they will limit your thinking. Push yourself to come up with at least one more viable idea. Many leaders talk about the trap that results when everyone in a meeting is in agreement, and they intentionally push someone to argue the other side or challenge group think.

3. Thinking free. Former USC Chancellor Stephen Sample articulates this practice in a fabulous leadership book called The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. It’s a process where a group of people intentionally remove all constraints to their thinking for a period of time so they can break out of their ruts. It goes way beyond brainstorming, allowing anything to be considered and sometimes exposing a simple, obvious solution no one has ever seen before. Sample explains the idea in the second half of this essay:
Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership

4. Fresh eyes. When someone is new to a team, a company or initiative, their most important asset for the first three months is their ability to see with fresh eyes. I try to meet with them in the first week to empower them, encouraging them to ask silly questions, challenge our thinking and point out anything that doesn’t make sense. Without encouragement, they will keep these observations to themselves because of natural desires to assimilate.

Dr. Sample offers an excellent rationale:

It’s well known among engineers that the most important inventions in a particular field are often made by people who are new to that field – people who are too naïve and ignorant to know all the reasons why something can’t be done, and who are therefore able to think more freely about seemingly intractable problems. The same is true of the leadership of institutions: It’s often fresh blood and a fresh perspective from the outside that can turn an ailing organization around.

5. Courageous questions. It takes a secure leader to encourage radical thinking and invite questions. We must always have the courage to ask the right questions, even if we don’t want to go where the questions might lead us. If the questions lead us back to where we are, then we have greater confidence in the direction we’re already moving. Or they might expose the absurdity of our current path and open the door to new possibilities.

The point of these exercises is that inertia creates laziness, and leadership is never about going along with momentum. If, as Gary Hamel put it at Global Leadership Summit 2009, “It’s so easy to mistake the edge of your rut for the horizon. We have to learn to be contrarians.” There are some proven exercises that can help you forcibly break out of your own thinking or lead a team to release the constraints that bind their imaginations for what could be.

I’m a graphic designer. Non-practicing, I’ll grant you, but a designer nonetheless. There are no former graphic designers, just as there are no ex-alcoholics. I’m a designer, and I always will be. It’s how I see the world. It’s the way I think. It’s the way I operate, no matter what my specific job responsibilities are at the time. Let’s take non-profit leadership, for instance.

I lead as an art director. I paint a picture for my team of a preferred future or the direction I think we should go, and then I invite them to bring their best to help make it happen. Because people are creative, with experiences and vantage points I’ll never have, the result is almost always better than I ever imagined. Of course, the more diverse those vantage points are, the stronger the result will be.

The leader’s job is to inspire and motivate, but not to hold his idea too tightly. The ideal is to achieve buy-in and then let go. Of course, buy-in requires that a team has been given significant opportunity to speak into and even sway the direction we’re going. The more the team gets excited about the idea and brings their best, the more alternatives and improvements they will propose, and the more momentum the concept will gain.

The key for the leader is to decide ahead of time what the non-negotiables are going to be. What is the deadline? What elements must be included? Just as a kite will not stay in the air if it is not held in tension with the ground, creativity is impossible if there are no parameters. A graphic designer cannot get the first mark on a page if there aren’t some ridiculous tensions that generate sparks: the name of the company, the fact the client only likes green, the minuscule budget and the unreasonable deadline. The designer might grumble at the constraints, but now she has some material to work with.

Leading as an art director means there will be compromise. Any gathering of creative people will include passion, tension and rabbit trails. If the project is drifting too far from the intent, does the team need firm direction or is it okay to let them run with it for a while? Is the drift in fact an improvement over the original idea? Perhaps my dream was too small, and the team is seeing new opportunities to expand the idea. Perhaps the new direction is in fact the creative foundation for another project. 3M has made a killing, when the proposed solutions didn’t solve the immediate problem, by allowing employees to persist in the belief that they’ve solved something (they just don’t know what yet) until it becomes viable. Consider the history of the sticky note.

In some cases, the idea just doesn’t work. The leader must then have the courage to shut it down. If the project fails or leads to bad results, there are a few possible reasons:

  • I failed to adequately describe my vision.
  • I didn’t fully pass the baton. I didn’t achieve the buy-in I was shooting for, or I held onto control unnecessarily.
  • I didn’t pull in a diverse enough team to add their strengths.
  • It wasn’t worth doing, or it failed. Some ideas just aren’t robust enough to stand on their own. Others are risks that may or may not survive.

A few years ago I heard an old leader muse that most leadership books try to boil down a leader’s experience into a formula that won’t work for anyone else’s context, and wouldn’t even work if that leader tried to apply his own formula again. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found it so difficult to articulate my instinctive leadership style. Multiple times I’ve tried to put thoughts to keyboard and then given up. I’m still not satisfied that I captured the essence of the way I lead.

So perhaps this methodology is best left as a blog post fleshed out just enough to paint a picture, and allowing readers and leaders to bring their own creativity to the practice and make it even better.