Failure!

If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my previous blog post, “Humbled!” I suggest you take the time to read that one as context for this post. In that post, I asked for your stories about failure. I want to share my own example here and draw a few conclusions.

I was studying engineering when God showed me very clearly that I needed to change my major and move toward a career in missions. How was it so clear? I was failing Physics and another class foundational to engineering. At the same time, I heard a missionary share about the huge need for graphic design in missions. I had always played with design, but never thought of it as a career, let alone in missions. I couldn’t get it out of my head that I needed to change majors and change schools, and that graphic design was my path to missions.

While many find the idea of a “calling” somewhat mysterious, for me it was more practical. God clearly closed a door and opened another. At the point of failure of my plans, when I was ready to listen, God used a missionary to challenge me.

Shortly after we graduated, my wife and I attended the Urbana student mission conference. While visiting the mission booths, I found out Wycliffe Bible Translators had a huge need for graphic design, helping create displays, magazines, brochures, calendars and websites. But more than the need for my skills, the mission of Wycliffe grabbed me. This was an organization marked by perseverance, going into the difficult places, advocating for the marginalized, the minority languages that were so easily overlooked.

So my wife and I joined Wycliffe and took our first assignment in Canada. I managed a small team of designers, and put my energy into Wycliffe Canada’s award-winning photojournalistic magazine.

As I think back, I got pretty comfortable and even somewhat cocky in my position and abilities. I had won some design awards for Wycliffe’s Word Alive magazine, and I was able to “leverage” my abilities to take a similar position with Wycliffe USA, an organization about ten times the size of its Canadian counterpart. I remember thinking about the expansion of my influence to a larger constituency.

So my family and I moved down to Orlando and began the most difficult two years of my life.

A larger organization requires more specialization, and my job changed to the point that it played away from my strengths for big-picture thinking and ideas. I got buried in minutia and I found myself boxed in. My frustration grew, and I took it out on my boss, rebelling against her leadership. I lost trust and the hole I was in got deeper. I’m not at all proud of the way I handled myself, and I fully deserved the words my boss gave me near the end: “You’re gifted at a lot of things, but management isn’t one of them. Maybe you should find a job that doesn’t require management.”

I suppose I was gifted in a lot of things. But I was taking credit for success that wasn’t mine to take. Many of the ideas I was so proud of came in moments of unexpected inspiration. Most of my successes were done in the context of team, not solo. I was not very self aware.

This job came to an end when my boss sent me to a leadership conference. Given her thoughts on my leadership ability, it was a funny place to send me, but it turned out to be the best money she ever spent. An hour into the conference, I heard these momentous words: “If you don’t like your job, quit!” So I did. I was walking a fine line because I didn’t want to quit Wycliffe. I was still committed to the vision. But I walked away from graphic design. I was at rock bottom, not sure if anyone would want a washed-up designer, not sure I could find another job in this organization I loved.

At the bottom of my spiral of despair, as I debated my future, a senior vice president asked me to work for him as a project manager. I suppose if I’d learned anything from those two difficult years, it was project management, so I jumped at this surprise opportunity. He pulled me up from my knees and brought me into the president’s office. I discovered the amazing world of executive administration and big-picture strategy. I loved it! But I still had a lot to learn about management, so I took a 5-year detour, leading teams at various levels before returning to administration in a role responsible for developing leaders in the organization. I had learned from my experiences and had developed a soft heart for young leaders.

Like Peter, my philosophy of leadership is very much shaped by my failures:

  • I love to take on “projects.” Several times I have taken on a staff member whose recent career was marred by a bad performance appraisal, because I see potential in them and suspect that they were in some way a victim of circumstance. If I feel like the situation I can put them in will lead to success, I’ll take a risk on them.
  • I don’t believe firing is the worst thing you can do to someone. Letting them stay and spread their misery and discontent is worse for them and for the people around them.
  • I lead as an art director. I surround myself with great people who can do things I can’t, then paint a vision and let them add their creativity and input. The result is usually better than if I did it myself. So I have a much more realistic view of myself—my strengths and weaknesses and passions. I try to do what only I can do, and empower the people around me to use their strengths.
  • I look for talent in people across various industries. If a graphic designer could make a project manager and eventually a president who practices “design thinking,” then how could other skills translate into new situations?
  • I don’t confuse my job with my identity. I’m in at least my third career since I joined Wycliffe 17 years ago, and it’s been over a dozen years since I held the same job more than two years. So hold your passion, vision and calling more tightly than what you do.

Three years ago a search committee contacted me. They were looking for a young leader who wasn’t afraid to lead change, who had a track record of developing young leaders and who could turn Wycliffe Canada around from some significant areas of decline. When my wife heard what they were looking for, it was so clear to her that they were looking for me. “We’re moving to Canada,” she said. God had prepared me for this precise job at this precise time.

In my own story, I see a resemblance to Peter’s journey. Throughout each step, I see the Spirit working behind the scenes, shaping and preparing in order to accomplish his purposes. It causes me to take myself less seriously and to say with a twinkle in my eye that it’s God’s sense of humour that he’d put a graphic designer in charge of a Bible translation organization.

Roy Eyre, B.F.A.

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Vicarious living

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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Not who I am, but who God is

I intentionally concluded my last post with a dangling proposition: “Knowing who you are is the greatest platform for leadership.” I was hoping someone would challenge that. I’m going to challenge it preemptively.

Perhaps the biggest proof of Moses’ incredible relationship with God was his ability to argue with God. I don’t have that kind of relationship with God. I’m not sure I have the guts to push God like Moses did. While a number of arguments are recorded, the most obvious one is in Exodus 3 and 4, where Moses tries to throw off his calling.

Here’s the important thing to note: most of Moses’ objections are identity issues. “Who am I?” “How will they know You sent me?” “What if they won’t believe me?” “I’m not very good!” “Please send someone else!”

God’s responses are about identity as well — His identity. Here’s how Barton puts it in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership:

But God answers all of Moses’ objections (and ours!) with variations on a single theme — the promise of God’s presence in the crucible of leadership.

“I will be with you.” “I AM has sent me.” “I will work mighty signs through you.” “Who made your mouth?”

I still stand by my assertion in my last post. But that statement is incomplete. Knowing who God is is the greatest platform for leadership.

Leading from your upbringing

Recently (and finally), I began reading Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Judging from the first third, I know it is going to end up near the top of my list of leadership books and will be worth a re-read down the road. She builds her book around the story of Moses, which suits me fine because I’ve always been intrigued by his leadership model.

I never saw it before, but Moses is a classic third culture kid. He was Hebrew-born, an identity forgotten in his childhood but that he longed to retrieve as an adult. He was raised as an Egyptian, an identity so woven into him that he doesn’t deny that label when first introduced to the priest of Midian. Born into poverty and slavery, he was raised in the home of Pharoah. His education and wealth was surely both a huge privilege and a weight. Barton concludes that “He lived between two worlds and yet was not fully at home in either place.”

As an outsider both among his own people and among the Egyptians who raised him, he probably wrestled every day with issues related to his identity. Should he fit into the environment in which he had been raised and follow the path marked out for him there? Or should he identify with his own people and try to make it by those rules instead? Neither one was a very good choice. Either one would bring about emptiness and loss.

In many ways, I can identify with Moses as a Canadian and an American who is really neither Canadian nor American. In reflecting on my own path into leadership, I think the pivotal moment for me was my transplant at age eight from the suburbs of Toronto to the suburbs of Atlanta. I remember struggling with the question of whether to assimilate or hold stubbornly to my culture that first year. I remember wearing the wrong clothes, pronouncing words the wrong way and knowing nothing of “importance” — usually pop-culture references that went over my head. Fortunately, I was a quick study. I chose assimilation and blended in successfully. However, that sense of imbalance as an “outsider” was a feeling I never wanted to experience again. I’ll bet I could trace much of my leadership style to that stage in my journey.

However, I can see the benefits of third-culturehood. Putting myself in Moses’ shoes, I can sense the conclusion that eventually began to formulate in his mind. The Hebrews needed rescuing. Who else was in a better position to be the solution? Why else had he had such a unique upbringing? He was born for such a time as this, and God had gifted him in leadership. In addition, confidence and power had likely been built into him every day in Pharaoh’s home and schools. His sense of justice began to stir as he explored his roots. The mantle of “savior” had fallen on him. All he needed was opportunity.

Days after the glorious failure of his salvation initiative, Moses traveled alone in the wilderness, forced to confront the ugliness in himself. There was the raw anger that blazed out of control. He hadn’t intended to kill the guard. There was the lack of support from the Hebrews. Didn’t they see that he was appointed for this task? There was the loss of privilege that he hated and yet was so attached to. There was the shame of failure. He was through with leadership.

Over months and years in Midian, God began to peel away the coping mechanisms, the assumptions, the scabs and calluses from his wounds until he could come face to face with his core issue of inadequacy and pain. There’s a moment that sums up his 40 year journey. Barton puts it this way:

He fathered a son, and it became a touchstone in his life, an opportunity to name something about himself with more courage and realism than ever before. When his son was born, he named him Gershom because ‘I have been an alien residing in a foreign land’ (Exodus 2:22).

As a leader, what do you do with your upbringing? Like it or not, you will lead out of it. Anything else would be disingenuous and unsustainable. Suppressed pain and experiences will eventually emerge when you face crisis, complexity, loneliness, betrayal and weariness. Better to embrace what shaped you and lead from there.

That means seeing — or waiting for — the right opportunity. Moses wasn’t wrong about being the “savior.” He was wrong about doing it in his own strength and timing. Only after his 40-year education could he see how the pieces fit together. Only after arguing vociferously but ineffectively with God could he embrace the idea of a second attempt.

That means leading out of brokenness. It means allowing God to do a deep work to redeem your pain. It also means stepping out in faith when you don’t feel confident. Barton quotes Os Guinness, who offers a unique spin on the idea of a leadership calling:

Calling is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not yet but are called by God to be.

Don’t wait to be the person you think God needs. Believe the One “who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17)

That means leading out of power. Counterintuitively, there’s real power in leading out of who you are. You might not like what you see in the mirror, but opening your soul and leading from who God made you to be is a powerful starting point. Barton points out that Moses was equipped to lead the Hebrews through 40 years in the wilderness only because he had emerged from 40 years in the wilderness.

There’s a remarkable current-day example. Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, says he got the job because he cared about children the most. His own story of abuse is remarkable and the driver behind all that he has accomplished. He admits, “I am never more than 10 seconds away from tears.” His willingness to put his own pain out for all to see has given him a platform to accomplish amazing things.

I remember hearing Stafford speak at Willow Creek Leadership Summit in 2009. He urged leaders to spend 30 minutes in front of a mirror, taking the time to ask yourself some tough questions. Who am I? What do I care about? Why do I lead what I lead? Is my passion driven by pain or success?

Knowing who you are is the greatest platform for leadership.