My summer reading was pretty diverse. It started and ended with Jesus, then ran on a Second World War theme and borrowed inspiration from the Global Leadership Summit:

  • Christ for Real, by Charles Price
  • The War Magician, by David Fisher
  • Churchill: A Study in Greatness, by Geoffrey Best
  • Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull
  • Jesus on Leadership, by Gene Wilkes
  • Extreme Prayer, by Greg Pruett

One overarching theme was really impressed on me through this reading. I was inspired as I read the accounts of Jasper Maskelyne and Winston Churchill. In one case, such creativity organized toward creating illusions that turned the war momentum. In the second case, such sheer determination and eccentric energy focused in one direction. But something bothered me about the fact that everyone looked to these men, and their teams were ineffective without them. These biographies fall firmly in the camp of Thomas Carlyle, who said in the 1840s, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Wikipedia describes the resulting “Great Man Theory” this way:

a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

Since I was young, I’ve enjoyed biographies about these giants in history who turned the course of history. But I’m getting a bit jaded.

It wasn’t until I read Creativity, Inc. that I put my finger on how I have changed. In Ed Catmull’s critique of Walt Disney, I began to wonder why the legendary animation studio become so ineffective after the great man passed away. The expectations were so high, and so much revolved around Disney’s demanding, energetic presence that the studio just couldn’t keep going afterwards.

When Walt Disney was alive, he was such a singular talent that it was difficult for anyone to conceive of what the company would be like without him. And sure enough, after his death, there wasn’t anybody who came close to filling his shoes. For years, Disney employees attempted to keep his spirit alive by constantly asking themselves, “What would Walt do?” Perhaps they thought that if they asked that question they would come up with something original, that they would remain true to Walt’s pioneering spirit. In fact, this kind of thinking only accomplished the opposite. Because it looked backward, not forward, it tethered the place to the status quo. A pervasive fear of change took root. (p165)

Instead, Ed Catmull’s goal at Pixar—and later at Walt’s animation studio—was to create a culture that would produce greatness even after the founders and visionaries were gone. He wanted to build a company with interchangeable parts. Some of the ideas he explores in his book:

  • “My job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it” (p xv).
  • “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture… wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job” (p 65).
  • “All we could do at Disney, I knew, was create a healthy creative culture and see what developed” (p 274).

He begins by talking about the importance of finding the right people and getting them to work together in a way that produces great ideas. He certainly accomplished that by assembling an amazing collection of creative directors at Pixar. He then talks about the goal of management to constantly empower those people to solve creative problems together. He promotes the ideas W. Edwards Deming pushed at Toyota, referring to “a democratic central tenet: You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.” (p 51)

Ultimately, Catmull’s greatest success was to bring the ideas of candor and empowerment to the culture of Disney, leading to successive #1 films—”Tangled” and “Frozen”—after 16 years without a box office hit. Rather than replace the existing staff to accomplish this feat, he proudly points out that the studio “was still populated by most of the same people John [Lasseter] and I had encountered when we arrived” (p274).

Let me come full circle, as my summer reading list did. Jesus did the same thing as Ed Catmull did. Or rather, Ed did what Jesus did. He took a ragtag group of fishermen, zealots and tax collectors and spent three years challenging their mindset, changing their hearts and establishing a new culture. He certainly made himself dispensable and created a structure where interchangeable parts would keep the movement going for at least 2,000 years. Granted, we don’t have all the same tools he had available.

And yet, we do. As Jesus told his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12) and sending the Holy Spirit (v16). Though he probably wouldn’t say it this way, Catmull simply expounds a form of servant leadership that originally came from Jesus. There’s just something about having someone else say the same things again that makes them come alive and allows us to see them with fresh eyes. For that, I’m grateful to Ed Catmull.

I’m not sure I want to read any more “great men” biographies. I want to read about men and women who built great systems and great cultures that continue to the next generation.

I’ve described this overlap period with the current president as the best of both worlds: I can think strategically without having to worry about any of the day-to-day management of Wycliffe. However, if I try to strategize without first internalizing the corporate culture, I’ll fall prey to Drucker’s axiom:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

So how do I steep myself in Wycliffe’s corporate culture so that I can maximize my time on strategery? Like many offices, Wycliffe in Calgary is difficult to define as a block. It has many subcultures. So, whether it’s a new organization, a new country or a new department, here are some practical ideas to absorb the essence of organizational culture.

1. Experiential learning. I’m on a quest to jump in and identify with as many subcultures as I can. Two clear ones are cycling to work and joining the WTHL, the Wycliffe Table Hockey League. I have now biked to the office four times, the first of which came in 36 degree temperatures. That’s soft core. Cycling to work in the snow earns you more points.

I also watched by first table hockey game. I wish I’d had a camera to capture how serious they take this sport. I’ll post a photo next time I have an opportunity, but let me give you a taste. They have hockey cards for each team and a commemorative program that tracks every kind of statistics. At this point, I’m choosing to remain an observer rather than fall prey to their slap shots and wise cracks.

To take in the culture, don’t hold back. Experience the way your new colleagues celebrate. Spend time with them away from the office. Of course, there’s no replacement for the depth forged from experiencing a crisis together, but there are a lot of things you can do to seek breadth in the interim.

2. Read the same books. When I was in Orlando, a new leader on the recruitment team asked me what books the leadership team were reading. He wanted to know the way they think and take on the vocabulary. “Easy, I said. Read Jim Collins and Patrick Lencioni.” In Calgary, the Board and Leadership Team are now reading When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Recent reads have been Leading Cross-Culturally, by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, by Ruth Haley Barton. These books shape the way leaders think, talk and lead.

3. Ask questions. Speaking of Lencioni, his recommendation in Getting Naked is to ask lots of questions without regard to how they come across. The reason adults are slower to learn is their concern about appearing naive or dumb. I’m hoping most of my dumb questions will come before I take office. But I’m also hoping I won’t care more about my pride after I take office than about understanding my context.

4. Find out what influences them. If you want to join conversations at breaks, you have to know the terminology and people who influence them. For instance, media. In previous jobs, I’ve absorbed Survivor, American Idol, and Napoleon Dynamite. At church in Florida, if you weren’t playing Fantasy Football, you could find yourself cut off from fellowship with other men every Fall. When I retired from playing in 2007 (after winning my league twice in a row), I had to at least keep up on a few stats so that I could join the conversations. In Calgary, it’s the same way with hockey. Key influences include Hockey Night in Canada, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Corner Gas.

What have you done to immerse yourself in organizational culture? Lend me your ideas. I’ll probably put them to good use.

Books I’ve read this quarter:

  • Topgrading, by Brad Smart
  • The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo
  • Leading Cross Culturally, by Sherwood Lingenfelter

I’m currently reading:

  • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith
  • Radical, by David Platt
  • Many Colors, by Soong-Chan Rah
  • The Mentor Leader, by Tony Dungy
  • Dead or Alive, by Tom Clancy

On my nightstand to read next:

  • A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, by Daniel Pink
  • The Spiritual Side of Leadership
  • A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter
  • First Break All the Rules, by Marcus Buckingham
  • Strengths-Based Leadership, by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie

Looking at the list of what’s next has taken on new focus for me. Recently, I heard Mark Driscoll say that he and his wife are reading through biographies of great church leaders in history — people like Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther. Their unique take on it caught my wife’s and my attention: he reads the guy’s biography, his wife reads the wife’s biography, then they compare notes. So in May, I’m switching to biographies.

That means I have to prioritize this final list, because I won’t be able to read all of them by the end of April. I welcome your input. Which two books should I read between now and the end of April?

Books I’ve read this quarter:

  • Rescuing Ambition, by Dave Harvey
  • Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
  • Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, by Christopher Witt
  • The Return of the King, by J.R. Tolkien (to my boys)

I’m currently reading:

  • Topgrading, by Brad Smart
  • Servant Empowered Leadership, by Don Page
  • Radical, by David Platt

On my nightstand to read next:

  • Many Colors, by Soong-Chan Rah
  • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith
  • The Mentor Leader, by Tony Dungy
  • First Break All the Rules, by Marcus Buckingham
  • A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter

A friend recently told me he had a voucher for a free book at Amazon. “Which book would you recommend?” Great question. I’ve been posting my reading list for a year now, so let me go back and give my top 5 books for this year.

  • Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church, by James E. Plueddemann
  • Leading with a Limp, by Dan Allender
  • Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
  • The Leadership Jump, by Jimmy Long

So if you can only pick one and you work in a cross-cultural ministry setting, Plueddemann’s the one to read. For leadership in general, it’s Allender. And for leading change, it’s the Heath brothers. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Books I’ve read this quarter:

  • In the Name of Jesus, by Henri Nouwen
  • Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church, by James E. Plueddemann
  • The Speed of Trust, by Stephen M.R. Covey
  • Helping People Win at Work, by Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge
  • The Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly
  • 9 Dragons, by Michael Connelly

I’m currently reading:

  • Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, by Christopher Witt
  • Servant Empowered Leadership, by Don Page
  • The Return of the King, by J.R. Tolkien (to my boys)

On my nightstand to read next:

  • Rescuing Ambition, by Dave Harvey
  • First Break All the Rules, by Marcus Buckingham
  • Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
  • Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • The Leadership Challenge, by Kouzes and Posner
  • A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter
  • Crazy Love, by Francis Chan

Dr. Steve Sample always said you should read the classics. My pastor says it too: read books by dead authors. What classics would you suggest?

This is post #100 for my blog! Seems like that’s a pretty big milestone, and I’m proud to have lasted this long. Thanks for taking an interest in reading my thoughts!

It’s been another quarter, so time for another update on the books I’ve read:

  • Getting Naked, by Patrick Lencioni
  • The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do, by Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller
  • Forgotten God, by Francis Chan
  • The Divine Commodity, by Skye Jethani
  • While You Were Micro Sleeping, by Steve Moore
  • The Two Towers, by J.R. Tolkien (to my boys)

I’m currently reading:

  • The Speed of Trust, by Stephen M.R. Covey
  • Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church, by James E. Plueddemann
  • Servant Empowered Leadership, by Don Page
  • The Dark Side of Leadership, by Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima
  • The Missional Leader, by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk

On my nightstand to read next:

  • Something in fiction. Maybe something by Michael Connelly.
  • Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • The Leadership Challenge, by Kouzes and Posner
  • Helping People Win at Work, by Ken Blanchard
  • Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
  • A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter
  • Crazy Love, by Francis Chan
  • The Return of the King, by J.R. Tolkien (to my boys)

While I liked Lencioni’s new book, and it’s probably my favorite of my recent readings, I’m not sure any of this list will end up transforming my view of leadership over the long term. How about you? Have any of these books been transformative for you?

It’s been another quarter, so time for another update on the books I’ve read:

  • Master Leaders, by George Barna
  • A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller
  • Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • FYI: For Your Improvement, by Michael M. Lombardo

I’m currently reading:

  • The Divine Commodity, by Skye Jethani
  • Forgotten God, by Francis Chan
  • The Dark Side of Leadership (I set this one aside and need to get back to it)
  • The Two Towers, by J.R. Tolkien (to my boys)

On my nightstand to read next:

  • Something in fiction. Didn’t Grisham write something recently? The comments from last time strongly urged me to diversify my reading list.
  • Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • The Missional Leader, by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk
I think the one I’m most excited about is my devotional for the year: Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, by Bobby Gross. I have a heavy dose of Anglican in my Presby-Baptist upbringing, so I have an appreciation of and periodic exposure to a variety of kinds of liturgy but no real knowledge of the Christian calendar.
Tomorrow I will begin celebrating Lent for the first time, and I’m excited by the prospect. In fact, I’m trying to determine what I should fast.
  • Watching sports? That would probably be the most costly, with the Olympics on now (and my pending visit to the Olympic city) and March Madness on the horizon.
  • Facebook? That might be good. Costly, but I’m not totally addicted. I would lament the ability to maintain relationships there… in fact, that’s probably not something I’m willing to set aside.
  • Desserts might be good, or maybe chocolate specifically?
  • How about caffeine or Coca Cola?
  • Perhaps I need to starve my news junky side. No web news or newspapers. That would be painful but good for me.