Historically, the topic that has generated the most interest on this site is ambition. There simply are more people struggling with ambition than people writing about it. So I want to discuss ideas for combating ambition. I’ll get practical in my next post, but let’s start with a broader philosophical foundation. What I’m building toward is the provocative idea:

What if the antidote to ambition is ambition?

Have you ever noticed that the areas where you are specifically prone to weakness, temptation or sin correspond well to your strengths? Or, to put it another way, your strengths are the same areas where you’re often tempted to sin? Aristotle noticed the connection and attempted to explain it by describing a virtue as a mean between two vices. In other words, an excess or a deficiency in the core traits behind any virtue leads to vice.

I prefer another way of looking at it: our strengths correspond to our idols. We are created with certain strengths, desires, quirks of personality and weaknesses. Add to that our experiences and our spiritual gifts to make up who we are as adults who seek to follow Christ. But we know we live in a broken world where perfection is unachievable, and we have an enemy who constantly seeks our destruction. Satan’s greatest goal is to see us either bury our strengths or to make our desires and strengths ultimate. We call the latter idolatry, when anything takes the place of God in our lives. As C.S. Lewis illustrates in his classic, The Screwtape Letters, Satan attempts to twist every positive attribute into something sinful. His tactics are more about confusing and corrupting good desires and strengths than about overt temptation. (See more on The ugly side of strengths)

All of that is background for why we can’t battle back with sin management or suppression. So what is the appropriate response? I don’t think it’s helpful to consider opposites, because if areas of sin correspond to areas of strength, then to attempt to fight with an opposite would require us to work in our area of weakness. For example, if your area of struggle is fear, it simply doesn’t make sense to screw up your courage; if you weren’t missing courage, you wouldn’t be struggling in the first place. In addition, opposites are often surprisingly difficult to identify. A friend recently pointed out that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s apathy. His reasoning? Because hate and love both require passion. But apathy is the absence of passion. At least the person who hates cares about you in some way.

Instead, I think a better metaphor comes from the medical profession: an accurate diagnosis leads to a correct prescription of the appropriate medicine. Let’s look at a couple of examples of how we can apply this methodology to areas of sin and weakness.

In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender discusses the difficulties of narcissism. Leaders with a bent toward a strong ego and self-centeredness will have lifelong struggles with the positive reinforcement of success or adulation. The solution isn’t to attempt to control those behaviours, suppress those feelings or hide the sin. Instead, Allender says a better way to combat narcissism is with gratefulness. Narcissistic leaders need to focus on others and what God has given them, constantly finding ways to celebrate and appreciate how others have participated in their success.

What about the elusive quality of humility? After all, if you pursue humility, you can’t obtain it. If you think you have achieved it, you haven’t. Allender says that the only way to attain humility is through humiliation. I didn’t like that statement when I read it, and I still want to challenge it, but I can’t shake the ring of truth in his statement. Ask anyone on the street who the most humble person in recent memory was, and they’ll say Mother Theresa. But how did she attain such incredible humility? She pursued opportunities to be regularly humiliated. How’s that for a strategy?

So here’s the bad news: seeking to quell ambition is probably just as futile as pursuing humility. So maybe quelling it is not the answer.

I’m at the RESET Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Yesterday started off a little slow. Today has definitely picked up. But let me draw attention to a challenge from Cobie Langerak last night.

She moved pretty quickly in the TED-style format, and some of what she said was just phrases she didn’t have time to unpack. I suspect I’ll go back to her material more than anything so far. The phrase that caught my attention was when she said that we love to focus on strengths and gifts, but we never talk about career derailers. “Career derailers” was on my radar because the phrase is used in the books Topgrading by Smart and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Goldsmith. But she’s right – I never taught anything about it in leadership development, except to do some personal reflection and to apply it to a few coaching situations with others with whom I have earned the right to speak into their lives.

She also said that our derailers often correspond to our strengths. Come to think of it, I have taught that, using the term “idols” instead of derailers. A while ago, God exposed the truth that all of the idols I struggle with tie directly to my strengths. In fact, I think of The Screwtape Letters, where C.S. Lewis drew attention to Satan’s jujitsu-like methodology. When we find a good thing, his strategy is to embrace it and keep us moving past the point of virtue until it becomes a vice. Let me give some examples.

  • Where God has given me Strategic strengths, I turn them into control and manipulation.
  • Where God has given me Achiever strengths, I make everything about me. Combined with my other strength of competition, this one can be deadly in terms of career advancement.
  • Where God has given me Futurist strengths, I try to plan beyond what God has shown me about the future.
  • Where God has given me Woo strengths, I try to please people rather than God.

Goldsmith says that the strengths that got you here can turn on you at the next level, limiting your success. If you don’t confront and deal with them, you won’t get where you want to go. But I think Lewis and Langerak have it right: there are spiritual bases to these derailers. You have to deal with your tendency toward idolatry and sin. If you don’t ruthlessly expose them, your own success and the success of your organization is at stake.

A couple of months ago, missiologist Ed Stetzer spoke at CrossPointe Church Orlando. As he read familiar words from 1 Peter, he freely substituted the word “manager” for “steward.” It’s probably a good shift for us, because we don’t live in a world of stewards. It’s not a context we’re familiar with. Managers we understand. Let’s look at I Peter 4:10 in the NKJV, using Stetzer’s subsitution:

As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good managers of the manifold grace of God.

What Peter is saying here is that when we use our gifts in ministry, we’re managing grace. For starters, he’s referring to the personal management of the gift we’re given, but I believe Peter goes further than the individual interpretation we Westerners are used to. As there is throughout the New Testament, there’s an others-focus in Peter’s admonition. I think it’s fair to apply “managers” in an organizational sense.

Perhaps this is a good time to refresh ourselves on what management is. Drawing from Robert Banks and Bernice Ledbetter, as interpreted by Sherwood Lingenfelter, we might say managing means:

  • to organize
  • to control
  • to maintain focus
  • to allocate resources around

The point of managing is that we don’t own the resources we are responsible for. We are to have a stewardship mindset toward God’s grace. And yet, every day we have the capacity to manage badly. We have plenty of opportunity to hold back the distribution of grace in our office, church and home cultures. As it’s easy to suppress or misdirect our own gifts, we do the same within our teams — sometimes in the exercise of our own gifts. It’s an easy temptation to try to manipulate behavior in others by controlling grace, withholding approval or granting favor unequally. But Peter calls us instead to be proactive, godly, open-handed stewards of that grace.

I remember visiting another mission organization a few years ago and admiring their core value of “a culture of grace.” In Wycliffe’s own journey toward building intentional diversity among our staff, one phrase that has become part of our common lexicon is to “increase our grace capacity.” What does that look like? How do we manage grace in that kind of high-capacity culture?

  • We meet failure with forgiveness and consider it an opportunity to grow.
  • We are careful to consider strengths in building diverse teams, recognizing that God’s gifts are distributed broadly, and God doesn’t just speak to the boss.
  • We honor others by focusing, harmonizing and enhancing the gifts God has given them.
  • We treat others as we want to be treated, forgive others as we want to be forgiven and love others as we want to be loved.

Who wouldn’t want to work in an environment like that?

Without wading into the politics of it, I want to ask a simple question: does anyone else think Elena Kagan would make a better executive than a judiciary? Everything I’m hearing about her qualifications is focused on her leadership abilities rather than her ability to be fair and unprejudiced.

I found this recent Harvard Business Review blog that uses Kagan’s nomination as a springboard to make some excellent points about the challenges and obstacles to women taking leadership roles. Emily Harburg reinforces my suggestion about Kagan’s abilities, along the way making some very important and nuanced observations about the leadership strengths women bring to executive positions. She does a good job of articulating some of the issues friends of mine have struggled with. These are issues that organizations like Wycliffe need to pay attention to.

Harburg also points out the unique characteristics women bring to leadership. Women are ideally suited for leadership in today’s collaborative environment. Many are good at “transformational leadership,” a style that empowers, mentors and inspires their followers. I’m grateful for some of the amazing women God has placed on the Wycliffe USA board, and it’s been my privilege to work with two of them closely over the last year and see the way they lead. I read somewhere recently that some studies in Europe show that companies are more successful with women in key positions of leadership, including the board. I agree: we need women in leadership!

I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially those from my female readers.

We have the idea that the top leaders in an organization have to have “the package.” They have to have well-rounded leadership ability, a lengthy track record of success at every level and a long list of desirable characteristics paired with a very short list of weaknesses. When we look for that kind of well-roundedness, I think we’re playing it safe. Leaders like those are not only hard to come by, but they don’t come with as much upside. It’s about risk management rather than seeking to make huge gains for the kingdom.

The result is that most innovations in a large organization don’t come from the top; they come from risky individuals not trusted with leadership whose ideas are embraced and supported from the top. The way to make that strategy work is to invert the pyramid and have the leaders support those ideas. I’m not saying that is a bad idea at all. But too many leaders shut down the good ideas and the radicals before they get a chance. Consider the movie Braveheart, where the leaders withheld support for William Wallace time after time until he led his own revolution.

Most organizations are founded by radicals and then stewarded by “packages.”

As Eddie Gibbs says in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture:

It is sobering to reflect that the most conservative institutions in the church today began as radical movements at their inception. Yesterday’s radical leaders become today’s conservatives who are seldom prepared to pay the high price of innovation a second time around.

What if, instead, we looked for people who couldn’t do everything, but would assemble a team around them to cover their obvious blind spots? What if we found roles for single-strength afficionados? What if we interviewed using questions focused on evidence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life and awe at what Christ has done to transform them? What if we looked for failure and loss in a candidate’s life and asked what God had done to redeem those situations? What if we looked for weaknesses through the lens of how Christ has and could show his strength?

I have to admit I’m not comfortable with this way of working. Comfort is risk-averse. I like “packages” as much as the next person. In fact, I desire to be a “package.” And I am afraid of the Holy Spirit. He’s unpredictable and too often challenges my comfort. I think to take bold action with an organization requires a crisis, a point when motivation becomes stronger than resistance or reticence. More and more, I think these are times when bold action is required.

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.

3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.

It happens every year. A young lady shows up on American Idol, sings her heart out… and the judges cringe. When someone informs her that she’s bad, she appears genuinely shocked.* Why? Because her entire life, she’s been told that she can sing. She has never received honest feedback until Simon Cowell.

* Go with me here. I know it’s all rigged.

Do you have a Simon Cowell in your life? Okay, bad example. Do you have someone in your life who has the privilege and authority in your life to tell you the truth? Paul had the ability to say this to the Roman church because of his role as spiritual father and apostle. Perhaps for you it’s a pastor or mentor or Proverbs-worthy friend, but you need people to give you an honest assessment, particularly as you move up in leadership.

What if you’re not really as good a leader as you think you are? This is a tough question, so take a minute to think about it.

I’ve read many times that when a superstar executive is plucked from a team by headhunters to fill a new leadership position in another company, they can’t reach the same success in the new setting. Why? It’s the drumbeat I’ve been saying for some time now: leadership is contextual. You are likely only as good as the team you’re surrounded by and the ideal match of your abilities to the challenges and opportunities you’re facing. Before you take credit for things that God has given you, read Daniel 4 as a warning from King Nebuchadnezzar.

I believe self-management is the first requirement of leadership. The Bible is clear that if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. The first step, then, is to know yourself. Know what you’re good at and what you’re not. Leaders have as few blindspots as possible and know their weaknesses well so they can lead to their strengths and staff to their weaknesses. But it’s true that the higher you move up in leadership, the more difficult it is to keep from living in a coccoon. There’s no one to tell you the truth, and it’s difficult to stop believing your own press.

The sticking point in these verses to me is that line, “measuring yourself by the faith God has given us.” What does that mean? For starters, if faith is the assurance of things unseen, then our plum line is not anything readily apparent to us. It’s not the media or our kiss-up friends. Our plum line is how God sees us. He’s the one who can see our insecurities and our coping mechanisms. He’s the one who sees past our false bravado. He’s the one who sees how our “courageous decision” was really just a guess, and this time it worked. He knows all that… and more.

Yet he also knows our full operating potential, because he’s the manufacturer. I think God believes in us. When we consider others better than ourselves and are quick to give credit to others for the success we enjoy, I think we’ll uncover a lot of the potential he built in.

Matthew Henry has a great admonition to sum up my last two posts (and this is a nice counterpoint to my recent posts on ambition):

We must not say, I am nothing, therefore I will sit still, and do nothing; but, I am nothing in myself, and therefore I will lay out myself to the utmost, in the strength of the grace of Christ.