Since we first heard the stories about Jonah in Sunday School, we have learned that God is omnipresent; there is no place we can flee from his presence and no believer in whom he does not dwell. He’s everywhere. But if that’s true, then why do we see phrases such as these throughout Scripture?

The Lord was with…

My presence will go with you…

Lo, I am with you always…

Of course God is with us and goes with us. Right?

If the incredible frequency of these phrases in the Bible weren’t enough to catch my attention, the passion with which certain characters desire that presence certainly did. Consider Moses. He experienced enough of God’s physical presence in the burning bush, column of fire and smoke and face to face encounters that he wasn’t about to go anywhere without God’s presence. He argued, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16)

David is another leader who knew clearly that his success came from God’s presence. “The Lord was with him but had departed from Saul…. And David had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him. And when Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in fearful awe of him.” (1 Samuel 18:12-16) No wonder, then, that after sinning with Bathsheba, David feared God would cast him out of his presence or take the Holy Spirit from him (Psalm 51:11). He was nothing without God’s presence.

I have a couple of foundational questions. If God is everywhere, why do we need to assure he’s present in our venture? And how can an omnipresent God remove his presence? These are critical questions for leaders, because if we don’t understand why Moses and David refused to lead without God’s presence, we lead at our own peril. Let’s look at a couple of things leaders need to understand.

Who gets the credit

There’s clearly some specific manifestation of God’s presence that gives a leader success. In addition to Moses and David, the Old Testament credits God’s presence as the secret to the success of Joseph (Gen 39:3,21), Joshua (Josh 6:27), Samuel (1 Sam 3:19), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:7), Phinehas (1 Chron 9:20), John the Baptist (Luke 1:66) and Stephen (Acts 11:24). When I look back, I can see that, just as God was with Joseph in slavery, in prison and in the highest political office, he has given me success throughout my career, from the lows to the highs. I’ve seen problems solved through ideas that came to me in the middle of the night, I’ve seen doors open at just the right time and I’ve seen God give me favour in relationships that have advanced my career. I dare not claim any credit for those situations; the Lord was with me.

The key to effectiveness

The New Testament provides warnings and promises linking his presence to mission and leadership effectiveness. When Jesus commissions his disciples to be his witnesses, he promises his presence. As you go to baptize and make disciples, he says, “be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) A short time later, as he prepares to leave them, Jesus warns them not to try to be witnesses until he sends the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). It’s only when the baptism of the Spirit falls on them that their mission begins.

In John 15, Jesus offered the image of a grapevine to talk about proximity to him, promising fruitfulness when we “abide in him” and he in us. While this idea of dwelling or remaining suggests sitting still, that’s not the point. God is always at work, and it’s far more effective to join him in that work than to stray from his life-giving power. Remember, he promised in Matthew 28 to be with us as we go on his mission. But Jesus doesn’t stop with just a promise. He also warns that there will be no fruit ”apart from him.” As I mentioned in a previous blog post, “the verse doesn’t say that we will only produce some fruit. It doesn’t say we won’t be able to do much. It says we can do nothing.” Going further, he says branches that are not attached to the vine wither, are thrown away and are gathered to be burned. There are consequences for a leader who strays from his presence.

For the leader, these Scriptures suggest some course corrections. You might need to stop your forward progress and wait until you have assurance of God’s presence before you move forward. It might mean you need to discern his movement so you can join him. Stay close to him, steep yourself in his Word, know his character and learn his ways so that your direction aligns with his. Moses did this so well that his personal overall objective changed. In Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton concludes that through Moses’ journey in the wilderness, he eventually came to think of God himself as his promised land rather than getting to the land of “milk and honey.” It all comes down to the value we place on his presence.

In her previous book, Sacred Rhythms, Barton talks about the value of breath prayers. Breath prayers are cries from deep down in your soul that you condense into a simple phrase that can be repeated easily and almost subconsciously throughout the day. Often I find that the frequent cry of my soul is this:

Omnipresent Lord, I need your presence.

I’m obsessed with keeping God’s presence. I want to know where the Holy Spirit is moving so I can join in, as a sailboat looks for wind. I want assurance of God’s presence before I head down a road. And I want to abide in Christ and him in me, so that my actions are infused with power.

After all, the secret to my success has very little to do with me.

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For years, I’ve pondered the leadership development principles found in Acts 6. That’s the passage where the apostles noted,

We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program.

Isn’t that a somewhat arrogant statement? In the servant leadership model, shouldn’t leaders be willing to do anything? Aren’t “Level 5 leaders” full of humility? I’ve come to believe that this statement isn’t arrogant; the more arrogant move would have been to hold onto running the food program.

It’s easy for leaders to get pulled into the minutiae and tactical activity surrounding a program that may be critical to organizational success but pulls them out of their element. The leadership principle is to do what only you can do and delegate everything else. A failure to delegate is a lack of trust. Underneath it is a foundational belief that you can do it better yourself.

But what if, like many nonprofits, you don’t have anyone ready to step in? This is a common problem for organizations that are rapidly growing or still run by their founder, but it’s also a problem for organizations that lack future focus. Why is it that some organizations seem to have an abundance of leaders available while others don’t seem to have anyone willing or able to take responsibility? Frankly, the failure to have people ready to step in probably reflects a long practice of doing things yourself. The root cause of a failure to develop leaders in the pipeline is the same as a failure to delegate: pride and control are the ugly idols hiding beneath.

What’s at stake when we as leaders don’t deal with our idolatry? At best, we become a limiting agent. Worse, the organization can become derailed. Consider what would have happened if the apostles had continued to spend time with widows. The new church would have ceased to grow. It would have neglected the Word and prayer. Spiritual development of new believers would have ceased while physical needs were taken care of.

No doubt the apostles’ decision was a controversial one. First, the elderly likely protested the loss of personal relationship with the founders. Second, the optics were bad. You don’t want to give the appearance that you don’t care about widows and the elderly. Third, the food program lost some of its luster, no longer falling under the top of the org chart.

But the decision was a complete success.

So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too.

A decision or a program in qualified and empowered hands, released from our control and micromanagement, often is a greater success than anything we could have done ourselves. But the real reason the church grew was not the food program as much as it was a group of leaders who were freed up to do what only they could do.

The key to innovation is risk.

It has two key measurables: success and failure. Success seems like a better metric for innovation. But here’s the problem with success: if you succeed on your first, or even your second try, you’ll never know what other radically innovative ideas you never got to. When I was a graphic designer, I knew what to do with my first few ideas. I worked diligently to articulate them, get them down on paper… and then crumple them up and toss them. First ideas are cliché. They’re your mind’s inclination toward laziness — knowing that if you can come up with a quick solution, you can save yourself the emotional and physical stress of actually working hard to find a great solution.

You cannot undervalue those first few ideas. I wasn’t being completely facetious when I said I worked diligently on them. It’s a discipline you have to go through to actually write them down. If you don’t, you hold onto them in some form. The idea is to fail and then move on toward truly great ideas. I’ve seen a lot of recent design school graduates who were never taught the discipline part; they go straight to the computer and start tinkering without taking the time to brainstorm and sketch and get the failed ideas out of their system.

Assuming your organization is somewhat healthy, where you see failure, you’re seeing risk. Where you’re seeing risk, you’re seeing innovation. Therefore, if you want a culture of innovation, you need to take the time to honor failure.

This post is relevant in the context of my last few posts. Taking a risk on someone who has failed before takes courage. To act as if the Holy Spirit has made a person new opens yourself and your organization to failure. Every one of those “projects” will not turn out as a win. The question is whether you’re expecting perfection, or if you’re going in prepared for some failure and taking steps to mitigate the risk.

When’s the last time you celebrated failure? When is the last time you reported it as a key metric for innovation? Failing is not the end; rather, it’s a sign of health.

In our Threshing Floor lunchtime discussion a year or so ago, one of our senior vice presidents mentioned that there is no ladder for general administration. The fact is that the skills required for administration are not the same skills required for lower-level leadership or line management. Therefore what would make a person successful as an administrator wouldn’t necessarily make her successful at any point in earlier life. In fact, it might hinder her success. And someone who is very successful at a lower level might be extremely unqualified for executive leadership. It’s simply a different skillset.

We’re talking about the opposite of the Peter principle here. It’s not about promoting someone to their highest level of incompetence. It’s not about turning a talented practicioner into a manager. In fact, talented practicioners might best be used where they are. Imagine that!

So, when Michelle Braden asks if a young person demonstrates early-stage strategic thinking, I want to ask what that looks like.

  • I think in some ways, it might come across as boredom. Or daydreaming.
  • It might be the annoying propensity to not stick to a task.
  • Or a tendency to scope creep — to do things outside their jurisdiction.
  • It might be a hunger to know the background or the bigger context for a task they’re asked to do.

All of those indicate early-stage strategic thinking… and might make one very unsuccessful in a job that doesn’t require that skillset.

Because the only ladders are within departments, great generalists and executives can be typecast, stuck within a particular role and unable to break free. If they only have one variety of experience, they could very well be limited. Jeff Shaara’s Civil War novels talk about an extremely talented quartermaster in the Mexican American War who was adept at getting supplies where they needed to be. Wikipedia says that his desire to lead troops was so strong that he continually found ways to get to the front lines. After the war, he was an abysmal failure at a number of ventures. It wasn’t until the Civil War, when he finally got an opportunity to command troops, that he showed extraordinary brilliance, earning the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.” To his final battle, he included in his military strategy a strong recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of supply chains. He soon caught the eye of his commander-in-chief. U.S. Grant’s promotion to lieutenant genaral was likely the greatest leadership decision Lincoln ever made. My question is this: what if Grant had been left in charge of supplies? Or what if his civilian failures had ended his career?

We’ll save a future blog post for the fact that Grant was a fantastic general who made a terrible president.

To get back to my point, how do we find these diamonds in the rough? How do we spot strategic thinking in a position that doesn’t necessarily require it?

  • How do we test emerging leaders to see if that little glimmer is really full-blown, high-carat strategic thinking?
  • And are we willing to take the risks when we see it to move someone into a position that plays to that strength, even if their resume might not include all the rungs to the top?
  • Are we willing to recommend cross-departmental transfers to broaden a rising star’s experience outside their one area of expertise?
  • Are there spaces in general administration to bring in raw talents in intern, interim or assistant roles to develop them at the 50,000 foot level?

I think Wycliffe USA has some pretty good first steps in place, but there’s plenty of room to improve.

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.

2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

This verse has been covered in relation to the Church engaging culture, so I’m not going to go there today. Instead, I want to focus on what it says to leaders — more of a personal application. I want to hit two areas of conformity that I think a lot of leaders struggle with, particularly those working in ministry.

It’s very easy for churches and non-profit ministries to embrace secular management and business philosophies. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of good, helpful advice that can be applied to our settings. I remember hearing Jim Collins describe his astonishment at how many non-profit leaders were reading his books. He cautioned “social sector” leaders to discriminate, noting that non-profits shouldn’t necessarily embrace business practices. Just because businesses do it doesn’t make it worth copying, because most businesses are average at best. Instead, he noted that the same principles that make a business great can make a non-profit great. Copy the greatness principles, he urged.

Too many ministry leaders spend time reading the latest leadership techniques when greatness is found in more ancient texts. The Bible’s principles are still applicable today. I remember Dave Ramsey noting one time, “Who knew you could make so much money teaching people what the Bible says?” He’s not the only guru making money repackaging biblical concepts. Consider Collins’ Level 5 leader idea. Humility and a deep passion for the work are not new ideas.

The second thing leaders struggle with is the desire for easy success. A simple way to do that is to see what works for others in ministry — Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, you name it — and copy that in your context. By now, you know that I think leadership is contextual. I’m sorry, but there are only so many of Hybels’ strategies that work in my church of 350. Different scale, different world. I think a desire to copy the behavior of others — be it the world or even other ministries — comes down to laziness.

Instead, Paul calls leaders to transformation built around an experience with God. God’s will for me is personal, and it involves my mind and will. God has gifted me differently than any other leader, and he has a plan for my ministry and my part in my ministry. When I’m transformed by God’s work in me, I don’t look to others as a measure of my success, but work for an audience of One. I don’t measure myself by the expectations and requirements of others. And I don’t look at what God is doing in others’ ministry, but I look at my context and my situation.

When I’m transformed, I can freely exercise my leadership gifts and do my thing where God has called me, in my context.

One more thread I heard from a couple of speakers: some challenging comments on failure. I’m not sure any leader enjoys failure. But it’s not only a necessary step on the way to success, it’s the best way to learn. So, what is the relationship between success and failure? Here are two theories.

Pastor Dave Gibbons: “Failure is success to God.”

Authors Chip and Dan Heath: “Failure is an early sign of success.”

Chip and Dan again: “In times of change, failure is a necessity.”

When I read back over my notes on Dave Gibbons’ talk, a lot of the things he said that resonated at the time simply don’t make apparent sense to me today. Either I didn’t take detailed-enough notes, or his session gave all the highlights, and you have to pick up his book for them to make sense. But let me try to unpack them here.

Dave followed his quote above by saying that failure is the way the world resonates with us. It’s seems like Christians market themselves to the world as moralists who always do the right thing. I think that’s the reason the world laughs hardest when they see self-righteous-ism fall into the traps of sin. It’s when we admit our struggles, sins and failures that the world finds common ground with us. Painful though it might be to detail our failures, we can now talk on the same level with those who tend to be more open about their struggles. When that happens, God can move in and do amazing things.

We already know that God’s power is strongest when we are weak. I’m looking forward to reading the book, Leading with a Limp, because it’s built around the idea that you can lead out of brokenness and weakness. Think of the incredible power Wess Stafford has had available to him as CEO of Compassion International because of the horrific abuse he suffered before age 10. The thing is that we’re all woefully inadequate and desperately insecure, and we need God to redeem our failures and turn them into success.

I think what the Heaths are getting at is that we are too quick to give up. When we get hit with failure after failure, we too quickly assume that failure is on the horizon as well. Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison are two frequently-cited examples of great men who could have given up but tried one more time. I think the Heaths would say that failure is part of the process that leads to success, and often, it can be the mark that you’re getting close. My problem with that statement is that it sounds like something you say when you’re failing to keep up your courage. How do you know which failure is going to be your last failure before you break through?

Dave, Chip and Dan didn’t explain their comments. Maybe I just need to buy their books.

The winner in this set of quotes is the last one. In times of discontinuous change, leaders should take courage. This is the time to innovate. This is the time to try new things and see what works. After all, in times of change, there are no templates. So, try and fail, but keep trying, because your breakthrough might become the new template on the other side.