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.

Have you noticed that there’s a shortage of good stories about CEOs that don’t fall into the stereotype of wealthy-fat-cat-who-dodges-taxes-and-treads-on-the-poor? Where are the stories about a corporate or organizational president who wants to do what’s right but runs into constant ethical grey areas, and faces struggles with public perception, morasses with no good outcome and dark nights of the soul—not to mention overcoming his or her own personal weaknesses? The current TV series most benevolent to CEOs is Undercover Boss, in which the big boss risks embarrassment and ridicule as he or she attempts to step into the shoes of an average employee within their own company.

I think my hunger for good president stories led me to dust off The West Wing, the long-running TV series from the 2000s that focused on the staff serving with the president of the United States. The episode I watched last night depicted a White House mired in a controversy that was in large part caused by a president who was less than forthcoming with his own staff, let alone the public. It causes the president’s staff an enormous amount of extra work and personal expense, as they each have to hire their own lawyers. They begin to crack under the stress, and it becomes clear that the core problem is not overwork or personal cost: as loyal as the staff are to their president, they haven’t forgiven the president for not bringing them into the loop earlier. By the end of the episode, the staff entertain a number of possible steps their leader could take to repair the damage.

  • Does he need to commend their hard work and give them some time off?
  • Does he need to apologize and spend some time getting them on the same page again?
  • Does he need to lay out a bold vision for the future that stirs their hearts to get over their personal pain?

President Bartlet does apologize to them as a group, but it feels cursory. Then he moves to inspiration and paints a vision for what they’re going to accomplish in the years ahead – something new and noble and big. Then he says, “Break’s over.” In other words, rather than lighten their load, he increases their capacity to give even more.

Vision does that. It makes a load feel a little bit lighter and in fact reveals that the load-bearer has unknown additional capacity. In her book, Multipliers, Liz Wiseman offers research that says a manager who diminishes staff will only draw out about 45% of their staff’s capacity, while a multiplier will get closer to 90%. But a significant sample in her research suggested the staff actually gave more than 100%. In other words, the leader drew out of them capacity they didn’t even know they had.

I recently read a chapter of Mistakes Leaders Make, in which Dave Kraft says leaders sometimes sacrifice vision for busyness. After all, many who find themselves in leadership positions were promoted because of competence. They love to do the work themselves while their teams struggle because they don’t have the one thing the leader alone can provide: vision. He arrives at one of the best differentiating statements about leadership and management I’ve ever heard:

Biblical leadership is concerned with the future, while management is concerned with the present.

To back up his point, Kraft cites Marcus Buckingham: “What defines a leader is his preoccupation with the future. He is a leader if, and only if, he is able to rally others to the better future he sees.” Kraft concludes, “True leadership is always forward thinking and forward moving.”

So how does an average, life-size leader practice “visioning,” without the benefit of Hollywood script writers and triumphant background music?

Take time to dream. Kraft says visioning is not just one thing a leader does; rather, “a leader’s primary responsibility is to hear from God.” And for most of us, it won’t happen without hard work. A leader has to “set aside time for retreating to dream, think, plan, and pray.” Kraft’s point:

Biblical leadership requires taking time to be in God’s presence often enough to hear from him what he wants to do in the future in your church, ministry or group.

Unlock ability in people. Wiseman says multipliers identify talent, know what they’re capable of, invest in them and create space for them to thrive. In short, they inspire people to offer their best. But they don’t stop there.

Demand their best work. Multipliers follow inspiration with high expectations. They delegate ownership and then hold their staff accountable to the high standard they know they’re capable of. Wiseman says that while the best leader’s desks appear level, in reality they have a distinct slant, where accountability slides back to the person sitting on the other side of the desk. Responsibility is never delegated upward.

It’s the beginning of a new year. I always rebel against the idea of resolutions, but I realize that my practice of reflection at the new year more often than not leads me to set areas of improvement. Let’s just call a resolution a resolution. Here are three areas I want to improve in 2014:

1. Visioning. I think my team needs to hear more vision, and they need to be equipped to share vision and plan for the future with their own teams.

2. Accountability for high expectations. I need to throw greater challenges to my team and hold them accountable. I need to constantly move things off my plate so that I have space for visioning and follow-up.

3. Storytelling. Since storytelling is such an essential tool for conveying vision, I want to invest in my abilities to tell effective stories that inspire, challenge and emote rather than simply conveying information.

How about you? What steps do you need to take to improve your ability to share vision and draw the best out of your team?

By the way, I think President Bartlet went a bit light on his apology. There’s incredible power in apology, and I think he missed an opportunity.

I was recently telling a colleague in Canada about a friend of mine I’ve worked with for some time who has a lot of leadership ability. This individual has a lot of influence, is engaging, has strong networks and is very competent. But something’s lacking. While relating to people well and even reading audiences intuitively as a speaker, this young leader is missing a key part of emotional intelligence. I finally think I’ve identified it: a dearth of curiosity. When I told my colleague about my friend, she challenged me: “Then how can this person be a leader?”

A dearth of curiosity is a career derailer. Curiosity is critical to leadership. It’scritical for lifelong learning. It’s critical for teamwork. And it’s critical for diversity.

On my flight to Toronto, I read an article by David Marcum and Stephen Smith, called “The Ultimate Team.” The authors point out that we all assume that good teams need diversity. However, diversity of viewpoints, age, ethnicity and experience doesn’t guarantee anything.

Diversity, without curiosity, isn’t worth much. Great teams know how to tap into the collective experience  and POV of everyone of them. But that “tapping” isn’t frequent enough on most teams to move them from “good enough,” to great.

One of the problems with a lack of curiosity is that it’s a form of arrogance. It signifies a person has concluded they know everything they need to know. They therefore hold back on colleagues and team members. They make judgments quickly, and are often unfortunately final in their decisions.

So if a dearth of curiosity is death to a leader and to a team member, is there no hope for my friend? There has to be a way to grow in curiosity. How do you increase your capacity for curiosity? Give me your best ideas. There are a lot of people who need your help.

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?

You’ve probably heard the line. Parents excuse a lack of quantity time with their kids by falling back on the axiom that it can be replaced by quality time. It’s just not true, right? I believe it can be true from a team perspective.

I’ve been thinking for some time about how best to build community and trust, particularly in distributed teams. When Wycliffe USA went through a process of closing down satellite offices to integrate staff into national strategies, this was a big topic of discussion. How do you create a “virtual water cooler”? I resisted most of the easy answers like technology or social media as incomplete. They help fill in the gap, but they don’t replace an communal work setting. Almost three years later, a theory is finally coagulating for me.

Trust is developed in a team or community best either through quantity OR quality. The obvious path is through a quantity of time and common experience. Most of our friendships are built this way. Well, that same trust can be established through a single, brief, intense experience. It doesn’t happen through retreats that try to distill a quantity approach into a concentrate. Fun and interaction doesn’t build that level of trust. Meetings certainly don’t.

On the other hand, an intense experience does. Think of people who go through a crisis together. It establishes a point of reference, a set of inside stories, and a sense of accomplishment. For instance, the connection my wife and I have with neighbors who went through three hurricanes in 2004. The bond shared by Wycliffe staff who went through Jungle Camp or Pacific Orientation Course experiences when they were heading overseas in years gone by. For me, it was the 4-week interview process Wycliffe USA was using in 1997. Last week, I shared a 13-year-old inside joke via Skype with one of those fellow interviewees now living in Vanuatu.

Let me take a detour for a minute. In my experience, churches that have stagnated or are shrinking are churches who have grown inwardly-focused. It may be counterintuitive, but the way to grow is to look outside yourself. For starters, people are drawn to a mission. They’re drawn to vision. They’re drawn to a cause. The way to turn around a negative trend is not to focus entirely inward — though there may well be internal issues that need addressing — but to return to the mission you exist for. Okay, hold onto that thought.

Here’s my theory: the best way to build trust and community is through quality, and the best way to establish quality is to look outside yourself. Instead of bringing a team together to do a ropes course or play paintball, why not get your team to serve together for a day building a house with Habitat for Humanity? Instead of trying to gauge the quality of new staff by watching them in a classroom setting for four weeks, why not work alongside them? You want to build common experience? You want to build trust? You want to assess someone’s cross-cultural ability or servant heart? Spend a few days volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse in Galveston, Texas after a hurricane, sleeping on a gym floor and interacting with a dazed, hurting community.

As you look outside yourself, you might even make a difference in someone else’s life. Now, that’s quality. You’ll share that experience for decades.

I think servants and visionaries both have good eyes. It takes someone special to see an opportunity that everyone else has missed… and get there first.

The key to a great visionary is that everyone else asks themselves why they didn’t think of that. Somehow, in the context everyone was looking at, no one else saw the opportunity or was positioned to take advantage. I was reminded recently that a number of the companies that took our economy down last year were founded during the Great Depression. They were founded by visionaries who found a way to do things differently when everyone else was stuck in the decline. Unfortunately, the companies they started weren’t able to sustain that heritage… or held onto their heritage. A topic for another day, I suppose.

Likewise, servants have good eyes. Think about every period movie about British high society you’ve ever seen. Someone pointed out to me that the key to being a good servant was to watch their master’s hands. A good servant could anticipate the need of their master by watching body language and meet the need before it was expressed. I see the same quality in people who serve in my church today. There’s an ability to notice something that’s not being done and jump in before the need is even expressed. When you run an event, you want to stock your team with that type of person.

Leaders today need good eyes. They need to be visionary, and they need to be servants — people with the agility and flexibility to see a need and respond. So, where do we find those qualities in the next generation? As Steve Moore and Tim Elmore remind us, we can look for people who are already serving somewhere. We can look for people who look at challenges and see opportunity. We can look for initiative.

As I mentioned before, we can also look for people who are others-focused, who “watch the hands” of both their managers and their direct reports. They look for opportunities to empower and develop others. They give assignments and then invert the hierarchical pyramid to support their staff in the job they’ve been asked to do. They are quick to give credit to their staff or team for the success they might enjoy.

If you’re looking for servant leaders, start with character. Promote from among your servants.

9 Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other….

13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality….

15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.

My intern did a survey this summer of a lot of leaders in our office. One of the questions he asked was what they considered their leadership strengths. While a number named characteristics traditionally thought of as “strong and bold” — visionary, decisive and strategic thinking, for instance — I was happy with the number of times some “alternative” characteristics came up: listening, serving, understanding context and caring for their team. I’m not sure how many business schools or leadership courses emphasize that last one.

I think there are two problematic areas in leadership today related to this topic. First, the “old school” line of thought is that leaders should distance themselves from their teams. It’s built on the idea that you can’t uphold the discipline necessary in the manager-subordinate relationship if you let your co-workers become your friends. I get it. I know I’m making it more difficult for myself, but I just can’t keep that distance. For one, it compartmentalizes my life too much. I pour a good portion of my life into my teams. And two, I think the problems outweigh the benefits. For a team to be successful, Patrick Lencioni says in 3 Signs of a Miserable Job, the manager needs to know each team member. If this is true in a for-profit context, how much more should it be true in a Christian ministry context? Managers should know when their staff members are weeping inside and when they’re jumping up and down at home. Managers should know when they’re in need.

The other major problem is that managers fake care for their teams. The trend right now is to offer all kinds of flex time and benefits for employees, making the corporation feel more socially conscious and family-oriented. Managers are encouraged to empower their teams and give them voice. Former Yahoo exec Tim Sanders has build a speaking tour on the principle of love being the “Killer App.” But greater benefits, social consciousness, family orientation and empowerment don’t necessarily equate with love. How many managers really love their staff members? What does that look like?

Loving your team means all your actions honor the people you work with. It means you’re a developer of people. It means you hold them to high standards. For instance, you don’t tolerate cutting corners, and you don’t allow gossip to undermine the team. And it means when you fire someone — because you love them too much to let them underperform or break the rules — or have to lay someone off, you bend over backwards to care for them and make sure they land on their feet.

It means taking delight in honoring your team. The starting point is that in success, you’re a window, pointing to the team’s contribution and in failure, you’re a mirror, taking credit for your own part in the mistakes. It goes to awards, too. I read recently in The 52nd Floor how every time an award is given, half of your team are thinking of another team member who deserved it more, and the other half think they’re that person. The only people that feel good about an award are the boss and the recipient, and both are often happy for sinful reasons!

I think to delight in honoring someone has to include individualization. Every person on your team has a different way of feeling appreciated. When you notice a person’s “love language” and show appreciation in the language that speaks to them — which might not include public praise — I think they feel known, and they feel honored. When you ask them their favorite food for a party and then use that to celebrate a milestone, they feel known and honored.

Loving your team means you set up a system to identify needs, because most people are too proud to tell you, and then a system to help meet those needs. A lot of people are struggling right now, but they put on a face of professionalism when they come to work. Most colleagues will never know the pain they’re in. So, how can we allow people to share their need? How can we allow an intermediate to tactfully alert others to our needs? And how can a manager participate in meeting those needs?

Loving your team means you practice hospitality. Instead of keeping the distance, invite them into your life and into your home. Hospitality is actually one of the qualifications of a church elder (1 Timothy 3:2). I think it should be a mark for any ministry leader.

And I think that’s the point here. Ministries should be able to become more professional without having to copy the cutthroat measures of the corporate world. Love should be the mark of any leader in a ministry setting. And I think Tim Sanders has one thing right: the business world would be a better place if they copied the ministry world a little more. I suspect they’d even find that love is profitable.