Imagine for a minute that you’re the apostle Peter. Jesus has just gone. You are left gazing longingly at the sky, not wanting to release your grip on him, wanting him to stay just a few minutes longer. You’re suddenly not sure what your job is. You spent a lot of years in the family business as an angler. Then this Messiah showed up, saying that you were going to be a fisher of men. Three years later, right before leaving, he changed the metaphor on you and told you that you were going to be a shepherd. However, unlike any other shepherd, you were going to care for people. That sounds like some kind of leadership responsibility, but what on earth kind of job is that?

Imagine further. On the Jerusalem Chamber of Volunteer Organizations website, you see a position posted. Wanted: Leader of Christ’s church in Jerusalem. Something in you stirs, so you begin to put together a resume. What would you put on that resume? Think about your credentials for a minute. What makes you qualified to lead the Church? What would you put down as your purpose statement? How would you “sell yourself” and your qualifications for a job like that?

Absurd, isn’t it?

It’s a role we couldn’t have imagined for the impulsive Peter of the Gospels. Nowhere in those four books do we see any indication that Peter is a servant, a pastor or priest, a humble leader.

It turns out Peter’s best credentials come out of his failures.

In Leading With a Limp, Dan Allender says,

No one is humble by nature…. Humility comes from humiliation, not from the choice to be self-effacing or a strong urge to give others the credit.

Humility that has not come from suffering due to one’s own arrogance is either a pragmatic strategy to get along with others or a natural predilection that seems to befit only a few rare individuals. For most leaders, humility comes only by wounds suffered from foolish falls. (p69-70)

I’ve wrestled with Allender’s words for years, arguing that there has to be another way. After all, doesn’t James 4:10 suggest that you can choose it? “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” But the context of this choice to humble yourself is the same as that of the prodigal son in the pig sty or the vindictive Saul blinded and kneeling on the road to Damascus. James is speaking of sinners who repent and grieve their sin. God then picks them up from their knees and exalts them.

My editor, Beth Koehler, offered this insight as we discussed this passage:

We’re talking about repentance and grieving personal sin before the Lord. How difficult it is for any of us, but especially so for leaders. Over and over we see that when leaders repent and grieve sin, their humility leads to a similar response in those they lead. It’s as if some major obstacle to repentance has been removed from the masses.  We see this in the Old Testament. We see it in more recent church history where revivals take place.

A leader’s real power is to be a living, walking example of the gospel.

In John 21, Peter was at a place of repentance and grief. He’d just betrayed his rabbi, his Messiah. Jesus’ response is to come to him on the beach and commission him as a shepherd. “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Somehow, this humbled man ends up leading the church in Jerusalem. Years later, he sends an exhortation to the leaders of the exiled and persecuted church. Peter writes from Rome as a mature believer and elder in the church, a different man from the Peter of the Gospels.

And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you: Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor. (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Peter’s leadership is shaped by his experiences in his early days. As Will Rogers quipped, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Peter made a lot of mistakes, and the advice he gives to leaders reflects the lessons he learned during some of his greatest failures.

Let’s examine a few of the phrases in this passage.

  • “A witness to the sufferings of Christ.” He didn’t intend to be a witness; in John 13:37, he had told Jesus he would die for him. Indeed, while nine of the other disciples immediately ran away, Peter attempted a single-handed defense with a dagger. Jesus’ rebuke forced him to reluctant disengagement. When the mob’s thirst for blood threatened to draw him back in, he finally denied Christ to save himself—his single greatest point of failure.
  • “Care for the flock.” You can just hear Jesus’ words ringing in Peter’s ears decades later: “Feed my sheep!”
  • “Watch over it willingly,” and Peter says it again a few verses later: “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil.” Wasn’t Peter one of the three disciples who fell asleep three times in the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus told them to keep watch while he prayed?
  • “Don’t lord it over them.” Another harsh lesson. This time the immediate screw-up wasn’t Peter. In Mark 10, James and John had just approached Jesus to seek honour and glory when he sets up his kingdom. Jesus responds that they would join him in drinking his cup (suffering) but it wasn’t up to him who would get glory. Now it’s Peter’s turn:

When the ten other disciples (Peter included) heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v41-45)

  • “Lead by your own good example.” In John 13, when Jesus took the basin and towel to wash his disciples’ feet, Peter argued at his audacious display of behaviour unbecoming of a leader. Jesus summarized the lesson:

“I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” (v15)

Ouch! Peter’s leadership springs out of the bruises remaining from his greatest failures. Gentleness and humility began with his failures and were honed during his leadership of the early church through the peaks of rapid growth and the Holy Spirit’s miraculous power and the deep valleys of persecution, martyrdom and scattering.

It was only after all those experiences that Peter could say, “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honour” (1 Peter 5:6). Peter certainly took a difficult journey to humility. Yes, in the early days the other disciples let him go first. He was the extrovert, he was unafraid. But being outspoken isn’t the same as being a leader. It wasn’t until he went through the darkest point in his life and was restored that we see the beginning of Peter’s journey to bold preacher, leader of men and elder shepherd.

What is your story? Have you gone through a point of failure? How does it shape you today?

Have you taken the time to reflect on your failures and what you can learn from them? Don’t waste those dark moments. They are critical to your character and habits as a leader.

How do I know? Because my own story resembles Peter’s more than I’d like. In my next post, I’ll share my own journey.

I hear Marcus Buckingham has a book with a name like that. I haven’t read it (yet), but it is on my list. The title came to mind as I was reading Deep Change, by Robert E. Quinn. Let me give some quick context and then give you a point from the book.

One thread for 2011 that I’m really going to enjoy following is the idea of RESET. The Mission Exchange is hosting a conference in Scottsdale at the end of September by that name, and I participated in a pre-conference RESET Dialogue session last Friday. Steve Moore’s goal is not to pull off a conference as much as facilitate a dialogue on the subject of Mission in the Context of Deep Change. An extremely relevant topic. Moore’s thoughts have been heavily influenced by Quinn’s book, along with Ramo’s Age of the Unthinkable, which I’ve blogged on in the past. With that context, here we go.

A group of executives in a large state government wanted to create a leadership development program built around the idea of transformational leadership. How could they develop public administrators who would take initiative as change agents in their organizations? They decided the best route was to look for what the Heath brothers would call “bright spots” and highlight these success stories in a series of videos. Their research began to unearth a number of individuals who led dramatic transformation within their organizations: a hospital with horrid conditions for patients, an office known for long lines and bad customer service, things like that.

Teams were sent to interview these leaders. Then the project came to an abrupt end. No videos could be made. Why? Because in each case, it appeared that in order to transform an ineffective organization into an effective one, laws needed to be broken. And how can a state teach its managers to break its own laws?

To be fair to Quinn, he’s not advocating breaking the law. His point is that leaders must take significant risks to challenge the rules, policies and procedures that become law within an organization. “To organize is to systematize, to make behavior predictable,” therefore organizations are built around systems. When an organization is growing, systems provide the stability for growth. When an organization stops growing, systems atrophy into rigid boxes.

Excellence, however, never lies within the boxes drawn in the past. To be excellent, the leaders have to step outside the safety net of the company’s regulations.

Deep change therefore brings to a head the conflict between management and leadership. If management is about making processes more efficient and standardized, and leadership in a context of change is about breaking rules, then there’s going to be a collision.

Leadership development gets awkward, then. How can an organization teach its managers to break its own laws?

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.

As I mull over Jesus’ death and resurrection this Good Friday, I’ve been thinking about Peter’s transformation. I would put the change in his life up against Paul’s for scale of impact of the gospel.

Peter is the kind of guy who thinks out loud, who says what everyone else is thinking. He acts first and thinks later. He’s an uneducated fisherman who learned his trade from his father. For me, the following events sum up his nature.

When he sees Jesus walking on water, he makes the jump of logic that if Jesus can defy rules of nature, he should be able to as well. What incredible, uninformed passion he shows as he climbs out of the boat and tests the surface tension of the undulating waters! It’s amazing to me that, in front of the eleven disciples who never left the boat, Jesus remarks on his lack of faith.

No other chapter sums up Peter’s complexity better than Matthew 16. When Jesus asks who the disciples believe he is, Peter declares his conviction that Jesus is the Messiah and the son of God. It’s on this confession that Jesus will build his church. Yet, a few verses later, Peter reprimands Jesus for talking about his upcoming death, and Jesus puts him in his place: “Get behind me, Satan.” Now, that’s a rebuke! I picture Peter like a dog. When he goes in the wrong direction, you give him a smack or yank on his leash. He sits there stunned for a minute, then shakes it off and sets off again in a different direction. He doesn’t take rebukes personally.

John 13 shows that he’s a long way from getting it. He refuses to let Jesus do such a menial job as wash his feet. Then he pledges loyalty, denying that he would ever deny Jesus. Couple this with his swordwork at the olive grove a few chapters later, and you begin to see that it’s an issue of expectations. I think Peter believes Jesus is preparing to lead an earthly insurrection. Servanthood, arrest and death don’t fit his view of Jesus’ destiny and goals.

Then there’s the lowpoint. While the other disciples flee, Peter sticks around and follows from a distance, only to try to protect himself from the same fate by distancing himself and then flatly lying about his connections to Jesus. His anguish over his denial turns to flight. He heads back home to comfort, the life that comes naturally to him, trying to move on from his failure. He goes back to fishing.

So, when Jesus steps out of the picture, his successor is not at all ready. Is this really the man you want to turn the church over to? Jesus puts a lot of stock in the fact that Peter will rebound from the harsh lessons he learned out of betraying his rabbi and disappointing himself. Jesus turns Peter’s focus from a spiral of dispair with a brief and direct conversation on the beach. Then he’s gone, and Peter is on his own.

Along comes Acts, and Peter is a different man. His hotheaded, impulsive, speak-first ways have morphed into a boldness with a lot of maturity. Maybe you could call the upper room his coccoon. The first words from Peter include a number of quotes from Scripture. I believe he spent the silent days after Jesus left, immersing himself in the Scriptures and in prayer — the qualities the apostles will become known for.

From there, we see a Peter in full command of himself and his followers. He preaches to thousands. He looks lame beggars in the eye and heals them. He faces down Pharisees and Jewish leaders, who can only marvel at his transformation, noting only that he had been with Jesus. Sure, he does some things wrong. I think some of his early decisions are a bit suspect, and Paul later calls him on some hypocrisy. But no one can deny Acts portrays a different Peter than the gospels depicted.

In Leading With a Limp, Dan Allender says that a leader cannot have true humility without being humiliated. And he can’t be truly successful without acknowledging his brokenness. Peter became the leader of the early church because he went through such a deep valley. He came out motivated, compelled by grace and love to follow this Jesus who had done so much for such an undeserving failure.

That’s what Easter is all about.

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.

Galatians 5 includes selfish ambition in a really nasty list resulting from following the desires of our sinful nature. Its companions are sorcery, outbursts of anger, drunkenness, hostility and sexual immorality. Two verses later, Paul offers a contrast: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Because of their proximity, it’s clear that the two lists are intended to be read together. That raises an interesting question: what is the opposite of selfish ambition?

The answer is not self-control. It is not possible to combat selfish desires by being more controlled. You just can’t will yourself not to be jealous or envious of someone else moving up faster or getting the influence you desire. Paul says clearly that the root of selfish ambition is following your sinful nature. In contrast, the root of patience, goodness, self-control, etc. is being directed by God, by the Holy Spirit. So it’s a conscious decision to follow a different pattern as well as the fruit of a transformed heart.

Once you are Spirit-led, your approach to leadership will look like this:

  • a love for people that comes out in getting to know them, caring deeply for them and developing them
  • the ability to rejoice in others’ success and promotions
  • peace that grows out of a confidence in God’s sovereignty, knowing that you don’t have to strive to advance yourself
  • patience to wait for the right opportunity
  • showing kindness and doing good to everyone, especially those who demonstrate ugly ambition
  • faithfulness to do your current job well and not let your heart drift
  • a gentle approach, instead of elbowing people out of the way
  • and self-control — a fruit, not a strategy; a symptom, not a solution.

Galatians 6 summarizes: the opposite of living to satisfy your sinful nature is living to please the Holy Spirit. The former yields decay and death, while the latter yields life and blessing. I want my leadership to bring life and blessing — to myself and to those I lead. Sure, I want to keep growing in responsibility and influence, but I want to do it the right way.

How? Galatians 5 concludes with this tough advice:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another.

Editor’s note:

This blog is best read in the context of a series, because my thoughts on the topic are part of a journey. You can find the rest of the series here:

Since I made this post in January 2010, it has regularly shown up in my top entry pages for this blog. But as I read the comments posted by my readers, I realize that it addresses a common itch but doesn’t necessarily scratch it satisfactority. I am therefore writing a new entry in the series that attempts to get practical. I’ll post a link here when it’s ready, and I encourage my readers to add their own practical advice to my thoughts.

I remember a design project at Georgia State where I participated in a team responsible for marketing a lightbulb company. Our ad campaign pretty much got trashed by the judges as unoriginal, but we hit on one thing that I think is worth remembering: the way to sell lightbulbs is to change your focus off the bulbs. Our company sold “100% bulbed light.”

It’s a subtle difference, but I believe perspective makes a big difference in a company. Do people care about the bulbs or the light? At the Threshing Floor last Friday, I was reminded that Hallmark isn’t a greeting card company, but a social expression company. According to George Barna’s Master Leaders, Disney isn’t in the theme park business; it’s in the happiness business. Banks are in the peace-of-mind business. And so on.

A perspective focused on the end experience of the customer is going to meet their needs better and result in a better product. Do you know what your real business is? What is the feeling that your customer will go away with? It’s about vision, and vision starts at the top.

Last month, one of Wycliffe USA’s board members summed up Wycliffe’s business. We’re not in the Bible translation business, but the Bible transformation business — lives changed by the Word of God. That’s our vision.

Back to the design project. Of course it was a marketing campaign. Only a marketing campaign could convince the pubic that incandescent bulbs are anything more than: “80% bulbed heat, 20% bulbed light.”