Mon • Feb 24th, 2014 • by Tom Nees • Comments 2
I watched the recent Super Bowl even when Seattle was so far ahead of Denver that it was no longer competitive. I wanted to see the commercials. They attracted almost as much media attention as the game itself.
And the best Super Bowl commercial according to polls after the game? It was another Budweiser story of a horse and a dog, this time “Puppy Love.”The commercial said nothing about beer, let alone why the Anheuser-Busch company thinks their brand is the best. It’s a story about the tenacity of a 10-week old puppy who earns a place on the Clydesdale team – a sentimental story the sponsors hope beer drinkers will remember.
In fact nearly all the commercials were short stories. Which supports the thesis of Jonah Sach’s book, Winning the Story Wars, that “those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the world.”
I was recently in a discussion group with Abdual Aziz Said who since 1957 has taught international relations and global peace at American University.
He is a co-author of “Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East,” in which he contends that peace will come in the Middle East only when “compatibility stories” replace the “confrontation stories” that fuel conflict and violence.
Every organization and individual has a story.
We are all mid-stream in stories that began before we came along and will be remembered and continued after we are gone. But while we are here we have the opportunity to know, live and tell our own stories within the larger stories that could make a difference for the good.
Washington needs elected leaders telling compatibility stories rather than the paralyzing confrontational stories that have left us in a political gridlock of partisan fundamentalism which Said writes, “implies a refusal to listen to the ‘other’.”
Even our faith communities need new stories. Evidently the increasing number of ‘nones,’ who claim no religious affiliation, are not a reacting to spirituality and compassion. They are just fed up with the old negative stories of religious disputes, contentious true believers and self-centered indifference to a world in need.
“Know Your Story and Lead With It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership,” by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones, presents a model for leaders everywhere.
Effective leadership is knowing, living and telling stories that have the power to change our lives and the world around us.
Mon • Feb 3rd, 2014 • by Tom Nees • Comments 2
In “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” (New York Times #1 best seller), former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes that even though he often felt like quitting, out of his sense of duty to the troops he continued to serve 4 ½ years under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In the 600-page book he provides candid, personal observations about why and how the decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan were made by the White House, Pentagon and Congress and executed on the battlefield by the troops.
Duty, he writes, compelled him to serve despite his misgivings about the wars and his constant struggles with the White House staff, congressional leaders and the Pentagon bureaucracy.
In a surprising revelation he writes: “I didn’t enjoy being Secretary of Defense.”
He agreed to step in when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were going badly and was eventually directed to develop plans to bring them to a necessary end regardless of the outcome.
Throughout the book he describes times when he wanted to quit. He was ready to walk out of White House planning meetings, congressional committee interrogations and Pentagon bureaucratic marathons. He memorized his exit remarks. These internal struggles were the wars that really wore him down.
In his closing reflections he reveals why he took the job and stayed with it.
“When I was asked in October 2006 if I would be willing to serve as secretary, I said that because all of those kids out there were doing their duty, I had no choice but to do mine.”
He saw hardships and casualties on battlefields, physical and mental wounds in the military hospitals, life-long disabilities and the toll of war on families. He relates how he took personally his responsibility to send young men and women into harms way.
“The troops,” he wrote, “were the reason I took the job, and they became the reason I stayed.” Throughout the book he draws the stark contrast between “their self-less service with so many self-serving elected and non-elected officials back home.”
And for that he is remembered as the “soldier’s secretary.”
Two questions –
How many leaders from all walks of life serve from a sense of duty to others?
How well do leaders serve when they are tempted to quit a job they don’t like?
Mon • Jan 20th, 2014 • by Tom Nees • Comments 5
In his recent NY Times column “The Leadership Revival,” David Brooks offers a simple three-step path to high quality government leadership that applies to leadership everywhere, particularly in nonprofit organizations.
It’s not complicated. No seminars, conferences or books are needed. It’s simply mentoring, awareness and renunciation.
He is unusually optimistic, convinced that these steps can improve the leadership in the public sector. “The quality of people is high,” he writes, even though he thinks the quality of government leadership is low right now.
He takes it even further – “We live in a nation of good people.”
I believe that. Living in the Washington DC area for over 40 years, surrounded by government workers and leaders, I’ve seen it. This is especially true for those in the nonprofit organizations and faith communities that I know best.
For the most part people who work for the government and nonprofit organizations are good, well-intentioned, high quality people, as Brooks puts it.
He believes that with these three steps they can become high quality leaders.
First, he writes, “apprentice yourself to a master craftsman.” This takes mentoring to a higher level.
The essentials for quality leadership can only be acquired from relationships where one learns from “imitation and experience.”
He explains, “you will not be effective in public life unless you find a wise old person who will teach you the tricks of the trade, hour after hour, side by side.”
After leading training seminars on how to be a good mentor I’ve come to believe that the equally important question is how to find a good mentor.
Only a few leaders in the groups I’ve worked with have had a formal, intentional, mentoring relationship of the kind that Brooks describes.
Second, he advises leaders to take a break, get away from their assignments for a few days or an extended sabbatical.
Go far enough away so that you become, as he suggests, “an alien in a strange land.”
High quality leadership requires awareness of how the rest of the world lives. It has to be experienced - “the smell of the street, tinges of anger and hope and aspiration.”
I’ve heard pastors talk about the value of taking sabbaticals to visit other churches to experience what it’s like for laity in the pews.
When I began to serve in an African American community I quickly learned what it feels like to be in the minority.
I never thought about what it is like to be white until I served in a Black community.
There is a tendency for leaders to become trapped inside their own frames of reference.
Brooks writes that such a “reality bath” gives you “foreign eyes, to see the contours of your own reality more clearly.”
Third – to be effective, public sector leaders must be committed to a cause more important than their own careers.
Brooks assumes that they are in it for something more than the money. This is especially true for nonprofit and faith community leaders.
When you lose sight of the compelling vision that inspired you in the first place the quality of leadership suffers.
High quality leaders learn to become, in his words, “masters of renunciation,” saying “a hundred Nos for the sake of an overwhelming Yes.”
Mentoring, awareness and renunciation – three steps on the path to leadership excellence.
Brooks isn’t sure these ideas will “improve the quality of the nation’s leadership, but” as he concludes, “something has to.”
Mon • Jan 13th, 2014 • by Tom Nees • Comments 3
In this election year and the 50th anniversary year of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, politicians are debating the best way to reduce poverty and narrow our widening income gap. (See “2 Parties Place Political Focus on Inequality” – NY Times, February 9.)
This is good. Entrenched poverty and income inequality were hardly, if at all mentioned in the 2012 U.S. elections. As President Reagan put it: “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Nicholas Kristof points out in his recent op-ed article, that even though “There Has Been Progress in the War on Poverty,” 16 percent or near 50 million Americans remain below the poverty level. An increasing number of those are the working poor.
In the recent past poor people, especially children have either been ignored or blamed for misfortune.
It gets worse.
Those in faith communities who have bought in to the notion that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, it follows that poverty is a sign of God’s displeasure. The poor are poor because they are sinners.
There is a long-standing debate in American culture about the undeserving poor.
Talk about blaming the victim.
Poverty and inequality are more than political and economic problems. In the Judeo-Christian tradition these are moral and religious issues.
The Biblical directive about wealth and poverty originates in the Jubilary laws found in Leviticus. These laws were intended to prevent anyone from becoming too rich, hoarding their wealth, or from becoming destitute.
During harvest farmers were instructed to leave some grain in the fields for the gleaners. Every 50 years, in a year of Jubilee, properties that had been bought and sold were to be returned to the original tribal families.
Since the Jubilary laws were neither followed nor enforced, the Hebrew prophets began to anticipate that with the coming of the messiah a new society would emerge in which the ideals of the Jubilee would rule.
(This theme is developed in “The Politics of Jesus,” by John Howard Yoder, 1972 and in “Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution,” by Andre Trocme, 1973.)
It was this prophetic tradition in Isaiah 61 that Jesus identified with in his first sermon recorded in Luke 4. The Kingdom of God had finally come. The ideals of the Jubilee were being fulfilled.
This is not to suggest that there is a Biblical form of government or economics. People of faith will differ on that.
What they will agree on is the prophetic call for a social order in which no one gets too rich or too poor.
The political debate about how to achieve this is partisan, as it should be. The role of the faith community, on the other hand, is prophetic, always asking government leaders including themselves– “are some getting too rich and some too poor?”
Servant leaders, particularly from faith communities may not agree on public policy or partisan solutions, but in faithfulness to their tradition they have the right question.
Mon • Dec 30th, 2013 • by Tom Nees • Comments 2
I set out to read at least one book a week on leadership and current events in 2013.
That seemed like a lot until I read an article “Caution: Reading Can Be Hazardous” by Charles McGrath, who read over 450 books last year as a judge for the National Book Award.
At the other extreme, in his book “The Universe Within” Neil Shubin cites Scottish paleontologist James Croll who would spend an entire year reading a single book, often lingering on one page for a day or more to digest each idea.
Most of us are somewhere in between, a lot closer to Croll than McGrath.
When I don’t retain much I take comfort from the advice in Montaigne’s Essays – “read a lot, forget most of what you read.”
Five are leadership books featured in Leading To Serve blogs.
David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell
Power does not exist where we think it does.
What Keeps Leaders Up At Night, by Nicole Lipkin
Leaders often lose sleep over the wrong things.
Give and Take, by Adam Grant
Success comes from helping others with no expectation of return.
Quiet, by Susan Cain
Some of our best leaders are introverts.
“Evangelii Gaudium” (the Joy of the Gospel), by Pope Francis
A bold challenge for reform and renewal.
The King Years, by Taylor Branch
Upon the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a summary of civil rights history.
The American Way of Poverty, by Sasha Abramsky
How poverty ruins lives and how to prevent it.
Voices in the Night, by Jim Copple
A first-hand look at global injustice particularly gender violence.
Baseball as a Road to God, by John Sexton
How baseball illustrates the elements of a spiritual life from a popular course taught by the president of New York University.
The Unwinding, by George Parker
The U.S. is coming apart at the seams.
Unfinished, by Richard Sterns
The president of World Vision US challenges believers to engage in social action.
What good books will 2014 bring? The challenge is to decide what to read, both old and new.
Mon • Dec 23rd, 2013 • by Tom Nees • Comments 6
I struck up a conversation with a Salvation Army Bell Ringer near the entrance of a local grocery store near Annapolis, Maryland. He was a part of a Kiwanis volunteer group, all of them local leaders taking 2-hour shifts to keep the bells ringing.
It’s one of the best things about Christmas. When shopping this time of year my wife I carry a little extra cash so we are prepared for the red kettles and the friendly greetings from Bell Ringers standing outside regardless of the weather.
The Bells and Kettles are a not so silent Christmas reminder of the hidden poverty that surrounds us year round.
That must be why they are unwelcome at most shopping malls. The entire economy is riding on frenzied around the clock spending. Some merchants would rather we not be reminded that some of our neighbors don’t have enough money for food, shelter and medical care, let alone gifts.
The first half of the book includes stories from The Voices of Poverty website.
The second half is handbook for change, ways to eradicate poverty, if, as he writes, we really cared.
The “scandal” of poverty, in Abramsky’s words, is that in the richest country in the world “we’ve come to accept very high levels of poverty as either inevitable or the way things should be – an untroubled acceptance of mass poverty.”
A recent New York Times report “In the war on poverty, a dogged adversary,” reminds us that fifty years after President Johnson’s War on Poverty, 16% or 50 million Americans are still poverty-stricken.
To a significant extent poverty is the result of an increasing number of low-paying jobs that don’t provide enough pay to lift workers above the poverty line without government help.
The Red Kettles are more than a fund-raising strategy for the Salvation Army.
In a fairly unobtrusive way the Bells and Kettles challenge our “untroubled acceptance of mass poverty.”
And the Kiwanis volunteers remind us of the responsibility leaders from every walk of life bear to end poverty, which after all was the vision of Mary’s song in Luke’s Christmas story –
“he has exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things.”
Mon • Dec 9th, 2013 • by Tom Nees • Comments 7
In the mid-‘80’s I was in Washington, D.C., serving as director of the Community of Hope. The anti-apartheid movement was gaining momentum in the U.S. Mandela was still imprisoned. Everyday anti-apartheid protestors were being arrested in front of the South African embassy. I decided to take my turn. Along with the others that day I was arrested, handcuffed, transported by the police to the nearest precinct and there released without being charged or even identified.
It was a relatively timid thing to do, although more than a little unnerving. At the moment I was committed to the struggle, not only with the inner-city poor in Washington, D.C., but for freedom in South Africa for which Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for over 20 years.
Mandela is often described as a moral leader bringing us along on his journey from prison to president with hope, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
As the world joins with South Africans this week to celebrate his life and legacy it’s a good time to ask what it means to be a moral leader.
Moral leadership is more than ethical leadership.
Ethical leadership describes personal characteristics such as integrity and honesty. Doing things the right way, avoiding deception and deceit.
Moral leadership includes that and more.
And yet moral leaders are not perfect human beings. They acknowledge personal failings and frailties. Mandela made that clear in his various writings. He wrote about being embarrassed by all the attention.
Moral leaders are engaged in the struggle for good against evil, right over wrong.
For Mandela it was the struggle for freedom in a nonracial democracy over the oppression of apartheid. He knew this was possible only by a peaceful transition guided by forgiveness and reconciliation.
Moral leaders are followed for their ideas rather than force.
Mandela emerged as the leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa during his 27 years in prison. By the time he was released in 1990 he had already defeated his enemies in the court of public opinion. He gained the high ground and become a rare revolutionary – a moral leader followed for the force of his ideas. He had no position, power or authority from which to advance his vision.
Moral leaders are committed to causes greater than personal achievement.
He said he was willing to die in the struggle for the freedom of his people. While he lived a long enough to receive a Nobel Peace prize and win the veneration of the global community, that was not what he lived for.
Moral leaders cause us to examine our own values.
Mandela persuaded his followers as well as his foes to offer forgiveness and seek reconciliation rather than retaliate with revenge. What could have been a civil war became a peaceful transition to a nonracial democracy.
He inspired us to examine our own lives however far removed from South Africa. Do we offer forgiveness and seek reconciliation in our own personal interactions? Are we living for anything worth more than our own achievements?
This week of remembrance brings the struggle for racial and economic justice, peace and reconciliation, to the fore again.
What does it mean to be, and follow a moral leader in our times?
What causes are worth living for, being arrested for, even dying for?
And shall we pursue those causes with hope, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation?
Mon • Dec 2nd, 2013 • by Tom Nees • Comments 4
Pope Francis’ ‘apostolic exhortation,’ “Evangelii Gaudium” (the Joy of the Gospel) has raised hopes for renewal in the Catholic Church as well as global change for the common good.
Having read the document, I think that most non-Catholic Christians will find much to agree with, particularly the statements on evangelism, missions and discipleship. The suggestions for parish hospitality, optimism/hope and good preaching apply to churches everywhere.
Jews, Muslims, adherents of other world religions, even non-believers will likely welcome his invitation for dialogue based on mutual respect.
Catholic scholar George Weigel writes of “Pope Francis the Revolutionary” in his ‘Wall Street Journal’ column.
The “National Catholic Reporter” compares “Evangelii Gaudium” to Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.
Much of the media attention has been on the sections addressing “Some Challenges of Today’s World” and the “The Inclusion of the Poor.”
A few of his memorable statements:
“The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed.”
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?”
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
I wonder whether “Evangelii Gaudium” will indeed initiate renewal in the Catholic Church and influence Catholic public policy initiatives, particularly in the U.S. As well as addressing the Church’s internal problems the Pope offers some very strong statements challenging if not condemning economic inequality, globalization and ‘laissez faire’ capitalism as well as hoarded personal wealth in the presence of human need.
Will it prove to be revolutionary and as memorable as King’s “I Have A Dream Speech?” Time will tell.
In addition to the substance of his treatise there are some valuable lessons to be learned from Pope Francis’ leadership style.
Jim Copple, in an email noted that he -
As a leader Pope Francis is being well received for -
Leaders today cannot succeed on their own nor expect all their followers to agree with them – not even the Pope.
He recognizes that “Evangelii Gaudium,” his ‘dream’ for a renewed Church and changed world will not happen unless leaders everywhere, both in and outside his Church have the courage and integrity to create a new community together.
Mon • Nov 11th, 2013 • by Tom Nees • Comments 8
I have just completed five weeks of outpatient PT (physical therapy) following hip replacement surgery – and doing well.
The most difficult part of PT was the balance board and the test to see how long I could stand on the operative leg. It was a test of and exercise for balance – which as I found out was badly needed.
As I wobbled back and forth on the balance board I had time to think about how this might apply to other areas of life and leadership.
I made it to 22 seconds on the leg with the hip replacement and couldn’t begin to hold steady for 2 minutes with both feet on the balance board. At the beginning the therapist stood behind me holding me steady when I began to lose my balance. With practice I got better at it.
In reading a blog about the Leadership Development Wobble Board I was reminded of the leadership lesson about balance.
Maintaining physical balance requires that all of the core muscles work together. That’s a problem with aging. Injuries from falls are often from the lack of balance. It’s not enough to strengthen single muscles. I’ll be working on this for the rest of my life.
Likewise it takes many strengths and skills to be an effective leader. But unless these are balanced, with no one strength dominating, leaders may be in danger of losing their balance.
A woman in my PT group is recovering from a painful fall, breaking her femur – the large bone in her upper leg – when she lost her balance just stepping off the curb in front of her house. She had no idea she was in danger of a fall.
The lack of balance in leadership can cause missteps as unexpected and painful over things as simple as her fall from the curb.
From PT I’ve learned that it takes a plan to strengthen and coordinate muscles to live with pain free mobility.
And it takes someone looking on. I didn’t always recognize when I was limping, and still don’t. But others do. The therapist was trained to know what to look for and what combination of strengthening exercises I need to keep my balance and walk without limping.
The same is true with leaders. They don’t always recognize when they are out of balance, sometimes just limping along. But their followers can tell.
A good coach, mentor, spouse or perhaps a close friend, someone who knows what to look for can help identify areas where balance is needed. Three of the most important for the leadership balance board are:
Work and rest
Career and family
Inward and outward
One of the best reminders of the need for balance is the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes 3 – “there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
Mon • Nov 4th, 2013 • by Tom Nees • Comments 3
A reflection on “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” by Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell uses the David and Goliath story as a metaphor for succeeding against overwhelming odds to which he adds his own stories of underestimated and disadvantaged people who have accomplished improbable feats.
His so-called “advantaged disadvantaged” include:
Several of his stories are of unsung heroes who have sparked movements that have changed the course of history.
Gladwell, the author of several best selling books including “The Tipping Point,” how social movements are created; “Blink,” that our first impressions are more often than not right; and “Outliers,” that success results less from talent than hard work, luck and background.
In a recent interview he said that of all his books this is his favorite.
In his TED Talk video, “The Unheard Story of David and Goliath,” he claims that we have misread and misunderstood the story. In ancient battles he says, David with a sling was better equipped for a one-on-one fight than Goliath with his size, protective armor, and sword. Goliath’s strength became his pitfall.
His point is that power does not exist where we think it does and we can do more than we think we can in spite our inadequacies.
He believes that it is often those who have been wounded or are disadvantaged in some way that have the inner resources to overcome injustice and disadvantage.
Throughout history he finds that good is often accomplished by individuals who step forward to lead the way in spite of, perhaps because of what appear to be their weaknesses and disadvantages.
Thus the “advantage of disadvantage,” of leaders willing to take social risks—to do things that others might disapprove of.
For Gladwell, the Davids of the world are always up against the power and wealth of Goliaths.
Yet he believes we would do well to stand with David on the side of the disadvantaged since, as in his quotation from Ecclesiastes, when it comes to things that really matter in life – “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.”