Faith, Leadership

Why Frustration is a Reminder of Progress and Blessing

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I’ve been frustrated lately.

My children, particularly my son, have been having some measure of difficulty with completing ordinary household duties like taking out trash and vacuuming.  Like many who will be reading this, I am not a big fan of repeating myself, yet I find myself doing it often of late.

All of this is normal, of course, as I do not know of any 10-12 year olds who do everything they are asked to do the moment they are asked to do it, and complete their every task without error as well as an adult would do it.

As I reflected on this further, though, I realized that my wife and I are, in part, the cause of their nonchalance.  You see, my children have things that neither my wife nor I had when we were their age.  Sure, times have changed, technology has increased, but that is not what I am talking about.  What I’m talking about is the fact that my wife and I both grew up in single parent homes.  My kids take things like having meals cooked for them and having laundry done for them for granted because they have two parents, because they do not have to pitch in to household causes in the same way that my wife and I did.  My wife does not work outside the home.  She works harder than any of the rest of us, but she does not work outside the home.  Our family eats dinner together pretty much every night of the week.  In our families of origin, however, this was not the case.  It wasn’t their fault, but neither of our hard working and industrious mothers could provide the kind of environment to us that our children enjoy.  That, in part, is their legacy (a key, but often overlooked, concept of leadership) to their grandchildren, but, as I reflected, it is also exactly what I wanted for my kids.

So yes, they don’t have the same kind of habits my wife and I had when we were young.  They don’t have the same responsibilities, the same sense of ownership.

But our kids get to be kids, and that is our legacy to them.

It isn’t that they have no expectations placed upon them, nor that they have relaxed standards for the responsibilities they do have, but my frustration is of my own making.  It represents progress.  It represents blessing.

It represents legacy.

Faith, Leadership

Why Honor Is Greater Than Forgiveness

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I originally wrote this in 2011 as a note on Facebook.  Today would have been my dad’s 65th birthday, so I thought it appropriate to revisit it today.


I just don’t care enough…

What other people think of me.  I’m going to be the one who speaks out loud, who says too much, who pushes “send,” who gets people thinking, who gets people talking, who invites people to touch their lives by touching mine.  I’m not excited about putting this out there for public consumption, but I’m going to do it anyway, because that is what I do.  I refuse to live with the notion that even one person could benefit from something I think or say, and I failed to say it.  So whether this is for you or someone else…

My dad’s birthday was last week.  As of this year, he has passed more birthdays posthumously than he did living.  He committed suicide when I was 5.  It was an ignominious act for which I struggled to forgive him for much of my life.  It yoked my then 24 year old mom and 2 younger sisters with a tremendous weight, part of which I bore though it was not mine.

But over many years, as I have thought about forgiveness, I come to a full realization that forgiveness, though difficult, is, well, comparatively easy.  What is difficult is honor.  Forgiveness inspires us, but honor amazes us.

Many of you know the hymn “Amazing Grace”—Amazing is the right word.  Here’s why: It’s comparatively easy for God to forgive—He’s in the right; He’s holding all the cards.  But He goes beyond that.  He honors us, gives us grace, prepares a place for us.  It’s crazy, really.

But you know this more intimately than that.  Even if you don’t believe in God, you know this.  You’ve been wronged.  You’ve felt pain inflicted deliberately by another.  You’ve felt hurt by someone who, because they did not intend, would not acknowledge.  You know what it is like to have someone who hurt you not be sorry for what they have done.

And you know what it feels like not to be sorry for what you have done, too.

It’s hard to forgive when any of those things happen, isn’t it?  Crazy hard.

But honor.  Think about it.  Honor for someone who isn’t sorry, who doesn’t think they did anything wrong, who protests their innocence or ignorance, who remains unwilling to acknowledge the mere possibility…  honoring that person goes beyond forgiveness.  It’s harder.  You don’t see it very much, but you remember it when you do.  Because it’s extreme.

Because it’s God-like.  It gives us a glimpse—dim, yes, but a glimpse—of what that honor bestowed on us will look like, what we are capable of because of the Spirit that dwells within us.

But then we feel guilty.

Because we fail to practice this.  We don’t live up to it.  We “can’t,” not with that person, at least.

But we can.  It just isn’t fully up to us.  Wasn’t, isn’t, meant to be up to us.  I can’t honor on my own.  I want to hold a grudge, to be pissed off, to lament and pout and cry and wish I had all the things that growing up with a good dad would have afforded me.  I want to put my fist through a wall and turn it all to anger (oh, and I used to…) so I don’t have to feel the grief and pain of memory and forgiveness and honor.  So just for the record—I didn’t do it.  I couldn’t have.   Not possible.

The truth is, honor surprised me as I was writing the words that follow.  I intended to forgive (again), but I couldn’t.  Because it wasn’t enough somehow.  I’ve been doing that for years.  I had to honor.  In my novice way, incomplete and still somehow holding all the cards, I must, we must, honor.

So here’s the poem I wrote my dad.  I’d love to hear from you if something in it is for you.


It comes when I expect it

And when I least expect it

It has marked me now

The loss

I know its touch

I hear its voice

It settles with me

Ignored at times for some distraction

Though not forgotten

For far too bright the light that shines


Making plain my shadow

A reminder to my heart

Of how I would have loved you

How I would have basked in the light of your prime

What I would have given

To have your life

A shield for mine

To see your steps from just behind

To see a way

To know a time


How you would have beamed with pride

At the toils and trophies of my life

And how I would have loved your smile

Yearned for it with all my might

I would have been your prince

I would have seen you king

My children

The glory of your line

So many apples for your eyes


And were our lives not filled

With happier times

And if golden memory failed to shine

Eclipsed by a reality of something less fine

Still you would be enough for me

I think so


I do not know

I did not know

I will not know


And maybe you were prescient

And maybe I naïve

(How I wanted to believe)

I have forgiven myself only moments

And lonely moments conceive

The reign of an ill-fitted crown

Bequeathed before discovered means

Worn askew

But I have straightened it for you

In spite of everything, it honors you


I honor you


Why “Under Promise and Over Deliver” is a Bad Mantra

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You’ve heard it a million times: “Under promise and over deliver.”

But why?

Is it so that our customers or stakeholders won’t be let down by our actions or products?  Perhaps because we worry about our ability to deliver?

Both are poor reasoning, and suffer from a lack of confidence.

Most people, if asked, say they pride themselves on their ability to follow through.  Most also rate themselves as having high ethics.  The same is true of organizations.

So why all the under promising?

Aren’t most of us more impressed by service providers who stake a claim and make good on it than we are by those who set us up for limited, or uncertain, expectations and then exceed them?  (Isn’t it possible to exceed limited expectations and still be average?)

Even if some among us are not, I submit that individuals and organizations leave a telling advantage on the table by failing to make more of their promises public.  If a person or organization takes pride in the ability to follow through, and consistently proves this ability, doesn’t it make sense to capitalize on it?  Don’t our customers and stakeholders want to know up front what to expect, and that the reputation of the organization and its representatives is such that excellence is all but assured?

Consider the same phenomenon in your personal relationships.  If someone asks you to go to the movies, and you say, “Yes, I can go to the movies with you in a month,” does it strengthen your bond further by calling them next weekend and saying you can go?  I’m sure many will find that example absurd, yet we do it as representatives of our respective organizations every day.

It is time to retire “under promise and over deliver” and replace it with “promise, then deliver.”

This realizes a competitive advantage if individuals and organizations are reliable, and strengthens relationships by doing not less or more, but exactly what we have promised.  If we can do better than our initial promise by delivering early or at a lower cost, great, but to limit what we promise for fear of failing if it is part of our core business is fatal.

Someone will no doubt argue that under promise and over deliver works if you cannot control the outcome.  Fair enough, but isn’t it more transparent to say so, then follow up with a firm commitment after you have checked with the others who will help you make it happen?  Again, a personal parallel: how many parents, upon being approached by a child for some permission, reply with something like, “Let me talk to your mother”?  The child, will, of course, persist, but the promise will not be forthcoming until the issue has been ratified.  Is business all that different?

It needn’t be.

Promise, then deliver.


Heroes and Higher Standards

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Leadership merits a higher standard.  Whether embracing the mantle of public figure, voice of a movement, millionaire athlete, or mom, leaders are people others watch.  A higher standard is an implied contract with the position.  Perhaps it is unfair, but I submit that the best leaders among us will always welcome this aspect of leadership and seek to present themselves well, imperfect though they will inevitably be.

Consider Lance Armstrong.  He has been the face of cancer survivors for years, and there can be no doubt that his Livestrong foundation has done great things for people who are fighting that arduous battle, but his protestations of innocence and virulent attacks against his accusers in light of mounting, and now overwhelming, evidence for all those years has tarnished his legacy, his credibility, and his integrity.  He has done precious little to embrace the mantle of leadership.  Even if he did not want it (remember the commercials with Charles Barkley?  “I’m not a role model!”), it comes with the territory.  One cannot be the face of a movement and yet eschew a higher standard.  Fair or not, it is reality—a reality that must be embraced if one is to lead well.

Regrettably, Armstrong has failed to understand this.  He will, no doubt, be forgiven and remain in the public eye.  While we should not withhold forgiveness and reconciliation from the contrite, we would do well to choose our heroes more carefully, and, having done so, to hold them to higher standards.


Defending Your People

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I didn’t get to watch much of the NCAA men’s basketball championship game last night, but I did see about 5 minutes of the post-game press conference, in which Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski appeared with 4 of his players.  Journalists took turns asking Coach K and the players questions, and then something very interesting happened.  One journalist asked Duke center Brian Zoubek a question about how it felt to finish his collegiate basketball career on top, and characterized Zoubek’s career as “up and down.”

Krzyzewski intervened before Zoubek had a chance to respond, telling the journalist that Zoubek had not had an up and down career; rather, that his career had been marred by injuries.  Coach K then made a joke about how the injuries precluded Zoubek from going up and down, saying, “He can’t jump.”

“Thanks, Coach,” Zoubek responded with a wry smile.

“Well, you are never going to play for me again, so…” came Coach K’s response.

“Does that mean I get to say something back?” Zoubek responded.

“No, because I can still get back at you,” and Coach K had the final word.

When Coach K first interrupted the question, it might have been easy for some to surmise that he was simply being pedantic, but it was more than that.  He was protecting his player, just as he had done for the previous 4 years of his career at Duke.  The playful banter that ensued between them demonstrated both the rapport they shared, as well as the respect with which Zoubek approaches his college coach.

Part of that respect obviously comes from the success Coach K has enjoyed over time, having won his 4th national championship at the same school last night.  More telling, though, it comes from the fact that Brian Zoubek, and probably all of Duke’s players, know that their coach, a formidable ally, is squarely in their corner–even in a matter so small as a journalist’s wording of a question.

Zoubek could have handled it himself, but Coach K was having none of that.  He did not want his player’s career referred to in any negative light–not on this night, and not on any other.  He was protecting his people.


“I Don’t Need a Mentor.”

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“I don’t have a mentor, and at this point in my career, I don’t think I need one.”

Professional decorum kept me from saying what I thought as I listened to a senior executive from a well known company talk about how dedicated he was to developing others and helping them be successful, but in the very next sentence spoke about how he’d accomplished enough to arrive in his dream position, and therefore no longer needed such help from others.

In truth, I hear this often. It always goes something like this: “I can be a mentor, but I don’t need one.”

But it doesn’t work that way. Knowingly or unknowingly, these individuals are taking the position that they have arrived, that they have nothing left to learn–a mistake both in practice and in perception.

Done being mentored=done learning, done growing, content to stay the same.

I concede the point that the higher level one attains, the more difficult it is to find adequate mentors, but is not having one what’s best for any leader, or any organization?


Boundaries and Cultures

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We’ve all heard that leaders should have boundaries, even distance, between themselves and their followers.

Total myth.

But as our influence grows, it is likely that we will have followers with whom we interact only occasionally, perhaps only indirectly.  As a result, distance exists, or can develop, even when we intentionally try to eliminate it (and we should).

But here’s a buoying thought: that distance can be closed by the culture we create.  It doesn’t have to close as a direct result of some overture we make one person at a time, though of course that is sometimes necessary.

I went to a Christian school when I was younger, and we would often have times where teachers would solicit prayer requests from students.  I remember very vividly the most popular prayer request when I was a young teen: “Unspoken,” which basically meant that the person had something about which they wanted prayer, but weren’t willing to expose the topic in the presence of others.

Some of this, of course, was the natural angst of adolescence.  But some of it was the environment, the culture.

And cultures are created by leaders.

And cultures always win.

Most leaders claim to have an “open door policy.”  So much so that the term has very little meaning anymore.  The question is not “Do you have an open door policy?”  The question is, “What are you doing, intentionally and consistently, to create a culture in which people feel that there is less and less distance between themselves and others (including you as a leader)?”

If we can act on that, the culture we create will do some of the work for us–people will feel comfortable going to each other, and coming to us.

How much “unspoken” exists between you and your followers?  Between your followers and others?  Within your organization?

How do you know? 

More importantly, when was the last time you did something intentional to eliminate boundaries and create a “spoken” culture?


An Open Letter to Fathers

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We are someone’s hero.

Though we feel as though we have failed in moments—even many of them—the fact remains.  We are the most important person in someone else’s life, someone who suffers without our countenance.

It is a heavy burden to bear, being a father.  It involves so much more than paternity; so much more than position.  We have an inheritance to give, a legacy to bequeath.  Our best intentions will not ensure it; only our actions will.  We cannot take for granted that position or presence will suffice.  No, those must be coupled with the hard work of attention.

Are we paying attention?

It is attention that determines our outcomes as a father.  We will be judged, almost exclusively, on whether or not we paid attention. 

And so much rides on whether or not we pay attention.  Others soar or crash with or without it.  We have experienced this, no doubt, ourselves; we know it to be true.  And yet, it is so easy to become distracted, distant, selfish.

But prioritization is the antidote for distraction.  It is well within our reach, but how often do we reach for it? 

It is the heavy burden to bear—being last—serving when we’d rather be served, sacrificing when we’d rather have our own way.  But that is the way of prioritization; that is the way of attention; that is the way of inheritance and legacy, even heroism.  It is the way of fatherhood.

And fatherhood, in its truest forms, extends even to those who are not related to us.  At our best, we pick up where others left off, or never began.  We embrace the burden, learn to love it, let it change us into something we could never have been on our own.

We become fathers.

We become heroes.

And it is never too late to become what we might have been.


Living (and leading) Differently

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If your family is anything like ours, you’ve probably received dozens of greeting cards, family updates, pictures and the ilk of late.

I read these dutifully, and enjoy hearing about what those I love but do not see often have been up to.  Honestly, though, they do seem to run together after I’ve read the first half dozen or so.  But I was reading the update of some friends of ours last night whose perspective on things was unusual.  It contained bad news as well as good news, joys as well as frustrations.  It was transparent.

This would have been uncommon enough, but it ended with this, a Kenyan prayer:
From the cowardice that dare not face new truths,
From the laziness that is contented with half truth,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Good Lord, deliver me.

I think that all of us, as leaders, have a tendency to be cowards, or lazy, or arrogant from time to time.  I would submit, though, that we are more often one than the others, evidenced by how we lead.  Do we make decisions too quickly?  Without enough information?  Do we turn a blind eye toward issues or harsh realities?  Do we expect others to follow without having to explain fully?

My friends have a clear sense of what they know, and of what they do not know.  They’ve reflected on what they’ve learned in 2008, and look forward to applying it in 2009 as they begin the process anew, hoping to gain a greater sense of the truth and continue to share it with others.

And that is good leadership. 


I need help. Do you?

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I am a good leader. Education, experiences and objective assessment would support that. (Yes, that is a confident opening statement, but that is another post for another day.)

None of that, however, precludes me from needing help.

It doesn’t matter what kind of talent or education or experience I have in leadership. I still need help.

Too many leaders, though, fail to recognize this, and even some who do fail to act on it.

I had a conversation with a mentee recently in which I offered to advocate for him in a given situation where I held some influence. To my surprise, he thanked me for the offer, but refused.

I was flabbergasted. I did not feel personally offended by his refusal, but I did wonder what was going through his mind.

Upon further reflection, though, he is a talented individual–very intelligent, charismatic and high-achieving.

This, however, is more than likely what made him think he doesn’t need my help, and probably not anyone else’s.

Counterintuitively, help is what will open doors for greater uses of his talent, and fulfillment of his capacities and potential.

As a leader, I need that kind of help whenever I can get it.

Do you?