A Failure of Nerve

7 12 2015

A Failure of NerveThe book you see above this post is simply the best book on leadership that I have ever read.  Ever.

I read a lot.  A great deal of what I read devolves in some way upon leadership–autobiography, biography, leadership as art and craft, critical leadership arenas, failures of leadership and so forth.  This is a rich field as there are so many great authors and leaders.  The usual suspects: Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, Douglas MacArthur, John Maxwell, Seth Godin, Warren Bennis and political leaders ad infinitum.  I’m sure you could assemble your own list of leaders and leadership mavens and their writings.  (Matter of fact, please load up the combox with your suggestions!)

Edwin Friedman was a rabbi and therapist who did most of his work in and around Washington, D.C. up until his death in 1996.  The strength of his work (his entire corpus comprises five volumes, two of which were published posthumously) is that leadership is ultimately a function of the leader himself/herself (hereafter his/him for the sake of brevity).

A Failure of Leadership gets at the essence of good leadership.  The focus of this book is on a leader’s self-leadership, rather than leadership techniques, punch lists, alliterations and the like.   The leader sets the tone in any environment by 1) maintaining a non-anxious presence in the midst of anxious and emotional people, whether family, congregation, business or government and 2) practicing his own inner leadership as a self-differentiated individual; that is, one who is clear about his goals, vision, purpose and values and is able to hold to them in a steady way, especially when times are tumultuous and the tendency to herd rears its head and threatens to pull him into its toxic vortex.  The self-differentiated leader is moved by reason–namely, his goals and values–rather than emotional current.

There is so much more to this book in general and Friedman’s work in particular that we will explore in future writings.  Topics such as orienting towards adventure rather than safety, focusing on personal responsibility and challenge and not simply “feeling another’s pain” (empathy).  Fodder for later posts.

Buy this book.  He wrote it during the Bush (41) and Clinton years–years in which he described our country and culture as anxious and stuck.  One can only imagine his response to our own times with the challenges of the post 9/11 world and ubiquitous social media which, at best, is a mixed blessing.

Stick around.  There’s more!

Further reading:

Friedman’s Fables

Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue

The Myth of the Shiksa and Other Essays

What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? Unpublished Writings and Diaries
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Ignore Words–Watch What They Do

4 07 2014

Watch What They DoA number of years ago I happened to be listening to an internet talk-show where the host had an expert on Russia as his guest. This Russian geopolitical expert—Jeff Nyquist, for those interested—told his host that Russia continues to produce thermonuclear weapons in the post-Soviet era even though its public position is one of disarmament. Nyquist then added one of the wisest maxims that I have ever heard. “When you look at Russia and its leaders,” he said, “don’t listen to what they say; watch what they do.”

“Don’t listen to what they say; watch what they do.”

This has become a principle and continuous reality check for my wife and I when evaluating all the stuff we hear as we live our lives among six billion other people as well as evaluating where we’re at ourselves.

Talk is cheap. Politicians and those trying to achieve political ends are known for making great promises that folks with even modest intelligence know will never be acted on in any sincere way. And no cynicism here. When you evaluate the current state of our economy and the deficit and then hear the promises of financial improvement and stimulus programs by our leaders, you can see that the promises are simply air. I appreciated our stimulus check. But where did the money come from?

This precept of not listening to what people say but rather watching what they’re doing can be either encouraging or demoralizing. Here are two of the most powerful and life-giving statements a person can utter:

“I love you.”

“I am a Christian (or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Sikh)”

Conversely, here two of the most useless and demoralizing things a human being can say with their mouth:

“I love you.”

“I am a Christian (or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Sikh)”

Oh the power of paradox. All the difference in the world based on one simple, observable, quantifiable factor: Is the utterance backed up with action?

Or is it just idle talk?

This is a great inventory tool for looking over your life as well as evaluating reality as you mix with the human race.

For example:

If I say I believe in being a public voice for change but never write to a congressman, senator, the President or some other civic or governmental leader, my actions betray what I really believe. I may be enamored with the idea of being involved, but I don’t really believe in being involved. If I did, I’d act on it.

If I say I believe in helping the poor and then look over my checkbook, my possessions and my time and find I have spent all my discretionary income on videos, sports, and other forms of entertainment, expensive food, toys and other things, then I might believe in helping the poor in theory, as an article of faith in my creed (a necessary and useless thing, a creed), but I don’t really believe in helping the poor.

If I say I’m a Christian (a “little Christ”) and believe in Jesus Christ and then practice a lifestyle contrary to the way and teachings of Jesus and am really no different than the unregenerate world that hates Jesus (John 7:7 – the world hates the real Jesus because he reproves it of its evil), then I really don’t believe in Jesus. I may believe in the concept of following Jesus, but I really don’t believe in Jesus. One of my earliest Bible teachers called that “practical atheism.” James tells us that such faith will not save anyone (James 2:17-26).

You can use this evaluative tool in any area and it works just great. And if you are sincere, you will come away humbled. The bottom line is this (if you don’t get it now, you’ll surely see it is true when you stand at the Judgment Seat before God): What you do is what you really believe.

A.W. Tozer once wrote an editorial entitled “Words Without Deeds: The Vice of Religion.” In another place, he wrote this: “The deadening effect of religious make-believe upon the human mind is beyond all describing.” We have numerous scriptures that tell us that God will judge us according to our works , not our aspirations (e.g. Revelation 20:12-13). But we will also be held accountable for every idle word we say (Matthew 12:36-37 – the word idle here means “non-working”). If our deeds don’t match our creeds, we will suffer condemnation. Jesus promised.

So what then?

Don’t say something you’re not sincerely prepared to back with action.
Better yet, say little or nothing and let your works speak for themselves. God says, in effect, “Show me the money!”
When you back up your words with deeds, it creates credibility, which is priceless.
Inventory your own life, not just others lives who happen to intersect with yours. It’s humbling and tough at times, but it is reality.

So, remember: What you do is what you really believe. And with people, as well as with ourselves, don’t listen to what they say; watch what they do.

“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)

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The Book of Lights and Tough Ethical Questions

13 10 2013

The Book of LightsI’m currently reading a book by Chaim Potok, author of my favorite novel, The Chosen.  This particular book, written in 1981, The Book of Lights, is set in Korean War-era New York City near historic Riverside Church and Grant’s Tomb, Korea, and Japan.

The main protagonist, Gershon Loran, has been ordained into the rabbinate and conscripted into the service after the armistice has been signed.  He is a somewhat melancholy and, at the same time, brilliant and reflective man who is particularly enamored with the study of Kabbalah–the books of Jewish mysticism.  He is haunted by visions.

His roommate, Arthur Leiden–also a rabbinical student and future rabbi, is a curious figure.  He is a conflicted man, often drinking too much and coming to class unprepared (and drawing upon himself the kind of ire that was standard for teachers towards lazy students a generation ago.)

Arthur is conflicted as well because his father, a physicist, was involved in the creation of the atomic bomb.  Albert Einstein, Harry S Truman, Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi are all colleagues of Arthur’s father and figure into the story.

The book, a predictably thoughtful story, forces the reader to examine the moral import and consequence of developing weapons of mass destruction and its consequences for those who bear the weight of such a dark legacy.

I am about half the way through this novel.  Potok is a masterful writer.  He understands the human psyche and Jewishness (in which he was both raised and trained).  Read this and his other works.

And reflect.

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Gandhi on First Things

8 10 2013

95e39/huch/1887/3“Let the first act of every morning be to make the following resolve for the day:

– I shall not fear anyone on Earth.
– I shall fear only God.
– I shall not bear ill will toward anyone.
– I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.
– I shall conquer untruth by truth. And in resisting untruth, I shall put up with all suffering.” (Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948)

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The Hidden Costs of Shortcuts

30 09 2013

The Hidden Costs of Shortcuts

“I do not deny that many appear to have succeeded in a material way by cutting corners and by manipulating associates, both in their professional and in their personal lives. But material success is possible in this world and far more satisfying when it comes without exploiting others.” (Alan Greenspan)

Bernie Madoff.  Michael Milken.  Ivan Boesky.  Charles Ponzi.  Jack Abramoff.   Enron.

The aforementioned are cataloged in the annals of infamy for cutting corners financially, hurting a lot of people and ending up in jail.  Greed and hubris motivated them all.  Plus the fatal narcotic of self-deception, thinking they could get away with their crimes.

There is no shortcut to the building of a large and stable estate.  Wealth grows in the soil of patience, competence and hard work.  There are no substitutes.

A good deal of the writings in the book of Proverbs came from Solomon, son of David, Israel’s wisest and wealthiest king.  Here is what he had to say about the acquisition of wealth:

  • Pro 28:8  Whoever multiplies his wealth by interest and profit gathers it for him who is generous to the poor.
  • Pro 28:19  Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.
  • Pro 28:22  A stingy man hastens after wealth and does not know that poverty will come upon him.
  • Pro 10:4  A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
  • Pro 21:17  Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.
  • Pro 22:16  Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.
  • Pro 13:11  Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.

Avoid like the plague the get-rich-quick mentality.  Build your estate, your wealth, day by day, dollar by dollar on a foundation of hard work, thrift, competence and compassion.  You are not Gordon Gecko.  You’re better than that.  Avoid the siren song of cutting corners and coloring outside of the lines to get ahead.

“Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud.” (Sophocles)

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Careful–Your Tongue Is Loaded!

24 09 2013

Tongue A WeaponIf we had any conception of the power of the spoken word, I’m convinced we’d be different people.  We would handle words—whether spoken or written—like a bomb squad handles a bomb that needs defusing.

As a Christian, I believe the universe was spoken into existence.  Obviously, I was not there to witness it.  But I believe the biblical record when it talks about how the universe was framed:  From the mouth of God.  I’ve no intent to go into the various scientific cosmologies.  But I do believe the record that says “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” (Hebrews 11:3)

If words create worlds, what do they produce when uttered or penned by creatures made in the image of God?  Maybe, as Peter Kreeft says, we should all be wearing crash helmets, considering that words are so powerful.

I’ve served in three different churches as an associate pastor since 1993.  I learned very quickly that words have the power to destroy people and cripple them for years, sometimes for life.  And I learned that people can shoot for the stars with a little encouragement.  That words are creative.  “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21)

Treat your mouth and your pen as either loaded instruments or creative vehicles.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” simply does not square with reality.  Try these on your family, friends and associates:

“You’re gonna make it.”

“The best is yet to come.”

“I love you.”

“I forgive you.”

“You can do this.  You have what it takes.”

Watch what happens.  And when tempted to let someone feel the brunt of your anger by your tongue, stop for a bit, think carefully and remember that you are in the possession of a loaded weapon.

Handle with care.

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Get Real!

31 08 2013


“Honesty is such a lonely word.  Everyone is so untrue.  Honesty is hardly ever heard.  But mostly what I need from you….” (Billy Joel)

Life thrives on health.  And healthy relationships thrive on honesty, on commitment to truth, whatever pains may ensue.  This is the same for all human interactions—with spouse, children, parents, colleagues, friends, etc.  But supremely with God and oneself.

I’m learning that in order to be honest with others, I must first be honest with myself.  I have to summon the moral courage to take a good look at where I’m at, what I like and dislike, where I’m going and with whom I’m going.

My wife has been the truest friend I’ve ever had largely because she sees me and tells me the truth, rarely with anything other than love.  She has helped me be courageous in asking myself tough questions about life and answering with the antidote of truth, even though it hurts.  One of my targets over the past few years is the practice of radical honesty, primarily with myself.  This will help me be more authentic with others because I’m a unity, rather than a potpourri of different selves adapting to the moment.

Go get alone, maybe with a journal and a cup of coffee or glass of wine, whatever, and ask yourself these tough questions and answer honestly:

  • Am I being true to my professed values, both in the public eye as well as out of line of sight? There is inherent tension that visits us when we profess one thing and live another.
  • Have I come to terms with the fact that I drove my own car to the place I’m at and to go further in my journey, I’ll have to drive there? Devil didn’t make you do it, the economy either, nor your parents.  Did they influence? Of course.  But we either acted or chose not to act.  This is a tough sell but you must own this.
  • If money were no option, what would I do for a career?  We’ve posted previously here at The Upside about the importance of doing what you love and were designed to do.  You have a sacred obligation to provide for your own, even if digging ditches.  But don’t stop there.  Work towards your dream occupation.  President Kennedy was fond of quoting the Greek maxim: “Happiness consists in the full use of one’s faculties along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.”
  • Am I continuing to nurture relationships that are hurting me? I spoke with a dear friend about this point earlier today.  This is something of a mantra on this blog, but you really have to choose your circle of friends and acquaintances carefully.  Do they spur you on or deflate you?  And can you goad them in the direction of their best selves?  A certain prominent minister was once given the sage advice “You need to go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated.”  Think about that.  In what environments are you most appreciated—who you are as a person, your giftings, and your values?  It matters.

Honesty is therapy.  You will ultimately be a much happier person as you really start to tell yourself the way it is from this moment on.  There may be pain at the outset but that will be replaced with more peace, if only because you’re finally authentic.

“To thine own self be true.”

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