Tag Archives: Character

Quick Review: The Art of Virtue-Based Transformational Leadership

So a book I started well over a year ago and have read excerpts and sections off, but never really officially finished until this week was The Art of Virtue-Based Transformational Leadership by Mark McCloskey and Jim Louwsma.  It’s about 140 pages and a great primer on a really helpful leadership framework.

I had been looking forward to this book for quite a long time because Mark McCloskey was a significant mentor in my life as the head of the Transformational Leadership MA program I went through at Bethel Seminary a decade or so ago.  This book essentially captures the intro class to that program with a bit more refinement in some of the ideas and in the packaging. Louwsma has been a significant collaborative partner with McCloskey. I remember him visiting and presenting in some classes during that time and was impressed by his insights and perspectives.

The book gives an overview to what they call the 4-R leadership framework, which starts with Relationships and works its way out to Roles, Responsibilities, and then ultimately Results.  I’ve found it to be the most comprehensive and helpful framework for leadership development that I’ve used, but it’s also the dominant framework I’ve been exposed to over the years. McCloskey was former staff in my ministry organization and helped implement this framework as the leadership framework for the whole organization.  So I’ve been immersed in this framework both academically and in practice over the past 20 years.

As an aside – if you are Cru Staff, you should own and read this book to have more foundation for the framework that is central to organizational evaluation and development.

The authors weave the theory of the model with the narrative and example of Nehemiah from the Old Testament book of the same name, but one of the nice touches is they include a diverse number of 2-3 page biographical summaries on various transformational leaders in history.  I especially liked that they extended behind typical examples, but took a global approach in highlighting leaders who have exhibited transformational leadership.

It’s really not an overwhelming read as it’s less than 150 pages, but you get a lot in those pages. For $100 you can find the MBA / ultra-academic version of this book.  But now that this is available as a Kindle e-book I can’t recommend it enough if you want to explore a practical, yet research-based framework to help build and shape a leadership culture. Even if it’s just for your own development, it will help you do an audit on just about every area of your leadership from character to practices to skills.

Get it!


Quick Review: The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

A couple of weeks ago I read Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty:  How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves.  The book is loaded with research and stories that illustrate the ways humans consistently rationalize dishonest activity.  And consistency was a key word – I was fascinating at how the research consistently showed people being dishonest to a similar threshold.

The main takeaway from the book is that people lie or engage in dishonest behavior up to the point where they can still rationalize themselves as being a good person.  So it suggests that there is some kind of unwritten cheater code that we humans like to live by – where we can seek to gain an advantage for ourselves and also fully believe that we are good people.

What was most interesting to me was that the research indicated that religion and the reminder of a greater power and spiritual moral code had a significant influence on dishonesty in a positive sense.  People simple were more honest and demonstrated more integrity when they had recently been reminded of this higher power and moral code.

However – the author dismisses this arena from the book because of the impracticality of mobilizing humanity to embrace a common religious solution.  He abruptly dismisses the discussion about the depths to which religion might be the best solution and instead seeks a more pragmatic or secular solution that would not be controversial.  On one hand, I understand that much of the research focuses on specific behavior.  But it is disappointing that the religious sphere had such a powerful impact in the research, but did not get explored in depth.

There’s a lot of practical application here as well as areas worth reflecting on- as it relates to leadership development, culture shaping, and ministry activities like discipleship and spiritual formation.  The question is how we can foster integrity in communities and in leaders when research shows that dishonesty is rampant, subtle, and mostly hidden by rationalization.

One particular example stood out to me as a professor.  We have various things that often require students signing an honor code or pledge of honor that they did something they said they did.  Research shows that it’s almost useless to have people sign at the end of the document verifying that everything prior was true.

Research shows the rationalization or dishonesty has already happened and been justified.  But if you have people read and sign a pledge of honesty of some sort before they fill out a document or take a test, then the results are outstanding that dishonesty will be much more minimal.  I am changing all such documents I use for my classes to account for some of these learnings. I can help them be honest through how I design various documents and through what and when I remind them of related to a higher standard or authority.  You can obviously use this information in heavy handed ways, but if used appropriately it can just make honesty easier for everyone.  That was really interesting to think about.

There were other great anecdotes including one about how just being under a “set of eyes” has on cheating or dishonesty behavior.  Even a symbol of “eyes” looking on someone in situations where temptation is high resulted in more honest behavior.

So there’s a lot of fascinating research that gives a lot of windows into people’s self-understanding and inner workings.  It’s fully worth reading this because you’ll learn things that will help you in whatever walk of life you are in.

I want to grow in my awareness of how I rationalize and justify dishonest behavior and I want to help others do the same. This book provides some practical helps for regulating behavior, but does not offer any ultimate solutions because it avoids the spiritual realm. What it does do – is illustrate how people think and behave and how deep down there is an almost pathological drive to preserve a sense of being “good” all the while looking for every self-serving advantage we can get away with.

This points us to the need for the gospel.  We need it to be reminded of a better and holy way. We need it because we are deeply fallen and yet we desire to be good though we can’t seem to rid ourselves of the duplicity and the falseness.  Sometimes it helps to look in a mirror as to how we tend to deceive ourselves and even though there weren’t great answers, this book provided me with the questions I want to be asking of myself and others.


Quick Review: After You Believe

A couple months ago I read N.T. Wright’s After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.  This book has really got me thinking and I’ve been continuing to think about the implications of Wright’s arguments as it relates to ministry and leadership formation.

Wright considers this to be the third book of a trilogy of sorts after his books Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope.  The first of those is his type of “Mere Christianity” and the second his a treatment of Heaven and eschatology.  After You Believe is a treatment of what discipleship and sanctification looks like post conversion – it’s about how true transformation of character develops.

The real focus of the book is the process and development of character which doesn’t get produced naturally – character which is only produced through struggle and intentionality and perseverance.  This type of character refined by fire, in which behaviors become second nature, is what Wright discusses as “Virtue.”

Virtue, besides being my last name, is a concept growing more popular today especially in business and leadership development discussions.  “Virtue-based leadership” as a philosophy has been gaining steam in leadership circles and Virtue seems to be making a comeback since the days when Bennett’s “Book of Virtues” was popular.

Wright discusses the two extremes of character development – what he describes roughly as “following the rules” on one hand and “following your heart” on the other.  He describes this as a spectrum in which most philosophies of personal change will fall on one side or the other.  He discusses how either philosophy of change – legalism or emotionalism/feeling driven change are inadequate for the kind of character development that equates to the New Testament mandate of “putting on” the new self.

Wright addresses some of the history of virtue development and highlights some of the Catholic / Protestant tensions of the Reformation related to the concept of virtue based character formation.  His discussion on these themes related to Shakespeare’s Hamlet has me pursuing that play to see some of how those themes are reflected in the art of the time.

Wright fundamentally calls for a grace based approach to intentional character development that invests in developing new habits while getting rid of old habits.  Some get nervous when talking about habits and intentional character development because they believe all transformation is a product of the Spirit. Wright supports that as well, but argues that there is an embodied expression of faith in the believer as he makes choices and struggles to die to him or herself and put on the behavior consistent with the new identity in Christ.

Sanctification is produced by the grace of God as his children die to themselves by faith in the power of the Holy Spirit and put on the new self – even when the behavior isn’t “natural” or second nature yet.  Wright argues that over time, such Spirit driven behavior and struggle in faith produces that character refined by fire that is described by virtue.

We live in an age when many believers are trapped in legalism and performance on one hand and cheap grace on the other.  There is a need for an integrated view of sanctification that calls believers to a more holy integration of faith and works, all grounded in the grace of God.  Wright makes compelling arguments from Scripture and challenges all believers to reject cheap grace or regulations and embrace an authentic journey of denying themselves and putting on the character of Christ – even if it feels uncomfortable or not natural at first.




God Is First On the Scene

The last month has been a challenging one to say the least.  Some of it circumstantial, but really it’s been a challenging month internally.  I aim to share more of some of that, but a small ebook I found has really been ministering to me over the last few weeks.  It’s called Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang.

This has been a season where I believe I’ve been entering a new place of sensitivity and awareness to the depths of just how broken we are, how marred and wounded we are, and how corrupt and dehumanizing many of our worldly systems and structures are. Frankly, it’s been crushing me as I reflect on life for many who are vulnerable and powerless (especially so many women)in the world, my community, and even in my own organizational ministry.

It’s been a specific season of being shown more of what truly is the reality despite what I would want to or choose to believe.  And you know what – I have never been more aware of the fact that my character and soul is totally unable and unprepared to take in the degree of pain, struggle, and even evil that is around me every day. I believe God has shown me more to show me what is required to truly live in this world as a servant without letting the darkness overwhelm, crush, and stomp out a life of hope and abundance that is part of truly following Christ. And he’s showing me I have to let Him do a lot more in me if I’m going to be a part of serving in greater ways and being part of His world to bring justice and reconciliation to the oppressed and alienated.

Here’s a perspective that has been a great reminder and encouragement as I seek to allow God to build my spiritual capacity, to deepen my soul to handle the reality of the world I live in and the places I do life in.

    “Put simply, we are never first on the scene of anything in our world today, be it our personal lives or the lives of people across the globe.  When we encounter injustice, whether in story or face to face, we are encountering a reality that God knows to its deepest depths. And when God invites us to act in the face of injustice, God is inviting us to join the work he is already doing.

Our God is always first on the scene, but he chooses to draw us in and use us as his vessels. We serve a God who has already seen, already heard; God who is ready to send us. Above all, we serve a God whose glory cannot be quenched. Hope in our God, hope in God’s glory will never disappoint (Romans 5:1-5).” (pg 27)

God is first on the scene – every scene.  That’s something that helps me hope and keep going, keep serving without feeling the immense weight and burden of aloneness that injustice inspires in us.

God is there. And He was there first.


*This only about a 40-45 page ebook that you can get for a dollar or two. It’s not a resource to motivate you towards justice ministries, but rather one designed to help encourage you to anchor yourselves spiritually in the Lord and allow him to build the capacity needed as you are facing the overwhelming realities of trying to serve in an unjust world without burning out or other psychological affects of serving in these realities.



Anxiety & Monkey Poo

First, forgive me for this post.  I don’t know if it’s the effect of the Superbowl, the onslaught of random ads, or just a brief failure of self-regulation.  But consider yourself warned that this post is less than savory due to frequent references to feces – monkey poo in particular.

I frequently post on themes like anxiety and systemic dynamics in which anxiety ends up driving people to behavior that undermines often both logic and love.

When I think of anxiety wrecking havoc, I don’t always think of systemic dynamics.  Sometimes it’s just people turning loose their anxiety and/or dysfunction on people in primal and reactive ways.

It makes me think of the monkey cages at the zoo. It’s been documented that some monkeys enjoy throwing their feces at others.  I don’t know why. I’ve heard things like it’s about establishing superiority or it’s an expression of reactivity against strangers. Someone else can speak to that. But it is essentially a reactive and hostile expression of a survival instinct in some form.

Sometimes I feel like I’m doing life and I felt like I’m stuck in a monkey cage while monkeys are flinging poo. Since seeing this graphic above, I’ve started to visualize this graphic in specific moments.  Now I’m only posting this now because there’s no concrete example in recent history and I can offer a general reflection.

We are so often anxious beings.  And while we aren’t working on survival in a real Darwinism type of way, we do operate out of a survival instinct sometimes when anxiety surpasses a certain threshold and then it’s like dysfunction takes over and other people get the brunt of our stuff.

So maybe it’s defensiveness, maybe it’s unwarranted anger, maybe it’s rigidity of thought, maybe it’s being on the wrong end of a major victim or martyr complex, and maybe it’s being judged not because of concrete reasons but because of people’s own insecurities and issues.

Those moments are like taking a stroll through the monkey cages when there’s a big poo fight in the works.   They can be experienced in just about any place you can have contact with a human being.

Poo flinging is not just anger.  Poo flinging is most often done with a smile on the face.  It’s unloading all of your junk on someone else in often creative ways and thinking you are right for it.

Sometimes I feel like maturity is really just like wearing a big rubber suit in the monkey cage where all the poo can bounce off of us and we don’t retaliate by throwing poo in return.  Sometimes I feel like wisdom is avoiding the monkey cage as best we can – though it’s not possible if not for any other reason, we sometimes act like monkeys as much as anyone else.

Life is lived in the monkey cage though and we’re all in it.  Let’s keep the poo flinging to a minimum and not retaliate. Maturity is important – spiritual and emotional and even social.  Let’s keep learning and allowing ourselves to be transformed by God’s grace.

This metaphor has become such a large part of my internal dialogue, I felt like it needed to be shared at some point.  Superbowl Sunday is as good of a day as any 🙂


Charlie Sheen & Dorian Gray

This is a thought I had a month ago. Is Charlie Sheen the real life or modern Dorian Gray?

Now, I tried reading Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray a while ago and didn’t quite make it. Turns out I wasn’t feeling it and I felt like I needed to turn my attentions elsewhere. But I’ve seen a couple renderings of it in movies. Ironically my favorite rendering of Dorian Gray was in the unconventional and odd movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

You probably know the story. A young dude basically sells his soul to the devil or something in exchange for timeless youth and I guess immortality of some sorts. His soul gets tied to a painting in his likeness. The painting basically corrupts and degenerates while Dorian Gray stays young – but the painting is the symbol of his soul which erodes.

Two observations before the Charlie Sheen phenomena totally fades away. First – he strikes me as the closest thing to Dorian Gray I’ve seen with his unashamed narcissism and reluctance to acknowledge the reality that time is fleeting. It’s ironic that he might advocate the “life is short, party hard” philosophy, but the party hard mentality may be better associated with the loss of perspective about time. Like Gray, Charlie’s inability to live in light of a bigger story, a bigger timeline with a past and a future, seems to be eroding his soul.

Second, Gray is lured into his lifestyle or encouraged by a figure “Lord Henry Wotton” who passes on this philosophy of hedonism and wreckless narcissism. However, Lord Wotton himself doesn’t quite go so far to live that life himself. He lives vicariously through Gray all the while he ends up living within certain boundaries and limitations. Gray at some point develops resentment on this point. In the aftermath of the #winning phenomena of Sheen, I can’t help think there are many out there like Lord Wotton who are rooting him on and living vicariously through Sheen yet they cannot do it themselves because of the relational and communal consequences of living like that. Such a posture really bothers me, maybe more than the person themselves who is out of control heading to the edge of the cliff.

So it’s interesting to me – has Charlie Sheen lost track of time, the chronological progression of time or the narrative dimension of time? Is his new fan club a collection of Lord Wotton’s who are pushing him to do the things that they fear the consequences of and want to see what happens when there are no personal consequences? Maybe Sheen is serving to expose the true character and humanity behind so many of his new fans?

We always complain about not having enough time. I know I do. But the fleeting aspect of time is a good thing. Without a good perspective of time, there’s not much of a capacity to consider what good stewardship means. There’s not much incentive to prioritize and make good choices. There’s not much to look forward to. There’s not much to remember.

While I find Sheen quotes wildly entertaining, he’s encouraged me to consider more deeply the impact of time on my life. For I know without time moving towards something, much of what I consider meaningful would not exist and much of what I put my hope in would be in vain.

What do you make of this?  Has Sheen lost connection with time?  What say you?

Answering Critics

It’s the 25th anniversary this season of the ’85 Chicago Bears Superbowl season.  I thought I would post a bit of leadership wisdom from a member of that illustrious team.Steve McMichael, nicknamed Mongo, was a defensive tackle for the Bears and until a couple weeks ago he held the franchise record for games played for the Bears.  He had close to 100 sacks as a defensive tackle which is pretty impressive.I heard him on a radio interview about six months ago and he provided this soundbite:

“When you answer your critics they matter.”

I don’t believe this to be 100% true all of the time.  There’s times where silence and ignoring the rise of dissension and opposition around you only leads to increased anxiety and increased fanaticism among critics.

That being said, when you spend your time reacting to critics you end up allowing them to dictate your leadership and how you are going to do your job.  Sometimes you should listen to the critics.  Sometimes you shouldn’t.  I can’t help thinking that what causes some leaders to stand out over others is that they can tell the difference between what they should listen to and what they shouldn’t.

McMichael is mostly referring to a select group of people that many in my generation and younger would best describe as “haters.”  The people that want to see you fail.  I don’t meet many of these in ministry (my profession), which is a good thing, but there is a ministry version of them.  It’s those that want to see you lose influence because they have a philosophical difference with how you see things or how you go about relationships or how you do your business.   And regarding these people, I agree with Mongo.  We can’t afford to lead in ways that makes these people matter more than they do.

Navigating critics takes character, emotional maturity, skill, and a philosophical framework of where the voice of the critic fits in your leadership paradigm. I hope this gets you thinking about where critics stand in your paradigm and where stand in your ability to navigate them maturely and wisely.

How do you walk the line of identifying voices of wisdom in the crowd and guarding yourself against the toxic wave of anxiety that comes from people that will seek to tear you down to build themselves up?

For other elements of wisdom from the ’85 Bears check out Mike Ditka’s insights on encouraging your people.

Identifying the Ox-Eye

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Leading on the Seas

Here’s the next installment of “Leading on the Seas”:

While often known just as a flower term, an ox-eye is “A cloud or other weather phenomenon that may be indicative of an upcoming storm or phenomenon that may be indicative of an upcoming storm.” (Wikepedia)

One of the great capacities or abilities of great leaders is being able to look down the road and identify trouble that’s coming early enough to be able to do something about it.

The “Ox-Eye” weather phenomenon would serve as a warning of bad weather coming.  A captain and crew would then need to make adjustments so that they didn’t subject their ship or crew to unnecessary danger or overwhelming weather.  They could choose to postpone their progress or they could chart out a new direction to circumvent the coming danger.

In extreme cases, these are decisions that save or doom lives and can seal the fate of the entire vessel itself.  Not all dangers on the seas give fare warning, but looking at the moments in which they do I wanted to offer a couple reflections on why sometimes we fail to identify the ox-eye and continue leading into dangerous waters.

I see three primary reasons that we as leaders can fail to identify the ox-eye that may present itself in our leadership context:

  1. Over-focus on their navigation tools and itineraries and sailing plans. One of the great detractors from attentiveness to the future is the compulsion to try to control the present which is facilitated by all of the planning tools.  Precision in the short-run wins out over vision in the long-run.  I see this with fixation on strategic plans, organizational charts, and other strategic tools.  They’re great in context, but they can lead to your ruin if you can’t see anything else.
  2. Lack of Sight. Captains and crews who just don’t know what to look for can’t identify warning signs.  If you aren’t aware of what those signs are or know what to look for then you can fail to see what is coming.  For young leaders this maybe is developmental and focused on growing awareness.  The older you’re in the game this begins to just look like incompetence.
  3. Pride. Captains and crews who identify the Ox-Eye, but reject wisdom in favor of macho or vanity inspired leadership decisions.  Weather it’s driven by the quest for glory, image management, or just sheer achievement, reckless choices in the face of warning signs will doom your leadership, your crew, and your vessel.

There are seasons where you have smooth sailing.  Then there are seasons where you may find yourself in a serious storm.  But there’s a season in which there are clues and warning signs about impending danger in which there is a small window in which you can do something about it.  Good Captains can lead in those moments, but identifying the danger properly is the key to knowing what would be the proper course of action.

What helps you identify “Ox-Eye” patterns that signal potential danger and threats to your leadership context?

How to you guard against those barriers or temptations that hinder our capacity to see the “Ox-Eye?”

Failing Leaders

I was going through an old magazine I got at some conference I went to and I came across this top 10 list – the top 10 ways to fail as a leader. It was in the march and april 2008 version of Rev magazine (Rev.org). This is quite the collection in my mind – but so many of them are unbelievably too common. When you add a few together you get a nice recipe for a toxic environment.Here they go:

  1. Fill Your Team With People Just Like You.
  2. Ask Someone to do a Specific Job, and then do it Yourself
  3. Don’t Trust Anyone
  4. Look Out for #1
  5. Exercise High Control
  6. Make Sure All Ideas Originate With You
  7. Foster an Atmosphere of Paranoia
  8. Make Sure Nobody Appears Smarter Than You Are.
  9. Have a Closed-Door Policy (Shut the Door to Feedback & Lack Teachability)
  10. Conserve Affirmation

The best part of the one-page article was the insight that the authors offered. They state how most of the above failures in leadership flow from unresolved insecurities. I agree.A random observation on #1: Many leaders do struggle surrounding themselves with diversity. Yet just as damaging are leaders who have diversity around them, but who systematically get rid of those who are different or who challenge them. I think this can be subconscious or conscious.I think #10 is the one I can fall in to the most naturally. Gotta share the love more.