Tag Archives: Empowerment

Quick Review: Strong and Weak

One of the richest and most practically helpful book I’ve read this year is Andy Crouch’s Strong and Weak.  It’s the third book I’ve read by Crouch this year and all three form together what I would describe to be a trilogy related to a theology and practice of image bearing. You can see some of my thoughts on the 1st of these books Culture Making here or the more recent Playing God here.

Strong and Weak is roughly an extension of Playing God.  Playing God  is a more in depth look at power and privilege. Strong and Weak continues that, but Crouch introduces a framework for understanding social ethics, relationships, and authority among other things.  This allows for a really clear conceptual understanding of much of what he unpacks in Playing God.

Crouch builds his book around a 2 x 2 chart. The X axis is represented by the concept of vulnerability, while the Y axis is represented by the concept of authority. Crouch draws from the first couple chapters of Genesis these two significant aspects of what it means to be an image bearer. Having the authority and ability to take meaningful action on one hand, and having the posture of vulnerability and risk on the other.

In the chart there are 4 quadrants, which Crouch describes as flourishing (high authority, high vulnerability), suffering or poverty (low authority, high vulnerability), withdrawal or apathy (low authority, low vulnerability) and exploitation (high authority, low vulnerability).  The book is organized around these quadrants and their implications for relationships, community, and even leadership as well.

The simple 2 x 2 chart provides a really helpful framework to understand some really complex dynamics as well as the powerful and countercultural implications of gospel action through people in different quadrants.  It provides a helpful way of understanding servant leadership, empowerment, social responsibility, and community development all in one.

This book is about 150 pages or so, very readable. I highly recommend you read this – it has something for everyone and it serves as an incredible teaching tool to help people understand how to look at the importance of both authority and vulnerability – which cover a surprising amount of the issues leaders have in negotiating the social realities of their contexts.

This is an important and helpful resource that should help people think more theologically and responsibly about the dynamic relationship between authority and human relationships.  I really encourage you to find time to read it.


Self-Leadership: The Adventure of Spoon Collecting

If your self-leadership development efforts were illustrated through spoons on a wall, what would it look like? Would you have many spoons…or two…or maybe just one?


My mom has always had a collection of spoons – those little souvenir spoons that you can find while you are traveling. She has spoons from most countries in Europe and other places she has visited in her lifetime and they have been on the wall of her living room since I can remember.

That’s what I think our self-leadership development should look like–having a lot of spoons on the wall. Those spoons to me symbolize various takeaways, wisdom, insights, and experiences from a variety of different places and people and times in our life. Looking at the collection, I can’t help but appreciate the diversity of the spoons as well as the personal stories behind them.

It’s so easy to fall into the mindset that your development should be provided to you from whoever is leading you or through your immediate context. Should your leaders be seeking to provide development for you and those they lead?    Absolutely.

Should you expect them to provide all, or even the majority, of your development or what you need to increase your leadership capacity and grow?    Absolutely not!

Waiting for someone who is supervising you to provide all of what would help you as a leader is foolish, passive, and can be at times even childlike. You’re putting your own development completely at the mercy of one other person’s strengths, limitations, motivation, and capacity to develop you. And you know what – they aren’t you! Chances are you need, and even want, different types of development than your leader because you are a different person and a different leader. Even the greatest leader can only give you so much.

So let’s own our development and continue our journeys towards learning, growing, changing, and increasing our capacity to serve and lead others. Here’s what I recommend:

Go get some spoons!


Go visit the people and places that have the spoons you want or you feel like you really need right now as a leader. My mom wouldn’t have all those spoons if she never went anywhere. Waiting for your leader to do all the work for your development is like waiting for a spoon to show up at your front door. That’s anti-adventure, anti-adult, and anti-leaderlike.


What’s the point in going somewhere or visiting someone for the sake of development and learning if you don’t actually take something away that can help you be a better person or leader or even help you execute your responsibilities better. So find spoons that help you refine your strengths and growth areas. Find spoons that help challenge your thinking and paradigms. Find spoons that will speak into your life, inspire you, help you dream big, gain new skills. Find spoons that help you in your personal and emotional life as well as in your personal and leadership relationships. There’s a lot of spoons out there that can help you grow into the person and leader you want to be. Don’t wait for people to drop them off at your door. GO GET ‘EM!


One of my chores growing up was polishing my mom’s spoons. It was fun to dip a spoon into a cleaning solution so half of the spoon was dirty and the other half was perfectly clean. When polishing a spoon, it would became so shiny that it was like I was seeing it the first time.

The task of polishing all the spoons also served the purpose of reminding me of all the places and types of spoons that my mom had collected. When they were hanging on the wall they were easily forgotten, but taking them down to polish them would evoke memories and a renewed appreciation for what they looked like along with the backstory behind it. You can go and get a lot of “spoons” over time, but if you forget those insights and takeaways
they won’t transform your leadership much over time. Find ways to remind yourself of those great insights and transformational experiences that you already have on your wall!

One of the best developmental “spoons” I’ve picked up over the years is that when it comes to your development as a leader, you have to own your leadership development LIKE a leader. That means it’s no one else’s job to make sure you have a good spoon collection. It’s your job, your calling, your journey. And spoon collecting should become a passion! I’ve picked up spoons from my leaders over the years, from seminary, from reading books, from friends, from my teams, from countries I’ve been in, from media, from church, from social media, from conferences, from blogs, and a host of other places and experiences too.

There’s a lot of spoons out there to be collected!

So figure out where you want more spoons, where you really need more spoons, and maybe check out what kind of spoons others around you have for ideas about what kind of spoons can best help you. It’s also good to remember that we don’t collect spoons like we collect data or information. We collect the spoons of leadership development for our own transformation and so we can serve others and ultimately help them learn how to start spoon collections on their own.

But whatever you do, don’t settle for a wall with one or two spoons on it. You just end up looking like you’ve not really visited that many places. The people we lead and influence deserve more than one or two spoon’s worth of leadership!

Where are you going to get your spoons? What advice do you have?

How are you managing to remember and consistently apply insights
and takeaways you’ve gained in the past? Any suggestions?


Originally Posted March 24, 2011

Choosing Pain

This past week our older two kids were riding bikes with their mom and they were out a long time.  My wife relayed the story how my daughter, who has mild cerebral palsy, was starting to get tired and weary. She was struggling to keep up with her little brother who can ride all day long no worse for the wear.

My wife called back and told her she could take a break and walk for a bit or just catch her breath.  He was visibly fatigued, but this was her response,

“No. I’m going to choose pain!”

And then with a surge of new motivation Morgan began peddling at a faster rate and aggressively sought to bridge the gap between her and Colin.

It was a moment we’ll remember because it resonates with our life.

This season of moving our family to the Philippines has been chaos and complex and required energy and determination and perseverance beyond much of what we’ve ever faced.   We’ve had many moments where we’ve been so weary, tired, overwhelmed, or discouraged.  I supposed quitting would have been an option – we sure were tested and challenged to remember at points why we are doing this in the first place.

So we’ve faced that same moment at many points – get off the bike…or choose pain and go after it.

There are challenges in life and moments where you just have to dig deep and keep going.  That’s the season we’ve been in of late.

And to drive home the point, our son a couple nights ago spontaneously started to share.  He’s felt the change the most and has had the hardest time dealing with the loss and the change.  As such he’s been pretty anxious of late.  But this is what he shared at our family dinner,

“You know sometimes there’s things you don’t want to do because they’re really hard or they’re really scary, but sometimes you just have to go through them.”  

Later on when clarifying he said,

“Yeah, like trusting God and stuff.”

It’s amazing watching our kids grow through being stretched, especially when they didn’t choose the challenges they are facing.

It’s an encouragement to us to keep persevering in faith and maybe it’ll serve as an encouragement to you the next time you find yourself having to choose between getting off the bike and “Choosing Pain!”

Lack of Response and Invisibility

So one of the hot facebook threads for my wife and I recently involved an unfortunate case of invisibility and exclusion.

For well over a year my wife has made passing references to how no one “likes” or comments on anything she posts.  I didn’t really understand the magnitude of it and thought maybe it was because she didn’t post a lot.  But it became apparent that something was wrong in that NO ONE liked or commented on anything she posted for over a year.  Just immediate family alone should provide at least ONE “like” right?

So we looked in and turns out privacy settings were set so that pretty much no one would ever see anything my wife posted.  Ever.  While on one level social media struggles are hardly on the level of world news, this ended up being a big deal – almost like a psychology experiment.   Picture it – commenting and liking hundreds of other people’s posts meanwhile getting no response, no feedback whatsoever for your posts.  That takes its toll!

Here’s some of the natural pyschological impact of seeing all the interaction of facebook but never being seen:

  • Insecurity. The questions of, “Do people not like what I’m posting?” and how that easy goes to “Do people not like me?”
  • Defeatest thoughts. At some point my wife just stopped doing updates because it both felt pointless and discouraging to get another experience of not being seen.  To her credit – she never stopped responding and engaging others though.

But just to clarify – my wife handled it quite well and never became unglued at her reality. While she lost confidence in her posting, she was secure enough to not let her whole identity come under fire.

What this got me thinking about was just about the nature of responsiveness.  We all have those people in our lives that don’t seem to ever call us back or ever respond.  Some of us for a variety of reasons routinely fly under the radar and experience invisibility as a big part of their life experience.  Most of us can relate to the horror of not being seen or being left in invisibility and irrelevance. Maybe that’s why so many were click to “like” or respond

on the post when we shared what happened.

There seems to be a baseline need for “being seen” for us that brings a security that helps guard us away from the dark psychological reflections of being alone and without value.  It’s amazing how a few “likes” eases the existential anxiety most of us are vulnerable to at points.

It doesn’t mean we should live our lives based on the feedback and response we get – but it does give tangible insight into how easy it can be sometimes to show value to other people.  It’s finding ways to let them know you “see” them, especially in situations where people are vulnerable to feeling alone or invisible.

This is a simple building block of healthy community – seeking out and showing those who feel alone and rallying around them letting them know you see them and are there for them.

It should not be a surprise to any of us then that God himself in the Scriptures is identified as “the God who sees” at points.   What an amazing thing that when we seek Christ, even when we feel invisible and alone that we are never “unseen.”

Responding to people, providing tangible expressions of positive feedback to people’s presence and contribution, is necessary to helping people move past their invisibility angst or trauma.   It’s a reminder to me that it’s not good enough to just “not treat people badly.” In the absence of positive response, we all have critical voices because of family issues, or the media, or personal issues that leads us to places of self-hate.  It’s probably wise we assume people are living with a strong self-critical voice so that we recognize the opportunity and responsibility we have to counter that voice and replace it with something that communicates value and God forbid….love!

It’s probably worth noting that this is at work in multi-ethnic contexts frequently.  Everyone wants to retain ethnic minority leaders, yet how much initiative is taken organizationally to communicate to these leaders, “We see you!” “We value you!” “We want to benefit from your contribution!”  From my experience those moments are surprisingly rare – instead majority culture leadership seems to be content with just being polite.  I call it the passive and polite approach to leadership, which in reality is just another expression of a lack of responsiveness and a lack of truly acknowledging the presence of some people within the community as a whole.  If we’re a majority culture leader it’s worth reflecting from time to time about whether we are unintentionally or passively contributing to the invisibility of some very valuable people.

When I think about where I go wrong and many leadership cultures – it’s assuming that people are thinking truly and accurately about themselves both as you see them and even how God may see them.  I forget that others are just as vulnerable to the critical voice and deep feelings of aloneness.  I’m thankful for the people in my life that “see” me and help me live in a larger truth than just my own critical voices.

Responsiveness counters invisibility. Lack of responsiveness accelerates the experience of invisibility. I want to be a responsive person and a responsive leader.

How about you?


Succeeding From Shame

“We succeed out of our shame.”

-Mike Tyson

I’ve listened to a couple interviews with former heavyweight champion boxer Mike Tyson in the last month and I’ve been really fascinated by learning more about his story, his roots, and some of what has been his story of redemption (from a life well-being standpoint at least since it is clear he is still is searching).  But I’ve been surprised by how vulnerable and how much depth Tyson has brought to some of these interviews about life and meaning and relationships.

One of the compelling anecdotes from one of the interviews was regarding when he first was chosen or seen as someone with potential.  As I write that it amazes me how being seen is a dignity building experience that brings a personal sense of feeling chosen – of being special.  Mike Tyson, like many others, was on a dangerous path in a dangerous world that might have led to early death had it not for being seen – being chosen.

Who saw him?  An old boxing lifer who from my understanding had been blackballed from the boxing scene.  Furthermore, it was an old white guy – “Cus.”  Tyson described the power of having this man speak value into his life, yet also the difficult journey of receiving it when one’s sense of value or worth is so low.  He even said that he had never had any white man speak such value or say such nice things to him about him that he wondered if Cus was perverted or if there was something sketchy about it. Such is the reality when you are conditioned to believe people only want to use you or abuse you – and abuse was part of his background. But Tyson’s recollection went something like this, “This guy chose me. He saw potential.  I was getting whipped and bloodied and he said, ‘This is the guy.'” That’s a transformational moment.

Tyson’s story is a roller-coaster, a wild ride.  It’s about Mike facing his demons. It’s about failure. It’s about addiction. It’s about losing control. It’s about second chances. It’s about re-inventing himself.  But it’s also the story about an outcast white guy empowering a young, poor black young man to rise above his circumstances.  In the craziness of Mike Tyson’s post champion struggles, his origin story of how he began his journey as a boxer really is a moving one.  You can check out these interviews at grantland.com

Tyson has recently re-invented himself as a media darling, a pop-culture icon, and even broadway star with his One Man Show.  It’s an impressive second act for someone most thought might not make it that far.  There’s a thoughtfulness and creative side that I would not have imagined being a part of the DNA of this guy who felt more animal and fearsome creature that was the most feared person on the planet when I was growing up.  There’s no doubt his time in jail, his work in recovery from addiction, and own self-reflection has produced a maturity far beyond what people might believe.

As I see it, from his own words he seems to have become more himself. He shares in detail how at times he was lost in who he was, how at times he was who he thought he had to be, or that he was being someone in order to not be who he deep down believed he was.  He’s comfortable in his own skin through his journey and his presence is significantly different.

Mike Tyson may not interest you. I’m not a boxing fan and you might not be either. But he serves as a great example of how we all sometimes can be driven to succeed or perform by deep and hidden areas of shame.  Such ambition or drive is a ticking time bomb. Like it did with Tyson, it will catch up with us unless we face it.

Do you have any thoughts on Tyson?  What are your impressions of his recent success in media and pop-culture?


The Right Stuff

Who are the right people to build around?

What potential leaders have “the right stuff” and what informs your assessment of what makes for “right stuff” in the first place?

The world I serve in has had a nice strategic sounding phrase that has succinctly defined much of the leadership selection mindset as well as some of the general ministry philosophy in the history of our ministry.  That phrase is “Move with the movers.”

Move with the movers. Influence the influencers. Win the winners. Align the aligners. Lead the leaders…and you get the picture.

I don’t think such a commitment to the movers and influencers is a bad thing because everyone needs Jesus and it is important to be strategic about mobilizing people with capacity to shape culture.  But doing college ministry (or any other kind) where you primarily relate to a certain class of people with certain capacities can impact whether or not we see the broader formational consequences of putting so much emphasis on who we see as the movers and shakers. Strategic thinking is important and well…strategic, but what happens when one day we wake up and realize that we’ve built our entire philosophy of leadership or ministry around who we see as the beautiful people?

I’ve done college ministry at a church, I’ve served at an Ivy League level university, and I’ve worked in organizational leadership capacities in different ways.  I know what it’s like to want to build Sunday morning or a weekly meeting or a conference around people who will draw people in, who will impress, and essentially who are….”cool.”  Conventional wisdom is to get the coolest, most popular, and most impressive people to draw in others  “strategically” all the while subconsciously communicating in some way that this is the picture of who we think we are or who what we want to be like.

Athletes? Fraternity men? Sorority women? Wealthy? Charismatic? Funny? Tall? Well Dressed? Powerful?  All can represent “Above” and tap into people’s subconscious desires to elevate their own sense of worth and significance through association.   Is it wrong to “target” or focus on such people?  Not necessarily. But how often do we even think about it? Has it ever crossed our minds that “coolness” is a power and status endorsed label for what’s desirable and ideal?  It comes back to the question of how do we assess who has the “right stuff” to build around and platform as representative of who you’re called to be as a community and what you’re called to as a community.

I liked this tongue in cheek thought from Pastor Jonathan Martin in his recently published book Prototype:

“I wish Jesus had read Jim Collins’s Good to Great so He could have gotten the right people on the bus and then the right people in the right seats on the bus. At the very least, He should have run the Myers-Briggs profile on them to ensure that everyone had the right gift mix and He wasn’t accidentally putting an ESTJ together with an INFP and causing a personality conflict.”

I have a strategic orientation. It’s one of my strengthfinders themes so I can get with the right people on the bus philosophy.  I still think it holds.  It may be more of a question of what kind of bus we’re all on so we understand who the right people really are.  Though the bus analogy may get old, think about this.  If all the “right people on the bus” look a certain way, are impressive in the same ways, or are at a certain “status” or “above” then one of the realities will be that in no time at all there’s going to be a lot of people who look at the bus and realize that there’s either no room on that bus for them or worse, believe that they aren’t enough in who they are to be on the bus in the first place.  And maybe the “right people in the right seats” is more a reflection of what’s most comfortable for leaders and those with power than a true reflection of who should be sitting where (Luke 12:12-14).

So winning winners and moving with movers ends up reproducing winners and movers who in turn move with more movers and win more winners.  Sounds strategic right?  What’s the problem?

Most of us aren’t winners.  Not that most people are losers.  But most of us aren’t winners in the sense that we can’t be the package of charisma, ideal physical presence, looks, and whatever other status builders exist today.  Sometimes it’s social limitations, sometimes it’s marginalization based on gender, sometimes it’s marginalization based on ethnicity, sometimes it’s financial, and sometimes it’s character or life capacity – frankly few people can consistently claim they aren’t a mess in one way or another.

Jonathan Martin finishes his “Good to Great” thought saying,

Yet is seems as if everywhere Jesus went, the same people show up: those who had nowhere else to go and nothing better to do. In the Gospels, Jesus is called to be the light of the world. Apparently, whores and thieves and the sick and demon-possessed are the moths He attracts.”

Prototype, page 69

Why did these people flock to Jesus? The Scriptures are clear that there wasn’t “beauty or majesty to attract us to him.” (Isaiah 53:2)  The light of the world evoked this response from Simon Peter when asked if he would leave others after a hard teaching, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

They didn’t follow Jesus because he had “the right stuff” but because they saw the source of life, the power of God, and the fulfillment of Scripture clearly in Jesus and the community He was mobilizing and shaping.   When I think about the calling of the disciples I think of the great line from the movie Armaggedon when the trained and polished Astronaught played by William Fichtner sees Bruce Willis and his rag tag group of oil drillers and says condescendingly, “Talk about the wrong the stuff!”

I wonder how frequently we make “wrong stuff” assessments or the thoughts come across our minds.  I know I’ve been more than guilty over the course of my ministry years. My criteria, while strategic, has often primarily been about what it  takes to “grow” and I’ve been slow at points to realize that I’m skipping the questions about what it takes to “be” the type of place where people when asked if they would leave would say, “To whom shall we go?”

The thing about building things around “buzz” and entertainment or beautiful people or “coolness” is that it’s hard to sustain. Do our ministries reflect older celebrities or the many older women I see in this wonderful land of Orange County, California fighting what’s real and what’s authentic in favor of sustaining image and youth through botox and God knows what else in the effort of maintaining status as one of the “beautiful” people?  Some ministries and church services seem to be relying on “botox” metaphorically to keep drawing people and “growing” while failing to move deeper into what type of place and community reflects “the light of the world” and “the words of life.” That’s not a call towards just “right doctrine” though it helps to be theologically sound!  It’s a call to make sure that the words of Jesus and ministry of the Holy Spirit are concretely displayed in and through community.

It’s a “wrong stuff” judgment of condescension to believe that if you just focus on the cool and beautiful people then “everybody else” will just fall in line. It betrays the fundamental assumption, “Don’t you know that influence is all about power and status?” “Don’t you know that influence is earned through having superficial beauty and majesty to attract people to us?”

If you’ve read this and your thought at this point is, “Well then who am I supposed to have as my emcee at my weekly meeting or youth group?” or “Then how are we going to make our community the place to be?” then you haven’t connected with what I’m getting at.  Meetings need capable people to make them work and I’m a fan of gifted people serving out of their gifts and this is a way.  The question is about our assumptions about how we see power as a vehicle for achieving ministry results and the impact of that on who we reach and who we don’t reach with our message.  It affects who feels welcome and who feels unwelcome…or worse, invisible.  Power and status are only assets for the Kingdom through God’s sovereignty and when they are being used in “power-giving” types of ways. Yet we find a lot of ways to justify “strategic” ways to grow our ministries or even “brands” without taking hard and consistent inventory about what we are growing and who we are including or excluding in that process.

Visible and platformed individuals in community contexts can be quite charismatic, but Jesus himself and His mission calls us to at least think about how to ensure that Jesus’ accessibility and significance to the marginalized and powerless is platformed somehow even more so that people experience the light of the world…and also grow in their ability to recognize just what the “right stuff” for the Kingdom really is.

There’s times, because I work almost exclusively with college graduates and highly capable people – leaders, all the time, that when I find myself in other environments I end up with a wake up call that I’ve slowly developed an elitist paradigm of “the right stuff” because I’ve worked so often with “the best of the best” as it relates to skills and motivation. And even within that “class” there is often a more narrow class that is more closely associated with the “ideal.”   Those wake up calls are important for me to stay in reality of what it means to be part of a larger, global Church.  Kingdom leadership doesn’t get to be defined just by the best and the brightest. That’s what happens time and time again, yet the words and example of Jesus subvert that system every time.

In God’s economy He can make winners losers, and losers winners. So as I dream and envision the future, if there is to be a thriving future of any ministry and especially my own, I believe there will necessarily be greater focus on being people and movements that are both accessible to and powerful sources of life through Christ for those whom power and status has passed by in this world.

Frankly, we’ll have to become a movement that is known for that accessibility and the honoring of those that “coolness” labels the wrong stuff.  And maybe we’ll discover what the first century Christians discovered – that maybe the rejects of society, the low status and low “buzz” people can be the ones with “the right stuff” after all when transformed by and infused with the power and love of Christ.

So whether you’ve been viewed as “the wrong stuff” or “the right stuff” in your life (or both!), what are you reproducing in your own leadership and ministry?  Are you on a trajectory to only honor and include the beautiful people because it’s the fastest way to relevance and ‘growth?’ Are average men and women, or who you may see as “below average”, afterthoughts in your “strategy?”  How do you keep the vision and ethics of the Kingdom and the person of Jesus central to your community when the temptations are there to primarily build around “cool?”

It seems truly a counter cultural perspective that a sign that we are on the right track is perhaps reaching the point that we can celebrate as a community that fact that we “have no beauty or majesty to attract” others to us.  But is that too hard too stomach for us?  Maybe “dying to self” means dying to “cool” or “image” in ways we are too afraid to face.  Because at the end of the day, in our first world church context we seem to rely heavily on power and status for legitimacy – and maybe that’s why some ministries still fail to include others outside their “status” and thus fail to give proper and powerful witness to the One who sent them.

At the end of the day if we’re thinking we need to build around and focus on people with status and power for “growth” then maybe we have to face the hard truth that maybe we ourselves are not the right people to have Kingdom ministry built around.

Last to Know

It has occurred to me over time that very often the person in a given emotional system or community or organization with the most power is frequently and probably even consistently



By “last to know” I mean they are frequently the last to know just how bad things are…how difficult the experience for the average joe is in that context or system.  And while this train of thought applies to leaders in different contexts, it applies to all of life really – husbands, fathers, coaches and anyone else who has some measure of power or authority.

How many times have wives left their husbands and the husbands had no idea what was coming?  How many kids are acting out in pain and angst while their dad’s have no idea or don’t seem to grasp the significance of it?  How many bosses have employees quit because the environment has much to be desired, yet the boss never saw it coming? I think there’s a pattern – often people with the most power are the last to know about what it’s really like to live in that environment.

And you know what – being “the last to know” is totally something within our control to fix.  To quote the x-files –> “The Truth is Out There” so why do so many find themselves blindsided by it when it finally breaks through?  Maybe part of it is that they don’t recognize the ways that truth and reality can elude people in power.

Here’s some observations of why this is the case. Some of these reasons can function in isolation as the source of someone’s ignorance related to what’s happening under their watch, yet often there are more than one reason that is at work to affect someone’s perspective. I’ve recognized these in my own leadership at times too – so I share them out of self-reflection as well as general observation of others.

  •  Distance & Disconnects:  People with the most power are often physically or emotionally removed from the realities in which their power and authority shapes and influences.  Fathers and husbands are physically absent through work and long hours and the hours they are around they frequently don’t want to attend to the emotional climate.  Leaders are often not around – whether they are leading from a distance geographically or leading from an office somewhere which can be equally isolating.  So leaders can find that their power and authority still impact environments even when the reality of life in those environments isn’t anywhere on their minds or scope of awareness. That happens because of the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon. Yet – just because you’re out of sight doesn’t mean that your power and authority isn’t impacting people in unfortunate ways.  And it’s a bad thing when your awareness, which is increased through presence, doesn’t match the degree of power you have in a given context.
  • Other People’s Fears:  Another reality, equally true whether a leader is disconnected through distance or even connected and presence, is that people are afraid to speak the truth to people with power.  People with put up with a lot of junk and tolerate a lot before they start initiating hard and honest conversations with the person who may have some measure of power over them.  People often withhold their reality from their bosses because they don’t want to bite the hands that feed them. They don’t want to put their employment at risk. Maybe more obviously – they don’t want to make life harder on themselves by getting on a leader’s bad side. Sometimes it’s a worse alternative to stay in one’s role with a boss that resents or punishes you for speaking your mind than it would be to leave your job.  Similarly, many wives don’t speak up to their husbands out of a variety of fears and anxieties related to power and fear.  Kids often speak up inappropriately, but they often don’t speak up really honestly because of a fear of getting punished as well.Leaders don’t often hear the truth because most people are afraid to communicate hard truths to power because there are no shortage of possibilities of what could happen if that person doesn’t take it well.  So that leaves leaders in the dark unless they have mastered being able to foster trusting relationships with their teams or families if that be the situation. But make no mistake – people fear power and as a result, the person with the most power may be “the last to know.”
  • The Fear of the Powerful:  The last main factor in why powerful people are often the last to know is their own character and courage.  Sometimes people with power don’t WANT to know because of anxiety and insecurity about what it means for them as a leader to have to lead or face challenges. So denial and selective listening insure that they are the last to really know what the reality and ethos of the environment under them is.  They are the last to know because they don’t want to know because of leadership insecurity.  Sometimes leaders don’t know because they refuse to be wrong – they choose pride and stubbornness over the humility of facing reality.  They fear failure, they fear correction so they dig their heels in to maintain their own perspective and punish the people that are providing alternative narratives of reality – especially when those narratives are true and provide feedback.  Leaders who don’t want to know out of insecurity or that refuse to know out of pride end up making it very difficult for them to enter into the reality under them and thus – they remain the last to know.

And you know what – leaders in this category at certain extremes never do end up “knowing.”  They blame their spouse when they’ve driven them to acts of desperation.  They blame their kids for acting out the climate, pain, and issues of their own family environment. And these leaders may never take responsibility for the ways in which they have crushed other people – even unintentionally.  They make themselves the victims because the pain of facing ways in which they have victimized others is too great to face.  This is why leadership and power on any level requires character and courage – failure of nerve or immoral, unethical character will all insure that while great injustices or great pain may be taking place under your watch (or because of your watch), that you will be the last to know.

This is why servant leadership is not a cliche or something that can be assumed.  It takes great effort, intentionality, awareness, and relational investment to lead in and through the honest realities that everyone under your influence and power experience.  And it is rather easy, amazingly easy actually, to lead out of your own version of reality because 1) you’re too disconnected to know better, 2) people around you are too afraid to tell you differently, and 3) because it’s easy, because of your power, to lead in ways to protect yourself from truths that are painful, inconvenient, or threatening to you at the cost of the well-being of those under your watch.

So, if you’re the last to know – maybe it’s time to take a look at why that may be the case.   And I should clarify here – leaders with power often are the FIRST to know things like statistics and easy measurables that impact funding and image. Such measurables often blind leaders to the rest of the picture and leadership equation and raise issues in the third area listed above.

And if you find yourself not really knowing what’s happening around you or under your authority – then maybe these three areas of self-reflection may point you the right direction in increasing your access to truth….which is pretty much increasing your access to reality.

And as I’ve heard from my mom all my life……





So let’s lead like it and steward our power with a view towards living and leading in reality.  Here’s a few questions that you can ask that correspond to the above barriers to leading with a view of people’s realities:

  1. Am I present enough to see people’s realities and know what is going on? It doesn’t always mean physical presence, but am I relationally connected to all the key people enough to know what the environment is and where people are at?
  2. Am I approachable enough for people to speak truth and reality to me?  Am I making it easier and leveling the playing field and minimizing power enough for people to safely show me the truth of the situation and/or community and/or my role in it?
  3. Am I truly open to face reality and what are the ways I protect myself from facing reality?  Chances are that is being felt by people under and around you – family, marriage, or corporate contexts.


Servant Leading Through Absorbing Pain

Last week I attended a gathering of leaders from different ethnic minority ministries within my organization as well as a handful of other organizational leaders.  I presented briefly on one of the days one of my learnings as a white/majority culture leader working in multi-ethnic contexts.

The theme related to being a servant leader in situations where one is serving and empowering through absorbing ethnic minority anger and pain for the sake of building trust, safety, and consistency in those relationships.

This session is my twenty minute presentation as well as about 9-10 minutes of interaction over the topic which was valuable and instructive.  If you’re interested, feel free to have a listen here:

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I also captured some of these thoughts and the primary illustration of “paper towel” leadership in the following blog posts a few years ago:




Paternalism and When Helping Hurts

Not too long ago I finished When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert.  If you aren’t familiar – it’s an exploration of how various missions or relief efforts done by wealthy or more powerful countries can actually do more long term damage than good – particularly when there is significant material poverty involved.  The book shows the way various assumptions or common attitudes ultimately end up to be more self serving as opposed to truly making a difference for a community that may be in need.

I chose to read this book because it was recommended highly and because I was told it expounds on the dynamic of paternalism in a number of ways.  And instead of doing an overall review here, I wanted to highlight some of the categories of paternalism that they identify and illustrate through many case studies and accounts.  The book or something like it is needed reading for anyone who is involved in short-term missions especially  (primarily if those trips are focused on service in poorer locations domestically or internationally).

In a section the authors highlight as “The Poison of Paternalism” they boil it down to a simple truth – don’t do things for people that they can do for themselves. You likely are doing damage to them, yourself, or both if you do. But here’s ways you can possibly identify the poison of paternalism at work.  These are all clues that we need to take a step back and repent of our assumptions and seek a renewed perspective.

Resource Paternalism

When wealthy entities or organizations with large resources view the solutions as requiring merely the addition of new financial or material resources while the real solutions require helping a community steward their own resources.

Spiritual Paternalism

When missionaries aim to go “do” missions “to” people, assuming that they are the experts and failing to recognize that people in poverty often have great spiritual depth.  There’s much to listen to and learn from.

Knowledge Paternalism

When we think we have all the best ideas about how to do things.  We assume we know best.  It never occurs to us to ask people who are likely the best experts of their own communities what we can learn from them. Brief note – this is rampant everywhere in the missions and business world.

Labor Paternalism

Doing work that people could and should do for themselves. Doing work for people that they should be doing themselves robs them of ownership, participation, dignity, and other important things important to development and healthy community.

Managerial Paternalism

Basically when entities or organizations of power enter into a different context or community with less power and take over.  Integrated with some of the above elements, it’s when people of power just take over, control, and end up being in charge of various works or decisions or projects that affect another community as if they are the experts.

The book is primarily targeted towards international relief missions.  However, there’s substantial content also about affluent majority culture churches partnering with urban poorer churches.  So there’s helpful challenges about how to think about a variety of ministry partnering.

When I look at the above five types of paternalism, I’ve seen all of them in church contexts. I’ve seen all of them in my own organization. I’ve seen them in a variety of ministries.  And you know what – I’ve exhibited every one of the five at one point or another!  So this is an important book about how to partner with people and serve without hijacking dignity and doing damage long-term for the sake of short-term good feelings.

My last thought is that in the last chapter they highlight what maybe the most important ingredient to “healthy helping” that contributes to dignity. That ingredient is “repentance.” Paternalism continues in different forms because of blind spots as well as a failure to learn and especially to repent of the ways that our best of intentions are hurting others or doing damage.  We have to repent when we learn we are doing damage to people, otherwise a new future is not possible.  I thought that was an important point of the book because I don’t see many leaders who are faced with the feedback of paternalism respond with repentance. I think many choose to shoot the messenger instead.  But paternalism is something we have to aggressively look for as we seek to empower others because it probably is the number one reason why efforts may fail over the long haul.