Leveraging Your Leadership Story

Most leaders are so overwhelmed by the present and consumed with the future that they fail to leverage the learning of the past.  In his work on the subject of authentic leadership Bill George from Harvard interviewed hundreds of leaders. They ranged from their 20’s through their 80’s and had held leadership roles in for-profit and non-profit organizations.

George tracked their successes and failures by capturing and mining their stories. The results are captured in True North, one of the tools I use when coaching strategic leaders. Bill begins with the same process that I begin with – digging into a leaders leadership journey. Using some of Bill’s guidelines and adding a few components from my experience with leaders, the process looks like this.

  1. Identify defining moments in your life, one in each of these eras: early childhood, high school years, college years and work life.  Write at least a half page describing the defining moment, why it impacted your life, and how it affects your leadership today.
  2. Look for themes in the stories. How do you react to failure or success? What issues from the past have you ignored or failed to process? What was the key learning from each experience?
  3. How has your current leadership role and style been affected by your story, and how does your story impact the way you lead and make decisions today?

Though this is only part of the process, you can already see how helpful it can be in moving ahead as a leader. For example, here is what 2 leaders have said

“Mining my story helped me discover a pattern – conflict avoidance under stress. It started in high school and has been evident in two leadership roles. I tend to withdraw and hesitate when making key decisions as a result.”

“Overseeing staff has been a strength and a weakness in my leadership. I soon realized the strength was my ability to create a sense of team and community among these key leaders. But the weakness I discovered was an inability to share authority and power. I lost some key people along the way.”

So what can you mine from your story? Who is giving you feedback and helping you process your leadership experiences? What is the best next step for your growth?

Leadership Essentials and Their Implications

5 Leadership Essentials and Their Implications for the Church


One of my students created this summary of the widely admired and broadly used (over 1 million copies in 20 years) book “The Leadership Challenge” by Kouzes and Posner.

The Leadership Challenge


I have included some comments about how these might apply in the world of the 21st century church among younger leaders. I would love your thoughts as well.

Model the Way

Leaders establish principles concerning the way constituents, peers, colleagues, and customers should be treated, and the way goals should be pursued. They create standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow. They set interim goals so that people can achieve small wins as they work toward larger objectives. They unravel bureaucracy when it impedes action.

Implications:– Walk the talk; those of us who teach about leadership must first act, then teach. Younger leaders hear leadership talks and are skeptical, because they talk to their employees who almost laugh at the hypocrisy…except it is too sad to laugh. Emerging leaders do the research – they know. A great “talk” is not good enough. Like Ezra modeled…Study, Practice and then Teach (Ez. 7:10)

Inspire a Shared Vision

Leaders passionately believe that they can make a difference. They envision the future, creating an ideal and unique image of what the organization can become. Leaders enlist others in their dreams. They breathe life into their visions and get people to see exciting possibilities for the future.

Implications: “Shared” is the key word here. Not imposed. Pastors and other church leaders often assume their vision is THE vision. After all, we are the spiritual leader. The “I have the vision; you need to follow me” days are over for rising church leaders. I just spoke to one at a major giga-church in the US. They can’t wait for the older guy to step aside so a true team vision can emerge.

Challenge the Process

Leaders search for opportunities to innovate and challenge existing sacred cows. In doing so, they experiment and take risks. And because leaders know that risk taking involves mistakes and failures, they accept the inevitable disappointments as learning opportunities.

Implications: This is a no-brainer for many young leaders. While some young leaders are stuck in theologies that allow little creativity of thought (everything was decided in the 1600’s or 1800’s or…), the more they read, the more they realize they must challenge the status quo. While some new organizations and coalitions seek to drive people backward, these young leaders are creating their own movements and associations – and they are broader, more inclusive and more biblical.

Enable Others to Act

Leaders foster collaboration and build spirited teams. Leaders understand that mutual respect is what sustains extraordinary efforts; they strive to create an atmosphere of trust and human dignity. They strengthen others, making each person feel capable and powerful.

Implications: Liz Wiseman does a great job distinguishing diminishers from multipliers. Here is a short summary of her work. I think younger leaders really get this. Would love to see the over 45 crowd get this as well, but a hierarchical leadership model versus a shared leadership model gets in the way (should be “elders” plural, 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1:5 – a circle of leaders). This is where a lot my research is focused these days.

Encourage the Heart

Accomplishing extraordinary things in organizations is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognize contributions that individuals make. In every winning team, the members need to share in the rewards of their efforts, so leaders celebrate accomplishments. They make people feel like heroes.

Implications: YES! The people who really “do the work of the ministry” as in Ephesians 4, the “volunteers” are our heroes. Just met with two of my heroes Sunday – a couple 91 and 89, who are in a care facility. What are they doing? The same thing they did at Willow – serving people by guiding small groups, leading communion, and organizing worship for about 20 people! Love it!

What are your thoughts? Can these 5 areas of leadership practiced better by a rising generation than mine has done?





Thank You Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

My family stood in his jail cell on Robben Island. We witnessed first-hand the devastation of Apartheid. We saw what racism, oppression, greed, and anger can do to a nation. In post-Apartheid South Africa we saw the church rise up to join and often lead the restoration movement toward reconciliation among black, colored and white.

Thank you Nelson Mandela, for forgiving those who recklessly and intentionally destroyed your country. Thank you for being creative and winsome and shrewd in the face of those who had been abusive, evil and offensive.


I made four trips to South Africa, teaching, serving, learning, listening, praying and crying. It was heartbreaking and hope-building at the same time. In South Africa can sometimes smell the poverty before you ever see it. It is raw and toxic and visceral. Admittedly I had but a brief look through a tiny window into the suffering of a people we have abused, neglected and exploited for centuries.

I felt ashamed. To feel anything less is an injustice. Repentance is the only response.

Sadly, I knew I had played a role in their demise. Every American did – by our ignorance or by our compliance. We stood by and watched corporations get richer as a people got poorer and sicker and lonelier on the world stage. Meanwhile, we took their wealth, their land and their heritage.

But thank God we could not take their faith, their dignity and their hope.

Nelson Mandela was an iconic symbol of these treasures. Of course he was a complex man, sometimes despised…sometimes revered. Yes, his work as a young, angry man was often brutal and dangerous. No one – including Mandela himself –blindly condoned this. He wanted to hurt those who hurt them.

But can we understand why? Are we so self-righteous we cannot imagine ourselves making similar error? Let’s be clear; most of us have never had our homes bulldozed into oblivion, our livelihoods take from us, our land corrupted and our leaders imprisoned. Angry young men do foolish things when they cry for freedom and justice in a world that cannot and will not hear. Like a rebellious teenager his actions cried, “Help! Look! Listen!”

Yes, Nelson Mandela’s early means were wrong. People like King and Ghandi chose different paths. And eventually so did Mandela.

But I must remember how hard it was. I have never begged for my freedom. I have never watched my friends and their sons beaten to death by a racist mob. I do not have to see my daughter raped by the very police who are supposed to protect her innocence. I was not sentenced to work a patch of limestone for decades that would virtually blind my eyes and break my back. But South Africans – like WW2 Jews in Germany and “dissidents” in North Korea today –endured this kind of suffering.

And many of us just watched. I know I did.

In 1976 I was a freshman at Princeton University. There were almost daily protests against Apartheid. I mocked them. These mostly long-haired hippie types were shouting and demanding for corporations to divest from SA to create economic pressure to topple Apartheid. I thought to myself, “Go to class…do something productive…get a job you losers!”

I was an ignorant fool.  I had no idea what Apartheid was, how it crippled a culture and raped a nation.

Thank you Nelson Mandela, for becoming a changed man. Thank you for not letting your anger and suffering become a weapon to inflict injury upon your oppressors.  Thank you for “leading from the back” as described in the book “Mandel’s Way.”

Nelson Mandela



And thank you for forgiving me. It reminds me of another great leader. The greatest leader, who had an even longer walk to freedom.  He came to earth, lived for justice and truth, but was abused, misjudged, beaten, imprisoned and killed by the oppressive elites of His day. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps Mandela gave us a contemporary example of this kind of forgiveness. I need that forgiveness. Because like I naively mocked those justice-seeking protestors, I took part in the mocking and death of righteous Jesus.

So today I say, “Thank You, Jesus—for forgiving us, saving us, loving us and now walking with us.”

Where are the Mandelas of today? You generally won’t find them ranting on FOX or MSNBC. There are few in congress or business or education. Thankfully, there are more rising up in the church. Men and women – great leaders, many of them quiet yet powerful – who care about the really big questions. But they are still a minority.

We need more people who are not caught up in so many petty debates discussed today by weak people with small minds. I know, because I can easily become one of them. Why? Because sometimes, instead of being a courageous leader I am a contented follower. No, not a follower of the radical, freedom-fighting, passionate Jesus. Rather, a follower of those who believe the fight is about our “brand” or a “model” or a “tribe” or a “theological viewpoint” or a “Bible version” or a “political system” or a hundred other distractions.

How lame and trivial. I hate when I get caught up in all that banter.

Mandela reminds me – reminds us – that there are longer walks and bigger issues and greater causes. I want to be more like him. Of course, ultimately, I want to be more like Jesus of Nazareth. A man of humility, justice, self-sacrifice, truth, beauty, forgive and, of course…LOVE. Mandela, a leader today we admire and celebrate today, was a world changer but only a shadow of what Jesus fully and perfectly embodied. And so are you and I. So we fix our eyes on Jesus as we become more of the leader, and follower, we long to become.

Can you help me be more like Jesus today? We need to remind one another of what is at stake, to call out the best in each other and set our sights on things above not on the things of the earth. In our ignorance or laziness we can never again allow another group of people to imprison and mock and oppress a rising generation of “Mandelas” who will courageously and humbly stand for freedom. For real freedom – Christ-centered freedom. Transforming freedom, inside and out.

It required a long walk for Nelson Mandela to get there, but he eventually got it right. I hope to get it right someday as well – hopefully sooner, but who knows. And I desperately need Jesus of Nazareth to walk the long road with me.

After all, He understands the long walk to freedom…all the way to the cross.

Leaders in the Middle

Look at leadership development and you see the focus of most conferences and materials is on leaders at the top, or leaders on the front line. This is great – I love to work with senior-level teams and leaders, and have spent decades training volunteer group and team leaders for churches and businesses.

But many groups – especially Non-profits – really need to develop the middle, and the opportunities are endless!

Small Group


So what about development for the MIDDLE? People have skills and experience beyond entry-level leadership and yet do not desire, are not ready for, or not gifted for – top-level posts. Where are the development strategies for these emerging leaders?



My “Leaders at Every Level” process is designed to I develop and support leaders at every level of your church, non-profit or small business.

Here is why it is so important to DEVELOP THE MIDDLE layer of your organization:

1)     This is the pool from which you will draw many of your inner circle leaders in the next 4-5 years

2)      An investment here has a huge trickle-down effect, as these leaders become better at passing along the DNA of your organization

3)      You can see whether these leaders can reproduce the investment you have made in them. Can they, and will they, shape the people below them the way you are investing in them?

4)     It is a testing ground for greater responsibility. You can takes risks here and let leaders fail without causing too much pain in them or the organization. Yet they have time to learn and recover from failure before advancement to higher levels.

5)     Turnover drops dramatically and is directly proportional to the investment you make in people. After a few years people wonder if they are stuck, so they either level off (and just hand on to a job) or move on to better opportunities for growth. If you want turnover, ignore the middle. Here is some great info from The Wharton School that validates this point in business…but I think it is even MORE essential for churches and Non-profits.


6)     When top leaders move on or die or retire, there is no “crisis” because you have a built-in secession plan!



So what is your strategy? Share your ideas for development in the middle and I will forward them along. This is a great challenge!

Oh No! There’s a Small Group Shutdown!

shut downCurrently, our government leaders are debating and haggling about what services to fund. It’s a political wrestling match as we are well aware. Someone said, “When are these losers going to get their act together?” Sadly, regardless of your political affiliation, the real “losers” are needy people. Meanwhile many who are not dependent on government assistance or investment can laugh and throw stones. But a slowdown or a shutdown is a real letdown for so many. A government shutdown is indeed a crisis.

But today I realize I have avoided an even greater crisis in my life.

A Small Group Shutdown!

That’s right. I cannot imagine the impact of such a thing if it ever happened.  As I look at the small groups I have been a part of over the years, shutdown would have been devastating for me and many others I know – at least from the human side of things.


Here’s what a Small Group Shutdown would have meant for me…

  • No connection with Jesus a leader, lover and friend
  • A disastrous marriage to someone who did not follow God
  • A misfire on God’s moving me into a new career
  • I would have never learned the real power of the gospel
  • I might not have many real, lifelong friends – deep, genuine and “for me”
  • An undiscovered teaching gift
  • Participation in a weak church that had drifted from the truth
  • I might never have attended graduate school for theology
  • I would have missed seeing real prayer and real healing
  • My own prayers and gifts would lay dormant or underutilized for years
  • Serving opportunities would have passed me by
  • International ministry and service would have likely evaded me
  • I would have missed the support I needed for my marriage
  • Raising kids would have been a disaster
  • My personal pain and suffering would have had much less support
  • My 2nd and 3rd career moves would have been made without wise counsel
  • Might not have had close friends in the group become believers
  • Would have missed tons of personal growth, love, and truth-telling I needed to hear


And I could go on for pages…A Small Group Shutdown would have led to a personal Breakdown.

It is sad that some critics believe that “small groups don’t work” and are not focused on making disciples.


I guess I was just lucky to be in the only group on the planet that is an exception. I am sure the rest are just hokey little gatherings of bubble Christians hiding from the world and ignoring their communities.

Sure, like parts of the government, some need to be shutdown.  But most, as far as I can see (and I have looked at these around the globe), are lifelines for people of all stripes and backgrounds. These little bands of spiritual transformation form the foundation for communal life and service.  Maybe that is why Jesus spent so much time with His.

So today my headline reads, “SMALL GROUP SHUTDOWN AVERTED!”


Happy People  Whew! Am I grateful!




Is your leadership making this mistake?


A Common Leadership Mistake You Must Avoid!!


I see it almost everywhere I work with leadership teams. Let me tell you what it is and what you should be doing differently. And I will cite two great HBR articles that are helpful. (For more about HBR go here http://hbr.org )

Before I name the mistake, let me describe how it pops up.

You want to move ahead so you brainstorm a bit, read the latest books, review all the models, attend a conference or watch some videos. Then draft the new strategy., delegate responsibilities,  and launch the new plan.

And in six months you are…

The Two Things Every Quality Organization Needs – and Why

Two areas drive my passion and practice. They “need” one another. And in my work with churches, businesses, educational institutions and start-up operations, these 2 THINGS really matter. At the end of this post you can see how I help leaders of quality organizations in these 2 areas.  See if you can spot them on this list below.


  • Clear Mission                        
  • Competent Leadership        
  • A Great Team
  • Essential Funding                 
  • Creative Workplace
  • A Visionary Person
  • Strong Community
  • Recognition for Work
  • Ownership by All
  • Enjoy My Work 


I chose Competent Leadership and Strong Community – and here is why.

After the Leadership Conference – Now What?

After the Leadership Conference ... Now What?

I develop leaders.

I speak at conferences.

I attend conferences.


This week, I attended the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. Lot’s of enthusiasm and inspiration, great talks and encouraging moments. I took my family and 5 of my honors students. We found the experience exciting and energizing. Like many others, that is why we go. It is an emotional thrill, and leaders need a leadership lift whenever we can get one.

Many of the speakers acknowledged this kind of event is a REMINDER event. We need to hear what we already know, and be inspired again to plug away, stay the course, and lead well. And often we gain a new insight or have an “aha!” moment. These are truly valuable.

But what happens after the thrill is gone? It is the age-old conference dilemma. In a few days the buzz is gone, the notebook goes on the shelf, the twitter frenzy dies down and people return to the same challenges, problems, lousy bosses, fundraising shortfalls and HR headaches.

Am I being pessimistic? Should we stop going to conferences? NO! Let me be clear. I love conferences! I love speaking at them and going to them! I love hanging with other leaders and getting to know their stories, successes and challenges. This is essential for every leader!

Ground Rules for Effective Groups and Teams

My friends Henry Cloud and I have worked together speaking, writing and training group leaders. To coach small groups – especially newer groups – we created Making Your Small Groups Work, a DVD groups watch a few minutes at each meeting to learn to be an effective community.

Cover of DVD Making Your Small Group Work Dr Bill Donahue DVD for Groups and Teams


Here’s a short sample if you want to take a peek.

Watch Video:


Setting ground rules is one of the things we encouraged groups to do, so that everyone is clear about how to create an environment for growth in a group context.


Here are 5 to think incorporate into your group process or team setting.


Care: Being for each other and coming alongside one another on any group or team is essential. We need more encouragement and less criticism; more urging onward than looking backward. To say “I care” means we not on have empathy with others, but we show that in a tangible way with words, ideas, support and compassion.

This may sound a little “soft” for some settings, like working groups or corporate teams. I get that. But it can still be communicated in appropriate ways. When a group really cares about one another they can begin to care for one another.


Safety: Creating a “Come as You are Culture” as friend John Burke likes to say, you make it safe for full participation and risk-taking. It means we can show up angry, tired, strong, weak, excited or cautious – and that is all ok. Sure, you need to monitor how you express those realities depending on the setting and the culture of the group or organization.

But the basic premise remains. You avoid having a “you’d –better-act-and-talk-and-look-like-this-before-we-accept-you” culture that ignores reality and demeans people.


Authenticity: Yes, authenticity is an overworked word… but it remains an underutilized practice. I believe this is because it is often misunderstood. Sometimes it is interpreted as putting all your cards on the table all the time, totally revealing everything about yourself.

Not healthy. We have reality TV to thank for that perspective. Unbridled and unwise communication and action is not authenticity – it is simply overexposure. And, like too much sun without sunblock, it does more damage than most relationships can tolerate.

Or, people fake authenticity with trite phases and clichés.  “I totally understand what you mean!”  “Wow thanks for putting yourself out there, Susan. It felt so real.”  Or what a women said in a group I was in “I hate my husband, he’s a creep!” That was certainly real…but was it wise to share in the second meeting of a small group just learning to become a community and trying to take basic risks?


Growth: We are told to “urge one another toward love and toward good deeds” and groups are a great place for that. We get so selfish, so cynical, so absorbed in personal realities that pushing one another toward growth is neglected. But if I am listening, I am eager to call the best out of you and watch you thrive.

Once a member asked me, “And how do you act with integrity and honor your boss even though now you realize he might never change his abrupt way of communicating?” He wanted me to understand I have a choice – my actions and reactions are under my control, regardless of what he says or does. I can be different. I can love. I can serve.


Help: Groups and teams flourish when members help one another in tangible ways. “Mike, I can get that report for you online and save you a few minutes of research time.” “Christine, let me take care of the kids for an hour while you get some quiet time – or just go shop!” Little helps make a big difference.


Let me know if I can ever help you or your teams get better at creating greater community and a vibrant group culture.


In the meantime, ask yourself:

Which of these 5 “habits” or Ground Rules can we make a reality in our group or team?

What will it take for us to make this a normal part of the culture?