Running in Circles – A Leadership Reality Check

Running in Circles – A Leadership Reality Check

“What kind of organization are we?” asked a supervisor I had over 20 years ago. After sitting in silence for about 20 seconds a confused team member replied, “What do you mean?” I knew he was asking us to put on a business or organizational development hat for a moment. So to use organizational or business language I was thinking, “We are in the life-transformation business.” But something told me that was not what he was fishing for.

How would you answer such a question? Would your leaders expect an answer like, “We are in the people business,” or “We are in the event business” or “We manufacture custom auto parts,” or “We are a hospital – so naturally we are a health care organization or a service organization.”

“Let me tell you what I think,” he continued. “We are really three organizations in one. And we have to know where our emphasis is at any given time without compromising the other two.” And then he went on to draw three overlapping circles where we “run” and spend energy, and then explained the relationships.

Corporation: Every organization has a “corporate” component. It involves staffing issues, property, insurance, governance structure, board relationships, reports, compliance issues, tax concerns, facilities, and other “institutional” components. The Corporation is where the responsibility lies for effectiveness and efficiency.

Cause: Every organization has a reason for existing – to feed the poor, to manufacture office furniture, to build a library, etc. The Cause has the potential to inspire the passion and focus of the organization.

Community: Every organization has people or impacts people or thrives based on relationships with people. Inside the organization that means a healthy relational environment for staff.

Now here’s the challenge

Some people just think “cause” and some focus on “community” and others are “corporation” intensive. Each has its place, purpose and essential focus. But they NEVER function in isolation from one another – each must consider the other two areas of focus or an organization can falter or fail.

Many businesses tend to focus on Cause and Corporation. Get it done and get it right. People are important but we can always get new ones or better ones. After all, this is why we call it “work” – it is not supposed to be fun and chummy. We are here to get a job done.

Care-oriented non-profits are often heavy on Cause and Community. Passion for people and a strong sense of camaraderie drive the organization. Volunteers love to work in these environments, and people give money based on the relationship they have with the leaders and the cause for which they stand. But the neglect of the Corporation aspect can be their Achilles heel. Such places can be characterized by lack of strategic focus, poor money management, wasted resources, staff and volunteer burnout, and incompetent management.

Government agencies can struggle because they focus on Community and Corporation (in this case, the government structure, hierarchy, rules and regulations). As a result, the Cause suffers.

Name the tension and be wise

To live in 1 or 2 circles for too long is short-sighted. While it is essential to focus on a given circle for a season, you cannot live there. Ok, you need three months to reorganize the HR department so that people are valued and served – great! But you cannot lose your relationship with clients or the people you serve while doing so.

As leaders, we live in the center (L) where all three circles overlap. Our job is to determine when we need to move from that place into one or two of the arenas for seasons of emphasis or focus. But we must never lose sight of the whole. Be diligent to train staff and volunteers to know which circle(s) they “live in” most of the time, while making them keenly aware of the whole picture. Keeping all 3 in mind will prevent becoming too corporate, blindly mission-driven, or too self-centered.

So which circles are you running in these days?

Trust Matters

Trust is like an inner city office building; it takes 18 months to build but it can be demolished in 12 seconds. Trust-building is the key practice for success in any group or team, even when there is clarity of mission and the right players are in the room. The role of any leader is to build trust whenever and wherever possible. Here are some common trust busters and trust builders.

Trust Busters:

1. Abandonment: When people withdrawal on a group or team — perhaps in response to confrontation — truth withers. Or, if you begin to move out of or away from a relationship, and do not communicate the reasons why, the other party assumes the worst and trust is shattered. Never leave a volunteer group or team without telling them why you are leaving.

2. Deception: Facing the truth is essential in any community-building experience. Looking honestly at the truth about God, self, others, the world, the situation — whatever it is — is a prerequisite for building trust. To deny or withhold truth is deception, and a major trust buster. Team members tend to withhold truth when they believe their role is in jeopardy. Or, in an organization that does not value truth (where bad news is always worse for the truth-bearer than for the organization), people are afraid to name reality. Shooting the messenger is too common a practice, so, to survive, we avoid the truth.

3. Violation: This can be as serious and tragic as a rape, or as subtle as having no boundaries in a relationship. When people enter our “space” (literally or metaphorically) we feel violated. Someone stands too close, invites him/herself to meetings they do not belong in, enters email conversations where their point of view is not required, or acts like there is a friendship where there is only a working relationship. Soon your trust for that person — and maybe even the entire group — quickly wanes.

Trust Builders:

1. Risk taking: The woman at the well (John 4) is a good example. Both Jesus and the woman took risks beyond convention and comfort but without inappropriate engagement. Move toward others in relationship. Do not be afraid to state an alternative point of view. A humble comment like, “I may be wrong, but I wonder if we considered X instead of Y…” says you really care about the relationship or the team.

Challenging a group to move beyond pseudo-community may simply require one person — often the leader — to risk being vulnerable, caring, responsive, truthful, alert, aware or just present with others. When you step out — gracefully — into the chaos or the complacency of a team or group, you communicate that mutual engagement is essential for becoming a fully functioning unit.

2. Truth Telling: (Eph 4:30). Speaking the truth that we see or understand is a little risky, too. But it is a huge trust-builder with people who really want progress. (Those who do not will view you as the enemy — get out of there before they kick you out — do not waste your time with those who consistently reject the truth on a group or team).

How you deliver the truth matters. Like package delivery. You can do “late night delivery” to your spouse just as they are nodding off: “Hey, by the way, I really did not like what you said today..” That is always hard to respond to. Timing matters.

You can wait (“delayed receipt required”) — and usually we wait too long — to finally address an issue. By then there has been emotional damage, too much distance, lost trust, and probably fuzzy recall of the facts. Likely the window of time for a meaningful conversation has already shut. We wait hoping “it” will go away, but it has gotten worse.

Or we can really let it rip with an “Explosive: Handle w/Care” delivery. Like a surface to air missile we deliver the truth with so much anger and emotion we simply demolish the other person, and the relationship as well.

So…deliver truth with tact, skill, steady emotions, and humility. Relationships are always marked: “FRAGILE– HANDLE WITH CARE.”

3. Grace Giving: Jesus was described as full of grace and truth (John 1:14). My friends Henry Cloud and John Townsend have been teaching the GRACE + TRUTH + TIME equation for years for exactly this reason. Truth requires grace over time — especially when trust is at stake. Expect to work at this, not get quick results after one conversation. Groups and teams require time to allow grace and truth to be absorbed. Lot’s of give and take; lot’s of compromise and debate.

These three practices will help your group or team function optimally, and help you guide them well. They really will.

Trust me.




More Than a Meeting

Can your group or team pass the meeting test? Have you settled for having meetings instead of becoming a community? On a recent church consultation a staff member said, “I would not attend this church if I were not employed here.” OUCH! But then I thought, “Would I attend my own meeting if I were not leading it?” Where did we get this idea that having meetings is the same as becoming a community? I think I have some insights.

The small group movement of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s was largely spawned by ministries like the Navigators, Campus Crusade and Intervarsity. Soon local churches adopted the idea. It did not work in some churches because we had unwittingly ripped the life-giving circulatory system for spiritual growth (group life) from a healthy body (the University community, for example), and then transplanted it into a frail and ailing body (a local church structured around programs, not people). The transplant failed and church leaders said, “Groups don’t work here!” Like Erwin McManus has said, “The problem in many of our congregations is not that we have chosen a wrong strategy or have an irrelevant style but that we have an unhealthy culture.” I agree—it was a meeting culture.

When we focus on meetings we look through an event lens and focus on meeting structure, the length of time, topics to study, guidelines to obey, and develop a closed system (you never interrupt a meeting!) In a family or community, however, we are interested in much more. We look through the lens of relationship and focus on nurture not structure, depth more than length, covenants (commitments by members of a loving community to one another) instead of strict guidelines, and we desire an open system (welcome to the community!).

Let me be clear. Meetings should be well run and effective. I love my Friday gathering—it gives me life, connects me with God and others, and prods me toward spiritual growth. But I see these people throughout the week as well—dropping by for counsel at one person’s home, meeting another for breakfast, having a family for dinner, sharing car pool, working on a project, or helping a person in need.  We are becoming a loving family, a redemptive community for change in our own lives and in the lives of others we are privileges to encounter.

I continue to view gatherings as relational communities, not a series of meetings. We encourage each other to connect regularly and meaningfully outside formal meetings and avoiding distractions that keep us from becoming a community. We connect for fun, conversation, and service. And we find God is uniquely present.

After all, why settle for meetings when we can build a community.