The Power of Team: The Tuskegee Airmen

In 1944 the Walterboro Army Air Field became an advanced combat training base for fighter pilots. These fighters were primarily the African-American trainees graduating from the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. Over five hundred of the famous Tuskegee Airmen trained at at Walterboro between April 1944 and October 1945.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military pilots in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, many black Americans were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside the army, even though they were serving their nation. It did not stop their mission.

Their teamwork, professionalism and their pride in service gave them high honor and caused a monumental shift of both thought and practice. They had broken a barrier that was previously thought impossible to overcome. It was a tribute to the power of team, vision, and the sheer willingness to “put up with the junk” for a bigger purpose. I thank God for those men who served our country and made a huge difference in the future of the social climate of the United States of America.

As an organizational leader, I hope that you, like the Tuskegee Airmen, can capture a bigger vision of service. And furthermore that you are willing to train the team, “put up with the junk” and follow through on the mission before you. Too many leaders are trying to change organizational culture on their own. It doesn’t work. You need a team of unified, highly trained warriors to make the difference.

If you will put that team together, train them to fight, and empower them to lead… no barrier will be left unbroken.

Leadership Minute filmed at the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial

Bits and Pieces

Some say that church is still the most segregated place in the nation. I disagree. The diversity found in our church plants is inspiring. While on a recent trip to Florida I ate at a restaurant that made me think about how diversity, intentionally engaged, is a beautiful thing.

The Columbia Restaurant is the oldest restaurant in Florida and is still owned and operated by the Hernadez-Gonzmart family which started this amazing place in 1905. While Ybor city is most famous for the Cigar industry that thrived there in the late 1800’s, it is also famous for the origination of the famous Cuban Sandwich. The staple of the Columbia.

You see, the workers that made the cigars and the owners and operators of the cigar factories came from all over the World, and like every good factory, the workers needed a place to eat and the famous cuban sandwich was born by the collision of all these cultures: The Spanish brought the fine ham, the Sicilian’s brought the salami, the Cubans brought the mojo marinated roast pork, and the Germans and Jews brought the Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. They threw all those together on some fresh baked Tampa/Cuban bread and this amazing sandwich was born.

There is a great lesson to learn from this small bit of history. As church planters, if you can appeal to a multitude of cultures, expressions, and peoples in your geography, and put those together in an explosion of praise for the worship of Jesus, something incredible might come of it. Something that will withstand the test of time, and bring fame to His kingdom.

Here is the video I filmed on location at the Columbia Restaurant

The Ritz Carlton: A Deep Standard of Excellence

In the early 1900’s, the Ritz Carlton group had many hotels scattered throughout the United States; Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlantic City and Boca Raton. However, by 1940 only the property in Boston remained.

The reasons for the Boston Property’s survival are the same reasons it became the standard for all other Ritz Carlton properties that followed. It revolutionized hospitality in America by creating luxury in a hotel setting: It placed customer satisfaction as the highest order. Systems were aligned and Amenities purchased that afforded guests the highest level of satisfaction in their hotel experience. Once that service was perfected, other properties followed. Each holding to the standards that the Boston property had modeled.

From one leader to another, let me ask you… Is there a deep standard of excellence in your organization? Are your Guiding Principles centered around the customer or the organization and her employees? Is your commitment to excellence genuine or is it a general rule?

You do not become the best you can be organizationally without high standards for excellence. Furthermore, those standards must be non-negotiable. The Ritz Carlton has an impeccable reputation and it is because it’s standard for excellence does not waver.

Consider this one profound question?

What is said of your organization after one first encounters it?

Answering that question accurately can bring transformation to your organization.

Leadership Minute filmed at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta

Shallow

Tampa Bay is the Largest Bay in the state of Florida and one of the largest in the United states of America. It is huge when you look at the numbers… 2,200 square miles of hustle and bustle. It’s Huge. It’s impressive… It seems healthy… You see people and ships coming and going… It’s Busy. To the casual observer it would seem that this bay is the epitome of what a bay should be. However…

The dark secret about Tampa Bay is that the Bay is very shallow. It averages only 12’ deep which hinders deeper, heavier content from entering its Harbors.

Now think about that as a church planter. How many of your peers are shooting for big, busy and beautiful and because of that are shallow and unhealthy?

Have you pondered the question: What’s better, shallow and explosive or deep and healthy? As you aim for “heavier content” and health as a church planter, ask Father to honor that commitment to go deep. He will bless you for that conviction and your church plant may just become a port that the heavy laiden can enter and lay those burdens down.

Here is a video I filmed on location in Tampa Bay

Peoplemover

Growing up in Southern California, I have very fond memories of the many summers spent at Disneyland. One of the old school rides, that is still there today, is called the Peoplemover. Its job was to move people on a slow paced journey around the second-floor observation areas of all the rides in Tomorrowland.

These memories remind me that at the end of the day, leaders have much the same responsibility as the Peoplemover at Disneyland. In fact, leaders are peoplemovers and our future is Tomorrowland. We have the responsibility to bring people to higher levels of personal skill-set and introduce them to the future of what they can be, and how their role fits into the big picture of what the organization can be with them as a vital part of the whole.

So let’s make this practical…
There are many ways that a leader must move their people to proficiency, but I want to discuss four of them with you here.

The First: Moving your direct reports from Low Awareness to High Awareness. What is the big picture for your organization? How do they fit into the big picture? How aware are they of the importance of their role. As the leader, you need far more than mindless drones in your organizations and if that is how they are currently operating you’ve no one to blame but yourself.

The Second: Moving your people from Rigidity to Flexibility. As the most valuable assets in your organization, your people need to be flexible. Mid-level managers or direct reports that are inflexible serve as a hard stop for the forward momentum of your organization. Building flexibility allows quick change and retargeting during shifts that would otherwise cripple your momentum.

The Third: You need to move your people from Adequacy to Expertise. Inside many of your best people is a creative monster itching to break free but you allow them to continue in the status quo without challenging them to think or act differently. What new seasons of growth are you missing because the environment that you have created is not conducive to ongoing learning and growth?

And Finally: You need to move your people from Isolation to the Dynamics of Team and the feeling of worth found in an organizational family. Forcing, or even allowing, your people to work isolated from the team is detrimental. Iron sharpens Iron and ideas incubate as organizational relationships are built. Not to mention the attitudes, health, and longevity of your people will be greatly increased. And that, is always a benefit to the organization.

Be a peoplemover.

Oh, and next time you are at Disneyland, make sure you ride the ride, it’s not a roller coaster, but it is a unique way to see Tomorrowland.

Here’s a quick video I shot in the Concierge Lounge at the Renaissance Hotel in Long Beach California.

Perspective Makes the Difference

Success is as much about hard work as it is about perspective. Hard work without a bigger perspective or vision can be wasteful. It can also defeat your people. As a Church Planter you need to remember that your words are viewed very heavily by those who follow your leadership. They are watching you as an example of how to live their own lives. Furthermore, how you represent yourself and your reality can either propel or dismantle your future success as a church planter.

I recently attended—one week apart—two different church plants in which the church planters had two very different perspectives. One had a church plant that was moderately growing and doing well, the other was on the brink of failure. But before I convey my experience, let me share an apocryphal story with you.

Sometime during the last century, two salesmen were sent by a British shoe manufacturer to Africa to investigate and report back on market potential. The first salesman reported back, “There is no potential here – nobody wears shoes.” The second salesman reported back, “There is massive potential here – nobody wears shoes.”

What a difference perspective makes. Now, back to our two church planters.

The successful one took the stage to do announcements and was super excited. He actually pointed out the empty chairs in the room and challenged his people to make sure those were filled in the coming weeks. He spoke of his adventure in church planting as a roller coaster ride for Jesus and his energy was apparent.

The second church planter (I actually visited him the previous week) came to the stage early in the service and made a comment about several families that were not there because of vacation, and talked about how hard church planting was. He was obviously speaking through a sense of disappointment. I don’t want to overstate, but I could almost—literally—see a cloud over his head.

Let me ask you – who would you follow? No one wants to follow a defeated leader with a pessimistic perspective.

As a church planter let me recommend that even on the worst of days you take the stage with the excitement of a man purchased by the blood of an omnipotent Savior and let your people experience that passion through you. Let them see a man who assaults the difficulties of church planting with an energy that is relentless and contagious. Let them find inspiration in the way you handle yourself in their presence.

Here is a quick video that I put together for this blog. Please share it if you like it.

Steps

It was 1989 and the Berlin Wall had just fallen. To the envy of every good and young adventurer, I was privileged to be sitting upon it when it did. Armed with a sledgehammer and spray paint (more about that later) we carved out a memory that would last a lifetime. The end of the soviet era came crumbling down and I was honored to have played a role in it, one hammer throw after another. I still treasure the barbed wire and slabs of the wall that I was able to transport home in my carry-on luggage, a pre-9/11 luxury that we will never see again. Many were the lessons of that night, but there was one in particular; getting robbed at knifepoint. In the midst of the excitement and speed of the soviet fall, entrepreneurialism fell upon the region just as hard and fast. Allow me to explain.

From the time that the wall began to teeter until the moment the first slab hit the ground in a swirl of soviet dust, vendors sprung up selling souvenirs, pieces of concrete, key chains and of course hammers. It was as if they were just below the surface of the earth and with the thud of the first slab of concrete, they sprung forth in mid-sentence selling their wares. It was a rented sledgehammer that plays center stage in my story. You see, my friend Greg and I rented a pair of them to leave our mark on history. At the first sign of crumble, the entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism drove dozens of future ex-soviet tycoons to purchase sledgehammers and rent them out so that every tourist in Europe could stake claim to a portion of the previously infamous barrier to freedom. Genius!

Fast forward.

By the end of the evening, pockets full of concrete and barbed wire, we began walking to the place where we were going to return our sledgehammers. That’s when it happened! An obviously late-to-the-party and disgruntled would-be entrepreneur accosted me with a knife. It wasn’t much of a knife, but it was a knife with an attitude behind it. I’m guessing he went to the local hardware store to fulfill his entrepreneurial dreams and found that they had sold out of sledgehammers, so he decided to steal a few so that he too could open his “tools of destruction” franchise.

This was one of those moments where a rush of things happen in a microsecond and life gets crystal clear. I know that what follows is going to seem like too much information to process in a second, but they are the crystal clear thoughts that rushed through my mind which allowed me to make some good decisions. You see, my assailant was about 5′-5″ tops and I am 6′-4″. He had a little knife at the end of a short arm. I had a sledgehammer at the end of mine. He had a nervous, desperate demeanor and I had a clear path to his destruction. You see, when it comes to fight-or-flight, the younger—less sanctified—me didn’t do the flight thing very well. With the length of my arms and the added 18″ of the sledgehammer, my new friend was going to fall as quickly as the Berlin Wall. He was in the danger zone, not me! He would need to take two of three full steps before I would have been in any danger, plenty of time for me to end his run. That’s when…

Spray paint.

I told you I would pick up on this later… Great timing, right?! Anyway, prior to our bludgeoning the wall with our sledgehammers, Greg and I purchased several cans of spray paint. In our thinking, the wall was coming down, there was media coverage everywhere, so we stayed ahead of the falling slabs of concrete with holy graffiti proclaiming the Word of God. We were creating Berlin Wall sized gospel tracts that the world would see on CNN. It was fun. Now, I don’t recommend graffiti generally, but hey, each slab was coming down in minutes… whom would it hurt? It was an opportunity for the world to see some powerful scriptures being painted by crazy Americans in a frenzied Germany. Sometimes life just moves quickly…

Clarity.

Returning to our would-be musketeer with his little sword. He is now twitching… Really! Ready to attack. In that moment, after all the thoughts about his size and mine, arm length, weapons, angle of attack, strike position, and aftermath, I though about the last scripture I had painted on the wall, John 3:16. Yes it’s true. I wondered who may have seen me paint that scripture and might also see me turn my new friend into a tent peg. I thought about the new me that Father had created only five years earlier and I let the sledgehammer go limp in my hand, handing it to this thief. That was tough! But I learned something valuable, that the war of the flesh can teach us important life lessons.

I have learned much from that experience so many years ago. I continue to ruminate over it regularly. Mostly, I am glad I did the right thing so that I pleased Father. Secondly, I am glad because I might still be rotting in a ex-Russian now German prison (smile/wink).

Allow me to share my latest thoughts about that amazing moment. Sometimes the best action in leadership is to take the stance of knowing the current reality intimately and acting on what is best to do in the greater picture even though your gut tells you differently. From our thief’s perspective, the right thing to do was to take two or three very clear steps toward his goal. From my perspective, it meant evaluating the situation and acting on what was best for all parties. It’s an easy thing in leadership to walk without strategy—taking steps—hoping it will all work out… At least you’ll be shown to be busy. That approach would have cost our thief some serious pain. It’s a harder thing in leadership to shelve your impulses and review all relevant data, applying it to your immediate context, and then acting strategically. It is a less visceral response, and it is ultimately and usually the correct one. The first is birthed of urgency and the other of importance. To him, his attack was urgent, my response, important.

As I process this line of thinking more, I am reminded how we are culturally inundated with immediate gratification solutions to every conceivable situation. I believe we are deeply harmed by this as a society. Nothing good comes quick, easy and without thought. Doing the right thing is hard, not easy. It is slow, not fast.

As an individual in a culture of progress, commercialism and immediate gratification it is increasingly easy to fall into a plug-and-play mentality as it pertains to everyday life. However, as leaders, we must be on guard with advisors who appeal to such approaches in our pursuit of transformational change. Lasting, impactful change cannot be achieved so easily. Think about the quickstep books that have invaded our leadership development and church planting culture. Transformational change demands a familiarity with one’s personal current reality and no book can provide that context. Each of us possesses books in our library that have titles like:

Twelve Dynamic Steps to Success
The Eight Practices for Transformation
Ten Principals for Renewal

Am I saying that such books have no value whatsoever? No. Only that our dependence upon them, or the expectation we place upon their methodologies have to be weighed. In them, you will not find your Aha. The Aha comes with a deep understanding of your immediate context. Steps without clear objectives can be hazardous. Think about the two steps that my 5′-5″ musketeer was going to take. Two steps to tragedy. I’ve done the research. Here are some other steps that may help drive the point home.

Eleven steps to the end of the plank on a pirate ship.
One step out of bounds at the half-yard line.
135 steps for a dead man walking at sing-sing prison.

Think about this; steps without strategy are dangerous. As a leader appointed by Father, you have an obligation to think strategically, to define and engage your current situation, to get the facts, counsel, and numbers. Measure everything. Rely on His voice. React to the important before the urgent, and show yourself approved.

Tension: The Need for Healthy Communication

As an Organizational Leader you cannot underestimate the power of ongoing, informative communication. Once positions are taken, assumptions are made, and tensions solidified, the results can be disastrous. I was reminded of the importance of ready communication on a recent trip to Waco Texas and a visit to the location of the FBI’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound.

If you study the history of the Branch Davidian Siege, individuals on both sides of the conflict desperately tried to facilitate communication because they recognized the tragic path that both parties were on. Their words fell on deaf ears.

Why?

Because conclusions had been drawn, plans of action had been made and the tensions were so high that no amount of talking could deescalate the situation. It had past that critical moment where the tragedy was destined to play out and no individual, no matter how skilled, had the power to stop it.

The Result: 82 Souls perished. 76 Branch Davidians were killed, of whom, 34 were women and 23 were Children along with several Federal agents. The massacre was a true blight on American history and case study on Liberty and Federal overreach. Furthermore, it’s a lesson in the importance of communication that cannot be ignored.

For the leader, reflection on this event is very important. Fostering an environment of open and transparent communication is paramount to organizational success. It is inevitable, that within your organization, issues will arise that if swept under the rug will fester until the point they become irreconcilable, and your organization will pay the price.

Begin with your leadership team, make sure they know they can tell you anything and that you will listen. Furthermore, that whether you agree with them or not you will hear, consider, and respect their opinion. Then, as you model that quality, encourage and train them to be the communication facilitators for the remainder of your people.

The “stand offs” that you avert will keep you healthy, thriving, and moving forward to become the best organization that you can be.

Remember: Communicate, communicate, communicate…

Here is a Leadership Minute video that I filmed at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas.

Four Horrible Leadership Decisions

Sometimes leaders are their own worst enemy. These four common decisions undermine any leader and should be avoided at all costs.

Horrible Decision Number One
Making decisions quicker than they need to be made just to clear the slate. Think for a day or two on the important decisions. Making a decision without a creative pause can be detrimental. There are things you cannot possibly see within the tyranny of the urgent.

Horrible Decision Number Two
Avoiding the big long term decisions. Long term decisions need to be made, the smaller decisions will align themselves with the big picture. Without the big picture, the small decisions can take you off the path. Treat small “off path” decisions as new potentials to be explored later, but stay focused on the big path. On the big picture.

Horrible Decision Number Three
Seeding the conversation where creativity is needed. To utilize the creativity of the team, let the team dynamic take you into unexpected territory. If you seed the conversation with your ideas, you will limit the dialog and kill the creative spark that a group dynamic brings. This is a common mistake that I see leaders make all the time.

Horrible Decision Number Four
Criticizing a team member among their peers, individually or in a group. You are the leader, your job is to make the most of the talent in the room. If you undercut an employee you will stifle every other employee that might otherwise do something bold of different. There is no better way to assure the status quo than to stifle creative thought through criticism.

I filmed this earlier in the year while staying in Long Beach. Here’s the video.

Learning from Failure

If you are a leader, failure is in your future. Don’t worry about it, embrace it. Trust me, you will look back at your failures and remember fondly how you navigated your way out of them, what you learned from them, and how you grew because of them. Failure has a funny way of shaping you into a remarkable leader.

Whether apocryphal or not I want to share a story with you. It is a difficult story, but it’s one you need to hear. It is the story of a father and son who—for the son’s 16th birthday—decided to experience a right-of-passage type adventure to mark the boys transition to manhood. This special time took them on a difficult hike in the high eastern Sierra’s of California. 

At one point on the hike, the son slipped from the narrow pass onto a large, steep slope of shale. As the son was trying to regain his balance he began to run faster and faster trying not to fall. To his horror, his father could see that at the end of the shale slop was a cliff and the father began to yell at the top of his voice “FALL DOWN!” In his desperation, he was waving his hands in the air, “SPREAD YOU ARMS, SPREAD YOUR LEGS, FALL FALL!!!” 

In his fear of falling, and being incapable of seeing the cliff, as his father looked helplessly the son plummeted to his death.

Tragic.

As a leader, there will be times when you need to spread your arms and legs and hit the ground in failure. In those moments, DO IT QUICKLY. You may actually survive the fall. In other words, you are going to fail. Every good leader does. So, when you do fail, FAIL FAST.

Once you hit the shale, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, review, reflect, and learn from your fall. Then head back on the trail applying what you’ve learned. In the end, you’ll look back at what you survived and you will smile. With some reflection and some time you will be happy that you fell, and best of all, you will be a better leader for it.

Leader Video

Church Planting Video