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

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

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.

What is wrong with you?

Published in Star News, a publication for Law Enforcement personnel.

How many times have we asked that question of someone? How many times have we asked ourselves; “Why did I behave that way?” When we begin to look into the specifics of how we handle these questions in our personal relationships, something very interesting happens. Those two questions come from two very different perspectives and once you realize where they are coming from you are more able to understand and correct unhealthy perceptions about yourself and others. Allow me to explain. It starts with the difference between human behavior and human nature.

When we see less than admirable traits in ourselves, we tend to attribute those to external causes and explain behavior away because of the influence of that cause. For example, “I blew my top because that guy would not listen to what I was trying to say!” In other words, I behaved badly because of an external influence acting upon me… He caused my reaction.

Funny thing is…

We rarely explain other people’s behavior in that same way. Call it an excuse, a reason, a justification, call it what you will, but we fail to extend that same reasoning to another’s behavior when they act contrary to our expectations of them toward us. We sometimes fail to see the external causes and wrongly attribute the reaction to their very nature. We superimpose their action on what we perceive to be the way that person truly is. This is most unfair.

Put simply: When I am mean to another I am really a nice person who’s behavior is mean because of something they did to me, but when someone is mean to me it is because they are a mean person.” Get it? Our actions are simply bad behavior, but their actions stem from their bad nature. We do it all the time. We do it to our spouse, our co-workers, our superiors and we do it on the street. “It’s their nature.” They are not behaving in an evil way; they are evil. They are not behaving aggressively; they are animals. The shift is subtle but destructive. What we explain away in our own lives through grace given to self, we should learn to extend to others in grace given to them.

We have all come to learn that when you give respect on the street you get respect on the street. The same should apply to our view of people’s nature. Much of life is cause, effect, and reaction. I would hate for others to view me at my worst and attribute what they witness to who I really, deeply am as a person.

Of Thermostats and Boots

Place: South America.
Mental State: Exhausted.
Alarm Clock: About to be destroyed!

I slowly awoke before the sun to begin one of the most impactful days of my life. There I laid, pillow over my head trying to ignore the alarm that was crying out for me to start my journey. As I peeked out, my eyes began to adjust. In that moment—the focusing of my eyes in dim light—three things began to stimulate my senses; the roar of the Vilcanota river, the ever-so-faint outline of my boots next to the wall, and about three feet above them, the room’s thermostat. The combination of these two visuals caused me to begin not only an adventurous day, but a pensive one as well.

Leaving that hotel in Aquas Calientes Peru, my brother and I began our final two days in our push to hike to Macchu Pichu, famed for its secrecy and its breathtaking ruins. While the leadership lessons learned on these two days are abundant, and I have written about them extensively, I want to convey the impact of the visuals that burned their way into my consciousness that morning; the thermostat and my boots. You see, it occurred to me that those two everyday items represented my life in many ways. More specifically, they represented a paradigm shift in my leadership perspective. Here is my epiphany.

As the thermostat came into view, my mind wrestled with it. If you know me, you will know that I am plagued with trying to make everything more efficient, whether it’s a person, an organization, or a system. So there I sat, in those brief moments thinking; that thing needs to be reinvented. Then a lateral thought… Forget peanut butter and chocolate, those hiking boots had just T-boned my consciousness and I realized that those two items, slammed together, represented both the leader I had been as well as the leader that I was becoming. Let me explain.

Truly impactful leaders are like the boots; comfortable, yet rugged. More importantly they are the greatest factor in getting the climber where he needs to be. The task of the day, Macchu Pichu—in all its glory—would be impossible without those boots. They propel me to take risks, they provide traction when I slip, and they protect me from injury. Those boots represented empowerment and the ability to stretch myself beyond previous capabilities. I remembered purchasing them with the expectation of where they might take me.

…eyes slowly moving to the thermostat…

The thermostat is always working. Always on call. However, unlike the boots, the thermostat puts all of its energy into keeping things the same, into maintaining the system. It only adjusts when there is a shift, and it spends its time making sure that things return to how they were before. While the boots love new adventure, the thermostat loves the status quo. It’s entire existence serves to maintain the most pleasant setting.

Our church planters, they need to be the boot. The days of status quo are gone. They can not succumb to the tyranny of the urgent just to maintain the system. The system is changing and if their desire is to sit there and maintain what is and what was, then they need stay right there on the wall. We, the boots, we’re hittin’ the trail. See ya!

The Day I Jumped

In 2008 I was in Lima Peru with my brother Robert. We had met there to continue on to Cusco and eventually hike the famous ruins at Macchu Pichu. While in Lima, we made our way to the coastal suburb of Miraflores. We spent significant time seeing the sights and walking the famous cliff-side Larcomar shopping district that overlooks the historic La Rosa Náutica restaurant on the pier hundreds of feet below. Anyone familiar with the area knows that to the north is the beautiful Parque de Amor (Lover’s Park) and just beyond that lies one of the most spectacular views in all of Miraflores, the cliff-side park at Parapente. Standing there, in awe of the view, I had no idea that two years later I would find myself leaping from the two hundred foot high cliff on the southwestern edge of the park.

Like all cliff-side parks, this spot offers spectacular views of the ocean, the island in the distance, surfers that look like little bubbles on the water two hundred feet below, and the sky. Oh, the sky! The view of the sky here is amazing. There on the cliffs of Parapente you understand how small and how fragile you really are. In fact, the sky that you see from that place is unlike any sky you will ever see in your lifetime; It is riddled with paragliders. You see, the winds that rise from the two hundred foot cliffs can raise a paraglider to over one thousand feet without effort, making this one of the foremost paragliding spots on earth. It was amazing to watch the ease with which these daring men and women became a strange subclass of Aves. The wind would pick up these birds, and in what seemed a choreographed dance of wonder wove them, in and out, over and under one another in a ballet of spectacular color. It is a wonder to behold.

As leaders, we must remember that when we have the necessary skills to lead, from the outside our leadership can look choreographed and beautiful. Like the paraglider finding the balance in the wind, his own presence in the mix of others, and the sheer magnitude of the environment our leadership can be organized and beautiful. However, like the paraglider, if any one element fails, the ballet becomes a tragedy. Loss of wind, loss of any one other glider’s sense of presence and location, these things can change the makeup of the environment to be hostile or even deadly. Standing on that cliff, that beautiful ballet of color reminded me of how an astute leader has the ability to balance all the elements found in his or her organization and create a thing of beauty.

Fast-forward two years…

There I was, on that same cliff at Parapente, nervous yet excited as I waited for the wind to pick up so that I could paraglide for the first time. I had been here the day before, waiting. No wind, no ride. This was my last opportunity, I was leaving for home tomorrow. The wind, though the wait was excruciating, eventually cooperated.

I stood there after having paid my $35 and thought, “What on earth did I just do?” The apprehension grew a bit as they placed a helmet on my head and I told the pilot my weight. He gasped as he calculated the conversion to kilos in his head and I saw his countenance change… Not reassuring! I guess the wind was not strong enough for a 225lb., 6’-4” gringo. He hemmed, he hawed, he looked down at the $35 in his pocket and said, “Well, we can try!” … “Wait a minute… WHAT!” Clearly, he was not going to give back my $35 so that left only one option… Pray and GO!

So there I stood, fifty yards from the cliff with my pilot strapping me into a harness that is attached to the biggest kite one has ever seen. I remember looking at the cliff fifty yards in front of me, and thinking one solitary thought, “Like this helmet is going to help!” Then, he tapped me on the shoulder and yelled, “Run!” Hesitant, yet obedient, I ran toward the two hundred foot cliff hoping that the drag I was feeling was the fully inflated glider behind me. There was no way to know.

Gasp!

This was one of the few times in my life that a non-spiritual experience brought the diametrically opposed feelings of dread and tranquility and slammed them together in an instant. Running off that cliff, and the tightening of my harness signaled the beginning of forty-five minutes of elation, beauty, and indescribable wonderment. During that forty-five minute journey we ascended to over five hundred feet, smoothly traversed every manmade obstacle, mountain and valley within miles and above it all, the view was spectacular. There was not a hint of pre-Parapente fear. Once the final step was taken, the ride was bliss (the landing, however, was a bit less graceful).

Looking back at that experience I realize how many things could have gone wrong and I would not have known what to do. I was privileged to participate in a grand adventure that was only made possible by a highly skilled and trained pilot. As a leader, you must remember that at times your people will experience the fear of the unknown as they try to go with you on your journey. They must learn to trust your expertise and experience. As you sharpen your skill set and grow as a leader, you will instill trust in your abilities and provide excitement for the adventure. However, the trust of your people is paramount.

Had I not trusted my pilot that day I would have feared for the entire forty-five minutes of my flight. But because I trusted both his judgment and his skill set, I experienced a life changing, smooth flying adventure.

It is not appropriate, as leaders, to throw our people a helmet and strap them to our vision or action, without first earning their trust in our ability to lead. Should we attempt to do so, they will sit when we yell, “Run!”

Afterthought:

Was there risk even though the pilot was skilled and trained? Absolutely. That is the way of leadership and that was the reason for the helmet. Not every decision is going to play out the way you anticipate that it will. Some—by luck—will gain altitude, but many of them will plummet. This fact is the reason why it is so important to constantly refine your leadership qualities. Either train and train hard or get off of the cliff!

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