Another excerpt from new Kenotic Leadership Book

Another excerpt from new Kenotic Leadership Book

Excerpts from my upcoming new book (Summer 2017), Kenotic Leadership and the Movement that Changed America (working title), that looks at the imitation of Christ in the life and leadership of Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist church in America.

(A condensed version of this subject is covered my chapter “The Leadership of Francis Asbury” in Leadership the Wesleyan Way [2016, Emeth Press].)


Some years ago, I came across across a wrinkled, black-and-white family photograph of a newly-built stone farmhouse on the Oklahoma prairie (I am writing this from Oklahoma’s Green Country in the northeast). Scrawled across the bottom in black ink were the words, “Part of my consecration 1953.” At the age of 36, the author, a successful farmer and married father of five, heard God’s call to ministry. He traded his large farm and newly constructed home for his brother’s smaller property, and then set about constructing a brand new building for the church he began pastoring. Across the next half-century, he worked as a bi-vocational pastor in small, rural churches across Oklahoma and Louisiana. The family would grow to 10 kids, eventually sensing the call to settle in the Ozark mountains of northwest Arkansas. There, he carved a homestead and a church out of the cedars and rocks of the Boston Mountains. A small, modest chapel for ministering to the local mountain community was constructed in the woods off a county road. I was coming of age as a young teenager at that time, and had the opportunity to help this pastor, my grandfather, clear the land and work on the building.

My grandfather sacrificed a great deal to be obedient to God’s call. The photo of his new house, built the year of his calling, represents a consecration far beyond merely a home. His ministry will never make the pages of denominational histories or be publicly celebrated for its tremendous numeric impact or methodological influence. There are no great monuments to his leadership; the fruit of his work will not be seen in the books he authored, seminars he conducted, masses to which he preached, or countries to which he traveled. He did not serve among the intellectual, suburban, wealthy, or sophisticated; rather, he embraced a life of selfless ministry to an ordinary, common, and out-of-the-way people. With the exception of those who knew him personally, few will ever be aware of the affects of his ministry. Yet, in my reading of the life of Francis Asbury, I cannot help but see echoes of his life in that of my grandfather. In my own life, he modeled for me the life of a leader who imitated Christ through sacrifice, servanthood, humility, incarnationality, and devoted obedience.

I wrote this book because I firmly believe these stories — of devout, faithful, and skilled men who are so seized by a hunger for God that they will abandon everything — just might have something to say to modern western culture obsessed with celebritites and celebrity leaders, fueled by desires of self-expression, self-fulfillment, and self-gratificaiton, and unanchored to any transcendent point of reference outside of themselves. Nor do I think one has to look to far to realize this is an affliction as much in the church as it is in the culture.

The 21st Century could use another Francis Asbury with the spiritual, moral, and intellectual courage to lead boldly out of theological convictions and a personal experience of divine transformation and, in so doing, catalyze a renewal of both culture and church. At the same time, though, there are countless numbers of leaders in church, in business, in families, in the marketplace, who are just like my grandfather. Going about their calling with diligent steadfastness, pursuing righteousness and holiness in love of God and neighbor, and seeking to let all they do be informed by that pursuit. But their names are largely unknown. They do not grace the  fronts of bestsellers, banner ads for mega-conferences, or magazine covers because of their great influence. Yet they lead, they shepherd, they model, they exemplify, they give, they pour out their lives and change their corner of the world daily. Upon such men and women rests the kingdom of God and the vitality of human culture. This is, in one sense, their story.

Excerpt from new Kenotic Leadership book

Excerpt from new Kenotic Leadership book

Excerpts from my upcoming new book (Summer 2017), Kenotic Leadership and the Movement that Changed America (working title), that looks at the imitation of Christ in the life and leadership of Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist church in America.

(A condensed version of this subject is covered my chapter “The Leadership of Francis Asbury” in Leadership the Wesleyan Way [2016, Emeth Press].)

Francis Asbury: “It is for holiness my spirit mourns. I want to walk constantly before God without reproof.”

The Christian life was a call to the complete yielding out of love to the call of God and a full, willing obedience to go where God led, no matter how hard the circumstance. This theological understanding was foundational to Asbury’s life. His motive for coming to America was “to live to God, and to bring others so to do.” Asbury believed that in carrying out the office of bishop the way he did, he was being faithful to the primitive vision of the apostolic office and to his own calling to serve in America. His sole object was the kingdom and church of God.

Asbury molded his life around a wholehearted pursuit of the sanctified life. This was his ultimate goal for himself, for his preachers, and for the Methodist movement. First and foremost, Asbury pursued a holy walk with God in his own life. His leadership rose out of his relationship with God. He sought to draw others in to what he had experienced.  The wholehearted embrace of holiness meant yielding his life totally to God.

Asbury’s theology shaped how he viewed the world, the Church, himself, and his followers. It gave rise to his attitudes, values, sense of purpose, and responses to others; governed his views of conflict, sacrifice, love, and ministry; and guided his decision-making, planning, and vision for the Methodist Episcopal Church. The theological paradigm of optimistic grace and free salvation for all, holiness, and sanctification forms the core of the mimetic value of obedience in Asbury’s leadership.

French Fries & Organizational Quality

French Fries & Organizational Quality

Okay, this post is really about excellence and quality in organizations, but the getting there is half the fun. Hang with me.

Our kids did great in school again this year, so my wife and I took them out to Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers last night to celebrate. With 5 kids ranging from a high school sophomore to a brand-new 5 month old, any public excursion is always an adventure. Dinner was no exception. Here’s what all went down:

  1. 20 minutes to get food ordered. (Who’s saving their ice-cream-substituted-for-medium-drink until after you eat?)
  2. Spilled root beer over the seat. No, it wasn’t the kids, this time. Aren’t we glad that didn’t go all over the baby’s head?
  3. Oops. Knocked over 2 tubs of ketchup getting the baby out of the way of the root beer. Uh-oh! In the chaos, the 8-year old just grabbed a handful of fries out of Dad’s basket. Now there’s ketchup all down her arm. Where’s the napkin? Get the baby’s hands out of the plate of food…
  4. Here comes the manager, smiling, pushing a mop bucket. “Hey, let me clean that up for you. I’ve got kids and that always happens to us.” (Did I mention it wasn’t actually the kids this time?)
  5. Whew. Let’s eat… Hey, stop feeding the baby fries!
  6. The manager and I converse about their onion rings. He says they’re really good. I say I’ve never had them but I like onion rings. I’ll have to try them next time.
  7. Manager returns with fry cook carrying a basket of onion rings.“Here, try the onion rings! On the house! He just cooked them and wanted to bring them out to you himself.”
    “Wow! That’s great! They look good. Thanks for doing that.”
  8. Ice cream time for the kids. Oops. Something got left off the receipt. Up to counter to talk to teenage staffer. Confusion over what we were supposed to have. Teenage staff is trying their best, but things are busy.
  9. Manager walks over, waving ticket. Let’s see what you guys want. We’re going to take care of it. Who wants ice cream?
  10. Only the girls ordered some. Son #2 now wants one but we didn’t order it. Manager tells him to pick whatever he wants. It’s on the house.
  11. Momentarily, manager brings all three ice cream orders to the table. Sure, I’ll get you an extra cup and spoon!
  12. At neighboring table, a just-delivered strawberry malt hits the floor just as daughter #1 walks by the table. “Sorry!” Feeling bad for perplexed look on man’s face. Owner of said strawberry malt? “Did you knock that off?”“I don’t know! I said I was sorry!”
  13. Now what? Should I tell him we did it? Should I buy him another malt just in case?
    Wait. Here come the manager again, still smiling, pushing the mop bucket…again.“What’s with this corner over here tonight?” Joking, thankfully.
  14. Chase down the manager under the guise of my wife’s request to get more ketchup. Offer to pay for the lost strawberry malt. Manager won’t hear of it. I insist. Doesn’t happen.

By this point, the teaching opportunity for my kids is far too powerful. I slip over to the corner table where they hover over their ice cream like vultures. What was it this manager did that was really showing care and concern for people?

They nailed it, of course: free ice cream, cleaning up, helping.

Daughter #1 is rightfully skeptical: “But he’s the manager, Dad. Of course, he can do that. He’s in charge.”

Good point. “I’ll bet that any of the employees here can do that,” I reply, “I think they are trained to take care of their customers like that if they think they need to. Let’s see if I’m right.”

Employees at Freddy’s absolutely can do that on their own, the manager tells us. Taking care of their “guests” (not customers) is the number one priority for everybody. The goal is excellence in service and a quality experience that keeps people coming back.

Even the french fries are done that way, he says. French fries stay under the heat lamp for 2 minutes and then get thrown out, no matter what. Even if we’re in the middle of making your order. If the french fries are more than 2 minutes old, we’ll drop new ones and bring them fresh and hot out to your table.

Always fresh, always hot. 2 minutes. The staff at Freddy’s can happily give away ice cream and onion rings, clean up messes, and replace spilled milkshakes because 2 minutes mattered to their idea of excellence. The commitment to high-quality and excellence in the organization goes down to that level of detail. Their philosophy in the little hidden things translated into their philosophy in the big visible things.

I wondered what it costs the company to throw perfectly good french fries out every two minutes. After all, surely they’re good enough? Why not 4 minutes?

Two fundamental principles of systems thinking are at work here:

  1. The easy, obvious solutions often aren’t either easy or solutions.
  2. The best solutions are usually the least obvious and involve making small changes at the right place.

This is the systems principle of ‘leveraging’: the right small, non-obvious decisions and changes can produce significant, substantial improvements in the long term. In this case, the obvious, short term decision would be to reduce costs and increase efficiency by not throwing out the french fries. But by thinking in terms of the whole big picture, Freddy’s recognizes that the small act of the 2-minute rule ripples out into all other areas. The philosophy and value behind the rule contributes to sustaining what proves to be a very large, significant value in the organization: Freddy’s always takes care of their guests, no matter what. A culture of excellence happens first in the hidden, non-obvious, ordinary routines and practices.

So lesson of the 2-minute french fries?  Create a culture of organizational quality and excellence by paying the price for excellence and quality in the little things.


Leadership: Thinking Christianly, Thinking Theologically

Leadership: Thinking Christianly, Thinking Theologically

What does it mean to think Christianly about leadership? What does it mean to lead as a Christian?

Well, first of all, what is leadership? Answering that in a universal way is a veritable sort of holy grail in leadership and organizational research. For every writer, consultant, scholar, or researcher in the field, you can find a different definition. Leadership is nothing and it is everything. Leadership is the most essential thing we can do, but maybe leadership doesn’t really even exist. Perhaps its little more than a synonym for the myriad of activities that take happen as a group works toward a goal.

We find all of these sentiments and arguments out there in the field. But ultimately the search continues because, however much we struggle to understand or grasp what leadership is, we know that there is something there for which we are seeking a name. And whatever that something is, it is pervasive and crucial. Even if we can’t define it to everybody’s satisfaction, we all certainly can tell when it’s not present. And, ironically, we often learn as much if not more about the phenomenon by studying the consequences of its absence, as if its void is easier to measure and analyze than its shadow, effervescent presence.

I would argue that in its most basic essence, leadership is about the coordination of the purposeful, shared efforts of group of people. But, as with any of the hundreds of other definitions of leadership, we immediately run smack into the challenge of defining any complex concept such as love, happiness, beauty, or, yes, even, leadership; namely, the inverse relationship of universality and applicability. The more you have to particularize a definition in order to apply it, the less universal it becomes. And the more universal you make it in order to transfer to a wider array of situations, the less applicable it becomes.

That’s the dilemma in leadership. To apply it, we must particularize it to a specific setting, population, set of goals, limitations, and realities. But in order to better understand how to apply it, we have to generalize. And in generalizing, we lose a lot of the particularities that make leadership what it is in any given context.

The Christian worldview and theology offers us a framework and language to help relieve some of the tensions of this dilemma, at least to a worthwhile degree. For it lets us talk in more particular but conceptual ways about the core elements that make up the milieu of leadership: what kind of coordination,  what central purposewhat sort of effort, anwhat nature of people. These core elements — coordination, purpose, effort, people — are not completely abstracted in this approach. Christian theology adds some essential and necessary concreteness to these words. This concreteness, in turn, gives us a more robust starting point in particularizing the practice and application of leadership. There is a useful sameness to which we can turn as we move from context to context within this definition. Regardless of the context, we can speak of an underlying principle of coordination. We can talk about a particular core of purpose for activity. We can speak of specific dynamics of effort and behavior which are universally envisioned in the group of people no matter the setting. Ultimately and most helpfully, we can make assertions about specific underlying truths about the nature of these components that are legitimately transferable.

Now, this doesn’t mean that leadership defined from a Christian theological standpoint looks the same or is applied the same in every circumstance. Not at all. But that there is a more specific set of governing principles and truths from which our application can be made. That, in turn, ought to help us be both better students and better practitioners of leadership. Better students because we have a fixed starting point from which we can evaluate, analyze, and understand. Better practitioners, in turn, because we have a more rigorous, principled framework that we can confidently apply in any situation.

A working Biblical definition of leadership

So here is one possible definition of “leadership” from a Christian theological point of reference: Leadership is the ongoing, dynamic, Spirit-guided organizing of personal interaction and potential towards a divinely-appointed end (teleos)

INTERACTION | Occurs in a network of relationships, contexts, cultures, needs, abilities, resources. Activity encompasses the full range of human life: physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual. What kind of interaction is good and leads to a desired outcome? Human reality is people interacting with God, each other, and their world. Christian theology and a Christian worldview defines the boundaries and freedoms of these interactions in concrete ways.

PERSONAL | What do we assume to be true about the people involved or what is the potential for the people involved? The core of this interaction are human persons (hence, person-al) in a web of relationships that are both individual and social/communal. Outside of this point of reference, there is no such thing as leadership. Our starting point for Christian leadership is in human interaction and our ending point is always people in relationships.

DYNAMIC | Is leadership something that is imposed from the outside onto a static group of people or is it something that grows from within and adapts with the group over time? This interaction is constant, moving, changing, and complex. This does not suggest instability and unpredictability, but affirms that because people grow, change, mature, are born and die, life itself is dynamic. There is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all,” static approach to leadership. In essence, leadership is a way of thinking and living, not a set of skills to master.

ORGANIZING | For there to be meaning and purpose to human life, there must be order and structure. The primary role of leadership is to organize the various structures needed to sustain and nurture all the different levels of interactions in the community. The Christian leader recognizes the presence and role of the Holy Spirit in this process. There is a divine intentionality that underlies human interactions.

LEADERS | those vested with the responsibility & capability of coordinating interaction and resources, and helping group stay focused on the collective goal. Leadership is not synonymous with leaders. A leaders plays a role, which, in and of itself, is incomplete without others. Leader roles are formal and informal, fixed and ad hoc, centralized and distributed. No one single leader carries all the weight.

FOLLOWERS |  all persons involved in personal interaction; the heart and soul of the process. Can legitimacy be synonymous with “members”. Leaders are also followers, of other leaders, of shared roles, and ultimately of the Holy Spirit.

The order and structure in human interaction has a specific purpose. Interaction is circular, the back-and-forth of relationships, and linear, moving towards a goal, destination, or some other desirable future state. Usually, this goal is the reason for the interaction and organizing in the first place. For the Christian, all of human life and interaction is moving towards the eternal Kingdom of God. Biblical theology speaks of the teleos (“the ultimate end”) of Scripture as being God’s people living eternally in obedient fellowship with God, harmonious fellowship with God’s people, and responsible enjoyment of God’s world.

This broad biblical vision of a community of people engaged in divinely ordained activity in obedient fellowship with God as ruler is the basis for the entire range and scope of human activity in the biblical worldview. It is not relegated to a sacred space nor is its implications for human life limited to the realm of the religious or spiritual. Rather, from a biblical worldview, this is the fundamental shape of reality itself.

As such, those who live out of a biblical worldview are intended to have a radically transcendent view of all reality, one which places the fundamental components of leadership — coordination, purpose, activity, and community — squarely in its center. And, more to the point for the purposes of studying and applying leadership, defines those in concrete, positive ways that are both universal and applicable.

In short, what does it mean to lead with a Christian mind? It starts by recognizing that very essence of Christian faith is to think fundamentally different, to think transcendentally, about the very nature of the definition itself.


Carpé Diem: How Great Organizations Seize Change Moments

Carpé Diem: How Great Organizations Seize Change Moments

I am rereading Peter Senge’s (1990/2006) classic work, The Fifth Discipline. Senge’s work over the last 20 years on the learning organization has been a landmark contribution to organizational behavior and leadership.

A learning organization is one whose people are continually engaged in two types on ongoing learning: generative and adaptive. Generative learning is creativity at work: continuously creating new opportunities and sources of growth for the organization. Adaptive learning is coping and responding positively to constant change, or what Ron Heifetz describes as closing the gap between the values people hold and the realities they face.

Great organizations are great learning organizations. They are communities of people who create and adapt very well. In a globalized, connected, socially networked world that grows increasingly complex, dynamic, and unpredictable, organizations that survive and thrive will be those who have mastered the disciplines of learning together.

In The Fifth Discipline, published originally in 1990, Senge offers 5 critical components vital to great learning organizations.

Personal Mastery

Great learners embody a high level of commitment to lifelong learning. There is a natural inquisitiveness and curiosity coupled with a passionate vision of what is still to be accomplished or gained. A well-known writer, speaker, theologian, and leader, in his early 80s, once remarked to a colleague, “I am glad God has allowed me to live these last 20 years because I have learned more since the age of 60 that in all the years before.”

The discipline of personal mastery consists of:

  • clarifying and deepening our personal vision
  • focusing our energies
  • developing patience
  • seeing reality objectively

Senge (2006) writes, “personal mastery starts with clarifying the things that really matter to us, of living outlives in the service of our highest aspirations” (p. 8).

 Mental Models

Each of us operates out of an internal picture of how we see the world. These “mental models” are deeply embedded assumptions or images about the world around us that “influence how we understand the world and how we take action” in it. (p. 8). We may even be aware of these mental views of the world, but they play a major role in shaping our behavior. The discipline of learning organizations lies in identifying those mental models, becoming concretely aware of what they are, and then scrutinizing them carefully for where they need to grow or change. Effective learning organizations consist of people who are continually evaluating, testing, and allowing others to help shape their mental models. Leaders in the organization invest energy into helping others intentionally develop and embrace shared mental models that point to a desirable future.

Building Shared Vision

It is this shared vision of a desirable future that is the third critical component. Without the clear presence of goals, values, mission, and vision, it is very difficult for an organization to become as great as it otherwise might. Learning organizations do not engage in continual learning for its own sake, but for the sake of  common identity, sense of purpose, or destiny.

Senge is careful to point out that the concern here is not for the manufacturing of “vision statements” that do little more than occupy a spot on the wall. Nor of any one leader’s personal vision. The concern is how to close that gap between personal vision and a vibrant, genuine commitment of the whole community to a common future. Senge, acknowledging that genuine vision cannot be dictated, defines building shared vision as the “unearthing of shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance” (p. 9).

Team Learning

At the heart of the cultivation of a shared vision is dialogue, which Senge describes as the suspension of assumptions and entering into genuine thinking together. Dialogue involves learning to recognize the patterns of interactions in a team that hinders or aids in shared learning. The goal of dialogue is to discover insights, ideas, and possibilities that would not ever be discovered individually. In one sense, team learning is doing at the micro level what the organization as a whole seeks to do as the macro level: challenge, create, dream, encourage, imagine, attempt, discover, and so forth.

Systems Thinking

In the original version of the book, the disciple of systems thinking was the overarching, encompassing component that allowed all the others to work most significantly in harmony. Hence, the “fifth discipline,” that of systems thinking. Systems thinking is a conceptual framework for seeing and understanding organizations as a set of interrelated and interconnect parts in which interactions among parts of the organization have effects on other parts or the whole of the organization. It is the patterns among those broad interconnections that accounts for far more of how and why things happen in organizations. Too often, the temptation when it comes to change management or crisis intervention is to focus on isolated parts that seem to be the immediate culprits and fail to recognize the significant role those underlying, less visible patterns play in the moment. Systems thinking is the art of learning to understand the organization as a dynamic whole made up of many independent but interconnected parts whose actions all effect one another.


So, how do great organizations become great or maintain their greatness and avoid slipping into mediocrity? By mastering the 5 critical components of learning. However, Senge argues, these are not merely organizational characteristics but first and foremost personal disciplines. Effective learning organizations are precisely so because their leaders are great learners and are skilled at helping employees or members be great at learning together.

Im sum, great organizations are learning organizations where these 5 critical compenents converge out of the natural attitudes and mentality of its people


Senge, Peter (1990/2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. Currency/Doubleday.