seeing myself as a system

cables clint-adair-BW0vK-FA3eg-unsplash

I’m reading a book these days about leading change. My hope is that the book will help me and my team learn how to help others flourish – even through changes in our fast-paced, uncertain, complex world. I am learning a lot that will apply to the organization, but this morning I read something that applies personally to me.

I’ve struggled for a while with my inability to name my own desires and preferences with confidence. I hear others say without hesitancy, “This is what I like” or “This is who I am”, but I can’t seem to do that. I’ve wondered why. I’ve wondered if something was wrong with me.

The chapter titled, “See Yourself as a System”, gave me a fresh way to look at this.

The chapter starts out with the story of an Army officer who does not agree with some of the self-protective but unstrategic behaviors of the men he is commanding, but who does not stand up to them because he wants solidarity with the unit. The officer’s tension is an illustration of the complexity of our human system, with its “competing values and interests, preferences and tendencies, aspirations and fears¹”, many of which he linked back to needs he had developed during his upbringing.

The authors explain that our personal system is an inter-tangled network of our personality, life story, intellect, skills, and emotional intelligence. Our behaviors and decisions are affected by all of that and the situations, conditions, loyalties, experiences, and bandwidth that we have at any given time.

The chapter suggests that we cannot effectively lead change if we do not understand our system and our “multiple identities” that are a result of that reality. Not multiple identities in a psychotic or lack of integrity kind of way, but the fact that we do – in a healthy, authentic way – show up differently depending on the role we play, the need of the times, and the new growth we can bring to a situation now.

Personally, I felt a sense of relief when I read this. I was encouraged to hear that my perceived struggle with a set identity definition could actually be a benefit to a changing organization when I view myself as a complex system – less easy to describe, growing, updating, and changing over-time, rather than static, fixed, defined, and fully-formed. It’s given me a hopeful lens to consider some of my tensions. I’m looking forward to reading more about loyalties, influence factors, and roles in the next chapters.

What do you think? What is your perspective on being a “system”? 

¹ R. Heifetz, A. Grashow & M. Linsly. 2009. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership – The Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World, Harvard Business Press, p 178.

Photo credit: Clint Adair on Unsplash


life story inspiration

Starbucks coffeeStarbucks is my coffee of choice. I always order the same thing – a “grande” house blend, bold, with no room for cream. Every now and then, I accompany my coffee with a healthy oatmeal or a not-so-healthy cinnamon scone. I enjoy the community atmosphere, the comfortable seating for reading or study, and becoming a “regular” when I frequent the same Starbucks for any length of time. I especially like feeling “known” when the barista begins to pour my personal choice before I even reach the counter.

Given my affection for the coffee, I was excited to read about the Starbucks story in a book about authentic leadership¹. A man named Howard Schultz created the Starbucks atmosphere we know today. Schultz wanted to offer a coffee-house with the community feel he had experienced in the espresso bars he visited in Milan, Italy.

“The reservoir of all my life experiences
shaped me as a person and a leader.”
                                              ~Howard Schultz

In addition to community, Schultz integrated other life values into the Starbucks culture. Schultz was born in 1957, and he grew up in Brooklyn, New York, living in the Bayview Housing Projects. As the son of a blue-collar delivery truck driver and a stay-at-home mom, finances were always tight, especially after his dad injured his ankle and lost his job and their health insurance. There was no workman’s compensation in those days, and an injured driver was useless and dispensable.

Those years of struggle etched deeply in Schultz’s memory and compelled Schultz’s vision to lead a company that valued and respected the staff and offered higher pay, stock options, and health care benefits even to part-time employees.

Schultz’s story built his character. From his mother, Schultz heard many times that he could do anything he wanted. When Schultz saw his father’s lack of success and accompanying bitterness, Schultz developed a fear failure and self defeat, and became driven to achieve and succeed.

“You must have the courage
to follow an unconventional path.”
                                        ~Howard Schultz

Over the years, Schultz intentionally “re-framed” his opinion of his father and chose to emulate his father’s integrity, work ethic and commitment to family. Schultz learned to appreciate his story of family hardship as the source of his values and his motivations, and to this day Schultz remembers his humble beginnings and intentionally integrates his story into his leadership and his company.

I am learning to “re-frame” many of my life experiences too; letting go of hurts and bitterness and choosing to emphasize and apply the positive character traits that I gained as a result of struggle and hard times.

Whenever I drink my coffee now, I try to remember how my life story can inspire my leadership.

What experiences from your life story inspire you?


¹More details of this story (and others) are found in the excellent book, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George.

realization of a dream

Do you have a dream? Something you long for? Want to see happen? Wish you could change?

I have lots of dreams… personal growth milestones, work goals, hopes for my children, my friends, my community, my world.

Not every dream comes true, but they come true more often if I have given my best effort to make the dream a reality.

We enjoy visiting local coffee shops whenever we travel. We met Dazbog Coffee Co. in Denver, Colorado, and I love the history behind the dream they made come true. Certain elements of their story helped make their dream a reality…

Vision – Leonid and Anatoly Yuffa had a dream. They envisioned a better life – freedom, democracy, opportunity – a new way. On a cold, quiet evening in Russia they were pensive, reflective, talking together… and a dream was born. I am often too busy to slow down and think, but new creative visions don’t come to my mind when I am running from one thing to another. I need to take time to think, process, and dream…

Do you take time to discover your dreams?

Values –  Successful organizations, families, and people know their key values; they carry them around or post them on the wall as a constant reminder. The Yuffa family chose to combine old world heritage and tradition with new technology. They committed to a quality, rich cup of coffee, and these values permeate all that they do. Sometimes desperation to make something happen tempts me to drop my standards or set aside my values, but that will only detour my dream. Consistent values are the bedrock and the decision filter for any new venture.

Do you know and live by your values?

Unique style Red, black and yellow details are on everything: coffee cups, bags of beans, clothing line, and posters on the wall. They name their coffee blends based on the history and character of their homeland. When you walk into a Dazbog café, the Russian influence is obvious. I am often guilty of trying to live someone’s dream rather than my own – trying to look like, act like or produce like another. That’s not a good strategy (!), so I am learning to live comfortably in my own skin… and pursue my unique dreams.

Are you comfortable with your unique style?

Celebration Turning dreams into reality requires hard work, perseverance, focus, wise choices, the right people, …and God’s blessing! When I go after a vision, I can focus so much on achieving the dream that I forget to celebrate the steps along the way. The Dazbog way “celebrates life itself in each and every cup”. From their profits they give back to community projects to help make the world a better place. I want to remember to celebrate progress and process and not just a finished product. I have a sense there will be many more realized dreams that way.

How do you celebrate on the way to your dream?

working against the tide

Do you ever feel like you are “swimming up-stream”? Have you sensed that the door you hold open has a strong tension-spring that will slam it shut as soon as you let go? Have you ever felt like your hard work and passions are like a sand castle that is completely washed away when the tide comes in?

I have been struggling a lot with those kind of feelings the last few weeks. In a past leadership position, I gave my best effort to bring about a culture change that I believed in strongly. Some of what we encouraged was team leadership, women valued and developed equally with the men, integrity in character and finances, and a willingness to honestly evaluate results.

Together with my husband, I tried to lead by example; brought in resources and training; honored those co-workers who demonstrated the values we cherished, and celebrated the environment and growth that resulted from our efforts. It was hard work, there was resistance and personal attack, and we paid a price physically, emotionally, and relationally.

We were also incredibly blessed with encouragement and support from partners, mentors, and the thrill of changed lives. At the time, I thought the dream of healthy relationships and a healthy organization was worth the pain.

Sadly, today looking back on that time, I question more… so much of what we “built” is gone. Many things are different; environment, people, results… I wonder, did my hard work really accomplish anything? Was the up-hill climb good for only short-term, superficial change?

I have learned a lot about working as a leader. Now I need to learn about letting go. I need to live with the tension between desire for a legacy… and contentment with having given my best when it was my turn.

Do you have any tips for me? What do you do when your hard work is washed away?

am I lying to myself?

Have you ever read a book that shakes your world? Causes you to re-consider your values, priorities and way of life? Convicts, encourages and motivates you to change?

I just read “7“, and the book did just that in my life.

Jen Hatmaker wrote the honest, funny, thought-provoking book “7” as a diary of her seven months of considering and changing her normal life style. She temporarily exchanged her routine comfort and excess for seven months of reduction, sacrifice and the constant tension that awareness of reality brings. Each of her monthly challenges caused me to question my life and reflect on the “lies” I tell myself:

1. I’m hungry.

Jen chose to eat just seven foods for a whole month… no condiments, no chips and salsa, no desserts… no coffee!!

Although I have implemented a “life-style change” of healthier eating, I still rarely eat because I am actually hungry. Instead I eat for all the wrong reasons – I eat when I am bored, when I’m stressed, and because others are eating. I eat too much, and I eat foods that are not good for me. “7” encouraged me to make better dietary choices. Many people do not even have food to eat each day. I have so many options; I don’t want to abuse that blessing.

2. I have nothing to wear.

Jen wore the same seven items of clothing for a month. She also gave away unnecessary clothes. Jen writes, “These pretty clothes gave me confidence when I was terrified and uncertain.” Also, “Clothes used to define me when my genuine identity was fuzzy.”¹

When I say I have nothing to wear, the problem is usually not too-tight jeans, out-of-style shirts or other-season jackets. The struggle is often internal rather than external. I have way too many choices… I just haven’t found that something to make me feel secure, capable, and attractive. This book has challenged me to focus more on strengthening my character and less on filling my closet.

3. I need that.

Jen gave away seven items every day. (Clothing counted as only one item, since children’s outgrown and adults’ never-worn added up too quickly and easily.)

When we did our own moving purge, I realized that I am a “just in case” consumer. I buy for every possible scenario, every future guest, every potential project. Piles, storage boxes, and collections prove my obsession. “7” has reminded me that “Maturity deciphers need from want, wisdom from foolishness. Growing up means curbing appetites…”² I need to grow up.

4. Gotta check Facebook.

Month four was a seven media fast (except for a few necessary uses). No Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Pinterest, TV, video games, or YouTube. The Hatmakers found time for books, walks, cooking together, crafts and projects.

Life will go on… even if I don’t check Facebook each day. When I say I don’t have time for important, good-for-me activities, the truth is that I have the time… I just spend it elsewhere. I am convicted to control my media time and not allow it to control me.

5. Recycling is too much work.

Jen and her family implemented seven habits for a greener life during week five: gardening, composting, conserving, recycling, driving one car, shopping thrift, and buying local.

Jen wrote, “If we acknowledged the sacredness of creation, I suspect it would alter the way we treated it.”4 Irregardless of ecological arguments, I know there are many ways that I can better care for the earth. It will take more discipline than sacrifice, more attitude than effort. I want to be a good steward.

  6. I can’t afford to save.

Choosing to shop at only seven places was the 6th month challenge.

Moderating spending and re-directing savings to others is very counter-cultural. Personally I make few large purchases, but I can nickle and dime a budget to death. Many times my spending is linked to socializing, but consumerism does not equal community or connection. With a little adjustment, I can be more creative with my hospitality and more generous with my giving.

7. I don’t have time to rest.

Jen claims this was her most difficult month, combating stress with seven pauses each day and a Sabbath day each week.

Busyness is powerful. There are distractions, temptations and needs everywhere. On the other hand, rest is essential for continued focus, energy and health. I wrote a prior post about some of the ways I try to rest.

Jen asks very good questions in the book, and I am now asking… What gives me my value and identity? Where do I struggle with approval, appearance, recognition, control? Am I aware of my abundance and concerned about other’s needs?

I will make changes in my life because of this book, and I will live with greater tension, constantly evaluating my beliefs and choices.

Do you tell yourself lies? How do you search for truth? 


¹ Hatmaker, Jen (2011-12-19). 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess (p. 72). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

² ibid (p. 94)

³ ibid (p. 136)

a place to belong, a place to become

We are finishing 17+ years of ministry in Mexico; we are sorting through our stuff, passing the baton… and my husband has been putting up (very) old pictures on Facebook. Some of those years of ministry were amazing – incredible growth, excitement, impact. As I reflected on that time, I realized we were living out our values. Those values are still relevant today as we move forward…

Faith: We all trusted God for big things and took steps of faith. We moved our family – with four young children – to a different country and started something new where there was nothing. We led an international team; many of them had also left their comfort zone and moved from their homes. Students took steps of faith to begin a relationship with God even when they faced family and friends’ rejection. Staff and students shared their faith boldly with others, took on new responsibilities, asked God to take charge of their future.

Where is God asking me to take a step of faith?

Development – Growth:  We committed to growing in community and building others to be all they could be. We prayed for our teammates and disciples, and created and followed through with semester plans for basic teaching, experiences, retreats, summer projects, etc. to provide an environment for growth. We worked in teams and shared leadership often. We moved out of the way and let others lead. We invited in teams from other places. We learned from them; they learned from us.

What am I doing to develop personally and those around me?

Effectiveness – Fruitfulness: We cared about results. Effectiveness meant fruit of changed lives – for eternity. We evaluated our goals and progress regularly – individually and organizationally. We asked for feedback from others and willingly changed the format of the meetings, tried crazy ideas, invented new materials. Sometimes we did something different to compensate for a weakness, sometimes to adjust for incredible growth. We did not settle for status quo.

Have I done an honest evaluation lately? Do I need to make some changes for greater effectiveness?

Unity: Our work on campus had incredible unity in purpose and personal relationships. Different cultures, backgrounds, fields of study, ages came to learn and grow together. Our early theme was ” a place to belong, a place to become“. Our teams of staff and students worked hard, side by side to create amazing skits, parties, outreaches, and conferences for a vision and passion bigger than themselves. Students sacrificed their time and money for each other. New people were welcome and deep, authentic, caring, long-lasting friendships came from studying the Word, praying, …and eating and playing together!  

What am I doing to build unity with my team or my organization?  

Integrity: Along with all the fun, there were also tough times. We confronted lying, bribery, immorality, interpersonal conflicts, suicide attempts – temptations and spiritual battles of all kinds. We did not ignore, hide, or excuse any behavior that might be a seed of division between people and God. We taught that God cares about every part of us; we cannot have sin in one area without it affecting the rest of us. We tried to live that example also.

Is there an area of my life that lacks integrity?

How would you respond to those questions? How do you make where you work or minister a place to belong and a place to become?

(**If you were involved in the ministry, please share with us what you remember!)

Incarnational leadership is like chocolate!

As an avowed chocolate fan, I love Vianne Rocher’s chocolaterie as a picture of incarnational ministry.  The protagonist of the movie, Chocolat, Vianne is “warm, non-judgmental, and compassionate, offering grace and peace to the troubled community… She engages the lives and troubles of her community… offers space… for honesty and truthtelling to happen”.  Vianne makes transformational friendships in the community by discerning the individual (chocolate) preferences of each customer and prescribing the appropriate (chocolate) remedy for their needs.  She cares less about the success of her business and more about the concerns of the people in the town.  Vianne serves the French community with the incarnational attributes of love, self-sacrifice, and commitment.  As a result of her compassion and acceptance, Vianne’s ministry transforms the lives of individual friends and the village as a whole.*

The greatest story of transformation power through personal incarnation is God himself coming to live among us in human form through the person of Jesus (Phil. 2:7).  An incarnational model of leadership is a willingness to re-make ourselves in order to mimic Jesus more effectively in our life and work.  Incarnational ministry does not require that leaders completely give up their culture (national/gender/personality) identity.  Jesus did not give up being God; He did choose to limit certain aspects of His character and power.  Just as a body illustrates how the varied spiritual gifts are necessary to serve God completely (I Cor 13:4-31), so are elements of all cultures necessary to reflect the full image of God.         (…a whole box of chocolates!) No one culture alone is the perfect God culture.  Sometimes aspects of one culture may more closely represent the character of God than another culture; at other times, combined cultural views reflect the character of God more accurately; sometimes an aspect of culture is definitely not Biblical, and a leader should discard that value. Incarnational leadership requires a lot of reflection and effort to determine how and where to make the edits in order to be more like Christ.

Applying the incarnational servant model in leadership is not easy. It can cause self-doubt, confusion and frustration. As leaders we enter a leadership position with a deeply ingrained sense of identity that developed over a lifetime. Our ethnocentrism assumes that others do or should have the same cultural values because my view is the “best” or the “correct” view. Leaders inevitably bring pride and selfishness into the situation and often negatively judge others as inferior or wrong. Attempts to serve and lead in another culture or with multi-cultural teammates will also be affected by the others’ views of  servanthood and leadership. Remember: an action is not a service simply when called service; the action must actually be helpful to the receiver. (Which chocolate is their favorite, not my favorite to give away?) In addition, the pre-conceived opinions, perceptions, and stereotypes of others may interfere with our efforts to lead and serve.  Sometimes even though our motives are good, our actions are completely misunderstood by others, due to their own culture grid or even their own insecurities.

Applying the incarnational model to leadership begins with an attitude adjustment. Just as Jesus came as a helpless infant, so must we approach the leadership situation humbly and with a willingness to learn.

  •  The first step towards an incarnational model is self-acceptance.  This self-acceptance implies recognizing that God made each person intentionally and uniquely, and that He sovereignly allowed their lifetime experiences to develop in them the cultural values that they have at the time.
  • Secondly, it is important for a leader to recognize their personal values, but also be willing to adapt them when necessary. (Would I give up my favorite candy?) God’s power to help a people yield their own preferences and needs to those of others is an indispensable element of incarnation. Without confidence in God’s power to change lives, there would not be much hope for the difficult process of incarnation. Thankfully, with desire, effort and God’s help, leaders can change and grow in their incarnational leadership.

*The Chocolate example comes from The Shaping of Things to Come (2003) by M. Frost & A. Hirsch (pp. 33-62) Hendrickson Publishers.

*** Next blog post will discuss six abilities we can develop to grow in our incarnational leadership… stay tuned!

How do you apply an incarnational attitude to your leadership?