Happy and Blessed New Year!
You have probably heard the saying, practice makes perfect. There is a lot of truth to that. Of course, if you are practicing the wrong thing, you may be perfecting the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
In my experience, there are three things that I have found that help me be better at something I do, particularly leadership – challenge, failure, and practice.
A corporation wanted to better understand why some within their company excelled and were promoted and others did not. They studied all of their training and leadership development programs, both internal and external to the company. They studied bonus programs. They looked at particular supervisors and their success rates. They found none of these made the difference. Instead, the common denominator was that those who excelled were those who were given a challenge and accomplished the challenge. They were then given a harder challenge and excelled. They found that those who excelled, like challenges and applied themselves to overcome the challenges. Good leaders like challenges. They see in the challenge opportunities to learn, excel, and accomplish something for a greater outcome. Life, ministry, and the church has been filled with challenges over the last two years. More challenges than are reasonable and healthy. In this new year, focus on a couple of challenges that will make a difference for ministry, family, and community. Embrace these challenges as opportunities to learn, grow and help move the church’s and your personal mission forward.
When I look back over my career in ministry, 43 years now, and identify when I grew the most, it was when I failed. It wasn’t a book I read, a class I took, or a workshop I attended. These are all important, but most helpful to me was when I failed and asked what can I learn from this and what will I do differently in the future? I have failed many times over my lifetime and my attitude was critical. Many times I was defensive. Not helpful. There were times I looked to someone else to blame. Not helpful. There were times I tried to put a good spin on it. Not helpful. There were times I tried to hide it. Not helpful.
What was helpful was to apologize as appropriate, own my own mistakes, assess what I did and what I would do differently in the future. On a few occasions, I pursued outside help through a coach and even in a more challenging situation, a therapist. With God’s help and when I was willing to face my failures, I grew. Not by a little, but by a lot.
Today, I tell young clergy, fail early and often. Take risks. To employ this strategy, you have to have healthy people around you. Healthy people are people who reserve judgment, care about you, encourage you, support you and give you honest, thoughtful feedback. Healthy people are not always easily found. People who only tell you what you want to hear are not the type of health you need. People who only blame or criticize are not healthy people.
When you understand and engage in taking on challenges and healthy failure, practice is beneficial. The best leaders practice. A gymnast’s routine may only be minutes or even seconds, but they practice for years. Anything worth doing well or becoming takes practice. Leaders do not practice enough. Practicing leadership requires observing the best leaders, volunteering for challenges, and mentally and emotionally going over what you do and how you do it. It involves looking at various scenarios and how you will respond. In the days leading up to an annual conference session, I run through my mind all of the things I might encounter and how I will handle them. In my leadership, I ask people what they might expect will occur and how they would handle something. I envision myself in the role and what and how I would engage, lead.
I still have a lot to learn about leadership. I believe leadership is a lifelong learning experience. In this new year, I continue to identify how to be empathetic in the midst of a pandemic, how to lead through difference in the midst of denominational challenges and how to equip leaders to be their best. I invite you to think about what challenges you will seek and what you practice so you can be the best for the mission, your family, and the world.