Measure of a Good Leader

Last week I talked about the problem of undifferentiated leaders and the havoc they create.  I did not answer the question of what a differentiated leader looks like.  This week we’ll talk about differentiation, the process of looking at a situation objectively and separating feelings from thoughts.  There are several signs of a differentiated leader.

First, when you are able to set aside your positional power and truly listen to criticism, there is a good chance you are a differentiated leader.  To truly listen to criticism, however, means listening without conscious or subconscious manipulation.

I have always had a burning desire to get it right.  That might seem like a virtue, but it does have its shadow side.  When a co-worker tells me I have gotten it wrong, and my response is to fall apart, that falling apart is an unintentional form of manipulation.  After watching me fall apart, my co-worker will be less inclined to let me know the next time I get it wrong.  The co-worker does not want to deal with my emotional meltdown.

That is not fair to the person who found the courage to confront you.  They ought to be able to confront you without worrying about your response. Truly listening to criticism means listening without comment or immediate emotional response. It means taking in the information and thanking the person. You can let yourself feel the pain later, when your emotional response can be private.

When you stay in close touch with your leadership team and key volunteers, and you are willing to hear bad news without retaliation, that is another sign of differentiation. I’ve known leaders who sat stoically while a co-worker told them of a problem.  Afterward, the co-worker thought things went well. What they did not realize was that the leader was going to extract a pound of flesh because of the criticism.  It might be tomorrow, or it might be next month, but the undifferentiated leader retaliates.  The differentiated leader never retaliates.

Another sign of differentiation is when you lead by neither a strong hand nor consensus. Strong-handed leaders undermine morale. Co-workers are terrified of taking initiative, because it is never exactly what the boss wants.  With a strong frame of reference and clear objectives, you get order for free.  But strong-handed leaders do not provide a clear frame of reference or clear objectives.  They micro-manage based on whatever happens to get their attention on that particular day.

Consensus leadership is also a problem.  Demanding that everyone be on the same page before a decision is enacted creates environments in which the group stifles imagination and ends up being controlled by one or two people at the extremes.

Differentiated leaders operate in the middle, between dictatorship and democracy.  They provide a clear frame of reference, articulating core values and the big giant idea that drives the corporate engine.  They also clarify objectives, so co-workers can understand milestones that must be met. With those firmly in place, the differentiated leader provides a flexible framework for employees to exercise their creativity within their areas of expertise.

Differentiated leaders take clearly and non-reactively defined positions.  It is important to identify exactly what job needs to be done, but then the differentiated leader works from the perspective, “I have been called to this specific job, but my life does not depend on being successful in it.”

Differentiated leaders do not triangulate by bringing a third person into a two-person conversation. So many problems could be solved if we would take our concerns directly to the person involved instead of bringing a third person into the conversation.  Sometimes the third person is brought in to do the bidding of the first person, because he or she does not want to address the concern directly. Sometimes the third person is brought in to confirm whether or not your concerns with the second person are legitimate.  Either way, it is bringing a third person into a two-person conversation.

Differentiated leaders identify the maps from which they navigate, and are open to changing those maps when they are no longer effective.  For instance, leaders who only measure quantitatively will sometimes discover their organization is a mile wide and an inch deep.  They will only increase the depth of the organization if they begin to measure qualitatively.  But if they are not willing to identify the maps from which they operate, and be open to changing those maps, the organization will suffer.

In the case of a church pastor, a rigid map can make it difficult to move from asking, “What is our attendance?” to asking, “How well do we love?”  It is difficult because the pastor’s ego need is too tied up in measuring numbers, quantative measurement.  She does not want to give up her old map that equates church size with church health.  Her ego resists shifting to the more important task of measuring the quality of relationships.

These are just a few examples of what a differentiated leader looks like.  You might think older leaders are more likely than younger leaders to be well-differentiated. Unfortunately, that is not the case.  Differentiation does not have a lot to do with age, other than realizing that pretty much no one in their 20s or early 30s has lived long enough to be well-differentiated.  After that, your level of differentiation will correspond to how much you have been willing to grow, how well you understand the forces that shaped you in the past, and how determined you are to move honestly and openly into the future.

It Is a Job and a Calling. It Is Not Your Life

Some of the most polarizing messages delivered in the United States over the past 20 years have been delivered in the name of God.  How did we get where we are today, when Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr.  and a plethora of others can spew the kind of incendiary rhetoric that divides a nation.

While there are a host of reasons we have arrived at this moment in history, I believe one of the biggest problems among our current religious leaders is their lack of ability to differentiate themselves from their work.

Murray Bowen, the founder of Family Systems Theory, identified eight areas in which humans function in family or family-like environments.  Edwin Friedman in Generation to Generation-Family Process in Church and Synagogue, shows how these play out in the life of a religious community.

One of the most important elements of Family Systems Theory is the concept of Differentiation of Self, which is our ability to look at a situation with some level of objectivity and separate our feelings from our thoughts.  We usually begin the differentiation process from our family of origin when we are in our teens, and often do not finish it until we are well into our 40s or even 50s.  Differentiating yourself from your family of origin does not happen overnight.  But it is critical to reaching our potential on life’s journey.

However, it is not just differentiation from our family of origin that is important.  We also must differentiate from our work. If we don’t, there is a fair chance we will eventually go off the rails.  What are some of the signs of an undifferentiated religious leader?

A pastor or religious leader who finds his or her primary identity through their position in their church or ministry is not differentiated.  That individual would be well advised to learn that their position in the church is a job and a calling.  It is not their life.

Religious leaders with a lot of charisma are more likely to be undifferentiated.  Their ability to charm others extends to an ability to deceive themselves.  This lack of honesty causes them to exert too much control of their environment. Therefore, success of the church or ministry tends to end when the charismatic leader departs, because they have created loyalty to themselves, not to the church.

Lead pastors who hire a lot of family are rarely differentiated.  Hiring family for leadership positions is a sign the leader does not differentiate between work and family.  The person often exercises the same level of control in their families that they exercise in their churches.

If you haven’t noticed, a lot of megachurch lead pastors hire their own sons or sons-in-law to serve as the second teaching pastor and heir apparent at their church. This is particularly true of founding pastors.  Those outside the church think, “Surely not!  How can a system that large be run like a family corporation?”  But it happens all the time.

My son and I are both pastors.  I had several opportunities to serve as the lead pastor of a megachurch, but in those days my son was a schoolteacher, not a pastor.  Had he been preaching, and had I taken one of those jobs, I imagine I would have been tempted to hire him as my preaching associate.  I mean, he is a great preacher and all. Hopefully, someone, ideally me, or my son or the church leadership, would have derailed that notion before it was seriously considered.

Unfortunately, the power held by large church lead pastors is considerable, and a lot of them have hired their own family members for high profile positions without any pushback from the church elders.  That is a sign of a church leadership structure too weak to create adequate safeguards for the church.

When a pastor sees the church as an extension of his own being, it is another sure sign of a lack of differentiation.  Over the years I have seen a plethora of pastors who would rather take their church down than relinquish control.  This particular problem is acute with narcissistic leaders.  Narcissists never give up control and are fully capable of destroying the ministries they serve, or for that matter, the nations they serve.

The problem today is that undifferentiated pastors are often the ones taking the strongest political positions and preaching the most inflammatory messages.  They are the ones who revel in culture wars and relish the thought that their words might be capable of swaying an entire nation.

Of course, the problem with our current culture wars is multi-faceted.  The damage being done by undifferentiated religious leaders pales in comparison to that being done by politicians, or even to that being done by one of the most culturally infuential corporations in the world, the media empire of Rupert Murdoch.

Through Fox News and the media outlets he owns in Europe, Murdoch arguably swayed the 2016 US election and the UK Brexit vote.  One single family-owned business with a strong-willed undifferentiated patriarch has wreaked havoc on two of the strongest democracies in the world.  That a family battle has emerged among his offspring over who will control the empire upon Murdoch’s death is no surprise.  Undifferentiated leaders create undifferentiated leaders.

So, how would a pastor (or any leader) know if he or she is differentiated from their work?  That is a good question, and one that will have to wait until next week’s blog post.  Sorry, but I just hate when a blog post goes over 1,000 words, and this particular post is getting awfully close…

All in a Week’s Work

My apologies for not posting last week.  It’s been a busy season.  Over eight days I traveled all across the United States doing 15 keynote speeches, lectures, interviews and sermons.  It was busy, but satisfying.

I began with three presentations for a PFLAG event north of Seattle.  It is always so good to be with the generous families whose support for their children has caused them to become activists in the cause of love.  So many have losts their churches and extended families, yet they persevere.  I am always encouraged by PFLAG visits.

From there I traveled to Bellingham, Washington where I spent two days addressing issues related to gender inequity at Western Washington University.  Though I was busy from morning through evening, I found the students, faculty and administrators powerfully committed to the changes that must occur for us to create gender equity in our nation.  I wish I could have remained in Bellingham longer.  The people were wonderful!

After finishing at Western Washington, I headed back to Denver for one night before flying on to Cleveland, Ohio to speak with Jonathan at the City Club of Cleveland, a venerable institution that has been hearing from some of the world’s most distinguished leaders since 1912.  It was quite an honor to speak at their monthly gathering, aired live on Cleveland’s NPR station and taped for airing this past Sunday on the Cleveland PBS station.  One of the hallmarks of the City Club is a commitment to allowing the public to ask questions in each gathering.  Jonathan and I were interviewed by their CEO for 30 minutes, then took questions from the audience for another 30.  We had such an enjoyable time.

As soon as we finished speaking at City Club, I headed back to the airport to interview potential writers for the movie that will be made about my life.  I boarded a plane about 5:30, then flew through Chicago before getting back to Denver late Friday evening.

Saturday at 5:00, I preached at Left Hand Church, and Sunday morning I preached all three services at both facilities of Denver Community Church.  I spent the afternoon with one of my good friends, then after 15 presentations in eight days, I collapsed on the couch and read The Atlantic and The New Yorker before finally going to bed.

I enjoy being busy.  I feel called to the work I am doing.  I love speaking on gender equity, LGBTQ inclusion and spirituality.  Except for the four times I preached, every presentation over those eight days included Q&A time, often as long as 60 minutes.  Regardless of the subject or setting, people always ask about my faith, and how I can find myself in the church after being ostracized by the church I had been a part of my entire life.  Whether the audience is religious or secular, I always tell them I am in the church because I love Jesus, pure and simple.

Church is my grounding.  I preached four times last week and earned preaching 1/14 of what I earned during the previous week.  I do not preach for the income.  I preach for the pure joy.  At Left Hand I preached on Saturday evening, and cried again, for the second sermon in a row.  I told a story about Jen Jepsen, my co-pastor, and wasn’t prepared to be so emotionally overcome.  Jen, as much as anybody I know, wants to get it right, not to earn points with God or anybody else, but because her heart is so steadfastly turned toward that which is good and redemptive and beautiful.  After church we interviewed a new member for our Leadership Council, then I headed to dinner with the other pastors and one of our LC members.  I got to bed really late.

Sunday morning I was up early and drove to Denver Community Church, where I preached at 9:00 AM in the first service at their Washington Park location.  Then I rode with Jon Gettings, their executive pastor, to the uptown location on Pearl Street (pictured above) where we got into the building after the service had started.  I had time to get on the mic headset and sing one worship song before heading up to the stage.  When I was done, I walked off the stage, took off the headset, and rode with Jon back to Wash Park for the 11:00 AM service.  Same story there.  I arrived in time to put on the headset and sing one worship song before preaching for the third time.

It was the fourth time I had preached that sermon.  I would have been happy to preach it four more times.  I talked about the simplicity of being a follower of Jesus. I spoke of finding our moral foundation in just three questions from the very last day of the public ministry of Jesus:  Does what I am doing allow me to love God?  Does it allow me to love my neighbor?  Does it allow me to love myself?  It is incredibly simple.  (I did not say it was easy.)

If you want to watch the sermon, you can click here:

If you want to listen to Sunday’s version, you can go to and find an audio version of the message there.  I love preaching and I love the church.  And yep, I still love it every bit as much as I did before I was ostracized.  In fact, more.

The winds of generous Christianity are blowing across this nation, and the seeds of justice and kindness are taking root where hearts were hardened. It is an honor to be riding such a gentle and persistent wind.