Servant Leadership & A Successful Season

basketball-success-seasonLast week we participated in my son’s high school basketball banquet, celebrating the end of another successful season. Five different teams across four grades were highlighted, all of which had winning seasons. Each player was introduced by one of the coaches who made insightful comments as to how that player contributed to the team’s success. Parents, players and siblings enjoyed the accolades which mark such occasions.

In particular the head coach went out of his way to talk about the joy it was to coach this year’s varsity team. He hyped their unity, dedication, and work ethic. He highlighted their selfless play and chemistry. He put the spotlight clearly on the players and their accomplishments.

But we all know that it takes a leader who can create a unique environment for those qualities to be able to grow and flourish. I would submit it takes a servant leader, one who cares more about the development and success of others above his or her own success.

But it wasn’t until the end of the evening that my imagination was stirred. A varsity player who was a graduating senior, and one who had been recognized as one of the best players in the state, stood up to commemorate the head coach. In almost a jesting manner this player lifted up three events that took place during the season that made all the difference between success and failure. They all took place during practice and all three were initiated by the coach.

1. Jersey Switch.  In the middle of the season, during district play, the varsity team suffered a three game losing streak. The district crown was on the line and something needed to change. During the last practice before the next game the coach informed the entire team that everyone would be wearing a different jersey number for that game. Why?

The charge was “play for someone else.”

The coach realized that the issue wasn’t talent or scheme. It was motivation and belief. By not playing for yourself, and therefore not consumed by your own play, you could dig deeper and play for your teammate. It worked. The losing streak ended and they won the district championship.

2. Freeze Tag.  There was also a point in the season where practices had become routine. The energy was lacking and precision was being lost. The coach showed up at practice one day and declared that the team was going to play freeze tag that day. Rather than doubling down on a rant about how lazy the players were or the need to be more dedicated, he simply decided to change the whole dynamic.

The real need was a change of pace and to do something totally different.

The routine was broken by something fun and creative. It was actually disrupted by reverting to a child’s game. But it worked and the players were re-energized.

3. The Hugging Line.  This might have been the most controversial thing the coach did if you were to ask any of the players in public. But the best basketball teams play together as a unit. You can have your superstars, but unless all five players on the floor at any given moment are committed to the same end you will end up with a mediocre season at best. They must be committed to each other and not just a successful season. Thus the coach walked in one day and instituted the hugging line. The players had to line up and give each one of their teammates a hug in appreciation for who they were and what they brought to the team.

It was a tangible expression of care and commitment.

For every player to play their part, their role, there had to be a level of mutual care and commitment.

It strikes me at a principle level that all three of these ideas could be implemented in any team environment and a “successful season” would be possible. It takes a servant leader to figure out what the team needs to operate at a high level and do what is necessary to take them towards success. True servant leadership can lead to a successful season.

The Value of Teams


I am currently participating in a cohort class for my Doctor of Ministry degree. The topic is The Servant Leader and Team Effectiveness. We had a fascinating discussion today around the following question:

What factors have led to team oriented structures receiving more attention in recent decades?

There is no doubt that teams have become more popular in recent years. Even while traveling to this class I read an HBR article that highlighted the same thing. Teams have risen in value as a way to confront complex, challenging issues in all organizations.

Here are a few of the principles that we came up with in answer to the discussion question.

1. Thanks to technology we live in a flat world. It is no longer possible for one strong leader at the top to be the conveyer of all information. Everyone has access to more data than is imaginable. Therefore, the opportunities to have significant influence have greatly increased. It is both wise to garner a team for their contribution as knowledge experts and it is near impossible to keep people of influence down. The day of the knowledge oligarch is gone.

Teams can bring a necessary synergistic knowledge base.

2. There are more educational opportunities than ever before. It is vastly easier for a wider array of influences to gain the necessary credentials to be accepted as leaders. Online degrees are everywhere. The advance of the MOOC and accredited online degree programs bring a level of equality to the leadership playing field. The day of the credential oligarch is gone.

Teams can bring a wealth of educational credibility.

3. There is a greater need for leadership presence. As organizations of all kinds have grown, leaned into globalization, and become more complex there is a need for leaders to multiply their presence. It has become increasingly difficult for any one leader to cover all of the bases. It takes a team of leaders to bring a necessary leadership presence for clarity of direction and follower well being.

Teams can multiply leadership presence in effective ways.

There are more opportunities for more people to lead that ever before. It behooves a good leader to tap into teams as a way to utilize emerging leaders to solve complex and pressing problems. They can bring creativity, innovation, impactful presence, and help shoulder the load.

Why do you need a team?

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The Importance of Leadership Hospitality


One of the early leaders I reported to was strong in personality, creative, energetic, a good communicator, and never short on ideas. In other words this leader could at times be very intimidating. At least from my perspective. I remember early in the relationship I would over prepare for our appointments, feeling like I needed to get every aspect of the encounter just right. I quickly realized that none of my concerns were necessary to gain an entree. Why?

This leader was a hospitable leader.

There was a spirit of generosity that encompassed nearly all of our meetings. I began to see that my well being and development were at the top of his agenda. He took time to discern my gifts, abilities, and desires. He looked for ways to maximize my contribution towards the organization’s mission. There was space for my trivial complaints and there were words of correction that were delivered in such a way so as to bring hope. In a word I felt “safe.” To feel “safe” is to feel free from harm or risk–to not be in danger. It is be secure.

Hospitality is defined as “the generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests.”


Leadership hospitality includes the necessity and obligation to create “safe space.”

4 Areas Where Leadership Hospitality Matters

1. Safe space is necessary for new ideas.  Some of the best ideas today are coming from some of he youngest and newest members of your team. A culture of change is so embedded in our society that innovation is necessary. You may miss out on the “next big thing” if your leadership produces a tried and true approach to getting things done. And you may never capture that innovative spirit if your leadership makes it a dangerous place to bring up new ideas. Not every new idea is gold. But most new ideas, if they are anchored in your vision, mission and values, will contain golden threads that are worth your attention. That requires safe space for even the youngest and newest team member.

2. Safe space is necessary for difficult conversations. Difficult conversations are usually corrective conversations. They often reflect the need for change in conduct or character. Those conversations become less than hospitable if there is the threat of punishment. Those you are seeking to correct will further hide their behavior next time and begin to poison the team atmosphere. A hospitable leader will create the safe space for honest, developmental conversations to take place.

3. Safe space is necessary for divergent points of viewIt is difficult to go against leadership. It is much easier to live in compliance. But healthy confrontation can lead to growth, both organizationally and personally. Do you invite alternative points of view? Do you challenge your own assumptions through the voice of others? Are you able to be wrong? Are you open to a different point of view? Subordinates can tell when there is room for healthy defiance.

4. Safe space is necessary for trying and failing.  The first job of every leader is to raise up more leaders. That happens primarily be way of empowerment. That means that you provide enough resources, decision making authority, and feedback to let someone lift their leadership wings. That may mean they crash and burn. Is it safe where you lead to do so? It feels dangerous to always be controlled. Can you risk elements of the mission for the sake of an emerging leader’s development? It is life giving when trying and failing is acceptable.


4 Keys To Unlocking The Door To Leadership Hospitality

1. Make time to get to know someone at a heart level.  People feel safe when you get to know them beyond their HR summary. People feel valued when you make time to get to know their story. People are ultimately your most important resource. They are worth your time as a leader. Invest in getting to know their history, motives, passions, and fears. To do so will only invite their authenticity and belief in you as a leader. To be truly known is to be on the safe path.

2. Listen well without interruption.  Many leaders like to hear themselves talk. Their ideas are always the most important ones. We need to listen well as leaders to the input of those we lead. We need to hear them out completely. We need to listen not just to the idea, complaint, or excuse. It feels risky to say what’s on your mind. We need to listen for the attitude or motive behind it. We need to pick up on the passion or anxiety that stands behind the passionate communication. That will ensure that future communication will come out into the open, and not just around the water cooler.

3. Normalize feelings without judgment.  Every person on your team has life happening to them–all the time. And there is no way to divorce what life throws at us from our job obligations. We are whole people. Sometimes this can express itself in sheer joy over something wonderful, or it can be revealed in dread over an uncertain future. All of this comes into the team. Is there room under your leadership for people to feel OK about all that they are going through? Is your posture one that can respond with a non-anxious presence that communicates celebration or compassion? A hospitable leader can allow his or her followers to be themselves without predetermining their future value in the midst of trying times. And they can communicate safety.

4. Find the “thread of goodness” in every crazy idea, every complaint, and in every defense.  This takes work. People take their cues from all corners of the internet and beyond about how to take the organization to new heights. They can also become instantly agitated about the smallest thing. Their core fears will rise up and cause them to create the most robust defense. But a safe environment allows for a measure of insanity. The hospitable leader learns to read between the lines and discern the part that is worthy of further discussion. Most rants have a valid point. Most “great” ideas are attempts to solve valid problems. Many a defense stands in front of a valid fear. Hospitality gets beyond the noise to find the “thread of goodness” so that danger is averted.

Leadership hospitality begins with your front door. Is it open or closed?

The Bible also speaks to this notion of hospitality.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Romans 12:9-13

What are your thoughts?

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5 for Leadership (9/27/14)

medium_14138251450Here is a new 5 for the final weekend in September. We have new posts on leadership burnout, a new leader’s first 100 days, Moses and leadership transition, the leadership of Pope Francis, and what will it take to lead five generations all at once. Click on a few links and open some new windows of perspective on your leadership.

What Moses Teaches Us About Leadership Transition  This is a guest post on Michael Hyatt’s blog by Rabbi Evan Moffic. “Leadership succession is delicate and complex. It evokes deep emotions and fears. It raises questions of legacy, mortality, and self-worth.” Rabbi Moffic provides us with four rich biblical principles on leadership transition that will benefit any leader.

What A New Leader Should Do In The First 100 Days  This is not a new topic. There are other pundits and authors who have written to the importance of new beginnings. “There are seven major onboarding land mines that you are likely to come across as a new leader and there are specific points in the first 100 days where you are most likely to encounter them . . .” Eric Jacobson brings out some quality highlights from a new 3rd edition of The New Leader’s 100 Day Action Plan. This gives you a good peek at the book and some solid food for thought.

Why Pope Francis Is The World’s Most Effective Leader  You may or may not agree with the substance of this blog post title, but Jeffery Krames highlights five points as to why he believes Pope Francis is such an effective leader. “He has all the “stuff” that great leaders are made of. Let’s examine a few of his best characteristics so we can better understand what makes him tick—and what makes him so effective.” Take a look and see if you agree–and consider well the categories.

Managing People From Five Generations  “For the first time in history, five generations will soon be working side by side. But whether this multi-generational workplace feels happy and productive or challenging and stressful is, in large part, up to you: the boss.” This quote alone should get your attention. This is astounding reality that all leaders should think through. There are five great principles, a practical list of do’s and dont’s, and two case studies to bring it all home.

7 Painful Truths About Burnout and Leadership  “Ever wonder if you’re burning out as a leader? Or maybe you think it’s just a season and you’ll push through it. That worked for me…until it didn’t work any more. 8 years ago I experienced burnout for the first time. It was like I fell off a cliff and lost control of my heart, mind, energy and strength.” Carey Nieuwhof writes a very revealing and honest post about this important topic. He has also updated his web site recently–take some time to look around.

There are the 5 for this week. Take some time for yourself this weekend and rest!

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5 for Leadership (9/13/14)

small__5333201756Here is a new 5 for your leadership learning. There are posts on being a perfectionist, being a team leader, a podcast interview with Andy Stanley, some great quotes from Truett Cathy, and some survey insights on the aspirations of American laborers. Check out a few of these articles to inform your day.

What New Leaders Should Do First  “Getting people to work together isn’t easy, and unfortunately many leaders skip over the basics of team building in a rush to start achieving goals. But your actions in the first few weeks and months can have a major impact on whether your team ultimately delivers results. What steps should you take to set your team up for success? How do you form group norms, establish clear goals, and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and motivated to contribute?” This post is from the HBR Blog and contains some solid principles for new or old team leaders. It concludes with two good case studies that you could use with your team.

21 Leadership Quotes From Truett Cathy, Founder of Chick-Fil-A  “Truett Cathy was an amazing man. More than the founder of Chick-Fil-A, he was a great leader. Sadly, Truett passed away on Monday. Even with his passing, his legacy doesn’t have to fade away. We can remember the man and the leadership he taught us.” This collection of quotes are informative and inspiring. They are worth your time.

Majority of Workers Don’t Aspire to Leadership Roles  “Most American workers are not aiming for the corner office, according to a new CareerBuilder survey. ” This is a fascinating look at the American workforce. Take some time to analyze this for yourself and who you lead. There are some worthy insights to be made.

How Andy Stanley Keeps Growing As A Leader (and other stuff)  Here is Carey Nieuwhof’s first leadership pod cast, which is a great interview with Andy Stanley. Scroll down and you will also find a wealth of links and quotes. The podcast is 40 minutes long. Download it and make some time to listen to it all.

Chasing The Wrong Goal  “I am a recovering perfectionist. Not fully cured, but getting better every day. I recently made some noticeable progress when I read about the dangers implicit in perfectionism. The article explained that when I try to be perfect, I have believed the lie that I could actually accomplish that goal. I have somehow convinced myself that, with enough hard work or practice or knowledge, I could truly eliminate all mistakes and errors in my life.” This final post is from a leader and a friend–Terry Morgan. She writes well and prods you to think. I don’t know of many leaders who have not struggled with the topic of this post. Slow down and take a look.

There are the 5 for this week. Take some time to grow your leadership!