More Leadership Lessons from the Boston Marathon

This is a picture of the start of the 110th Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, MA. We started in two waves this year–some 10,000 runners in each wave. What you see in this picture is largely proximity without community. Yet community is very important to marathon training and marathon running. When engaging in the 16-18 week training to prepare for a marathon the week day workouts are easy enough to do alone. And often it is hard to find someone that can match your schedule for weekday runs. But there is a long run required every weekend–that builds up over time to at least a few 20 mile runs and beyond. These are done better with someone else. Running for three hours or more at one level can simply be boring by yourself. Even the ipod playlist gets a little old after while. And more than that the temptation to quit a long run–or to at least cut corners–can become immense when running alone. But running with a fellow trainee can make all the difference. There can be great conversation. There can be the mutual encouragement and accountability to make it to the end of the training run. There can be the help needed if you sustain an injury. Actually, within the long distance running crowd, you will often see a pretty strong community that exists. Even during a race–running with someone is a huge benefit to reaching your goals, or simply completing the course. If you don’t have a running mate for a race you will often see temporary friendships developed on the spot between those of similar skill and pace. Again, the camaraderie to get you through can make the difference.

Leadership is like that too. Leadership has a built in tendency to isolate. The old axiom that it’s lonely at the top is all to real. Sometimes the weight of decision making or people problem solving can leave you seemingly with no one to turn to. And when leaders become isolated all kinds of bad things are in store. God made us for community–real community where there is confession, humility, burden bearing, and prayerful encouragement. We have all seen the headlines of failed spiritual leaders–usually you can track most of the failures back to isolation–lack of community. They had proximity but no real community. You see leadership goes better in community too. We need the freshness–we need the accountability–we need the encouragement. Remember–leadership is an endurance event too. And it was meant to be lived out in community.

Leadership and the Boston Marathon

I just completed my third Boston Marathon. It is truly an awesome race. There is no way the fans can be any better than in Boston. From beginning to end people cheer you on and offer any help they can. But the course is daunting and after three tries I feel like I am just beginning to figure it out.

It was my eighth marathon overall and over the years I have reflected often on the parallels between the Christian life and long distance running. Several of the biblical writers did also (Paul in 2 Timothy 4:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; the writer to the Hebrews in Hebrews 12:1-2). I also believe there are several parallels for the life of a leader–and over the next few days I want to share some of those thoughts.

Today let’s start by noting that a marathon takes preparation. It is foolish to just wake up on race day and decide to run. I recently heard of a guy who did just that–he lost eight toe nails and could not walk for days.

There are really three types of preparation for a marathon–and all three are necessary. There is the 16-18 week running preparation for the actual race itself. There is also the need to run some shorter races to be prepared for race conditions and a race atmosphere. Shorter races also help you determine your own race capacity and help you monitor your level of development (or lack there of) for a marathon. And there is making sure that you have prepared by having the right equipment–it is not wise to run in Bermuda shorts and flip flops. The right equipment can make a huge difference in beginning and actually finishing a marathon.

Leadership is similar. The Scriptures teach us that “he who is faithful in little will be faithful in much” (Luke 16:10). In other words our leadership muscles are built on smaller tasks–with others watching over us, helping us to take next steps. We grow into leadership–not just leap into it. Also, there is the specific preparation for larger, more complex leadership endeavors. They may require specialized training, seeking out outside expertise, faith risk, and the gathering of more resources. A wise leader looks ahead and makes preparation for what lies ahead. For the Boston Marathon you better be aware that the first 16 miles are net down hill–and then you hit the Newton hills–seven inclines ending with Heartbreak Hill. Most first time runners quietly destroy their quad muscles in the first 16 miles by going out too fast and then have nothing left for the Newton hills. The race is over for many right at mile 21. The difference is in the mental and physical preparation.

The lesson? Do you aspire to lead? Look for the small, less desirable opportunities first. Be found faithful there–and let others ask you to step up to greater responsibility. Look ahead and make solid preparation for whatever God has asked you to do. Find mentors who have led and are a step ahead of you in leading and life. Train–because leading is a long distance event too.

Leadership Out on a Limb

DSCN3484This is a picture of my daughter while we were on a family hike several years ago in Rocky Mountain National Park. We were on the Deer Mountain trail when we came across this dead tree. It had probably been struck by lightning. It was an easy climber so both kids wanted to hop up and have their picture taken. But it also reminded me of the nature of faith. In a previous post I talked about the essence of faith being belief in the absolute goodness and presence of God. And I mentioned that when we begin to doubt these character qualities we begin down the path of a hard heart.

Crisis challenges faith.

God promises in the Bible that there will be times when our faith will be challenged, even tested by God Himself. Not only does our belief in God’s goodness and presence come under fire, but I think there are some unique aspects to this in the life of a leader. These next few statements may not be unique to leaders alone, but leaders may experience them in unique ways.

Three things come to mind that also come under fire when crisis meets faith for a leader.

First, our love for Christ is challenged. If Christ really loved me why would He let this happen to me? We intellectually know the answer, but our heart screams something different. Romans 8:31 and following tells us clearly that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. And the clear proof of that reality is the sacrificial death of Christ–whom God the Father delivered over on our behalf.

Second, our calling as leaders can come into question in the midst of a faith challenge. Maybe I am headed down the wrong path? It shouldn’t be this hard. I never singed on for this. God’s will should be smoother than this. Yet best I can tell, circumstances alone are never an indication of the rightness or wrongness of God’s call on our lives. Calling in the Bible is always an invitation–a summons to join God somewhere for some purpose. There are at least three biblical invitations we can be sure of– to salvation, to submission, and to service. Oh, and I think there is a fourth that is relevant here–the invitation to suffering. The apostle Paul assumed it–it was part and parcel of being an “in Christ” person.

Third, a crisis of faith will possibly challenge our love for people or a person. Many crises are a result of people and their ability to wound us. As leaders, will we still love those we are called to lead, care for, and influence? If God demonstrated His own love for us while we were still sinners–can we do less?

Is God good?

Is God really present in my circumstances today?

In this current crisis?

My response will determine my ability to love Christ, my ability to love those whom God has placed around me, and my ability to keep chasing His call for my life.

What have been some of your leadership experiences regarding testing?

About that picture and “white board” leadership

The previous post was a picture only. Now it is time to provide a little explanation. That is a picture of me looking out over the Colorado landscape from Montgomery Pass–down the Poudre Canyon. Montgomery Pass is close to the Continental Divide–I am looking west and there is about a 40 mile an hour wind right in my face. This was taken in July of 2005 and I was faced with some critical decisions–the biggest of which was where would my family and I serve in ministry for the next step of our lives.

I am 49 and I am finding that change is becoming more and more difficult. Yet a friend of mine, Eric Swanson, counseled me that a leader occasionally needs a new “white board” in their life. We must go back to simple. Leaders by their leadership acts rightfully take things that are in some state of chaos or simplicity and bring clarity leading to greater complexity. But after a season a leader needs to go back to simple. This allows for fresh faith and fresh learning–and I am convinced that a leader’s longevity is in large measure tied to his or her ability to remain a learner. This conversation started me down a path of trying to refine my thinking about faith. What is faith at it’s core? We know from the book of Hebrews that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But earlier in the book of Hebrews I believe we have faith at it’s core being put on display. In Hebrews chapter three the writer quotes Psalm 95–“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” The writer makes this quote because he is warning his original audience to be very careful that they don’t fall prey to “an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” You see these Hebrew believers were under some amount of persecution from Rome and their great tendency was to run to “safety.” Safety was probably being defined as running back to Judaism. The Jewish faith was a recognized and sanctioned religion under the Roman government–it was “safe”–but Christianity was not sanctioned and was not “safe.” I believe the overall theme of Hebrews is this, “There is no better nor safer place than Jesus Himself.” Safety is not being defined as a lack of trouble–it is in Jesus himself, our Great High Priest. But what is the writer pointing to in Psalm 95? Psalm 95 is an invitation to worship tied to a warning. The warning at the end of the Psalm ties back to a historical incident in Exodus 17. The end of Psalm 95 is ominous–it speaks of a generation not entering into God’s rest. If you go back to Exodus 17 you find an episode in the life of the Israelites (remember the original audience of Hebrews-Jewish believers) where they were complaining and grumbling about life in the wilderness after being liberated from Egypt. Their ultimate complaint was “Is the Lord among us or not?” And it is here that I think we get to the essence of faith. More and more I am seeing active faith as the belief in the absolute goodness and presence of God. That is what the Israelites were ultimately questioning–is God really good? Is God really present in our circumstances? Our ability to exercise faith on a daily basis in every circumstance that we find ourselves is based on these same aspects of God’s character. So in every situation I must fall back on the absolute goodness and presence of God to move forward. And I can ultimately avoid a hard heart if I regularly trust in the absolute goodness and presence of God in my life.

Back to the picture and our decision. The decision before us was whether to move our family to the country of Italy to trust God for the university students of that nation. I could see several reasons why this was stupid–my age, the possible negative impact on my children, our parents ages, my inexperience in cross cultural ministry, etc. But there was a divine restlessness that my wife and I sensed–God was nudging us toward change–and the opportunity before us was certainly a clean whiteboard that would require fresh learning and fresh faith. And with fresh faith applied there are fresh vistas on God, life and ministry. Thus the picture. This picture has become somewhat of a metaphor for me and for how I want to finish my life. The journey to Montgomery Pass was not easy. But the vista was incredible! What I could see from there was unmatched from anything I could see at the trailhead–down there were only trees and a narrow path that lead somewhere. But on top was grand beauty, crisp air, a feeling of exhilaration, and a great sense of accomplishment and purpose. Fresh faith takes us there in life too–because ultimately it takes us to the person of Christ. He is exhilarating–it is he who provides purpose–he breathes fresh life into us–he is supremely beautiful. He is absolutely good and he is intimately present.

By the way–we are moving to Florence, Italy in late August.

I think the time is right to write!

I guess I am not an early adapter. I like to think of myself as one who embraces change. But in reality I am a calculated risk guy. So for the past two years I have watched others “blog.” The very essence of blogging strikes me very much as an online journal. So I wondered if anyone would really want to read my journal. I also wondered if I wanted anyone to read my journal–because I would not let most of you read my hand written journals from my college years forward. Then I began to realize that blogging was not about writnig for you–necessarily. It is more of an opportuntiy for me to get some things out of my head and into print. In the process it helps take fleeting thoughts and begins to drive them deeper into my soul. I have known for years that my thoughts become much more cogent when I get them out in print. At least they become more cogent to me. Most of my offerings will deal with the topic of leadership. It is a passion of mine. I love thinking about, reading about, and talking about leadership–primarily spiritual leadership. I enjoy being around other leaders and learning from them. I enjoy trying to help leaders in any way I can. And as I close in on 50 years of age–I am beginning to sense that maybe I have something to offer leaders. You will have to be the judge of that. So if my future postings seem a little rambling–just know that I am trying to work something out. Maybe the next translation will be better. Let me know–happy blogging!