Another year has come and gone. And similar to years past, a few days of vacation helped to finish up the year and hopefully provide a “reset” before jumping into another annual adventure. It seems as though the list of to-do’s keeps growing instead of shrinking though. Whether it’s email inbox “housecleaning” or organizing the dreaded Tupperware cabinet, the demands of home and ministry seem to be more overwhelming to me this year than ever before.

So what’s a girl to do? Well, I’m certainly NOT going to give in! I may have some moments where I need to escape reality (nothing like a hot bath and a glass of white wine), but then it’s back at it. But it takes a lot more than determination to really make progress. So here’s a list of things I want to remember as 2016 kicks off:

  • Relationships first. Jesus and then others. People before projects.
  • Start with a solid plan. Prioritize. Tackle one thing at a time.
  • Enjoy the journey. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  • Finally, worship God in all things – tough or not.

Okay, self, let’s go. It’s 2016!

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If you’ve been called to any position of leadership, you know all to well that you are always “on.” Even with a healthy work/life balance, a good leader knows that they are “leading” whether they are standing at the front of the room making a presentation or vacationing with friends in Mexico. And the best leaders in the world are not only aware of this, they embrace it. They realize that the basis of strong leadership is relationship and count it an honor to share their life with those they lead and serve.

Do you consider yourself a leader? If so, how do you feel about the fact that the cameras are always rolling? If this thought makes you cringe, you may want to consider redirecting your career to a role where you are an individual contributor. Don’t see it as a copout; the world needs a lot of highly skilled talent. But what the world doesn’t need is mediocre leaders.

So, do some soul searching and ask yourself the question. If you see this kind of “life on life” leadership as a way to leave a mark on the world through others, then go and live a life worth following.

Yesterday I attended a memorial gathering for one of the most Godly men I have ever met, Jonathan Smith. I met him when I first started volunteering with Dare 2 Share in 1993. He and his wife Maybelle, along with Greg Stier, founded the ministry with a vision to reach teenagers and equip them for a life of discipleship and disciple-making.  It was obvious right away that Jonathan had a solid grasp on Scripture. He taught with authority because he had spent countless hours praying over and rightly dividing the text.

It was humbling to hear the stories at the reception from the folks that Jonathan’s life touched. Most of them spoke of him as their professor and mentor. They talked about his legacy living on through them. It was such an incredibly honoring moment in time.

I remember Jonathan saying something very profound to me as I was just beginning my ministry journey. I had been really struggling with not being able to do more. I wanted so much to make a difference for the Kingdom and I honestly felt like I could never live up to my own expectations, let alone God’s expectations of me. I constantly felt as though I was falling short no matter how hard I worked or what was accomplished. It was an all-consuming battle for better and it was wearing me out.

He simply pulled me aside and gently said, “Debbie, you need to understand that God is more interested in what He is doing IN you than what He is doing THROUGH you.” Wow. Why in the world would God be more interested in my individual spiritual growth than He would be in outcomes for His cause? It was counter-intuitive but Jonathan convinced me that it was true.

I often think about his words to me, especially when I am particularly focused on getting the job done. That simple statement comes to mind and provokes me to take pause and remember that if I work from the inside out He will accomplish His purpose IN me first and then THROUGH me second. At this service, I caught myself reflecting on this sage wisdom once again and was struck by how Jonathan applied this truth to his own life. As a leader, I want to model this “inside out” approach, helping others prioritize their relationship with Him first and their performance for Him second.

It may have been 25 years ago but I remember the conversation well. The lunch invitation came as a bit of a surprise to begin with since I hadn’t heard from Tom since I’d left the telecom company we’d both worked for months before. He had been released through one of the waves of reductions that were all too familiar in the high-tech industry in the late 80’s. He sounded eager to talk and was willing to make the hour or so drive to where I was now employed to share a quick meal.

It was great to see him. He and his wife were doing well. He was ready for the transition even though the timing was not his choice. He sought some advice but made it clear that he really just wanted to encourage me and thank me for my leadership. I was a bit embarrassed but very appreciative. How kind of him to come all this way to tell me that! Our time was comfortable and casual until he asked me a question that really caught me off guard… “Debb, what would you really do if you could do anything at all – if money and other responsibilities were all taken care of?”

First of all, I was only in my early thirties, and I’d already been reasonably successful (at least by the world’s standards), so I hadn’t really ever pondered a question like this before. Rick and I had just bought our first home. Our kindergarten son was enrolled in a good Christian school. Life was moving right along. My career ambition was to start my own company and I had a plan to accomplish that in less than 5 years. Tom pressed in with the question again, maybe because he sensed that my plans were somewhat shallow, or that there was more, I’m really not sure. However, after a few minutes of thought my response to him was, “I’d do something to help teenagers.” Then I went on to explain that it seemed like there just wasn’t enough support for kids during that season of their life. They needed something to draw them away from bad choices that would create baggage for them to carry the rest of their lives. I recalled briefly my own teen years with some regret, wishing I had made some different choices.

Today marks 20 years to saying yes to full-time ministry with Dare 2 Share. I had no idea this ministry even existed when I had lunch with Tom that day. But God obviously had a plan. I have had the privilege of playing a small role, albeit behind the scenes, in the lives of countless teenagers over those years and I’ll never get tired of hearing their stories.

Every once in awhile, I think about that brief encounter with Tom. Not only did God use him to plant a seed for future ministry in my heart, but his gratitude served as a foundation for developing a passion for leadership in my soul. There have been almost 200 co-laborers (not including the hundreds of volunteers) that have served or are still serving with D2S these past two decades. What a blessing to me to have been a part of their lives too! I have served alongside some amazing people that inspire me in so many ways. My life has been forever changed because of their friendship and love. My character has been strengthened because of their commitment to Christ. 

As I mark this milestone, I’m asking myself the question again. “What would you do if…?” And the answer is still the same.

Forced. The word itself can bring to mind some pretty negative mental images. As a kid my little brother really wasn’t very “little.” He was big and he was strong. We were only two years apart and although we are super close now as adults, as kids we were on a mission to kill each other. A vivid memory of mine is locking myself in the upstairs bathroom in order to avoid getting my tail kicked by this guy. Not that I was taunting him at all, of course!

Whether or not my brother was justifiably provoked could certainly be debated, but either way, I still felt forced to spend hours in this small little room, screaming through a locked door.

The bottom line is that no one likes to be coerced into doing something that they don’t want to do.

But sometimes the pressure has a purpose. A friend lovingly confronts your sin and you’re swept into the midst of an intervention. Your spouse grasps your hand as you head into that needed surgical procedure you’ve been putting off forever. Yes, sometimes being forced is exactly what you need.

I’ve had many moments like this in life and in hindsight I’ve always been thankful. However, a recent incident brought more pressure than I can remember ever feeling, and it came from an unusual source – the Holy Spirit.

A true and safe leader is likely one who has no desire to lead, but is forced into a position of leadership by the inward pressure of the Holy Spirit and by the press of the external situation.”

A.W. Tozer

So, here I sit. Now just three months in to a leadership role I absolutely did not want. It has been the biggest professional challenge I have ever faced – times ten! There are moments when I have called out to God, exclaiming that He must be crazy. But then I remember His distinct, undeniable call and I surrender. I vow to Him that I am here – ready and willing, even if not able. He has carried me through every difficult decision and has filled me up when I have felt more than empty. I have never felt closer to Him than I am now. And for that I am thankful.

I’m sure you’ve read the Biblical story about Moses taking on too much (Exodus 18:13). I think every leader can relate to his situation at some point in their career. It doesn’t take long for the issues to stack up in a growing ministry/business. Before you know it, you are surrounded “from morning til evening” just like Moses. I too have heard the figurative voice of Jethro in my head saying, “what you are doing is not good” and it has led to an intentional delegation and leadership development strategy.

However, effective delegation is just the beginning of this leadership challenge. As soon as you begin to feel comfortable delegating, you are then faced with another dilemma: in addition to dealing with escalated issues from those you have given authority, you also need to discern how best to spend the remainder of your time.

In his bestselling book, The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber states,

A true business opportunity is the one that an entrepreneur invents to grow him or herself. Not to work in, but to work on.

Mr. Gerber is obviously talking to the entrepreneur, but I truly believe that the opportunity exists for every senior leader in any organization as well. Gerber talks about how we need to wear three different ” hats ” in order to be successful and grow our business: that of technician, entrepreneur, and finally manager. Spend too much time wearing any one hat and it’s a recipe for disaster.

So, with that in mind, how much time should we spend “in” versus “on”?

First, it’s important to identify those activities that fall into each category. I recommend literally making a list. If the result of a task is a product or service that your organization provides for it’s constituents, then you should consider it an “in” activity. Any time spent thinking about what to do (as opposed to how) or building, planning, strategizing, or developing relationships other than your direct staff, can be considered “on” activities.

Chances are your list will surprise you. I know mine did. The “in” activities are typically our sweet spot. They allow us to demonstrate our gifting and work within our strengths. For this reason, those activities are super important. But if you are a business owner, ministry founder, or senior leader, I would encourage you to spend the majority of your time on average working on your “on” activities. Why? Because if you don’t it won’t be long before you will lose sight of the bigger picture and become caught up in what you are doing instead of your long-term vision.

Decide for yourself what ratio of in vs. on works for you. Maybe start with a 60/40 approach and see how it goes. Reevaluate after a month and see if you can push it to 70/30. Spending more time on vs. in is sure to pay off.

Good Enough. Does this phrase evoke a strong opinion from you or does it simply state how you live your life? I remember the first time I had to really confront this phrase professionally. My husband and I were living in the Silicon Valley and were both employed by high-tech firms. The organization that employed him had gone through several RIF’s (Reduction In Force) and the CEO brought together the remainder of the global staff for the infamous “all hands” gathering that follows these happenings. His speech began with the usual… the state of the economy and the market… blah, blah, blah. But then he proceeded to declare that the company’s mantra for the future was to be, yep you guessed it, “Good Enough.” My husband was confused and perplexed. Was the CEO asking him and the remaining employees to produce sub-standard work? Or was the leader of this worldwide technology firm trying to justify their additional workload?

That was over 20 years ago. Since then I have had to wrestle with this phrase and the meaning of it many, many times. As a perfectionist, just typing the words make me cringe. Deep down inside my gut tells me that the extra effort it takes to get to perfection is worth every second. But through experience I have seen the devastating results of striving to achieve this standard, especially as a leader. I have pushed hard and expected the same from my team. This expectation has caused resentment and burnout. I have lost quality team members because they felt like they could never live up.

In response, I tried to lighten up a little. But just when I thought I was closing in on mastering my perfectionist tendencies, I was confronted with members of the team who won’t accept “good enough” either! This little phrase raises havoc with their work ethic and their commitment to produce only the best. So I find myself trying to explain something I’m not even sure I’ve fully bought into. Now I know how that CEO felt!
It was time for some serious soul-searching. What exactly did I expect of myself and my team? Here’s what my reflection time revealed:

Quality Does Count – producing excellent work is not only something to strive for, it’s something to be proud of as well. Start every project as if it were your last and ask God to navigate you through the details of what to hold on to and what to let go of as design, develop, and deliver.

Excellence is NOT Perfection – choices, choices, choices. Pushing for perfection could not only kill your people, it can also kill your project. It’s a proven fact that it takes 80% of the effort to product that last 20% to reach this standard. Learn how to recognize excellent work and focus on the major aspects of the project, not the minor details. The ability to recognize the difference will be a major sign of strong leadership. It will help you retain your quality team and will keep your project on deadline.

Just Start Already – don’t over think it. How often have you missed an opportunity because you were waiting to make sure you had all of your “ducks in a row.” Gather as much data as you can, make sure you have a clear vision for the final, and then dig in. You don’t want to waste your time or anyone else’s, but chances are that you really do know what you need to know by just trusting your instinct. Remember the quote from George S. Patton, “A good plan violently executed today is better than the perfect plan next week.”

Be Flexible – almost always the project ends up looking slightly different at the end of the day. The only way to allow creative improvements is to create space within the timeline to evaluate and adapt.

It’s crazy to think that two simple little words can cause so much trouble. But honestly, figuring out what is “good enough” and when and how to address this with your team, is a huge leadership hurdle. If you don’t believe me, check out these wise words from one of the best: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/12/no-one-reads-a-comic-because-its-drawn-well.html