Tag Archives: leadership

Beloved Bald Guy #1

Every once in a while I become enamored with a story. This inevitably leads to short bursts of undisciplined binge watching said story either late at night or super early in the morning. These are my margin hours in life right now where I freely choose how to spend my time. Usually I work out or read in these hours, but sometimes I am drawn into the less admirable, but common, habit of curling up on my couch with headphones in while I click through episode after episode.

When I think about what makes a show “binge worthy” two things come to mind: 1. A well formed plot and 2. Well developed characters. I think the best stories portray people in very nuanced ways, drawing out the intricacies of their smaller stories and weaving them into a larger narrative where some great tension is ultimately resolved. 

Why do we love watching stories play out in the pretend world of our screens? I think it’s in part because we too are characters in our own stories. We love the nuanced personalities in the world of entertainment because in them we see versions of characters we experience in our own lives. But unlike the sanitized and safe space of Netflix, our lives are complicated places, with stories we struggle to decipher and characters who defy clean categories. 

As I think about my own life as a story I’m drawn to two thoughts. First I am most at peace with the smaller day to day narrative I am living when I am cognizant of a larger story that surrounds it. This is the power of the meta-narrative. We all seek it. This is what drives the power of politics and activism. People long for the mundane events of their common existence to be framed in a larger context that gives meaning to everyday life. As a Christian I believe that the ultimate meta-narrative is the story of the Kingdom of God. This is the story that envelops all the other stories. It is the story of a good and faithful King who sets out on the greatest rescue mission ever undertaken in human history. When I keep this big story in view, the events of my life are both more and less significant all at once. The every day, walking around events of my life carry less burden because the ultimate things are already decided. The world isn’t dependent on what I do or fail to do. My identity and worth is determined by the King before I do a thing. At the same time my smaller story carries great meaning because it is one thread woven into the great tapestry of the big story. The events of my life make up part of a grand narrative where the King eventually makes sense of everything that has happened or will happen to me or through me.

The second thought I have when I think about my life as a story has to do with how I see myself in the script. I think I very often either see myself as the hero or the villain in my narrative. On my best days, when I’m winning at life I’m the conquering hero at the center of all the activity. I see other people in terms of how they relate to me or contribute to what I’m focused on. This is seriously unhealthy because I’m not good enough or strong enough to be at the center of anyone’s story, including my own. It’s a weight I’m not made to carry. My success doesn’t determine the course of my life and certainly not the fate of the world. 

On my worst days I see myself as a villain. On these days I see my frailties, weaknesses, and imperfections as the reasons why things aren’t going well. This is also an unhealthy perspective because it makes too much of my role, overestimating my capacity for undoing the plot and underestimating the power of the true hero and ultimate end of the narrative. When I’m the villain in my story I’m unable to be kind to myself. I’m also unable to be kind to others. This is no way to live.

I think a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of myself as a character is what I will call “beloved bald guy number 1”. You know how you see the credits roll at the end of a movie and after all the big actors are named you finally get to the end where the struggling actors who appeared momentarily in some scene are briefly recognized not by a name but merely a description? What if the meta-narrative that covers all of our smaller stories is way bigger than we thought? What if the hero of the story is far more courageous and good than we ever imagined possible? What if the villain is significantly more evil than we ever knew? If these things are true: a bigger story, a better hero, a worse villain, then maybe it is right and good to be beloved bald guy number one. This rightly positions us as a character who shows up in the credits but whose contribution must be understood in light of something much more significant. This seems like a freeing way to think of ourselves. 

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What It Looks Like to be Anxious and Hopeful

The fire flickered as it danced around the shiny metal bowl, casting a soft glow on our feet as we sat in the yard. The warm fire on one of the first cool nights of autumn was just what my soul needed. We spoke words but not too many and felt a settling of the heart and mind I haven’t known in quite some time. 

The simplicity of night, fire, and conversation with a friend began to unravel a certain kind of anxiety that has become more common in my journey than I’d like to admit. The speed of life, difficult remembrances of loss in days gone by, and too much connection with too little depth seemed to crescendo this week in a symphony entitled, “all is definitely not well with my soul”. 

That’s a tough thing to admit in a world where it sure seems like everyone else is doing so well. Rationally I know that we are all struggling, but the mechanisms for presenting ourselves to one another do not lend themselves to authenticity. Instead, our virtual and in person common spaces for connection are “mask only” venues where the only safe way to enter is to cover with a false self and pretend that you are fine.

This is an exhausting way to live and frankly it’s wearing me out. I need more fireside chats with friends. I want to drop the act and just be real. I want to be seen, heard, and known without judgment. I suspect most of us want these things.

But wanting to drop the pretending we are fine act and finding a safe way to do that aren’t the same thing. It’s a dangerous thing to lower your shield when arrows are flying at your chest. In this world, the arrows are real. People are unkind. Life is painful. And we are afraid. 

The longing to uncover, be real and vulnerable, and show up as our true selves requires courage, but it also requires an alternative strategy to deal with life. We catch glimpses of a different way around the fire with friends. In those brief moments of real connection we imagine that maybe life could be fuller and we could be more present in it. The trouble is those moments are fleeting and if we are honest we don’t know how to keep them at the center of our chaos.

There’s good news though. I’m writing it to say it out loud for those who have never heard it and to repeat it for myself and others who have forgotten. Here it is. Life is hard and you are broken. But God is love and he made a way for you to be whole. Jesus says both of these truths talking to his friends, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) 

There are a couple of important things to note here. First, the thief is Satan. He is the father of lies, the deceiver, the enemy of God and humanity. His objective is to “steal, kill, and destroy.” He steals our joy, kills our hearts, and destroys our hope. And he does it through the common things of the world – the pace of life, where we are convinced that our value is in what we produce; social media, where we are told that people only love our posed life; and the overwhelming false narratives of the world that convince us there is no reason that our losses and pain will ever make sense.

The second significant point that Jesus makes is that God acted so that we could have a way out of the tunneling, spiraling, gut wrenching anxiety that life lived on its’ natural course produces. The way out isn’t a do more, get better, pull yourself out of the pit strategy. Instead Jesus says that the way to the life we long for is to simply trust him. He promises that all who lay down their broken strategies, see him, and choose to come to him in faith, will find the rest we all long for. This isn’t the kind of rest we find after a good sleep. Instead this is the sort of deep down, stop striving kind of peace living that we only catch glimpses of around the fire with friends.

I’m longing to be whole and I suspect you are too. Jesus is inviting us to trust him. I’m taking a risk and laying down my mask. I hope you will too. And I hope to sit around more fires with friends in the days to come.

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A Monday to Remember

The Men of Guns Platoon. I’m third from the right in the back.

It’s not often that you think about the day before the day that everything changed. It’s hard to go back there, not because the day itself was anything but good, but because what followed was so painful. Wading through the memories on the journey back to the last good day requires an elusive depth of courage and energy. Still, I think the journey is worth it. For the recollection of what once was is a reminder also of what could be again.

My day before was a Monday. I remember that it began in darkness as I rose unusually early to begin my last hours of normalcy. I was a twenty-four year old First Lieutenant in the Army serving as the Commander of the Presidential Salute Battery. We were the platoon in the storied 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest unit in the Army, responsible for firing twenty-one gun salutes for the President and other dignitaries. We were also the mortar platoon for our Regiment, maintaining combat proficiency in the unlikely event a war broke out requiring our services.

I drove in darkness to meet the men of Guns Platoon at our barracks in Arlington. A charter bus idled in the parking lot as some of the men stood in groups smoking cigarettes and teasing each other, the way that young soldiers do. I sipped on black coffee while our platoon sergeant, Bobby Stringfellow, gave instructions and took roll call. The mood was light. This was a rare day in the Army. This was known as “mandatory fun”, an obligatory but not wholly unpleasant assignment. We had the privilege of wearing “civies” our civilian clothes, which most of us wore poorly as we were accustomed to doing most of life in an Army issued uniform. We loaded the bus and began our early morning drive north to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We were going on what the Army calls a “staff ride” which is basically a field trip for soldiers where you tour a battlefield, studying the way the battle unfolded and capturing leadership lessons along the way. 

As the leader of our platoon, I had planned this excursion for months. I have always enjoyed learning about history, especially the Civil War period. My great, great, great grandfather fought for a Regiment in Pettigrew’s Brigade in the war that ripped our country apart. The history books record that James Augustus Whitley was one of three men to advance the furthest at the famous Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. He survived the assault but was subsequently captured by Union troops and spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp in New York. So for me our trip that day was a journey into the collision of worlds where my familial forefathers engaged in pitched combat against our 3rd Infantry predecessors.

The rest of the day is a blur. I remember that we were carefree. I remember that we laughed. I remember the kiss of the sun as we walked through the tall grass between the tree-lined ridges. I remember riding home with a feeling of satisfaction at a day well spent with men I respected. 

That Monday was September 10th, 2001. The next day our young lives were upended by the violence of war. We didn’t know it then, but that day was the last day we would know peace. Tomorrow our young eyes would see, smell, hear, and taste the stench of death in a way we could have never imagined.

That was twenty-one years ago. The remembrance of this last day of peace is significant for me. In the remembering I am strangely transported back to more innocent times, where life was less complicated. Where the world felt more secure and life more certain. The journey is a good one, for in it I find hope that one day we may find peace yet again.

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The Where of Leadership

I have taken many courses on leadership. Most of these learning experiences focused on the “how” questions – how to navigate conflict, how to plan, and how to inspire others. None of those courses ever had anything to say about the “Where” of leadership.

The “where” is a significant factor in the leadership task. The places we do life don’t merely contain the important conversations and interactions, they shape them.

When I was a Cadet at West Point I had the privilege of learning leadership from Army officers who served as professors but had decades of experience leading soldiers in the real world. When I think about the importance of “where” in the leader task, two very different conversations with two very different professors come to mind.

One older Colonel, the head of my department, always met with me in his office. He sat in a leather, high-back swivel chair behind a large, oak desk. He insisted that I stand while he addressed me. Needless to say my predominant emotion in those interactions was fear. The space, a cold professional, controlled environment, marked by intimidating furniture and an intimidating personality behind the desk, shaped the conversations that happened there.

The same week I stood fearfully in the Colonel’s office another professor, an Infantry Captain who taught military history, invited me to lunch. He wanted to talk about my recent paper, which as I remember, wasn’t very good. He took me to the officers club, bought my lunch and we sat at a table and talked. The shared experience of a meal, sitting eye to eye created the possibility for a different sort of conversation. The Captain had much more influence with me than the Colonel.

Sometimes the swivel chair and the desk is the appropriate space for particular conversations with people we lead.

More often the lunch table is a more productive leadership space.

How intentionally have you thought about the “where” of your leadership? How do the spaces you choose to have conversations, make decisions and plan shape your work and your relationships?

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The King’s Dinner


The rebellion was total. All that could go wrong had. It was a cataclysmic revolt of epic proportions. Destruction and chaos ordered the day as each man, woman and child did what was right in their own eyes. They rejected the King, his rule, his love and his future. The future was theirs and nothing would stop them.

Nothing except death of course. They spent their lives in pursuit of their pleasures, comforts and ambitions. And they succeeded, at least for a while. But the rot set in. Each day their bodies, minds and even the world around them decayed just a little more. Sickness, famine, war and pain defined their lives. They were absolutely without hope in the world. And the worst part was that they didn’t even realize it.

In desperation they tried to use their minds to devise a way out. They tried to make peace, to eliminate disease, to comfort themselves, but no matter how great the effort they always failed. Their efforts stood small and useless next to the gargantuan beast of death the rebellion required.

But the King was good. And the King had a plan.

He would go behind enemy lines. He would invade the world He made. He would gather a people to defy the rebellion. They would call him Father and He would call them Sons and Daughters. For years and years He sent messengers ahead of the invasion to warn the people. Mostly they didn’t listen. Mostly they kept going their own way. They kept dying. A few kept waiting.

Then in the cover of night the invader King came. They didn’t recognize Him even though He walked among them. He didn’t seem like a King. He was poor. He wasn’t handsome. He didn’t seem powerful. He didn’t seem relevant.

But then he began doing strange things – not things a King would do, but things that gave hope. He took away some of the sickness and even some of the death. He feared nothing. He loved his friends fiercely. He defied what they understood about the way the world works – walking on the water, calming a raging storm, turning water into wine. They either hated him or loved him. The way he lived made them decide one way or the other. He made outrageous statements that no one really understood like “I am the Creator God.” and “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Those that hated him – the people of rebellion – wanted to kill him and he knew it. Those who loved him waited for him to make a move, to take power, to act like the King.

The story of the King, the rebellion, the rescue comes to a climax at a place we least expect it – over dinner. The King Jesus calls his friends to celebrate the Passover meal, a meal that calls those loyal to the King to remember his promise – that he had saved his people from death once before and that he would do it again, this time forever.

As his friends recline at the table and prepare to eat the air is tense. This is the moment he will announce his rule. This is the moment he will take power. This is the moment they have all been waiting for. The King will rule and they, the faithful friends will be at the center of power. They will be respected. They will matter in the world.

“And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”

The friends around the table were confused. Gentile women, those who mattered the least, those with the least amount of power, those furthest from the King washed feet. But here was the King stripped down to a towel, kneeling on the floor, scrubbing the dirt from the bottom of his friends’ feet. One of the friends, Peter, the loudest and most leader-like among them responded, first with a question, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” and then with a statement, “You will never wash my feet.” He simply could not accept the reality of a King who acted like a slave. This did not fit into his understanding of the way the King would take power. This did not meet his expectations for a future where he was powerful and important.

Jesus answers Peter saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” And in this statement the King Jesus reveals the plan to save the world, the plan to save his friends, the plan to save us. Unless he washes us we have no share with him. Unless we lay down our right to live by our own set of rules, to do what is right in our own eyes then we have no future. Unless we let the King serve us we will die. Unless we let the King cleanse us we have no hope, no future, no life.

Here is the offer before us tonight: the King has invaded. The King has spoken. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” What will you do with these words? How will you respond. Will you politely nod and go on about your way? Will you reject this reality completely? Or will you remove your pride, stretch out your feet and let the King of Glory wash you? And if He has washed you are you prepared to go and do likewise?

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Leadership Takes Time

time photoTime is a precious gift. We all have the same amount of it each day. Some of us have more days than others. All of our days are numbered. There is nothing that any of us can do to acquire more time. You can’t work harder to earn more hours or more days. You don’t get more because you are American or white or rich. Time is your most precious commodity.

You will spend your time on what is truly important to you. The way that you fill up your calendar will inevitably reflect what you believe is valuable. Leaders ought to value people because leadership is the art of providing purpose, direction and motivation to human beings.

The very best leaders understand this value proposition and consequently spend time on the people they lead. Sometimes we like to say, “I will make time for this person or activity”. In reality you cannot make time, you can only spend it. We should say, “I choose to spend time on this person or this activity”. And when you choose to spend time on the people you lead you choose to lead well.


Want Joy? Try Risk.


The table was full of half eaten Italian food. We bantered back and forth, the small talk masking a torrent of anxious thought. She smiled and fidgeted with her silverware. I pulled on my bow-tie, shaking it side to side while downing copious amounts of lemon infused water. The small velvety box pressing against my side from it’s hiding place in my jacket sent waves of nervous energy quaking through my young body. Beads of sweat collected on my brow as I contemplated “the question” that pulsated in my thoughts.

The story is a beautiful memory for me, because on that night I took a big risk and asked Janet to marry me. The risk really wasn’t that she would say no. We had been ring shopping and talking marriage for some time, as people young and in love have a way of doing. I suppose that something could have gone wrong, but the truth is she knew I was going to ask and I knew that she would say yes.

No, the real risk was a choice to make this union the defining human relationship of our lives. It was a magnificent leap into the unknown years ahead, with a person I was really only beginning to know. The risk was to choose this companion for this greatest of journeys, one in which we would know ecstasy, joy, happiness, sorrow, pain, misery, uncertainty and ultimately death. It was either a youthful blunder into a terrible trap or the most fortuitous discovery and subsequent decision we ever made.

As I think about that night and that decision to leap into life together, I am overcome with gratitude. I’m grateful that I saw, and not because of my excellent vision mind you, the opportunity before me. It was a risk for sure, but even more so it was a chance to bet it all on the hope of future joy.

I meet so many people who are looking for joy but are unwilling or unable to take risks. These are people who suffer from the “What If” disease. “What if it doesn’t work out?”, “What if something better comes along?” “What if I lose control?”. The anxiousness of their thoughts so clouds their ability to see opportunity for joy when it’s lying right in front of them.

A few days ago I was reading the Bible where Jesus is trying to explain what life is like when God is the most important relationship you have. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his friends this:

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Jesus is saying that something magical and mysterious happens when you see the reality of the kingdom of heaven. When you see what is really happening in the world for the first time, when you first suspect that the world is a place made by a good God and that this God is in charge of everything, your priorities begin to shift. When you first realize that this God, who sees you for who you are, is in fact speaking to you saying , “Stop trying to live for yourself by your own rules. Lay down your life, your preferences, your ideas about how things should go and follow me instead.” what is important in life gets turned upside down. When you understand and absorb and take into the core of your being that this God wants to give you life, not just for a few years but forever, you will never be the same. Jesus says when a person suddenly realizes all of this truth about himself, the world and God, everything changes. He says discovering it is like finding a hidden treasure. The man who truly finds the great treasure of life, which is life in through and with Jesus, will abandon every other pursuit to recklessly bet it all on this one relationship.

What strikes me about this story that Jesus tells is that the man who sees the treasure must take a great risk to keep the treasure. He must make that treasure, that truth about God and the world the most central reality of his life. He is defined by the fact that he found that treasure.

But my favorite part of Jesus’ line is “Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has”. You see this man who sees the unbelievable treasure of life with God realizes that real joy requires real risk.

My life has been so rich because I took a huge risk and asked Janet to marry me. She is an amazing partner on this journey and I am blessed by our life together. But there is a joy bigger than marriage. It is a joy that comes when you risk everything and put your hope in Jesus. It will cost you everything and you will gain more than you can ever comprehend.

Here’s to a life of risk and joy.

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The Significance of Story

We become characters in the stories we tell ourselves. This is the power of narrative.

The most powerful story ever told, the one that tells us who we really are, who God really is and where everything in the world is going, is the story of Jesus. We call this story the Gospel.


Unfortunately most of us choose to give less worthy stories greater authority in our lives. Why?

When I think about this question for myself I conclude that essentially I am an unintentional advocate for unworthy stories. I gravitate towards those narratives that are the easiest to hear and resonate with the most shallow aspect of my desires.

We know that we are made for something significant. That’s the energy behind our quest. We desperately want to know how to become “somebody” in the world. We thirst to know how to find happiness and peace.

We also watch a lot of television. The stories that stream into our consciousness tell all kinds of things about success and happiness and peace. These stories tell us that if we are smarter, have more money and have more power then we can buy things that make us comfortable, that people will respect us, and we will have the kind of life that we always dreamed of.

When we allow ourselves to be exposed to these kinds of narratives we are drawn in because in some way we imagine ourselves in the story. We identify with a particular character with a particular set of difficulties, dreams or personality.

Here’s the hard truth.

These characters are not real people and the stories they tell are incomplete. These popular narratives are sometimes even dangerous because they lay out a false version of reality where we (or the character that represents us) are the center of a small universe. In this universe we get what we want, we are comfortable and powerful and all of our problems get worked out in 60 minutes or less.

The story that informs every other story, the story of Jesus, points us to a different way. Jesus says that the only way you can find meaning is to recognize that you are not the center of the universe. He says things like, if you want to be first you have to be last. He says that true happiness comes from recognizing your own weakness. He says that if you pursue him with all of your heart, with every ounce of your energy then the rest of your story will line up the way that it is supposed to.

Here’s the amazing truth.

You are valuable. God made you with his own hands. He rescued you by sending His own Son to die in your place. This is the story that tells you who you are. This is the story that you should tell yourself when you get up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. May we become the characters in God’s story that He designed us to be.

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